Can MasterClass Actually Teach You to Be a Writer?Photos courtesy of MasterClass Books Features masterclass
Everyone thinks they have a book in them.
Is this true? I don’t know. Everyone has a story, to be sure. Of course, the main difference between someone who publishes a book and someone who doesn’t isn’t talent or more fascinating life experiences or a degree from a creative writing program. It’s a combination of monomania and a tolerance for rejection (likely alongside an innate love of language and a profound curiosity). After tenacity, however, there are actual skills that writers have to learn.
MasterClass currently offers “how to write” courses from 11 writers (plus two screenwriting classes I’m excluding from this discussion). The instructors range from writers of airport novels to poetry, speculative fiction to data-driven nonfiction. I have extensively sampled every single one of them, and here’s a rundown on the current offerings—what to expect, whom they’re really for, whether they’re “worth it” and a sprinkling of key insights.
Margaret Atwood: “Make art. That’s what human beings do.”
Margaret Atwood’s an intelligent woman who has written many novels I admire, but I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about her as an instructor. There’s something about her prose—its eerie, icy poise, its deeply introverted essential nature—that made me suspect she wouldn’t be especially accessible. But that’s not the case. She’s both smart and wise, able to unpack and describe her own process while readily acknowledging you have to locate your own. Atwood embraces unfettered imagination, but she’s also got her feet on the ground (she notes that she deliberately created the theocratic dystopia of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale using real, historical benchmarks because she didn’t want to be accused of “having an evil imagination,” and it’s wildly effective). She has plenty of good advice and inspiring exercises, and her anecdotes about her career are genuinely interesting. Her demeanor is calm, witty, almost a little sly. If you want to know what being established and at the top of your game looks like, this class is a solid option.
David Baldacci: “If you want to be creative writing stories, you have to be pretty creative about finding the time.”
David Baldacci is a great pick if you need tactical advice. He’s a lawyer by training, and you can hear it in his speaking style, which is logic-forward, precise, organized and persuasive. He stresses discipline and habit (especially if you are trying to balance writing a novel with having a job and a family). He reminds you, without being at all abstract, that being a writer is a mindset and a lifestyle; the difference between writer and not-writer is a certain willingness to unleash radical imagination on the most banal things. Baldacci’s also a research enthusiast who considers lived experience to be among the best forms of research (and I concur). Overall, he’s a validating presence for beginners and for folks who need a refresher on procedure. And if you are looking to have the writerly thing demystified, this is your guy.
Judy Blume: “Why would anyone write if they don’t have to? It’s so hard!”
I grew up reading Judy Blume’s books, loving her emotional honesty long before I could articulate that was the quality I found meaningful. MasterClass Blume is just like on-the-page Blume—charismatic in a quiet, understated way. She makes herself laugh. She makes herself tear up, too. Blume’s clearly someone whose emotions are close to the surface, and it’s disarming. Even if you write for adults, you don’t want to exclude this class from consideration. There’s much to learn from this children’s book author, even if that’s not what you intend to work on. Blume talks about the practical stuff—getting an agent and enduring unpleasant controversies—and her experiences are useful to hear about, though they won’t apply equally to every aspiring writer. Her assumption is that viewers are relative newcomers to fiction writing, but seasoned storytellers can certainly find things to love in this class.
Dan Brown: “Give the reader what they want…but in a way they don’t see coming.”
Brown comes out of the gate with this lovely insight: “When you write a novel, you’re not writing one novel; you’re writing a million novels. Everyone will read it a little differently.” Forgive me for being surprised, but this is a fantastic craft lecture on mainstream fiction that’s helpful for poets, playwrights, literary fictionists—anyone can gain a clear perspective and valuable exercises. Brown’s wonderfully unpretentious and funny, and he embraces the writing process as a form of learning. This class might be for you if you’re focused on writing a “bestseller,” but it’s great if you’re a literary fiction writer who is stuck in your head as well. It’s probably not for someone who has written multiple novels, but MasterClass arguably isn’t for that person anyway. Brown’s class is entertaining yet a bit formulaic, but if you take a class on how to write genre fiction, you should expect that.
Billy Collins: “Dogs are very good to read poetry to. Cats, not so much. Fish? Fish are good.”
The nuts and bolts of learning to write poetry are every bit as teachable and banal as those of writing fiction, and the strange cocktail of learning and intuition that is “inspiration” has the same proportions in all genres. If you need an example of “banal” as I mean it here, Billy Collins can help. I really wanted the one poetry class on this platform to be an antidote to whatever infects people in middle school and turns them into individuals who think poetry is irrelevant. For my money, Collins isn’t it. If you’re a huge fan of Collins, however, I’d still recommend this MasterClass. I didn’t love it, but that doesn’t mean you won’t. He does hit on something vital about poetry (and by extension all creative writing); he notes poetry often has “two subjects, the beginning subject, and the discovered subject.” This concept is highly useful, and it’s good to be reminded that poets essentially write poems for the same reason scientists conduct experiments: We’re looking to see if something we suspect is true, actually is true.
Neil Gaiman: “You need that conviction…that you are brilliant, that no one else has ever had this idea, and that by writing it you will set the world on fire.”
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of being in the same room with Neil Gaiman, you already know that he inspires actual adoration. Supremely confident without being arrogant, he’s arguably the crown jewel of the MasterClass writing faculty—a multi-genre writer who happens to have major teaching chops. His class is one of the few MasterClass options that offers as much to a seasoned storyteller as it does someone who’s developing the first inklings of a book idea. Gaiman offers plenty of practical writing advice, but his class is more than that. His superlative confidence, coupled with a frank clarity that we’re all struggling with authenticity and authority and identity, will give you permission to be who you are as a writer. If you could spend the day with any of the affable, intelligent people on this list, you should not hesitate to pick Neil Gaiman.
Malcolm Gladwell: “There’s something about a puzzle that has a hold over our imagination.”
Are you a poet? A novelist? Don’t rule this one out; you might be especially poised to benefit from sitting at the virtual feet of Malcolm Gladwell. An acolyte of the Church of Curiosity and Research, Gladwell exudes energy and braininess. He loves data. He loves following the breadcrumb trail of things. He’s full of useful reminders that your best bet might be to investigate a question without already having decided what you need the answer to be. Gladwell recommends other writers you maybe ought to be reading for things like “character development” as well as rudiments of nonfiction. Because he knows all the skills in the skillset are relevant regardless of one’s niche. And because as a person with wide-ranging, catholic curiosity, he sees Knowing Stuff as inherently beneficial. Gladwell is the antidote to fundamentalist leanings, a man who prizes deep-diving investigation into whatever is going on when people refer to “shades of gray.” And his MasterClass makes the same point that’s made by his books: anything can be interesting, in the hands of an interesting and interested author.
David Mamet: “A plot is an exercise in cause and effect.”
Mamet’s class is for you if you’re especially interested in the philosophy of writing (Why do we write?) as much as the tactics (How do we write?). He’s not a journeyman dishing out writerly building blocks and toning exercises; he’s a barroom intellectual kind of instructor. He won’t apologize for being a fan of Woody Allen’s movies; he’s not going to sanitize his opinions or his vernacular for you; he’s not super concerned with what you think of him. This is a plus. And if one of your stumbling blocks is snappy dialogue, who better to learn from than the Olympic god of dialogue style? If you want hands-on, tactical exercises to develop you as a writer, however, Mamet might not be your best bet. But if you want to think differently about how to approach storytelling, Mamet’s all about the food for thought—and he has excellent stories.
Joyce Carol Oates: “Your worst enemy will have the most beloved face.”
I feel like a traitor, but for my money the grande dame of the Princeton English department is not the best MasterClass curator. Joyce Carol Oates is to be admired—gifted, prolific and venerable—and it’s possible she’s amazing in a live classroom. But this class is not well-organized, and she drifts throughout. Oates does have individual moments of good advice, much of which boils down to embracing ambiguity, facing taboos and leveraging constraint. She also makes comments that hit me as odd, like how journal writing should be “breathless, with lots of dashes” or that beginning writers should all write short stories or poems before writing novels. Some of her most charming moments involve Oates holding forth on how the true master skill of an accomplished writer is the ability to be ruthless about not being interrupted. Now that’s real.
James Patterson: “Don’t write a single chapter that doesn’t move the plot forward.”
James Patterson would like you to know that if he ever took drugs and wrote down his “insights” while high, he no longer bothers to do so because he has plenty of great ideas while he’s sober. Seriously, though, his advice includes things like “make sure you have the best story” and “don’t write a single chapter that doesn’t move the plot forward” and “take out all the parts readers might skim.” Patterson offers eminently reasonable advice, too (“research things you don’t know because people can tell when a writer is bullshitting them”). His remarks on getting published are solid as well (“don’t take it personally” is the big one—you’d think it went without saying, but it doesn’t). I would personally put Patterson’s MasterClass toward the bottom of a ranked list, but just because he isn’t for me doesn’t mean he isn’t for you.
R.L. Stine: “I’ve written 330 books, and I haven’t written one of them from my heart.”
It’s so startling when writers make statements like the one above, isn’t it? R.L. Stine writes stories from “the idea store,” as he calls the trifecta of memory, imagination and experience. He advocates for dropping the whole angst thing and having fun with your rough draft (I wholeheartedly second this and was happy to hear it from one of these instructors; it’s a useful admonition to repeat). His class is styled as “How to Write for Young Readers,” but most of his advice is more than applicable to adult literary fiction. If you’re longing for specific exercises (“homework”), Stine’s MasterClass is a richer source of those than many of the writers here. His delivery is endearingly deadpan and refreshingly real, and you’ll come away from this MasterClass feeling like you have complete permission—or even a mandate—to consider every childhood trauma, neurosis and panic money in the writer-bank.
My conclusion is that everyone can learn skills and get better at writing. And though I am not quick to say more people should be getting creative writing MFAs, I will note that while the $180 price tag for a MasterClass All-Access Pass* is an attractive alternative to what an MFA will set you back, it cannot and won’t replicate the invaluable experience people get from face to face personal feedback on their drafts. Peers and instructors talking through your writing in real time will always be an irreplaceable experience. But if you’re not looking to replace that experience but rather to learn some pro tips, there’s every chance you’d find something worthwhile in a MasterClass.
*Take two classes, and you’ve basically paid the cost of an All-Access Pass to the entire library of MasterClass content. Given the trial-and-error nature of these things, it’s a strong bet you’ll find some of these instructors more personally relevant or useful than others. If you even think you might want to take more than one of them, do yourself a favor and get the pass.