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Writing Brilliant Essays

Award-winning author Joy Castro discusses how her free webinar series, Writing Brilliant Essays, is a marriage between pre-COVID classroom practices and the incorporation of what she learned when education went virtual.

Pivot has always struck me as a marvelously graceful, precise, deliberate verb: Ballet dancers pivot. Athletes do.

(Joy Castro: On Ambitious Characters in Literary Fiction)

You used to be facing one way, but now—with one swift, assured movement—you are facing another. You pivoted.

So it always feels like a study in spin (another fine and yet co-opted verb) when academic administrators refer to the way teachers pivoted to online teaching in early 2020 when the COVID pandemic hit. Based on my observations, scrambled madly seems a more apt phrase, or waded through chaos, or groped, or struggled, or barely kept our heads above water while pretending to know what we were doing.

Yet pivot we did, all across the world. As rapidly as possible, we learned challenging new ways of teaching, and some aspects turned out to be cool.

When the university where I teach announced that it would reopen this fall for in-person teaching (with a mask mandate, a voluntary vaccine registry, and regular testing), I was eager to be in a seminar room with real humans again, but I also decided to try to retain the best of what I’d learned by incorporating one key aspect of teaching online into an in-person graduate course on writing literary nonfiction.

Before the pandemic, in past creative writing workshops, I’d occasionally invited a writer whose work we were reading to Skype in. (Skype! Ah, those days of yore.) These virtual visits were always wonderful: They’d appear on a screen, we’d ask them questions, they’d say brilliant and revealing things about craft and process and yearning and the writer’s life, and we’d all feel good. The writers would feel good about the chance to share their work and thoughts with eager, curious, highly informed readers; the students would feel good about matching a face and a voice and personality quirks to the name—about learning from the living person behind the published words on the page.

And then it would all evaporate into the ether.

Writing Brilliant Essays

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But COVID taught us how to navigate Zoom, with all its various pitfalls and possibilities, and so this fall, while still focusing on my own graduate students’ work, I decided to open that visiting-writer experience, for free, to everyone; to preserve the video-recorded conversations for future viewers; and to highlight—following efforts to decolonize the writing workshop by Matthew Salesses, Beth Nguyen, and Felicia Rose Chavez—the work of BIPOC essayists.

The Zoom webinar series, Writing Brilliant Essays, is free and open to the public. On Monday afternoons at 5pm Eastern, we’ve met with Patricia Engel to discuss “La Ciudad Mágica,” her shimmering essay about Miami. We’ve talked with Beth Nguyen about her New Yorker essay “How America Ruined My Name for Me,” and with Matt to learn more about his groundbreaking book Craft in the Real World, new this year from Catapult. With Amelia de la Luz Montes, we’ve discussed how she wrote her devastating essay “Trigger Warnings” about witnessing her father’s suicide when she was 16. The dazzling Elissa Washuta, author of White Magic, out just this year from Tin House, spoke with us about her essays “Apocalypse Logic” in The Offing and “White Witchery” in Guernica.

Focusing on only one or two essays at a time—and reading them closely beforehand—lets us dive deeply into the texture of the work: how it’s structured, how it moves on the page, the specific choices the author made, so the conversations really do operate at the level of a graduate workshop—for free, for anyone interested in how essays work or how to write a great one.

But even more valuable, perhaps, might be the intimacy of the authors’ revelations about the writer’s life: how to persist in the face of self-doubt, how to trick the shy self into generating drafts about personal material, how to roll with surprise.

My graduate students can choose to co-host episodes with me, too, if they like, so they can gain professionalization experience and a little exposure. Poised, prepared, and eloquent, emerging writers like Jordan Charlton, Caroliena Cabada, Tara Ballard, and Cass Diaz are doing a smashing job.

Castro, 11:12

There’s still time to join us this fall, and all you need to do is register. Soon we’ll talk with Hope Wabuke about her stunning Paris Review essay “The Pain of the KKK Joke” and her piece in Creative Nonfiction, “The Animal in the Yard”; with two-time Booker-Prize-shortlisted Chigozie Obioma about “The Ghosts of My Student Years in Northern Cyprus,” which appeared in The Guardian; with Lakota author Tom Gannon about an excerpt from his forthcoming memoir LifeLook: Confessions of a Crossblood Birder; and with National Book Award Finalist Jerald Walker about his nuanced take “Designated Driver” in Harvard Review. Last but not least, we’ll meet with an editor-in-chief who’s actively acquiring essay collections for a university press to ask what she looks for and how she decides.

Everyone is welcome to all these conversations, and there’s always time for questions from the audience. Established professional writers have tuned in, as have high school students aspiring to publish their work.

It seems perhaps paradoxical that a pandemic—which has us all masked, carefully monitoring the barriers between inside and outside—has also made the classroom fruitfully permeable, letting the outside in (visiting writers from all over, an audience of the public) and the inside out (our class and students, revealed to all the world) in a kind of porosity that leads to new configurations of generosity, sharing, and exchange.

As for me, I’m having so much fun learning from our guest writers—and from my students’ sharp insights!—that I just might keep Writing Brilliant Essays going after the semester ends.

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