It’s been decades since I’ve taken a weekly class with writing assignments. My days are spent at work in a cubicle downtown, my evenings as much as possible on my writing—right after doing the NYT crossword puzzle online. That little celebratory ditty that plays upon correct completion of the puzzle is a nice reward, but also a signal that recess is over and I’d better get to work, which actually means a lot of dithering at the keyboard and a painfully slow stringing together of words on the screen. Maybe I’d get more done if I did take a class after all.
Each quarter I read the Hugo House course offerings and think about which classes I would take if I could spare the time. I linger over the descriptions of certain classes—the ones focused on close reading of the masters or a class outside of my comfort zone such as writing the surreal. But invariably I opt for the one-day class if I opt for any class at all. That way, my time commitment is minimal and there are no assignments to add to a never-ending to-do list.
This time though, I finally signed up for a multi-week class because it was just too irresistible: The You Review of Books taught by Paul Constant and Martin McClellan.
I’d written a couple of reviews for a community paper without really knowing what I was doing. I figured it was time to learn.
I was delighted to find some friends in the class: Theo Nestor whom I’d heard so much about and finally got to meet at a Hedgebrook event late last summer; Martha Kreiner whom I’d run into at several literary events and then two summers ago had the pleasure of being her dorm neighbor at the Port Townsend Writers Conference; Heather Jacobs, editor of Big Fiction, whom I met in a class taught by Michael Byers over a decade ago; and Bonnie Rough whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing through a writers support group.
I’m looking forward to getting to know the other writers in the class and their work. For starters, one of our classmates Lisa Gold, researcher and rare book expert, wrote this excellent review on the cheerful children’s book about George Washington’s happy slaves, which Scholastic recently withdrew because the book “may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves.”
We’re halfway through the six-week class and I’m learning lots, though of course I haven’t really learned it until I’ve applied it and I’m still working on that. The weekly assignments are fun but a challenge to pull off.
Paul and Martin say that “book reviews should be beautiful pieces of writing in response to beautiful pieces of writing.”
They practice what they teach. Here’s a beauty by Paul about Tom Hart’s new graphic novel Rosalie Lightning about the heartbreaking aftermath of his toddler daughter’s unexplainable death.
Here’s one by Martin on The Truth about White People by Lola E. Peters, a clear and thoughtful piece that also offers a challenge to readers that goes beyond reading Peters’s book.
Read these and see what we aspire to in class.