March 1, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Roxane Gay joins MasterClass to teach social-change writing

Roxane Gay knows the power of the written word. The editor, professor, cultural critic and author of the best-selling essay collection “Bad Feminist” and the memoir “Hunger,” Gay has earned a devoted fan base of readers and rapt lecture audiences with well-honed thoughts on the intersections of race, gender, sexuality and class along with other social issues. On Thursday, she joined a roster of art and industry luminaries to teach a MasterClass on writing for social change.

“In my new MasterClass, I’m going to teach you how to own your identity, write about trauma with courage and care, and approach writing through the lens of culture and personal experience,” said Gay on her Instagram.

The classes mostly focus on prose — fiction and nonfiction — but people who write in other genres can learn from them too, said Gay in a video interview Thursday. “The class is for practicing writers who want to develop their opinion writing skills, but it’s also for new writers who maybe have not considered writing before but do have an opinion, an idea or something they want to say and would like to know where to start.”

The MasterClass is divided into 20 chapters, each video between three and 15 minutes long, that students can watch in increments or one continuous binge. Gay uses her works as case studies, covering topics such as consuming and critiquing culture, writing about trauma, engaging with readers, the business of writing and “becoming a good literary citizen,” which Gay defined as “giving to your community at large as much as you take. … It means mentoring younger writers, sharing instead of hoarding opportunities.”

She also talks about writing as a Black feminist and offers insight on her own process.

In the chapter called “Roxane’s Writing Toolbox,” the New York Times columnist shares tips on how to employ humor, use repetition intentionally and write an engaging opening line.

An annual subscription to MasterClass permits access to more than 100 courses for $180, or you can buy a single class for $90, but Gay graciously offered The Times three free tips: First, read your work out loud — if you can. “It allows you to hear the sounds of your sentences and the soundness of your ideas.” Second, acknowledge other perspectives respectfully so readers don’t feel “dismissed.” And third, make a habit of it. “That does not mean writing every day, but writing is a muscle, it needs to be exercised. … Consistency is key.”

Gay has been teaching for years. She served as associate professor of English at Eastern Illinois and Purdue universities and most recently, as a visiting professor at Yale University. But she’s best known for her writing, beginning in 2011 with her short-story collection “Ayiti,” followed by her first novel “An Untamed State.” “Bad Feminist” (2014) became a New York Times best seller on the strength of essays defining feminism through a wide array of influences, including “The Help” (not a fan) and “Sweet Valley High” (very much a fan). “Difficult Women,” a short-story collection, was well received by critics and readers. And her memoir “Hunger” was widely acclaimed.

Taken together, Gay’s work models writing that unabashedly encompasses the personal and the political, and so will her class.

“Writing is a great way of reaching people because you get to give them as much information as you think is necessary for them to reconsider whatever point of view that they might have,” said Gay.

Yet she is careful to distinguish persuasion from the hot takes that permeate Twitter and other social platforms (on which she is heavily engaged).

“We have a responsibility to do our research so that we are well informed,” she said. “You can’t just have an opinion. You need to be able to back it up with evidence.”

Honesty and integrity are important, too. “People need to know that they can trust you, that they can trust what you’re saying and why you’re saying it,” she added. “And I think that we underestimate the importance of writing well and creating beautiful sentences. You have to give people something that they’re going to want to read, especially when you’re writing about really difficult things like racism, fatphobia, homophobia, transphobia, all of these horrible bigotries. It’s quite unpleasant — and it should be — but at least convey the material in an interesting way.”

Founded in 2015, MasterClass is a streaming platform offering recorded courses on the arts, entertainment, sports, business and more taught by icons in their fields, including Anna Wintour, Serena Williams, Shonda Rhimes, RuPaul, Neil Gaiman and David Sedaris. In fact, what put Gay on MasterClass’ radar was another person’s tweet criticizing the writing courses for being taught predominantly by men.

“Hey, @masterclass, I love your concept, but why are all your writing profs men save for Judy Blume who writes for children?,” tweeted a user last summer. “Why not add a female memoirist such as @GilbertLiz, @rgay, @lenadunham to the mix? My female voice is not represented in your classes. How will you proceed?”

To which Gay responded: “I would love to do a @masterclass.” Less than a year later, she’s doing just that.

“I hope that learners take away that writing well is not this elusive thing,” said Gay. “If you work at it and you read a lot and you have a point of view and you start to use your voice and make it stronger, writing is well within your reach. It’s something that I think you can find very enjoyable. Writing is fun.”