“Writing is not about self-expression; it is about putting words on paper.”
– Gordon Lish
Gordon Lish is a renowned American author, editor, and teacher of creative writing. He was the fiction editor of Esquire for most of the 1970s, an editor at Alfred A. Knopf for nearly twenty years, and editor of The Quarterly from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. He taught at Columbia and Yale, and also taught private courses. His books include Dear Mr. Capote, Peru, What I Know So Far, Mourner at the Door, Zimzum, and others.
In the autumn of 1990, I attended a series of Lish’s private masters’ classes in New York City. Initially I took no notes, but after the first few weeks I realized that what I was learning was of such value to me as a writer, I should make a record of it that I could refer to again in the future. In the spring of 1991, I fashioned the notes into a more comprehensible and useful document. With the exception of minor cosmetic changes, that document is published here now on this website.
The classes could be inspiring and excruciating. Lish was a brilliant editor, a gifted teacher, and a painfully demanding critic. The class sessions ran for six hours each, on Tuesday and Thursday nights. The first night of class, Lish talked for all six hours. Every succeeding night, he talked for about an hour, we read from our writings and he critiqued — very often shutting us down after only a sentence or two — and for the last hour or so, he talked. Each page of this posting contains the notes from one class meeting, which notes I expanded upon with memory and interpretation in the months that followed. Any misinterpretation or misunderstanding is, of course, my fault. Quotes enclosed in double quotation marks are verbatim quotes of Lish. They give only a hint of the force of his personality and of his passion for the written word.