The Art of Tetman Callis

Some of the stories and poems may be inappropriate for persons under 16

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“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.


6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jim Brennan // Oct 28, 2013 at 9:40 pm

    A gift for any writer. Thank you sir!

  • 2 admin // Oct 29, 2013 at 6:45 am

    You’re welcome. I am just a conduit.

  • 3 Russell Persson // Nov 27, 2015 at 6:21 pm

    I’m surprised Gordon Lish granted you permission to publish these class notes. When I attended Gordon’s classes in New York in 1996-97, Gordon made it very clear that he did not want any of the words shared inside his room to be shared outside of it. Everyone in attendance was clear on this, and because we all had deep respect for Gordon, it was expected no one in those lectures would betray this agreement.

  • 4 Tetman Callis // Nov 28, 2015 at 7:06 am

    Gordon did not grant me permission to publish my notes, nor did I seek his permission. Likewise, he made it clear to all of us in his classes when I was in attendance, as he did in the classes you attended, that everything transpiring in the classes was to remain confidential.

    I kept the notes in close confidence until 2011, when I decided to publish. I had reached the age when, all other factors considered, one begins to consider that every day of life is one day closer to death. To die and have the notes remain buried in my papers, to be discarded by family who did not know what they were, was to me a prospect intolerable. So I published, knowing full well that Gordon, with whom I had fallen out of touch many years before, may not be pleased by my action. The greater value of the notes as a public document for others to study trumped the value of maintaining them in confidence.

    I share a deep respect for Gordon, and even a love. He was several things to me: a gifted teacher who invited an unknown, unschooled writer of almost no talent to attend his classes; a skilled editor who could so unerringly point out a piece’s weaknesses and strengths that for five years, I would not send a piece anywhere if I hadn’t sent it to Gordon first; and he was, for me, the father my own father never could be. He saved my life, through showing me how to live it. I saved some of his words and some of his concepts. Through sharing them I hope that I have helped preserve his legacy, helped cast some small light on what it was that made him a legendary and beloved teacher.

  • 5 Ian Wilson // Jul 13, 2018 at 1:07 pm

    Did you take these down? I’ve always been interested in what went on in Lish’s workshops.

  • 6 admin // Jul 14, 2018 at 12:09 pm

    No, I haven’t taken them down. I switched to a new template and the site is in a bit of disarray. I expect to have it sorted out soon.

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