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Dallas Morning News article about Samuel G. Freedman's Book Seminar

Freedman's Writing Course Breeds Works of Nonfiction
Books, Dec. 10, 2000
By Jerome Weeks Jerome Weeks is the Books writer for The Dallas Morning News

Samuel Freedman teaches a legendary book-writing class, perhaps the best around. It's not about creative writing it's about nonfiction narrative, about how to craft a book like The Best and the Brightest or Nicholas Lemann's The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America.

I was fortunate to sit in on his seminar when I was at Columbia University this past spring. Since 1991, 15 of his students in the graduate journalism school have won publishing contracts. They've written such books as Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World and My Father's Gun: One Family, Three Badges, One Hundred Years in the NYPD. They've been finalists for PEN awards, for journalism prizes.

Discerning history
There's been an explosion in such narrative journalism with the popularity of books such as The Perfect Storm, Black Hawk Down and Flags of Our Fathers. Mr. Freedman's class is not some market response to this popularity. If anything, he says, one of the class's goals is to teach reporters that they can take on a "very demanding, seemingly noncommercial topic and find an editor who wants to work on it."

Mr. Freedman sees the course as an attempt to continue the line of great works of journalism, such as J. Anthony Lukas' Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families, books that make history as much as report it and analyze it.

The result: one of the most rigorous writing classes imaginable. "I thought of it as part of a conservatory, not a grad school," he said on a recent visit to read from his new book, Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry (Simon & Schuster, $26), at the Jewish Community Center. "I thought of Juilliard or the Yale School of Drama, as well as the Iowa Writer's Workshop."

Rigors of writing
To get in, students need a basic book idea. When the course is completed, each will have a professional book proposal (often as long as 50 pages or more) and a sample chapter — everything needed to get an agent and a contract.

Between the book idea and writing the finished proposal, however, the students endure what amounts to a boot camp in narrative journalism and the nuts-and-bolts of the publishing industry. Each week, they must research and write a chapter-length feature on a selected topic. They also must read five works of nonfiction — books such as Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. The author discusses his or her book in class, and then the students take it apart to learn how it was done, how biographies and histories and true crime stories can be structured.

On top of all that, each week, representatives from the book industry talk to the class — everyone from bookstore managers to literary agents to publicity directors.

Mr. Freedman makes no apologies for the workload or the depth of commitment he demands. He is wary of typical creative writing classes, he says, because they tend to encourage "self-absorption" and a competitive mean-spiritedness among the writers, as they pick apart each other's work.

"The mission of reporting is not an inquiry into the self," he says, "but an exploration beyond the self." His students, I can attest, develop a camaraderie because they're all doing the same sort of grueling fact-checking and interviewing. They're not off by themselves, waiting for inspiration.

The course's success has led to publishing houses pursuing the Columbia professor for leads on the next hot writer. He appreciates this "it means it's a serious course, it's not the Learning Annex, it's not 'let's pretend to be a writer' " but he also discourages students who think he has a ticket to the book-tour circuit. As he declared several times in class, it's all about craft, about the work. You can't count on fame; all you can count on is doing the work well.

Even with the course's success, very few teachers have tried to follow his model, Mr. Freedman says. Certainly, a number have called to ask for pointers.

"But they generally stop talking," he says, "after I tell them I edit 30,000 words a week."

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