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Irina Dumitrescu | Longreads | August 2020 | 5,406 words (21 minutes)
When I was a teenager I read James Thurber’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I fell in love with this story of a meek, middle-aged Connecticut man whose daydreams afford him temporary escape from a dreary shopping trip with his overbearing wife. Maybe it was because I was an incorrigible daydreamer too. Or maybe I read in his fantasies of being a fearless Navy commander, a world-famous surgeon, or a brandy-swilling bomber pilot a sense of my own opportunities in life, at that point still wide open if you left my gender out of it. Unlike Walter Mitty, I could still learn anything, be anyone.
With time I found a calling, studied for a doctorate in medieval literature, published a book only a handful of people would read, and gained a longed-for professorship. But new desires arose. I discovered I want to write books for more than five readers, and that doing so is remarkably hard. I started to feel afraid of being trapped in one role for the rest of my life. That sense of endless possibility I once had was slipping away.
One day, when MasterClass sends its millionth paid ad into my Facebook feed, I decide this is the answer to the Walter Mitty lurking inside me. MasterClass seems to offer everything: from writing seminars with over a dozen famous authors to celebrity-driven inspiration to take my hobbies further. Clearly, all I was missing were the right teachers, filmed professionally and beamed into my living room. I may not become a surgeon or a pilot, but what if the renaissance woman I’d hoped to be is just a $200 subscription away?
* * *
It’s October 2019, and I begin with Malcolm Gladwell. The funny thing about these courses is that you have a relationship with the teachers already — or at least with their reputation. Gladwell has a host of detractors. He’s been reproached for oversimplification and vast generalization, for illogical arguments and a lack of critical thinking. A book reviewer once wondered why Gladwell didn’t “hold a tenured professorship at the University of the Bleedin’ Obvious.” But nobody questions Gladwell’s ability to write. He is the small-town Canadian boy who made it to the New Yorker on the strength of catchy ideas, brilliantly told. I have been reading his books, sometimes despite myself, for years.
Gladwell teaches his class in a cozy space that looks like a cross between a bar and an apartment. A chess set on a low table behind him suggests something intellectually challenging could happen, but no worries, strong drinks will be served. Ever the model pupil, I open a fresh notebook and write down every other sentence Malcolm says, intent on letting no insight or bon mot slip my attention. I spend so much of my life teaching that it feels like a treat to be a student again, waiting to be filled up with wisdom. It helps that Gladwell is wry and quietly charming, his self-effacing good humor belying a deep seriousness about the calling of writing. More importantly for me, he offers a lot of practical advice — nitty-gritty tips for conducting interviews, structuring articles, and building characters.
Having so much concrete information about how he goes about his work makes me feel confident that I could do it too. Suddenly, this all seems possible. I will become a fantastic writer! I will publish features in the New Yorker and give entertaining talks to sold-out auditoriums! David Remnick will invite me to dinner and I’ll have everyone in stitches with my anecdotes! Pass the butter!
Most exhilarating for me is Gladwell’s approach to imperfection. “What you find interesting is not perfection,” he explains. An imperfect moment in an essay irritates readers just a little, like “red pepper,” but keeps them thinking and talking about it. Gladwell appears generous, providing his audience with surprises and space to draw their own connections. But he’s also happy to make promises he won’t keep, or to force an unwieldy argument together with writing. His way of working is wildly unlike my good-girl academic mindset, but it seems suited to getting things done. “The task of a successful writer,” he says while arguing for bad first drafts, “is to lower the bar.”
Of course, it is one thing for your writing buddy to tell you to embrace your imperfections and slam out a crappy draft, and another for Malcolm Gladwell to do it. Success creates its own truth. This is the MasterClass formula: once a person is famous enough they acquire a charismatic glow. Their counsel is prudent, their past decisions are justified, and their jokes are funnier, too.
* * *
Gladwell’s MasterClass leaves me energized. Writing seems more manageable now, simply a matter of the right tools and attitude. I decide to work on one of my weak areas. Due to a series of curious life choices, I trained to become a scholar and teacher but wound up spending much of my workday carrying out managerial tasks. MasterClass is ready to help me, however, with a course by Anna Wintour on “Creativity and Leadership.” There is a cheekiness to offering advice on how to deal with employees when a hit movie has been made about your notoriously demanding — if not outright callous — management style. Then again, maybe I could use a bit of that Wintour ruthlessness, or what might be called “decisiveness” if she were a man.
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The course introduction confirms my suspicion that its appeal is as much about offering a glimpse of the woman behind the mysterious sunglasses as it is about learning how to deliver negative feedback. Sitting in a discreetly lavish apartment, and wearing a stunning green dress with bulky statement jewelry, Wintour describes her vertiginous rise to the top — from somewhere remarkably close to the top. She learned the ropes from her father, Charles Wintour, editor of the Evening Standard in London at the time. (She leaves out the part where he arranged her first job at Biba, a trendy fashion store.) Much of the course revolves around Wintour’s comfort with risky decisions, even if they are wrong. She deals with her mistakes by owning, acknowledging, then moving briskly past them. It sounds like excellent advice for people cushioned by money and an astounding network of connections. By the time Wintour says, “act like no one’s telling you ‘no,’” I want to ask her if anyone ever did.
The most depressing thing about Wintour’s advice is that it is not wrong. “Own your decisions,” she says, “and own who you are, without apologizing.” It’s just that most people do have to apologize at some point in their lives. (If they are Canadian, like me, they will apologize to complete strangers simply for disturbing the air in their general vicinity.) I want to see a visionary describe how they wrestled with mistakes that had real consequences. Wintour’s suggestion to give direct feedback does give me the courage to have a frank conversation with an employee, and we are both better off for it. But I wonder how her life lessons could possibly translate to someone else’s reality.
The name MasterClass also increasingly bothers me. I remember when I first saw the term (as the two-word “master class”) on a poster in graduate school. A musician friend explained that a visiting eminence would work with one of the students on stage, correcting and training them right in front of an audience. It sounded horrifying, but my friend said it was an honor to be chosen for this kind of specialized attention.
Over the years, I began to see all kinds of things called master classes, not just intensive live workshops for people who already had a thorough grounding in their field but online introductions to topics like social media marketing and meditation. Why couldn’t people just take classes, I wondered, especially when they knew nothing about the topic? Were they worried about feeling like a child again, afraid of admitting their own ignorance? Was there a more sinister urge that made “master class” such good branding for a course? I suspect that the name appeals to people because it promises not just expertise, but power.
* * *
It seems easy to turn into a success story when you start out young and privileged. I want to watch a self-starter, someone who had to figure out how to practice their craft on their own. Enter Werner Herzog, who materializes on a dark, empty film set, wearing a green Bavarian-style jacket with elbow patches. Herzog begins with his childhood: the bombing of Munich, his escape with his mother to the mountains, living with no running water and only occasional electricity. “I did not see films until I was eleven,” he says, “in fact, I was not even aware that cinema even existed until I was eleven.” I know there is some legend-polishing here, especially when he mentions the bombing again in the second video, but it’s a more appealing myth than the well-connected London girl who becomes editor of Vogue in her thirties.
Herzog has the air of a professor who has cultivated his eccentric persona for so long that he can now let it do most of the work. His voice alone, at once hypnotic and foreboding, brings me back to evenings in grad school when my German boyfriend did his best to introduce me to the highlights of the Herzog film corpus. Lessons of Darkness, Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man — we watched these masterpieces on his laptop in bed. I usually fell asleep after about 20 minutes, occasionally waking up just enough to be confused by a burning oil field or a screaming Klaus Kinski. Still, that boyfriend became my husband, so I have a soft spot for old Werner. I don’t need him to make sense or teach me anything practical. I’m not going to make a movie. I’m just hoping to absorb some of the unflinching resolve of a man who once ate his own shoe after losing a bet.
Although the course is aimed at budding filmmakers, much of Herzog’s advice applies to making art in general. It helps that he speaks in enigmatic aphorisms: “you have to know, you have to know, that you are the one who can move a ship over a mountain.” It also helps that he cares very little about the standard ways of doing things or about the rules of a particular medium. Herzog’s advice is to search for inspiration in a wide range of music and books, to gather nuggets that can be reshaped into a snippet of dialogue or an unusual camera angle. I love this, probably because it confirms so many of my own beliefs. “Read, read, read, read, read, read, read!” he intones, and laments all the prestigious film-school students he meets who do not read and are doomed, as he puts it, to be “mediocre at very best.” Could I make my own students watch this? Could I show them Herzog reading the opening of the Poetic Edda out loud, explaining how its laconic description of the creation of the world and the birth of the gods helps him edit his scenes?
My semester is shifting from intense to overwhelming, so I watch much of the course while folding laundry or cutting vegetables for dinner, chuckling at reliably absurd Herzogisms. My notebook and pen are always close by, but my notes wind up as cryptic as his movies. What is the iguana? The Swiss chocolate? Why have I written down “20 milking cows”? Something penetrates my distraction, though: the intensity of Herzog’s belief in his own films, and by extension, in the power of great art. Although I teach literature for a living, I rarely hear my fellow scholars talk about why creative work matters. And seldom does anyone venture a judgement about the quality of a book or a poem. It seems like it would be overstepping our boundaries to call something “excellent,” or “middling,” or even “bad.” We are deft at dissecting novels and plays, pinning down their references and ideologies and unresolvable tensions, but not particularly good at putting things together. I realize at this point how ill-suited years in the academy have made me for making art.
My husband walks into the room at one point and watches a few minutes with me. “With Herzog you get the feeling that he absolutely does not censor himself,” he says quietly, “No self-doubt. He totally trusts his own judgement.” Mired as I am in endless discussions with my inner critic, I find something beautiful about Herzog’s assurance in the brilliance of his own work — even when it is, let’s be honest, kind of awful. A deep belief in my writing would give me the freedom both to make a mess on the page and to edit it ruthlessly. Herzog seems to be speaking directly to me when he says that “there’s something much bigger than your own quest for perfection: your own quest for inner truth.”
* * *
Three months in, the MasterClasses are beginning to frustrate me. There is a gossipy appeal to watching famous people play an avuncular version of themselves, but I’m not sure what I can really learn from them. Am I ever going to be the editor of a fashion magazine? No. Am I ever going to direct a movie in Antarctica? Actually, come to think of it, even that’s more likely than the fashion magazine. I want something within reach, I want a celebrity to teach me something I can actually try to do. I have spent untold hours watching Gordon Ramsay tell people what they’re doing wrong in the kitchen — now it’s time for him to show me how to do it right.
In order to do Gordon’s cooking class full justice, I prepare a full dinner spread and bring it to the couch on a tray. I have baked frozen miniature spring rolls and jalapeno poppers in my oven, which at this point has had a broken thermometer for about four months. For a touch of class and nutrition, I also have fresh radishes. And a cold beer. It is some sight.
The class is set in Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen, which is spacious, sunlit, all marble and polished steel, and filled with jars of fresh herbs. Through the window we catch a glimpse of a manicured lawn, a backyard pool, and behind it a gently rolling Cornish hill. This kitchen is possibly the most pornographic thing I have ever seen. I try not to think about my own kitchen, which my husband and I outfitted in a hurry when we moved into our bare apartment, as you have to in Germany. The cabinets were the cheapest available from Ikea, and we bought them second hand. We got our fridge from someone who had used it to store raw meat for his dog. All of it began falling apart immediately.
Ramsay is annoying at first. He repeats himself a lot. Everything is “unbelievable.” At one point he demonstrates how to choose good produce, picking up flawless baby vegetables from a tray in front of him and showing them to the camera. (“Unbelievable!”) I think about how I could not buy those vegetables even if I had the time to seek them out in my city. But as I let the videos roll on, I start to find him charming. I have watched Ramsay play a dour taskmaster in a series of television shows by now, but here he has the enthusiasm of a labrador retriever. He explains how to lovingly brush carrots with toothbrushes instead of peeling them (confession: I will never do this), and describes herbs as being like “a lady putting perfume on.” Then he demonstrates how to sharpen knives and I’m off to the races.
I have a decent set of knives — a remnant from my childless twenties, when I did footloose things like take the free knife-skills classes offered at Williams-Sonoma. The day after beginning Gordon’s course, I go on a hunt for my knife sharpener, which finally appears behind an entire regiment of mismatched tupperware. I spend a meditative afternoon sharpening my knives, testing each one by slicing it through a piece of paper I hold up in the air. At one point my son and husband walk into the kitchen, see me with all the knives, and quietly slink out again. I feel powerful. My knives are sharp. I can cut things again. I resolve to use my honing steel every time I cook, with the exact up-and-down movement Gordon taught me. It gives me the feeling of being a kitchen warrior.
Gordon’s is the one course I don’t watch in order. Instead, I pick the recipes I think I can manage given the state of my oven. I decide to attempt the poached eggs and mushrooms on brioche. To my surprise, my local discount supermarket carries brioche buns, most of which my delighted son eats before we make it to breakfast. I get up on Sunday morning, make myself a pot of coffee, review the recipe, and cook alone for an hour. The result is not perfect. I oversalt the mushroom-and-bacon mixture. My eggs come out a bit harder than I would’ve liked. It has been so long since I have poached an egg that I’ve forgotten how to do it.
But the time spent in the kitchen, learning some new techniques and remembering others, brings me back to the early days of my relationship to my husband. There was a time in our lives when we would spend an entire weekend day trying out a new recipe, or experimented with poaching eggs three different ways to see which method was best. Now we put eggs in water with a tiny mechanical device that plays “Killing Me Softly” to let us know they are soft-boiled. You could say our standards have fallen. But on this particular day, we eat so much brioche with protein on it that we are unable to move for hours. I’m not sure what makes me feel younger, trying out a new recipe or spending an entire day doing nothing afterwards.
Emboldened, I take on experiment number two: lobster ravioli. Fresh lobster would be impossible to get, but I look up a vegetarian filling with spinach, ricotta, and pine nuts. Nor can I find the correct Italian flour, so I settle for the most promising alternative. But life intervenes, and by the time I have a few hours to make fresh pasta, most of the eggs have disappeared from the fridge. I decide to make a smaller batch, with the wrong flour, just one egg, and a bit of oil and water — after all, I think, surely an Italian nonna could make do without the ideal number of eggs? The dough turns out tough, and my wrist hurts trying to soften it, which seems far from the sensuous experience Gordon is having as he expertly kneads his pasta dough in the video.
My son comes to the kitchen to see what I am doing, and I convince him to join me. He tries to knead the pasta with his little hands, helps me roll out the dough and run it through the pasta machine. Sometimes he loses interest in the work but likes staying close to me, and I find it comforting to feel this small, curious creature by my side. At one point he insists on making a dough of his own out of flour and water, which I am to fry for him. After three hours of labor, we manage to produce a grand total of ten ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta; in all the excitement I forgot to add the pine nuts. We supplement our small dinner with my son’s fry bread, cut in half and smeared with cream cheese. Making and shaping the dough has been so pleasurable that we don’t mind that we got almost every part of the recipe wrong and had very little to show for our efforts. In the weeks that come, my son and I make pasta again, screwing it up even more thoroughly, and having even more fun.
* * *
The idyll does not last long. My life is increasingly taken over by work. In January, I am part of a grant renewal application that involves a two-day inspection by a crew of visiting scholars, a process in which millions of Euros of funding are at stake. I remember that I am, in fact, expected to demonstrate mastery at my job. In my morning shower and before I fall asleep at night, I practice answers to potential questions, working out what impressive German abstract nouns I need to survive this experience. I try to cultivate an air of confidence, but worry it might be coming out more Herzog than Wintour. But the questions we get are not the ones I practiced, and by the end of the ordeal my project is booted out. I travel to my hometown to teach for a few months, and the hassle of settling in helps me put the failure out of mind. Then, a few weeks later, I learn that someone I trusted has spread a damaging lie about me. My stomach drops. I feel rage. Then I feel as though I have left my body altogether. A day later, my lower back spasms. I wind up immobile in bed.
I had planned to learn tennis with Serena Williams or do barre with Misty Copeland, but here I am in a rented house in a rented bed, moaning in pain if I turn as much as an inch. Propped up against pillows that do little more than fix my body in the least excruciating position, I have little patience for books or even television. Then MasterClass sends me one of its emails, and I can barely believe my eyes: it’s RuPaul.
I have come to suspect that MasterClass will put any celebrity in front of a camera for a few hours and call it a course. This particular class is only nominally about drag: it claims to be about “Self-Expression and Authenticity.” This is convenient, because covered with heating pads and smeared with a variety of pungent salves, I’m not in much of a position to try and look fabulous. Still, I would watch RuPaul explain the finer points of installing drywall, so I click the button to join.
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By this point, I have realized that there are two kinds of teachers. Some focus on transmitting their skills. They seem to be saying to the student: “this is how to do what I do.” Others offer themselves as models to be imitated: “this is how I became who I am.” Many MasterClass instructors pretend they are selling the former while in fact delivering the latter. RuPaul doesn’t even pretend. Dressed in a carmine suit and seated against a black-and-neon set reminiscent of Studio 54, RuPaul talks about some of the most basic challenges of growing up in the world. He describes the course of his career, the role artistic inspirations played in his life, the challenges of addiction, criticism, and just plain being ignored. I take no notes — I physically can’t. But I am moved by RuPaul’s vulnerability, a refreshing change of pace after the unrelenting cockiness of the other teachers. Instead of presenting himself as magnificent from the get-go, brave and destined for greatness, he comes across as a human being who had been broken but helped along his way by kind mentors, friends, and a lot of therapy.
The other MasterClass teachers seemed impervious to criticism, able to brush it off with a knowing smile. But what do you do when you are not born that way, or if you have been brought up to value the opinions of others, sometimes to a fault? In one episode, RuPaul describes the unquenchable hunger of bullies to feed their fragile egos: “The only time they feel visible is when they create pain.” I reflect on how attached I still am to what people think of me, and how hard this makes it to distance myself from the hurt they cause even when I know they act out of their own self-loathing. RuPaul’s answer is to focus on finding what he calls “your natural frequency, your natural energy source.” Incapacitated, I can muster little of my usual cynicism about talk of “energies.” Besides, I like what he seems to be getting at. Maybe the secret to freedom is not to emulate the bravado of a few wildly successful people, but to tap into what feels true. According to RuPaul, doing so will draw other people with a similar energy to yours, but, “like a garden, it takes managing. You have to cultivate it.” Here is something bracing to think about: it is hard to learn how to be yourself.
I binge-watch RuPaul’s MasterClass late into the night. I am only half-focussing when a story breaks through my daze. RuPaul recalls his parents divorcing when he was seven. His father had custody on the weekends, and every weekend, little RuPaul would sit on the front porch waiting for his father to pick him up. His father never came. RuPaul looks straight into the camera and speaks softly now, to the child he somewhere still is: “Baby, that had nothing to do with you.” I think of my father, who left my life eight years ago, who is now just an hour’s drive away, and who I know I will not see. I think about the grandson he has never met. I am fuzzy on the details, but this may be when I begin weeping like a baby. Ru breaks down too as he describes his own journey to sobriety. And there we are, two people separated by a screen, crying together in the dark.
* * *
Half a year after starting my MasterClass adventure, I am a different person from the eager pupil who scribbled down every pearl of wisdom from Malcolm Gladwell’s lips. I am disappointed in other people and — in a distant way I cannot quite place — also in myself. I wish I were stronger, or easier to transform. My back still hurts. And if that were not enough, I have returned home to voluntary quarantine. Now, instead of a fun distraction from everyday life, the computer is my only point of contact with the rest of the world. I cannot bear to see more people talking on the screen, but there are not too many other places to go.
As the global pandemic unfolds, MasterClass shifts its offerings with uncanny acumen. Instead of promising me greatness, the ads in my inbox invite me to take what seem like a humbler course: gardening. The instructor, Ron Finley, is a fashion designer turned urban-gardening advocate. MasterClass pitches him as a “gangsta gardener,” and he offers fresh, zen koan-like takes along the lines of “Air is gangsta as fuck” and “When Bambi dies, or some shit… no one buries it.” At first, I ignore the ads. I have no green thumb. My rap sheet includes a long list of potted herbs, houseplants, and even cacti that I have, by some amazing level of neglect, managed to dry to death. In the past 20 years I have moved through a variety of dorm rooms, house-sits, and rental apartments in three countries. How could I grow something when I have barely put down roots myself?
The ads keep coming. One night, I have a dream about planting a garden. Then I get flashes of another version of myself: a teenager tending to the front and back yards of my family home. I had the boring chores of raking leaves and mowing the lawn, but I also grew flowers and pulled weeds and cared for a bed of strawberries. I remember now how I used to pore over seed and bulb catalogues, calculating the amount of sun each part of our yard received, imagining how I could replace our lawn with a glorious cacophony of color, if only my parents would fund the project. I never did manage to plant the garden I dreamt of. One bad spring my mother spread grass seeds all over my flower bed, and in my anger I gave up gardening altogether.
I start the course.
Finley is charismatic and funny and, wouldn’t you know it, down-to-earth. He’s not precious about gardening, a point he makes by showing how to turn a wooden dresser drawer into a makeshift planter. The course itself is not so much a master class as a basic introduction to keeping a plant alive. Finley stands behind his big wooden table and rubs different kinds of soil between his hands to show how to recognize the good, loamy kind that plants will flourish in. He gently eases seedlings out of their pots and pats them into the ground, pokes holes with his finger, and pops in sugar snap peas. Given that I haven’t touched a bag of soil in over two decades, this is what I need.
Between little jokes like “size does matter… in a garden,” Finley slips in an entire philosophy of being in the world. He describes building a relationship to plants as a way of connecting to one’s body, one’s environment, to life itself. Learning to care for plants, he says, is a way to learn to care for yourself. As he shows how to loosen the roots of a nursery plant or divide a sprouted sweet potato, Finley calls attention to the creative force deep inside all living things. “Plants want to grow, they wanna live, they wanna thrive,” he says, and I’m enchanted by the potential of survival he sees in a part of life I had wholly overlooked. I can’t remember looking at a plant and not seeing a future reproach.
Watching these videos makes me want to nurture something. I run to my kitchen and pick up a pot of fragile supermarket parsley. I pick off the dry leaves, then water it. A few days later, it has perked up. I gain courage. That weekend, I go with my family to a garden center, where we don our masks and look through fogged glasses at a bewildering variety of soils. We spend hours on our balcony, mixing soil with fertilizer, planting a cut-off wine barrel full of kitchen herbs. In other pots, we give a tiny strawberry seedling and a tomato plant a chance next to some sprouted onions from the pantry that I have learned how to divide on YouTube. In the days that follow, the three of us are stupidly happy. We go out on the balcony, stare at the plants the way parents watch sleeping newborns, call each other to witness how quickly they have grown. Then, what begins as an experiment turns into a minor obsession. Flowers and a miniature olive tree join the herbs. We plant peas and potatoes, and my son and I try germinating seeds for herbs we could not find in the store. There is no special talent here: it is an ordinary hobby, but that does not dull its wonder.
As I observe our seedlings take root and flourish, it dawns on me how little power I have over their growth. I can provide them with a fertile space to be. I nurture, prune, and guide them as necessary. I can destroy them through neglect or poor decisions. But I do not make them what they are. In my happiest moments of creation, I have experienced this sensation of standing by as a mysterious energy unfolded itself according to a plan all its own. It is what being pregnant felt like. It is also how some essays have come to me, in full bud and pressing to be written down.
More often than not, though, making things in the world feels like slamming dead clay on the ground, hoping that enough force might shape it into something beautiful. It occurs to me that what I have to learn in my little balcony garden has nothing to do with mastery. As I watch the cilantro and the basil and even the sad supermarket parsley take root, I feel that I am coming back to myself, to a part of me I had forgotten. Here it is at last: something new.
Irina Dumitrescu is an essayist and scholar of medieval literature.
Editor: Ben Huberman