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Journalism Professor Samuel Freedman's Legendary Book Writing Class Trains Some of Country's Best Authors

By Abigail Beshkin

Samuel Freedman

When PEN announces its prestigious literary awards in non-fiction on May 15, two Columbia Graduate School of Journalism graduates will top the list of finalists in the non-fiction categories. No small feat for any journalist, winning the award is quite an accomplishment for emerging writers no more than five years out of journalism school. Still, it's not unheard-of for students in Samuel Freedman's book writing class. Freedman, who has taught the class since 1991, has seen four of his students' books hit the shelves in 1999.

Last month, PEN named Philippe Wamba (J '94), as a finalist for the Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir for his book Kinship, (Dutton, August 1999) about relationships between Africans and African-Americans. The book earned praise from The Washington Post,Newsday, and Kirkus Reviews, and Wamba himself was the subject of a New York Times Magazine profile last August.

Another of Freedman's students, Leslie Chang (J '95) was one of three finalists named for the Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction for her book Beyond the Narrow Gate, (Dutton, May, 1999) which traces the lives of four Nationalist Chinese women through their immigration to the United States. This portrait of four women who remain lifelong friends after fleeing China for Taiwan and eventually for the United States, garnered favorable reviews from Publishers Weekly.

"I watched these books evolve from proposals and outlines to full, compelling narratives," said Freedman. "It's a thrill for me now to be able to see that books written under my guidance are earning praise and being named for the most prestigious writing awards in the country."

Publishers and agents are well aware of the course, and keep in close contact with Freedman, hunting for book proposals and looking at promising first chapters in the hopes of scoring the next best-seller.

Since 1991, this course, one of the most sought-after at the Journalism School, has turned out six published books, another six under contract, plus numerous chapters and magazine articles and anthology chapters. Other published books include Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World, (Houghton Mifflin, 1994), which was named among the New York Times Book Review Notable Books of the Year, and The New Beats: Exploring the Music, Culture and Attitudes of Hip-Hop, (Anchor, 1994), which was acquired by the Quality Paperback Book Club.

In recent years, non-fiction writing has taken off, with creative non-fiction writing programs springing up around the country and memoirs topping recent best-seller lists. Still, Freedman's class stresses the importance of a narrative that reaches beyond itself, and he requires that students writing memoirs set them in a broader political or social context.

This was the case with the two other books published in 1999 that were products of Freedman's class. One is To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, January, 1999) in which author Tara Bahrampour (J '93) chronicles her family's tumble from privilege under the Shah Iran through the Iranian revolution and their arrival in the United States. Another, by Brian McDonald, My Father's Gun: One Family, Three Badges, One Hundred Years in the NYPD, (Dutton, May, 1999) examines the relationship between the police and larger society against the backdrop of McDonald's family. The book has been hailed by the New York Times Book Review and is now in its second hardcover printing.

Freedman's class emphasizes the craft of reporting and the art of writing. Students write articles to practice narrative writing, while at the same time drafting overview essays and proposed chapters of their books. But the class also stresses something else - the sometimes gritty business of having a book published. Freedman invites plenty of authors whose work his students read- this semester's guests included Anne Fadiman, who wrote The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, and Buzz Bissinger, author of A Prayer for the City - but he also brings in people who cover every aspect of the book-publishing industry, from agents, editors and publishers to marketers and bookstore buyers.

This emphasis on balancing the creative and the business sides of publishing pays off.

"We all felt like we got insights into the publishing industry that probably people in the publishing industry don't even have," said student Jeffrey Goldfarb. "They were all extremely candid, and we really left with a sense of how a book is made."

Ultimately, though, despite the emphasis on having a piece of work published, Freedman teaches his students the importance of being connected to their topic and of selecting ideas they're ready to devote many long years to researching and writing.

"You really find out what you're capable of," said Goldfarb. "I found myself more passionate and willing to work harder than I ever thought I would be able to. Professor Freedman really pushes you; he really wrings out every bit of talent you may have."

Published: May 15, 2000
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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