Surviving London/Loving London

Four years this week I was just back from teaching a six week summer program in London.  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

I had injured my knee forty-eight hours before my flight from Detroit, and the surgeon said I’d be okay with a knee brace and Aleve, but would need surgery as soon as I got home.  So I went because I didn’t want to disappoint the students, or myself.  teaching abroad had been a dream of mine for a very long time.

Now, I’d never taken Aleve before and it kept me from sleeping.  Ditto the pain when the Aleve wore off and I couldn’t take more.  I was also besieged by the unexpected 90-degree heat in London, which didn’t feel any better no matter how many times people told me the weather was unusual.

To my horror, the flat that had been rented for me was a duplex, which meant I had to limp up and down the stairs there countless times a day, even though the surgeon advised me to avoid stairs.  My phone or tablet always seemed to be on whichever floor I wasn’t on.

My flat was at the top of the building and got so hot by late afternoon that it shut down my iPhone.  The classroom I taught in at Regent’s College wasn’t air conditioned and the inscrutable powers-that-be would only give us a fan for one day.  I had to teach while I was in pain, sleepless, and stressed by the heat.  It was brutal.

To truly add insult to injury, one night I tripped over the wild fringe on one rug, smacked my hand on an oak table on the way down.  It swelled up grotesquely and I was soon in an emergency room where I passed out because the pain in my hand was so bad.  I ended up with a cast which my students signed, hoping that I would survive till the end of the program.

But my students–!  They were amazing.  In my many years of teaching, I’d never had a group so dedicated, funny, talented, and compassionate.  No matter how I felt on any given day, spending time with them was joyful.  I felt as if everything I’d ever learned about how to work with student writing and how to approach reading literature was focused with the intensity of a laser beam.  Watching their writing blossom was one of the grandest experiences I’ve ever had as a teacher.  And unlike the regular classes I taught back home with twenty-five students, I had only fifteen in each one, which made getting to know them and their work much easier.

As I finally got my insomnia and pain  under control, I was able to fully enjoy museums, plays, and relish the good food and drink at local restaurants and  pubs.  A friend from Germany came to spend the weekend nearby and we had great, intimate, sometimes uproarious meals together.  I loved staying in Pimlico on a quiet square, and though London has never been my favorite city in Western Europe, right now, I miss being there.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in many genres and teaches creative writing at www.writewithoutborders.com.

 

The Joys of Teaching Creative Writing At Home And Abroad

I picked my college in New York for one main reason: I had heard about a young, amazing creative writing teacher there I wanted to study with.  That was the smartest decision of my life.  I took every course she taught, writing or literature, and she mentored me both as a writer and a teacher.

Her style was remarkable: she was funny, relaxed, had a high tolerance for what might seem like chaos to some people.  I remember once a professor from another class actually complained that we were too boisterous in her class.  We were just having fun.

I found her consistently, quietly determined to bring out the best in her students.  She was never censorious or arrogant, and in workshops she somehow managed to help us revise our fiction without turning it into something different.  Without making it like what she thought it should be.

For the last six years I’ve been teaching creative writing again at Michigan State University as a guest and I’ve had wonderful, smart, talented students–and been lucky to do independent study or senior theses with some of them.  Even better, I got to teach a six-week summer program for MSU students in London.  The writing class blended fiction and creative non-fiction and the focus was writing about difference, examining themselves as Americans in London and also studying English culture as outsiders.

We read Bill Bryson’s hilarious book about England, Notes from a Small Island along with Miranda Seymour’s powerful memoir Thrumpton Hall and Val McDermid’s expert collection of short stories Stranded.  Both Seymour and McDermid were able to visit the class and talk about their work, which was a unique experience for all of us.

We faced some obstacles.  London underwent a heat wave, and our classroom was cramped, airless, and on the broiling west side of a building whose lawn was occasionally the scene of noisy events nobody warned us about.  Acquiring a fan  proved to be impossible.  Don’t ask me why.  We even had to deal with power drilling and hammering in the basement below us at one point.  But the students were good-humored.  More than that, they were inventive, supportive, hard-working, talented–and there were only sixteen of them.  That’s close to an ideal size for a creative writing class.  It allowed them to bond quickly around their writing and get to know each other’s styles and strengths intimately.

I encouraged everyone to take risks in their work, sharing times in my career when I did so myself, and I watched students develop astonishingly in the short weeks we had together.  Some of them told me afterwards I inspired them, but they inspired me, twice, to write short pieces that I shared with them.

When it was over, I felt grateful that I’d had a writing mentor in college who had modeled dedicated, patient, relaxed, non-bullying work with students. And modeled not changing what your students write but doing your best to bring it into fuller bloom.  That isn’t easy.  You have to be present, focused, and aware–but it’s amazingly rewarding, and an amazing high when it goes well.

My mother was a teacher In Brussels after WW II, and when I met a group of her former students while doing research there for a book, they told me that sometimes she would get so excited in class that she would just hug herself with delight.  I know exactly how she felt.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the guide for writers, Writer’s Block is Bunk.  You can take creative writing workshops with him online at writewithoutborders.com.“Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael was like seeing Blade Runner for the first time: simply incredible.”
—Kyle Roberts, MSU Class of 2016

 

I Survived a London Heat Wave

Temps in London have been off the charts for weeks, and that’s reminded me of a six-week stay there when the unexpected heat felt like my nemesis.

I was teaching creative writing in a summer program where I had amazingly productive and fun students, as well as superb guest speakers like authors Miranda Seymour and Val McDermid.  I was subbing for someone and the flat he had arranged for was in Pimlico, which was away from the crazier parts of the city, quiet, scenic, and filled with terrific restaurants and pubs.

But the heat that summer was fiendish, sometimes passing 90 degrees.  My flat was on the top floor of a small building and hotter than that because it had no air conditioning and heat rises.  It got so hot there that I had to point a small fan at my iPhone which kept overheating. Opening windows for cross ventilation was not a good idea because for some bizarre reason the gusts were so strong they blew everything off the table I worked at, and the wind was so strong it even unrolled the paper towels in the kitchen from their rack.  The room looked like some poltergeist had paid me a visit.

I had arrived in London with a knee injury and had to stay off public transport, but I found car service drivers reluctant to turn on their AC or turn it up.  I explained over and over that I was prone to migraines and that usually did it, but stepping into a black car at midday was highly unpleasant anyway.  They’d comply and leave their driver side windows open or cracked, evidently afraid of getting a chill.

And then there was Regents University where I taught, which was un-airconditioned.  My afternoon classes got way too much sun and sometimes my students looked on the verge of passing out. When I appealed to the powers-that-be for a fan, we got one.  For just a day.  And I was made to feel that I had overstepped some invisible boundary by even asking for it.

People kept telling me everywhere I went that “It never gets this hot,” but that wasn’t very comforting. What kept me cool was grocery shopping at a deliciously cool Sainsbury’s, dining out, attending a concert in a Victorian church, and visiting fantastic museums like the Tate Modern where I saw epic Matisse and Malevich exhibitions.  People were remarkably friendly wherever I want, and honestly, I fell in love with Pimlico.

Eventually the AC-phobic drivers and everything else making me fry started to seem almost funny.  Why?  Because on my first-ever summer trip to London years before, I was so cold I had to buy a woolen sweater. So by the end of my six week stint in 2014, I was calling it my deluxe and safe Caribbean vacation.  No fear of sunburn, no sharks, no sand in my clothes.  And terrific Gin and Tonics.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the guide for writers, Writer’s Block is Bunk.  You can take creative writing workshops with him online at writewithoutborders.com.“Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael was like seeing Blade Runner for the first time: simply incredible.”
—Kyle Roberts, MSU Class of 2016

I’m Grateful To Know More Than One Language

 

New stories about people being harassed and threatened because they’re not speaking English are a sad sign of how xenophobia is becoming normalized in the country.  And they disturb me personally.

I grew up with Eastern European-born parents who spoke at least ten languages between them. They used English with me and my brother, but more often than not spoke Yiddish to each other whether at home or in public. Russian, too, if they had something snarky to say about someone, or if they didn’t want me and my brother to know what they were discussing.  Likewise, arguments when they escalated went to Russian, which both my parents had spoken since childhood.

The apartment building I grew up in was filled with immigrants. Most of them spoke German, though there was some who spoke Russian or other languages.  Way before I traveled anywhere, I felt the world was at my doorstep because of this linguistic richness.

I found the ability to shift back and froth from one language to another simply wonderful.  I envied the ability to be private in public, to have not just one “secret Language,” but a handful of them.  And I was often delighted when one of my parents would realize a store owner, for instance, was from some country whose language they spoke but I never heard at home–like Romanian.

I studied French in school and did well, thanks to having a francophone mother, and it’s helped me in Canada and Western Europe.  I went on to study German and learned it well enough to do use it for introductions and readings on book tours in Germany.  When it looked like I might be teaching in Sweden not so long ago, I plunged in and had a ball learning the language, and learning about the people and culture.  Now I’m studying Dutch because I want to write about Flanders in perhaps more than one book.

Studying a language opens doorways you didn’t even know existed. But harassing people who aren’t speaking English is the sign of a closed and fearful mind.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of the travelogue/memoir My Germany and 24 other books in many genres.  You can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com

Harlan Ellison Got Dissed By His Writing Professor In College

Harlan Ellison, who just died at 84, was one of our most prolific and influential science fiction writers. He published 1700 short stories and over 50 books, writing scripts for Outer Limits and Star Trek among other shows.  His work influenced James Cameron when he filmed Terminator, and that’s just a start when it comes to his cultural impact.

But when Ellison attended Ohio State University, a professor passed judgment and said he had no talent for writing. Irascible even as an undergraduate, Ellison punched his professor and was expelled.

You’d think a professor wouldn’t feel the need to be so harsh and unequivocal–but you’d be wrong.

I’ve known creative writing professors who treat students like dirt. One was notorious for humiliating students by telling them their work was shit. He could make students cry or tremble with fear.  Another would only let favorite students read aloud, clearly sending the same ugly message to everyone else in her class. These professors are not anomalies: I know from sources across the country that dissing student writing is a commonplace in creative writing workshops at the undergraduate and graduate level.  A good friend was told she would never publish because she apparently hadn’t suffered enough.  Soon afterwards, she had a story accepted at a fine literary magazine.

I faced deeply disparaging criticism in my MFA program. A story that I thought was a breakthrough was demolished by my workshop, and the professor delivered the coup de grâce. He said it was nothing new and the kind of thing I could write in my sleep.  I felt bludgeoned.

But a few weeks later it won first prize in the program’s writing contest which was judged by a famous editor. When I shared the brickbats from my workshop, she growled, “Don’t change a goddamned word!”  I then sold it for a lot of money to Redbook, which at the time had 4.5 million readers, and the story launched my career as an author.  My professor’s comment at the next workshop?  “It’s still shit, but now it’s shit with a prize.”

Taking writing workshops to develop and hone your craft is a good idea, but not everyone commenting on your work comes from a pace of creative nurturing and encouragement–or even neutrality.  Too many of them want to tear you down for whatever twisted reasons of their own. You don’t have to punch out your professor or anyone who disparages your work, but it’s wise to listen to all criticism with your shields up, as if you were in Star Trek.  Remember what Kirk says to Sulu: “Steady as she goes.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the guide for writers, Writer’s Block is Bunk.  You can take writing workshops with him online at writewithoutborders.com.“Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael was like seeing Blade Runner for the first time: simply incredible.”—Kyle Roberts, MSU Class of 2016

Publishing Is A Wild Roller Coaster Ride!

It started out as a fantasy.

An editor at an esteemed publishing house contacted me and asked if I had a book for him. He admired my previous work and wanted me on their list.  I was flattered and thrilled.  The timing was perfect because I did have a book, so I was soon signing a contract that gave me an advance big enough to pay for my upcoming wedding.

And then things went south.  The editing process was fine until the day before I left for a book tour in Germany and the editor told me the book was being moved up a season because the publisher loved it.  Ordinarily that would have been great news, since in-house excitement is crucial to launching a book.  But he asked me to correct the edited manuscript and get it back to him (via email) in the next two weeks.

I explained that I was leaving for a tightly-scheduled book tour, doing daily events and would be in transit when I wasn’t speaking and reading. Moreover, tours were exhausting and I didn’t feel I’d have the focus required for reviewing the book. I also worked on a PC and didn’t have a laptop, which would mean going to internet cafes.

He insisted.  I thought, okay, I have to try.  But when I got to Germany I discovered that even if I tried to squeeze in some time at an internet cafe every day, there was no way I could work on German keyboards because they were laid out differently and very confusing.  My emails home were garbled and I didn’t want to risk any errors creeping into the book.

I explained all that and he said fine, he would get it taken care of.

To my dismay, when I got the book back in page proofs, there was one passage that was repeated.  I deleted the repetition while making other minor corrections. But when I got back home after the tour, the publisher himself called to tell me that it would be too expensive to re-do the book since it had gone too far in the publishing process.  He refused to fix the problem.

While I loved the book’s cover, I was mortified that it was being published with a glaring flaw.  And then a reviewer blamed me for letting the book appear with a repetition.

I felt burned, but luckily fans enjoyed the book despite the screw-up.  That’s what publishing is like, filled with ups and downs, and nothing is predictable. As novelist and memoirist Deborah Levy says, “The writing life is mostly about stamina.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the guide for writers, Writer’s Block is Bunk.  You can take creative writing workshops with him online at writewithoutborders.com.“Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael was like seeing Blade Runner for the first time: simply incredible.”
—Kyle Roberts, MSU Class of 2016

Publishing Can Sometimes Work Your Last Nerve

Back when I was trying to get my first book published, a novelist friend warned me: “The only thing worse than not being published is being published.”

He wasn’t joking, and it sounded like something wise and mysterious Yoda might say if he taught a writing workshop. I wasn’t sure what it meant. But I soon discovered.

Bringing a book out is filled with hazards and opens you up to a whole new set of disappointments and frustrations.  You might hate the book cover the publisher comes up with.  There’s the possibility of bad reviews.  Really bad reviews.  The kind that lodge like a splinter in your brain.

You could be plagued by miserable turnout at readings and signings.  Someone else could publish a similar book that gets way more press attention than yours.  And of course, there’s the quicksand of weak sales.

But before the book even gets published, you enter the strange world of production.  When the book comes back to you from a copy editor, it’s been transformed into something very different, almost alien.  Your labor of love is now just a product.  As you work through the corrections and suggestions page by page, the book feels very much less than the sum of its parts.

Your baby is reduced to markups relating to spacing and capitalization, and what can seem like an endless series of queries.  Sometimes the copy editor isn’t tuned in to your material.  In one book I mentioned the Temple in Jerusalem.  The query was: “What’s the name of that temple?”

I resisted the temptation to get snarky, but when I had one copy editor completely rewrite the style of my first person memoir, I said No way.

Of course, a good copy editor will catch repetition, a mistaken quote, imprecise or awkward phrasing, and other problems that would embarrass you when the book came out.  But whether you agree or disagree with suggested changes, seeing it marked up with countless notes, you can feel like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians.  And you can’t tell anymore if the book is what you wanted it to be or not.

Next you get the page proofs, by which point the book you thought you loved can feel like an albatross and you just want to be rid of it.  Especially if you’ve moved on to writing or researching something else.

Obviously, it’s better to have these problems than not have them, but if you haven’t been published yet, be prepared!

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches creative writing online at www.writewithoutborders.com.

Why Authors Believe in Ghosts

It’s because all of us writers are haunted.

Not just by reviews that sting or that never even happened. Not by interviews that went sideways. Not just by book tours that flopped or by books whose sales figures were disappointing.

No, many of the specters hovering around our desks, laptops, and tablets are the books we started and gave up on. They’re in our dreams, and their presence lingers no matter what we complete and publish.

We have unfinished chapters, abandoned proposals, piles of research we’ve boxed, notes we scribbled and filed and can barely decipher any more. Even shelves’ worth of reference books we’re gathered together, read or skimmed or never got to. There are also characters we fell in love with but we couldn’t get around to giving them life.

And then there the ghosts that are more insidious. These are the ghosts inside the books we’ve written: the plot twists we changed and regretted after the book came out, the scenes we axed for one reason or another, the narrative threads we cut for expediency or coherence but later wished we hadn’t. And sometimes a book is haunted by what you wanted it to be, and what you couldn’t accomplish for any number of reasons: a deadline, mischance, falling ill, or just not being ready.

One of my ghosts resides in a file cabinet drawer crammed with material for a novel that never grew past a first chapter I’m crazy about. But every time I’ve gone back to it, I’ve thought the research involved would take too long, plus I’ve doubted the book’s marketability. It’s a novel about a murdered American artist and I’ve got all sorts of juicy research about him and his family, including a rare book of poetry published by the killer.

For all the time I spent living and dreaming that book, it’s stuck in the land of What Might Have Been. The further away I get from it, the less inviting the whole project becomes.  And I’m not alone: I know we’re all ghost writers of one kind or another.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of The Vampyre of Gotham and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery. You can study creative writing with him on line at writewithoutborders.com

Why I’m Teaching Creative Writing Online

I come from a family of teachers. My mother’s father taught economics in Poland. My mother taught language and literature in Belgium. And in New York, my brother taught special education.

I picked my undergraduate college, the Lincoln Center branch of Fordham University, specifically because of one creative writing teacher I’d heard about as inspirational.  It was a great choice. I ended up taking all her classes and didn’t just learn the subject matter, but also how to teach, how to orchestrate a class, and how to have fun doing it.

In senior year, she took me on as an unofficial apprentice because I told her my twin goals in life were to write and to teach.  I watched what she did in classrooms as an observer, and she even showed me how she graded papers.  When I started teaching, her model was always in my head.  She was in my head.

Recently I’ve been teaching at Michigan State University.  Like many colleges and universities, the powers-that-be have no idea what a good learning environment is for teaching literature or creative writing.  They overcrowd the creative writing workshops, which means students can’t get the attention they need in class or out of it.  That’s grossly unfair to the students, many of whom work more than one job to help pay their tuition.

Typically I’ve had twenty-five students in writing workshops, though once it was thirty.  Yes, thirty.  These class sizes not only make it harder for me to give students all the attention and feedback they need, the overcrowding makes it harder for students to get to know each other and feel comfortable sharing their work.  But administrators don’t seem to care.

Luckily I’ve also been able to teach independent study students and supervise their senior theses, where individual attention is the critical foundation.

Now I’m applying what I’ve learned in many years of classroom teaching to offer online creative writing workshops.  I’ll get to coach and mentor writers at all stages and offer the kind of individualized attention that learning to write requires.  No matter where you are in your development as a writer, sharing your work with someone requires trust and an atmosphere of safety.  That’s what I saw my college mentor create over and over. Teaching online, I’ll be sharing what I learned from her, and carrying on a family tradition in an exciting new way.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of twenty-five books in a dozen different genres, including the historical novel Rosedale in Love set in New York’s dazzling Gilded Age.  You can find his creative writing workshops at http://writewithoutborders.com.

How Philip Roth Changed My Life

My first Roth book was Portnoy’s Complaint, which I read as a teenager.  It blew my mind because I’d never read a first person narrative that was so anarchic. As Roth has written: “Nobody expects a Jew to go crazy in public.” It was also wickedly funny, and broke many other taboos. Nothing I read for school came even close to being so alive–and so entertaining.  The book changed American literature forever, as the Washington Post reported today.

It hit home for me. The over-protectiveness as well as the carping of Alexander Portnoy’s parents reminded me of my own mother and father who sometimes said things just as diminishing and weird. And his rage against anti-Semitism was revelatory.  But it would be awhile before I found the courage to write freely about being Jewish, the son of Holocaust survivors, and gay.

Soon after college, I read The Ghost Writer. I was in love with Henry James at the time and it seemed very Jamesian, like one of the Master’s tales about the “madness of art”–with a Holocaust twist. I read it over and over. The prose struck me as perfect, the story profound, and I thought that if I could someday write a book even half that beautiful, I would have really accomplished something fine.

I did a report on Portnoy’s Complaint in graduate school which had the seminar in hysterics because I read sections of the book aloud. It taught me something about writing as performance which I would utilize years later on my many book tours. I followed his work almost religiously, reading his criticism as well as his fiction, and the anger of his critics in the Jewish community sobered me. My first book, which combined Jewish and gay themes, got some savage reviews in the Jewish press, though nothing as bad or as widespread as Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus.

Years later, my memoir about coming terms with Germany as a son of Holocaust survivors was basically ignored by the Jewish press, including publications that had published my short stories and essays. I was relieved in a way. I didn’t have the skill to skewer critics the way Roth did, and I would not have relished a firestorm.  It was bad enough that when I spoke about that memoir at a famous Jewish venue, I was attacked by members of the audience for saying anything remotely positive about my experiences in Germany.  My favorite angry comment, which seems right out of a Zuckerman novel: “Okay, so you’ve been to Germany, why go back?  There aren’t other countries in the world?”

Before I became a regular reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, I was asked to review his memoir Patrimony and I declined.  I felt too humbled by the power and precision of his work.  Now I’m sorry that I didn’t at least try.

I met Roth when he spoke at Michigan State University.  He seemed bored by the questions from the audience, including mine, and when I had him sign one of his books afterwards, he was as aloof as if the experience pained him.  I’d given him one of my own books with a Roth quote written above my signature and he seemed startled, “Did I really write that?”

It was a chilly interaction, but that didn’t stop me from reading and enjoying later novels, and assigning his work in a Jewish-American literature class whose students loved The Plot against America.  And I’m proud to say that an essay of mine appeared in a collection where he was one of the star contributors. Better still, a reviewer in the Washington Post compared my novel The German Money to Roth (and Kafka!).

I haven’t uniformly admired all his books, but he’s still a model for me of dedication, insight, and perseverance–and his dialogue is some of the best any contemporary American author has written.  Along with James, D.H. Lawrence, Anita Brookner, Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, he’s been an abiding, inspiring presence in my life as a writer.

As Dwight Garner puts it so well in the New York Times, “His work had more rage, more wit, more lust, more talk, more crosscurrents of thought and emotion, more turning over of the universals of existence….than any writer of his time.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the historical novel Rosedale in Love (The House of Mirth Revisited).  He’s been  teaching creative writing at Michigan State University and you can study with him online at writewithoutborders.com