Have You Been Dissed By A Writing Professor?

It happened to Harlan Ellison who 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.

I’m not defending Ellison’s response, but if you think a professor wouldn’t feel the need to be so harsh and unequivocal 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 loved the community of writers in my MFA program, but got poleaxed by a professor. A story that I thought was a breakthrough was demolished by my workshop, and then the professor delivered the coup de grâce. He said it was nothing new and the kind of thing I could write in my sleep.  It was devastating.

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

Don’t Believe in “Writer’s Block”!

I’m just back from keynoting a writers’ conference in Michigan where one of the questions was “Do you ever get writer’s block?”

My answer was simple: No.  And here’s why.

I once heard prize-winning author Loren D. Estleman deplore the use of the term.  He said that it’s a grossly unhelpful way of describing something very basic and ordinary in the writer’s life: you’re stuck.

I totally agree. When you say that you have writer’s block, you turn a minor problem into something major like depression or even cancer. Suddenly you’re beset by a grave affliction and a normal, unremarkable part of the writing process potentially becomes  debilitating.

I’ve felt this way through many years as a published author; through twenty-five books in many genres; and hundreds of stories, essays, reviews and blogs. Like Estleman, I believe that we all get stuck sometimes in our work, no matter how experienced we are — and Estleman’s published sixty books. Stuck isn’t a bad thing. It just means that you haven’t worked something out, you haven’t answered some question in the book, or maybe you’re headed in the wrong direction.

When I get stuck, I do what Estleman suggested, and what I’ve advised my creative writing students over the years: I leave the writing alone and don’t obsess about it.

Are you stuck? Don’t panic. Give the problem to your subconscious to figure out. Work on something else or don’t do any writing at all. Focus outward: the gym, a movie, dinner with your spouse, drinks with some buddies, walking your dog, home repairs, a car trip, gardening, working on your tan, cooking, going out, reading a new book by your favorite author — anything that will absorb you completely and make you feel good.

Of course, sometimes being stuck is connected to secrecy and revelation. It can mean you’re afraid of what you want to write, afraid of revealing too much about yourself (or someone else), afraid of what people might think. That fear of exposure is shame, or the dread of shame. Calling it “writer’s block” confuses the issue and disguises what’s really the problem.

Unfortunately, there’s a gigantic industry devoted to helping people overcome “writer’s block,” to keep them from turning into Barton Fink, stuck on that one sentence. And because our culture loves stories about blocked writers like The Shining, there’s a perverse kind of glamor associated with this “condition.” It’s dramatic, it’s proof of how serious a professional you are. And hey, writers are crazy anyway, so of course they can’t do their jobs.

Let’s face it, since most people hate to write, especially in this age of texting, “writer’s block” connects with non-writers much better than when you say, “I’m working on my book, it’s going great and I’m having a blast.” You risk being seen as cocky or even arrogant. Saying that you have writer’s block brings you back to earth. It comforts people who don’t write, because it confirms their perception of writing as drudgery and even torment.

Don’t buy into the script.  Write your own.

Lev Raphel is the author of twenty-five books in many genres including the guide for writers Writer’s Block is Bunk. He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com where he also offers coaching and mentoring.

(this blog originally appeared on The Huffington Post)

Teaching Creative Writing Should Be Creative, Not Destructive

I’ve done a lot of speaking at colleges and universities around the country and faculty tell me many behind-the-scenes stories. Properly disguised, they make great material for my Nick Hoffman academic mystery series: tales of petty infighting, squabbling committees, ridiculous vendettas–all the simmering snarkiness that Borges called “bald men arguing over a comb.”

But I also hear stories from students that aren’t remotely amusing, stories about what it’s like for them to be in a classroom with a professor who sees teaching very differently than I do. Teachers who seem to enjoy shaming students in front of the rest of the class, as if they’re coaches whipping an under-performing player into shape.

Creative writing is one of my passions and I’ve heard of professors in these classes who stop students while they’re reading aloud and say, “That stinks!” or worse. I’ve never done that. I have stopped stopped students to ask them to slow down or read more distinctly, or to say something positive if I was blown away and couldn’t wait till they’re finished. And sometimes I just start laughing if the work is really funny. As for dissing a student’s work, seriously, who does that help?

I’ve heard of some professors who can be so intimidating that they make students shake with fear when they challenge what the students have to say. I’ve also heard of professors in creative writing classes who don’t let everyone read their work aloud, but keep picking their favorites, creating resentment and embarrassment. In my creative writing classes, everyone has read aloud because the class should be a creative community, not a jungle.

I see it that way because I had an amazing creative writing teacher freshman year at Fordham University; she became my mentor and model. She ran her workshops with good humor and warmth. She spurred us all to write better by pinpointing what we did best and helping us improve whatever that was. She never insulted us, humiliated us, made fun of us, or played favorites. She encouraged us all with grace and good humor. I’d even say she enjoyed us; she definitely enjoyed being in the classroom and made us feel that way, too. Nobody ever dreaded being there.

Teaching isn’t combat or coaching, especially teaching creative writing. We’re not in the classroom to humiliate and harden our students as if they’re going into the cutthroat world of business or getting ready for the next football game against a team with no losses. Our role should be to help them grow as writers, identify what they do best and where they need to do more work.

That’s what I do with my online creative writing workshops, too. As reporter Charles Kuralt put it simply: “Good teachers know how to bring out the best in their students.” Who needs shame to do that?

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books which you can find on Amazon. His creative writing workshop site is writewithoutborders.com.

I Love to Mentor Writers

My college creative writing mentor was amazing: funny, good-natured, and inspiring. I took every course she offered, both literature and creative writing. I even took what that college called a “January Project”: a short intensive course between first and second semesters. In hers, we studied a novel and some short stories through the lens of psychologist Karen Horney’s work on cultural conflicts. It was unforgettable, and gave me a whole new way to read and enjoy fiction.

My mentor offered me the chance to do unofficial teacher training with her because I wanted to become a teacher as well as an author. So I got to sit in on one of her classes in my last semester; afterwards we’d discuss what was going on “backstage.” We didn’t just talk about how she had put her syllabus together and picked the books, but analyzed how she orchestrated a class moment by moment. She was especially good at working with what might look like chaos to outsiders—those moments when the class seemed to go off on a tangent.

While I’ve been a full-time author and reviewer since graduate school, I’ve now been an adjunct at Michigan State University for six years in a row and fortunate enough to teach writing workshops and literature courses I love. Perhaps because I’ve published more books than all the tenured creative writers in my department combined, writing students have asked to work independently with me.

No matter what the genre they’ve chosen or how often we’ve met, everyone has grown as a writer. That’s been my goal, because my question before working together has been: Can I help this student do what they already do better?

Assisting students as they progress through various drafts and deepen their stories, I can pass on what I’ve learned from all the accomplished newspaper, magazine, anthology, book and magazine editors I’ve had over the years. Best of all, I feel myself connected to my college mentor, whose devotion to students was exemplary. Working one-on-one during office hours, I’ve heard my students ask questions that I asked when I was their age and discovering myself as a writer, learning my craft, finding my voice.

And now that I’m teaching online, the experience of mentoring has blossomed in new ways.  My workshops are limited to only ten participants, and I truly feel I can give them the in-depth feedback they need.  But as before, if I’m momentarily stumped for a comment or response, my mentor seems to pipe up with the right thing to say. All these years later, she’s still guiding me.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in genres from memoir to mystery, available on Amazon, and his work has been translated into fifteen languages.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com and his next month-long workshop begins November 1.

Fans Keep Asking Me, “Which is Your Favorite Book?”

I get that question all the time at readings.

The answer doesn’t pop up immediately, because I’ve published in so many genres: memoir, mystery, literary novel, short story collections, psychology, biography/literary criticism, historical fiction, Jane Austen mash-up, vampire, writer’s guide, memoir-essay collections.

I love them all, or I wouldn’t have written them, but my 19th book My Germany has a special place in my writer’s heart. It’s more deeply personal than my other books, and it’s also the one I struggled with most.

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I’m the son of Holocaust survivors, and the book is a combination of history, family history, travelogue, mystery, and a coming out story.  The thread that connects it all is my exploration of the role that Germany–real and imagined–played in my family while I was growing up and in my own life as an adult and an author.

It wasn’t an easy set of stories to tell. It took me more than five years to figure out the book’s structure and to let go of trying to force it into a specific mold. I finally realized that I could blend genres, and that set me free to follow the advice the poet Sir Phillip Sydney’s muse gave to him: “Look in your heart, and write.”

My Germany is also the book that garnered me the most speaking gigs of any book in my career: somewhere between fifty and sixty.  That included two book tours in Germany where I spoke in over a dozen different cities, and sometimes even read from it in German, which I had started studying in night classes.

Unexpectedly, I felt comfortable the moment I got to Germany and I remembered something I’d somehow completely forgotten: I grew up in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, where thousands of neighbors were German refugees from the Nazis.  I’d been hearing German in the streets, in stores, in our building’s lobby and elevator since childhood.  So suddenly plunging into a German-speaking environment wasn’t strange; it was comforting, it made me feel at home.

That was one of the many surprises connected to writing My Germany, and it made clear to me the power that memoir has to connect you to your own past in new, revelatory ways.  I was changing, which is why I had to write that memoir, and writing it changed me even more.   A colleague once said that writing is a process of discovery; well, that book opened up new worlds for me, and having just taught an online memoir writing workshop this past month, I’ve seen memoir do that for my students, too.  It’s thrilling.

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

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.

 

Charlie Huston’s Zombie Classic “Already Dead” is a Perfect Summer Read

When I teach creative writing classes, I assign fiction in different genres to inspire and stimulate the students. They’re almost always books I’ve learned from myself as a writer and that I think have a lot to offer to new writers. I need to enjoy a book intensely or I won’t be able to share that enjoyment with students and offer the book up as both pleasurable and instructive.

I’ve had students in a handful of creative writing classes read Charlie Houston’s hilarious, blistering Already Dead and the response is always positive. I’ve read it half a dozen times at least and I never get bored.

It’s a sizzling mix of mystery, thriller, zombie, vampire, and private detective novel in which Manhattan is secretly divided up by different vampire clans. They keep a low profile so that humans don’t hunt them down, and some of them are very powerful. In Houston’s take on vampire lore, it’s the “Vyrus” of ancient origin that makes these creatures what they are—and that disease is almost a character all its own.
As the book opens, the borough is suddenly and mysteriously filling with zombies. They’re of course too witless and hungry for brains to stay out of the public eye, and any kind of attention to them could expose the vampire underworld.

Who ya gonna call? Joe Pitt. He’s a freelancer, not strongly connected to any of the clans, but a killer for hire. He’s tough, foul-mouthed, and funny. His case in the first book of Houston’s series involves a young runaway and finding out where all those zombies are coming from. Who’s infecting them, who is Zombie Zero? How is the missing girl mixed up in this hot zombie mess?

Like every good PI sleuth, his hunt brings him into conflict with unseen forces, and cynical, hardboiled Joe gets rubbed the wrong way by condescending rich people—another staple of the genre. He’s hassled by thugs, too, of course, one of whom still says with admiration, “Joe don’t take nothing from nobody, good or bad.”  Like Humphrey Bogart and ever classic sleuth, he take a lot of damage.

Pitt is armed with amazing abilities to analyze all the scents in a room and to see in the dark, which make him dangerous and also fascinating. His infected blood also helps him recover from all the beatings you expect a PI to get and makes him incredibly strong, but one of his best weapons is his mouth: he’s got a smart-ass line for almost every occasion. Like when someone asks if he has a moment:

“Perhaps I have a whole shitload of moments. Perhaps I have moments squirreled away all over the place, and perhaps I plan to keep them for myself. What of it?”

The book is told in his voice and Houston’s made him one of the best story-tellers you’ll ever meet, in the dark or anywhere else….

Lev Raphael is the author of The Vampyre of Gotham and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches creative writing 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

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

 

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

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.