Tony Morrison & The Author’s Dilemma

I never met Morrison but she helped me cope with one of the most vexing aspects of being a writer.

It happened in Chicago.  I was on a short Midwestern book tour with another author.  Over a steak dinner one night, we shared our admiration of authors including Morrison.

Like many of her fans, I read The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and essays of hers in a state of wonderment and delight. Writers like Morrison, Ann Tyler, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan are so polished, so deep, so memorable that reading them, I feel like Viola in Twelfth Night: “O brave new world to have such people in it.”

Done with talking about her work, my travel buddy told me a story he had first hand that has stuck with me for twenty years.

A young writer contacted Morrison to ask for a blurb for her forthcoming novel.  Now, whether you do an MFA or follow a different route to becoming a published author, nobody warns you how demeaning it can be to beg authors you know–or would like to know–to endorse your book.

It’s not enough to have fought your way through to find an agent or a publisher, now it seems like you’re starting all over again, a supplicant in a universe of wealth.

Some authors never bother to reply.   Others wait till it’s too late to fill their spot to let you know they’re busy and can’t do it.  I’ve even had one well-known author change his mind at the last minute, without offering a reason.  Another said she never blurbed books, which made my editor at the time laugh because this author had skyrocketed to fame thanks to a blurb she got for her first book from someone as famous as she was now.

Then there are the writers who say they’ll blurb the book but don’t have time to read it, and tell you or your editor to write whatever.  And you’re stuck wondering if it’s ethical to have their name on your book when the quote is in effect bogus.  Does it taint the book’s karma, or your own?

So the young author waited and waited for Morrison to reply.  Then the author wrote a second request which was on the desperate side.  This time, she got a speedy reply: “My dear: I understood your letter to be a request, not a demand.  Sincerely, Tony Morrison.”

My first response after laughter was pity for the newbie author. But then my focus turned to Morrison herself.  She probably was the recipient of hundreds of blurb requests–and that was before she won the Nobel Prize.  I felt sorry for her and admired the elegance of her note.

Would Morrison’s blurb have made a difference?  There’s no way of knowing.  Best-selling authors have blurbed my books and it’s been lovely to have their imprimatur, so to speak, but the excitement fades too quickly because there’s always another book in the pipeline and a different sent of authors to hit up for blurbs.

When Morrison died, that story about her note was the first thing I thought of.  It had turned the obnoxious task of getting blurbs into a mild comedy of errors, and we authors need to laugh more about the vagaries of our business.  As an author friend once warned me, “The only thing worse than not being published is being published.”

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com and is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.

Why Teaching Creative Writing Online Rocks

I come from a family of teachers and one of the great joys of my life has been teaching creative writing, which I’ve done at various universities.  I was mentored by a brilliant creative writing teacher in college and she’s always been with me when I read and discussed students’ writing.  Her goal was always to help students deepen what they wrote, find what needed to be strengthened, and improve what they already did well.

Writing workshops are very demanding.  You have to stay focused as you shift from one person’s story or essay to the next, keep things lively and entertaining, make comments that encourage your students, weave together what people are saying and writing, and make useful, salient points.

The venues I’ve taught in haven’t always been ideal.  Rooms can be too warm or too cold, too small, or just plain off-putting.  And fluorescent lights are terrible, especially after a few hours. Being given a creative writing class with twenty-five students (or even thirty) is more than just a challenge.  It’s cruel to the students, a sign of cynicism on the part of a university which cares more about money than pedagogy. Highly-paid administrators don’t seem to understand that this kind of class is far more intimate than most, and that students need much more feedback than they do in other kinds of classes.

Teaching online changes all that for me.  I get to limit enrollment to a very manageable ten students.  That means everyone has truly significant feedback at every level via Track Changes, from style to structure and content.  The assignments don’t all come in at the same time, which creates a better rhythm for reading and responding.

I also don’t get distracted by people arriving late, forgetting to turn in their assignments or having printer trouble, or texting when they should be paying attention to their peers.  In effect, I’m doing an independent study with each participant, so they’re getting more help, advice, encouragement, and analysis for their writing than would be possible in a traditional workshop.

Best of all, I don’t have to worry about finding a parking space and I’m out of the toxic academic environment with overbearing administrators and unfriendly colleagues.  This is pure teaching, and tremendous fun.

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

 

 

Happy Birthday Henry James! You Changed My Life!

I had an amazing senior year of college reading and reveling in George Eliot, Edith Wharton, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Lawrence Durrell, Fitzgerald, and Henry James. While all of them inspired me to be a better writer of fiction–my goal in life–it was James who was the catalyst for perhaps the deepest change.

I was reading The Portrait of a Lady–which many critics consider The Great American Novel–at 3 AM when I came to the famous Chapter 42. That’s where the American heiress, Isabel Archer, has started to understand that there’s something wrong with her marriage and her life. She’s hoped for intellectual and emotional freedom, but life with her dilettante husband Osmond has turned out to be very different. Her Roman palace is a prison.

….she had seen where she really was. She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she had taken the measure of her dwelling. Between those four walls she had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her life. It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation.

I was thunderstruck. That was my house. My emotional house. Because I had never really talked about or written abut my parents’ experiences in the Holocaust, what that legacy meant to me. In the years to come, this subject matter would become central to the fiction and nonfiction I published and was known for. My first prize-winning story, published in Redbook, would be about a son of survivors and it launched my career.

Within days of reading Chapter 42, there was a clear difference in my work that my creative writing professor noticed. James had opened me up to myself in a way that no other author ever had. I was never the same man or writer again.

Of course, it wasn’t just the story that swept me away: the sumptuous prose, James’s sly humor, and his sharp depiction of the conflict of Americans and Europeans in that era transfixed me.

I’ve read Portrait many times since, always in new editions because I mark up my copies with comments, stars, and underlining. It keeps meaning different things to me, but I always remember that sense of discovery and liberation, and I will always be grateful.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books of fiction and nonfiction in genres from memoir to mystery. He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com. His latest book is State University of Murder.

Who Says You Need to Go to an Elite University to Be a Success?

Reading all the current articles about kids getting into prestigious universities thanks to shady parents and corrupt officials, I find one thing missing.

Nobody seems to be talking about the importance of being mentored in college, and you don’t need a big name school to find a mentor. Back when I was applying for colleges, I chose Fordham University at Lincoln Center for one main reason: I’d heard there was a fantastic creative writing professor there and I wanted to study with her.  I was born and bred in Manhattan, but didn’t bother applying to NYU, Columbia or any other prestigious school in New York state.  I put all my chips on Fordham.

I won.  At Fordham I found the perfect mentor in Dr. Kristin Lauer.  Thanks to her, I’ve published over two dozen books, seen my work translated into 15 languages, had international book tours—and much more.  I’m not famous, but I’ve lived my dream of being a published author.

Dr. Lauer was endlessly encouraging and inventive in her choice of assignments. Beyond that, she was a model for how I would teach when I entered academia years later. She did not believe in pointing out everything that was wrong with your work, in bullying you like a coach, in making you tough because “the world is tough.” Her approach was to use humor and encouragement. She did her best to work from the inside out of your story or sketch, making you feel like she was communing with it, and communing with you.  It’s much harder than it sounds.

More than once, she predicted that I would publish and win prizes someday if only I wrote something “real.” That was my City of Gold, the mystical goal that I reached with my first publication in a national magazine. It was a story drawing on my own life as the son of Holocaust survivors, a story I needed to tell but was afraid to.

She midwifed that story. I would read a bit to her on the phone and she’d comment and then urge me to keep writing and keep calling her. The story won a writing contest judged by Martha Foley, then-editor of the yearly volume The Best American Short Stories, and was published in Redbook, which had 4.5 million readers at the time. It wouldn’t have lived without Professor Lauer’s dedication, commitment, and teaching genius.

Almost every time I’ve walked into a class or a workshop I’m teaching at a writers’ conference, she’s on my mind: muse, guide, inspiration.  I wasn’t interested in prestige when I was thinking about colleges in high school.  I applied to a school where I hoped I would find inspiration, and I hit the jackpot.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders. He’s the author of two dozen books in genres from memoir to mystery including a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk.  His author web site is levraphael.com.

Research is One of the Best Parts of Writing!

There are a lot of things I didn’t learn about writing as a career in my MFA program.  One of them is how enjoyable and even exciting researching a book can be.  And I don’t just mean tracking things down online or spending time in an archive.  I mean talking to experts.

Working on book after book, I’ve found how helpful experts can be, and how much they enjoy opening up about their fields of expertise.  One of the first was a county Medical Examiner I interviewed because my firts mystery had a body found in a river.  We talked about decomposition and a lot of other aspects of the situation, and went very deep (pun intended in our hour-long chat.

I’ve spoken with lawyers, cops, private investigators and have never found anyone unwilling to talk about what they do and love.  I tell them who I am and why I’ve contacted them and ask if they have time.  The majority of interviews get done in person, but once or twice I’ve had to work on the phone if the expert was an inconvenient distance away.

These interviews don’t just help ground my books in reality, whatever the genre, they also take me out of my own world into worlds I don’t know and find fascinating.

In my current novel-in-progress, music plays a role and so I’ve interviewed a cello played I know and a friend who’s played the piano for years, and a professor of piano at Michigan State University.  I have eight years of piano behind me, but don’t know much about repertoire and the kinds of issues professionals deal with and the talks have been fascinating.  I’ve also interviewed a fire chief and the head of an advertising agency.  Each one has been unfailingly generous with their time and of course will be acknowledged when the book comes out.

It may not take a village to write a book, but it definitely takes human resources who live in very different worlds than I do, and enjoy sharing their wisdom and experience.  Talking to them doesn’t just augment the reality of whatever book I’m working on, it almost always opens up new possibilities.  Better still, it breaks the isolation of writing a book, and that makes me very grateful.

Even if you’re shy, contacting the expert you want is easy via phone or email.  What’s most important is thinking out your questions in advance and being prepared for the book to go in a different direction or take on aspects you hand’t imagined, based on what you learn.  As Henry James advised a young writer: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com and is the author of 26 books in many genres including the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder.

Literary Snobs Aren’t The Only Genre Snobs

Writing in The Guardian, author Emily Maguire complains about literary snobs who look down on the sorts of books she likes to read, without listing any of them.  In general, though, they’re not in “the canon,” not written by :”dead white men.”

As if the canon has never changed and has never included Jane Austen, Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, George Eliot, the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton–and many others.

Literary snobs may have gotten in the way of her self esteem, but genre snobs  come in all shapes and sizes. The owner of Michigan’s wonderful mystery bookstore, Aunt Agatha’s, once griped on Facebook about academics in her college town dissing mysteries, and rightfully so. But mystery fans themselves aren’t above genre-bashing.

I’ve been on a mystery readers’ and writers’ listserv for about fifteen years and way too often a predictable thread emerges. Somebody complains about being sneered at for reading mysteries by somebody else off-list who thinks they’re silly, trashy, mindless “escape reading.”

The list starts to seethe: some of the “victims” quickly turn victimizer and start trashing “Literature” or “literary fiction.” What’s that? Well, as defined by a best-selling mystery author at a conference I attended years ago: books where not very much happens to people who aren’t very interesting. Wasn’t he insightful? He certainly knew his audience—people roared their approval. Snobbery clearly works both ways.

What usually happens next on the list is that more people chime in with complaints about Proust or whoever they think is highfalutin and boring. That expands to include all Modern or Contemporary Fiction, however it’s defined, which is usually whatever book that person doesn’t like. Or disliked in high school. Or was told was brilliant but they hated. Or anything dubbed “classic.” And the authors and their fans are of course elitist.

The contempt these mystery readers sometimes feel directed at them seems to get recycled as they express disdain for books which have been written and enjoyed by people they have to denigrate. That’s not an argument or even a defense: it’s insecurity.

Sometimes they’ll point to all the crime writers on the bestseller list and sneer that literary novels only sell “a few copies” and are usually written “for the author’s friends.” Or they’ll make lavish claims and say something like “Anne Perry is a better writer than George Eliot.” I’ve had dinner with Anne Perry and I doubt she would make that claim. I’ve also read Eliot’s novels extensively. You can’t compare the two authors.

I’ve done radio and print book reviews since the early 90s and I’ve found plenty of bad writing in every genre. If you don’t like a certain kind of book, don’t read it. But trashing a whole genre doesn’t make you sound authoritative or thoughtful, it only makes you sound like you’ve got a giant chip on your shoulder.

Lev Raphael is the author of The State University of Murder and 25 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches creative writing at www.writewithoutborders.com.

Marie Kondo Doesn’t Understand Book Lovers!

Marie Kondo is all the rage when it comes to de-cluttering, but her advice to cull your books by only keeping the ones that “bring you joy” reveals that she doesn’t understand all the different meanings that books can have for their owners.

I’ve kept books that I read years ago in college not just because I might re-read them, but because they remind me of classes, teachers, and even fellow students.  They’re part of my history.  Some of them helped inspire me to become a writer.

Other books relate to my professional life. I have a whole book case of review copies of books I reviewed for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post, and other newspapers as well as on various public radio shows. I might re-read some. I might not. What matters is that those seven packed shelves, carefully alphabetized, are a window opening to my life as a reviewer.  They remind me of the editors I worked with, the deadlines I met, and the way I learned to write and revise with tight deadlines.

Then there are the books in my den which track my reading interests over the years: The Tudors, Shakespeare, Ancient Rome, The Middle East. Few of them spark joy, but they leave me with a sense of contentment and there’s always a chance I might re-read one or more. They’re certainly useful resources if I need them for some project.  They, too, are part of my history.  Likewise, as a writer of memoir, I’m not planning on emptying my revolving bookcase of memoirs because I may want to consult them at some point, and many of them inspired me in my own memoir writing.  There presence is encouraging, supportive, invaluable.

The several thousand books in my study are more varied and go deeper: biographies; Judaica; drama; poetry; American fiction, British Fiction, French, German, and Russian fiction; books about France and the French language; Psychology; The Gilded Age.  And then there are twelves shelves of books by and about Henry James and Edith Wharton, two of my favorite authors.

I also have multiple copies of a number of novels because I wrote notes in my books and when I want to re-read one that’s heavily annotated, I start over.  Likewise, there are books that contain notes I made about a book or story I was working on while reading them.  Get rid of them?  That’s almost as silly as her advice to tear out the pages that give you joy and pitch the rest.

That’s not de-cluttering, that’s vandalism.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His forthcoming academic mystery is State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

How I Almost Quit My Writing Career–Before It Took Off

Special Archives at Michigan State University’s library purchased my literary papers almost ten years ago and updates The Lev Raphael Papers yearly.  Last week someone came by to pick up several boxes from 2018 of drafts, publications, correspondence, notes for workshops I did at conferences and anything else connected to my writing career.

I’m extremely fortunate to have sold my papers because I know writers who haven’t been able to donate their papers to a university they went to.  But after my very first publication years ago, I seriously thought about  abandoning my dreams of a writer’s life.

I grew up in Manhattan with New York ideas of success. I wanted to be a writer, so I imagined reviews in the New York Times, interviews on local news programs, my book in the windows of all the terrific bookstores on Fifth Avenue like Brentano’s and Rizzoli’s. And of course, it would be published by a prestigious publisher like Scribner’s or Knopf.

My first published story seemed to have opened the door to all that. It won a prize and was subsequently published in Redbook which at the time had 4.5 million readers. I made today’s equivalent of around $7,000, and just as exciting, I received fan mail and queries from agents.

Then five years of drought followed.  Not one story I submitted anywhere was accepted.  I was rarely encouraged to try again: the rejections were almost always form slips.  Even neighbors started to look at me with pity when I’d open up my mailbox in the lobby and I’d discover more than one stamped, self-addressed manilla envelope. Finding an agent didn’t change anything, even though she was famous and had celebrity clients.  My first novel didn’t get any better responses than my short stories.

I started thinking about a Plan B.  What would I do with my life if I wasn’t going to make it as a writer?  I explored two new paths. I interviewed at a rabbinical seminary because I had recently deepened my connection to Judaism.  And I considered a career as a therapist since I had been reading dozens of books of psychology, from Jung to Freud to Otto Rank and Karen Horney.

I didn’t get very far with either possibility before the rains came.  I story I’d written in a fever overnight was accepted for publication.  And then another.  And another after that.  I was finally finding an audience.  Despite my despair, I hadn’t stopped writing and hadn’t stopped reading books that inspired me.  I believed that as the son of Holocaust survivors, I had stories to tell, stories people would want to read.

Back then, I had no idea that I’d go on to publish twenty-five books; do major book tours in Germany; present my work in Canada, Israel, France, Scotland, England, and all across the U.S.; have scholars publish articles about me; wind up with my own radio show where I interviewed authors; write in so many different genres; and see one of my books sell over 300,000 copies.

I was just trying to get short stories published, and because I didn’t give up, whole new worlds opened up to me.  Tobias Wolff’s words are something all writers and would-be writers need to remember: “We are made to persist.  That’s how we find out who we are.”

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com

The Joy of Mentoring 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 was recnetly 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, and knew the publishing world in ways academic writers couldn’t, writing students 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 writing workshops online and helping other writers edit their manuscripts, 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.  I’m free of the stresses and strains of working in an environment that doesn’t always put students first, and isn’t very collegial, either.

But one thing hasn’t changed.  As always, 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-six 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 runs August 1-31: Finding Your Memoir.

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.