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 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.

When You’re An Author, Fans Can Keep You Going

There are a lot of things nobody prepares for you when you start a career as an author.  Going on my first book tour years ago, my publisher and editor didn’t ask if I knew how to do a reading.  Luckily I had some acting experience and my spouse was on sabbatical, so after every reading I got “director’s notes.”  What worked, what didn’t work, where did I need to slow down, how did I need to engage my audience better–and much more.

It was invaluable, like taking a one-person seminar, and it made each successive reading more successful.

That tour was when I first discovered how amazing it is to encounter fans.  People who haven’t just read your work, but have absorbed it and want to thank you.  One person told me she actually had read my book half a dozen times and kept it by her bedside.

I was blown away.  Writing is so solitary, and discovering the impact your work might have shifts you out into the world so differently than when you sit there reading a review.

The other day I was at the gym chatting with a trainer.  She’s used to seeing me wear blue but I was once again all in black and she asked what was up. I joked about going to Paris and wanting to fit in.  A woman nearby asked when I was going and we go into a talk about travel and learning language.  She was studying Italian for a big trip to several cities.

I told her about my last trip to Florence and that I’d done fine ordering meals, asking directions, and buying things, but that was about it.  She asked how many languages I spoke.  French and German were my mains, with side dishes of Swedish and Dutch.  Then I had to explain how I’d gotten involved in studying the latter two and we traded more travel notes.

I asked her name and introduced myself and she said, “Oh, I know who you are, I see you here a lot but haven’t wanted to bother a celebrity.  I’m a big fan of your mysteries.”

It made my day, made my workout.  And reminded me once again how lucky I am to have people reading and enjoying my work.

Lev Raphael is the best-selling author of a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  You can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com

My Mother’s Life Lesson

I think about my literate, multi-lingual mother all the time, even though she died nearly twenty years ago.

Well-read and well-educated, she inspired me with a love of learning for its own sake.  She was always ready to help me with homework in any subject, made me pay attention to politics and the news, and encouraged me to follow my dreams of travel to Europe. Even though I started learning French in fourth grade, my command of that language wouldn’t be as good as it is if she hadn’t been so thorough and patient.

More than that, she also taught me a valuable life lesson.  I was pretty young when my parents, my brother and I were walking into some downtown Manhattan restaurant for lunch and we were approached by a homeless man.

I didn’t understand anything about how people in our wealthy society could end up at the bottom like that, I’d never been in a situation like that, and I was embarrassed and confused.

Dressed in several layers of clothing including a tweed topcoat that seemed too heavy for the season, the man asked my mother for a cigarette, sounding as formal as a college professor.  She opened her purse and offered him a whole pack of Larks.  And money.

He shook his head in thanks, said, “One cigarette was all I asked for.”  And that’s all he took.

Inside, I asked why she had offered him all of her cigarettes.  My mother was a Holocaust survivor and had seen worlds of horror that I was only just beginning to learn about.  What she next said has always stuck with me: “I could never beg for anything in the war.  If someone does what he did, I have to say yes.”

It was an eye-opening, heart-expanding moment.

Lev Raphael is the best-selling author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir.  An assistant professor of English at Michigan State University, he also teaches creative writing on line at http://writewithoutborders.com/

 

“So…How Autobiographical Is Your Fiction?”

That’s the most common question people have asked me at the hundreds of readings, talks, and signings I’ve done over the years.  It especially comes up if I’ve read a story or part of book that’s been written in the first person.

Sometimes I’ll joke and throw out a figure like “Seventeen percent” or say “The adjectives–that’s where you’ll find the real me.” People laugh, and then I have to add “Everything.”  I’m serious when I say that.

Everything I write is autobiographical, no matter the genre, because I wrote it. Each book and short story derives from my experience in one way or another.

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That’s what I explain to my creative writing students, too, when they quote the dictum “Write what you know” and feel intimidated by it.

What we writers know isn’t just direct personal experience.    It includes all the stories of family and friends we’ve heard and anything we’ve ever experienced secondhand. It includes everything we’ve ever read in whatever form.  It includes world events and local events even if we only watched reports about them on TV or the Web.  And it includes every dream, everything we’ve ever imagined or hoped for.  The nightmares count, too.

Sometimes beginning writers tell me they don’t feel they have anything worth writing about because nothing’s ever happened to them, nothing “dramatic.”  I encourage them to step back and realize that their experience is already vast, if they’re open enough to see it, explore it, and mine it.  As Walt Whitman said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Lev Raphael has taught creative writing at Michigan State University and you can study with him online at writewithoutborders.com.  He’s the author of 25 books in many genres including Writer’s Block is Bunk.

Teaching Creative Writing Shouldn’t Be An Xtreme Sport

I do a lot of speaking at colleges and universities around the country and faculty members invariably tell me  behind-the-scenes stories.  The tales of petty infighting, squabbling committees, and ridiculous vendettas make great raw material for my Nick Hoffman academic mystery series.

But I’ve also heard stories from students that aren’t funny, stories about what it’s like for them to be in a classroom with a professor who sees teaching very differently than I do. These teachers seem to enjoy badgering and browbeating students 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 “That’s crap.  Stop reading.”  This behavior is abusive and inexcusable.

I’ve heard of some creative writing professors who are so intimidating that they make students shake with fear. Others I’ve been told about play favorites and don’t let everyone read work aloud. In my creative writing classes, everyone reads aloud or nobody does; the class should be a community, not a cage match.  Why do any professors believe they have a right to make their students suffer?

I teach the way I was taught by an amazing creative writing teacher at Fordham University who became my mentor and model. She ran her writing 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.

Teaching isn’t combat, 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–without tearing them down. 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 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches at Michigan State University and on line at http://www.writewithoutborders.com.

Writers: Don’t Be Ruled By “Writer’s Block”

A few years ago I heard prize-winning Michigan author Loren D. Estleman dismiss writer’s block at a writers’ conference. The problem with even using the term, he said, is that it re-frames a basic reality of every writer’s life: getting stuck.

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

I’ve felt this way through my entire career as an author, through 25 books in many genres and hundreds of stories, essays, reviews and blogs. Like Estleman, I believe that all of us sometimes get stuck, no matter how experienced we are — and Estleman’s published more than twice as many books as I have. Stuck isn’t a bad thing. It just means you haven’t worked something out, you haven’t answered some question in the book, or maybe you’re headed in the wrong direction.

Whenever I’m 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.

If you’re stuck, don’t panic. Give the problem to your subconscious. You can work on something else, or not do any writing at all. Focus on something unconnected to writing: the gym, a movie, dinner out, drinks with friends, walking your dog, home repairs, a car trip, gardening, working on your tan, cooking, music, reading a new book by your favorite author — anything that can distract and absorb you completely and make you feel good.

Of course, sometimes being stuck can mean that 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, disguises what’s really the problem.

Unfortunately, there’s a small industry devoted to helping people overcome “writer’s block,” to keep them from turning into Barton Fink, stuck on that one sentence. And because the 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, of course they’re basket cases.

Let’s face it, since most people hate to write, especially in this age of tweets and texting, “writer’s block” really connects with non-writers. If someone asks how your writing is going, you risk sounding arrogant if you say, “Terrific! My new book is a blast!” 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. That’s no reason to let yourself be bullied by a misnomer.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

 

Martin Luther King, Jr. and My Life as a Writer

My Holocaust survivor parents arrived in the U.S. in 1950 and followed the Civil Rights movement in the 50s and 60s with hope and horror. When they saw TV footage of demonstrators being dragged, beaten, attacked by dogs, it triggered terrible memories of Nazis and other oppressors for them. But they sincerely believed that this country would fulfill its promises of freedom and equal rights.

As a kid I read a lot about the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution, especially biographies, but none of those figures moved me the way Martin Luther King, Jr. did. His eloquence and passion weren’t something from the past: they were immediate–like his speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

LIFE Magazine was always in our house along with a handful of newspapers, and somewhere, somehow in fourth or fifth grade I read at least part of King’s powerful and eloquent “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

I was an early reader and read beyond my grade level, but this manifesto was completely different from the books of various country’s folk tales, books about dolphins, and science fiction that I brought home from the local public library every week.

King offered poetry, passion, and inspiration–things I hadn’t truly encountered in any book before.  My favorite books at the time were Alice in Wonderland, Cheaper by the Dozen, and The Three Musketeers, each of them entertaining in different ways.  But King’s words soared:

“Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
“The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.”
“If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”

I can see myself curled up in a big, wide-armed living room chair, some green material shot through with bold threads, transfixed.  And in my own head, I made connections between how Jews had been considered less than human in Nazi Germany with how America’s blacks were being treated as they fought for equality.

I did a school report on King and it must have been noteworthy because it was sent to a display at the local school district’s offices.  I have no memory of what was in it, but can picture the illustration pasted to the construction paper cover: a black hand reaching up, something I’d probably cut out from LIFE.

It was the first time my writing had been recognized, but more importantly, it was the first time I’d felt propelled to write, to pay tribute.  And the first time my writing had affected anyone but me. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the real start of my career as a writer because I discovered the power of words to change the world.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery including Writer’s Block is Bunk.