“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.

My Legacy As An Author

This past week someone from Michigan State University’s Special Archives stopped by stop by to pick up seven boxes that will be catalogued and added to The Lev Raphael Papers.  They were filled with materials from conferences I spoke at, drafts of my next book, and “association copies”: books signed to me by other authors. All these items help fully document the life of a writer in the late 20th/early 21st centuries.

I was fortunate to sell my literary papers to the university where I had done my PhD. Michigan is where my career took off after five years of publishing drought, and it’s been my home for more than half my life. It plays a role in many of my books, so there couldn’t be a more appropriate place for me to leave my legacy as an author. Not just published books, but everything that both went into them and that followed their publication: research, journal entries, reviews, interviews, posters and flyers from my book tours, and even gifts from fans.

Special Collections will also get more journals and diaries than they already have, but that’s after I’m dead, or if I’m just tired of them taking up cupboard space. Someone once asked me at a reading how I could let all this material out of my hands.  It’s easy.  I’m enriching a collection for future researchers and freeing myself of connections to the work I’ve already done.  It clears my mind.

When I was growing up and dreamed of being a writer, I never imagined that there would be so much “stuff” connected to that career. It’s enjoyable to review it all as it goes into labeled folders and then boxed, and even more fun to let it go and move on to the next book–which will of course get boxes of its own.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in genres from memoir to mystery, available on Amazon.  He has almost two decades of university teaching behind him and you can study creative writing on line with Lev at writewithoutborders.com.

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.

My Worst Review Taught Me a Valuable Lesson

Romance writer Rachel Van Dyken just did a helpful blog about how to handle your bad reviews. No matter who you are, you’ll get them.

That’s why a graduate creative writing program can actually be good preparation for your public life as an author where you’ll face reviewers who not only dismiss your work, but might even hate it.  The criticism you get in a writing program can toughen you up and get you ready.

It worked for me–even though it might have been devastating.

My first really fine short story was totally trashed by my MFA workshop. It drew on deeply personal material for me: this was the first story where I explored the emotional realities of being a son of Holocaust survivors.  I thought I’d made a breakthrough in terms of subject and style.

The workshop participants disagreed, with gusto.  One by one, they demolished the story, pulverized it, and blew the dust into the wind.  They didn’t like the prose, the characters, the structure, anything. There wasn’t much left by the time the professor pronounced his verdict. He dismissed it as just “something you could write in your sleep.”

I was shocked, but I didn’t believe they were right.  The critiques didn’t stop me from entering it in the program’s writing contest which was judged by the editor of the Best American Short Stories series.  She was the famous co-founder of Story magazine and had championed the work of Tennessee Williams, Richard Wright, and J.D. Salinger.

Three weeks later, she awarded it first prize, and when I told her what had gone on in my workshop, she growled, “Don’t change a goddamned word.”  A week later in the workshop, the professor said, “It’s still crap, but now it’s crap with a prize.”

That story was published a year later in Redbook, a magazine with a circulation of 4.5 million readers, and it launched my career.  I got queries from agents and fan mail.  So when bad reviews eventually came my way in newspapers or magazines, I remembered that workshop, the prize, and just kept writing.  Because I learned early on that as a writer, you can’t please everyone–and you won’t.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches at Michigan State University and you can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com.

 

 

Writers: Don’t Call Your First Drafts “Garbage” Or “Shitty”

I know, I know: Anne Lamott says they’re “shitty” in Bird by Bird so she must be right. A lot of people swear by her.  And she says that all good writers write shitty first drafts.  Really?  How does she know this for a fact?

But there’s a bigger issue here: the word itself. “Shitty” is an adjective I’ve never used to describe a first draft of my own and it’s a word I’ve never used in any creative writing class or workshop I’ve taught anywhere.  I think it’s more than just pejorative, it’s gross and inappropriate.  Messy is fine. Disordered, unfocused, rough, undisciplined, chaotic, jumbled, scattered, unfinished–any words like that will do.

But shitty?  That vulgarity undermines your own work, and it’s a slippery slope–even though Lamott’s apparently trying to make people relax and feel confident.  You get writers used to applying a word like that to a first draft and it’s too easy for them to survey other work of theirs in dark times and think, “This is shit.”  It can plant the wrong kind of seed.  Writers have to deal with enough doubts about their abilities and cope with jealousy of other writers as it is.  We can brood endlessly about the wrong word spoken at the wrong time….

puzzled-lookI once had a graduate writing professor call a story I’d worked very hard on “shit.”  Luckily I’d won the MFA program’s literary prize for that story so I was partly armored against his invective, but I still found his language deplorable.  I feel the same way when I hear stories from my own students who report how other professors have insulted their work, using words like “crap” and “shit.”

None of the first drafts of my hundreds of stories, essays, reviews, or blogs were “shitty.”  Hell, some of the first drafts were pretty good. Surprisingly good. But I always knew they were just a starting point and that they would need more work, sometimes much more work.  That was a given, part of the process.

For me, any draft is just opening a door, but with a sense of adventure and expectation because I never know where the piece will end up.  So labeling it or dismissing it in any way, even if I’m dissatisfied or disappointed, is setting a road block in my own way.

I’m not saying that drafts make me want to put on a big hat and sing like Pharell, but every draft has possibility, and that makes me hopeful.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (Advice for Writers) and 25 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.  He now teaches creative writing on line at writewithoutborders.com and there are still some openings in his June workshop.

 

 

Why I Write Academic Mysteries

 

I write a mystery series set in academia and now and then fans ask me, is it really that bad?  Are professors that selfish, backbiting, and ungenerous?  Well, obviously not all of them are, but academic culture from school to school has quirks and even  idiocies that make great material for satire.  Sometimes the behavior is egregious, sometimes it’s just ridiculous. Either way, it’s fodder for fiction.

Case in point.  At one private college where I read from one of my most successful books, I wasn’t brought in by English or Creative Writing faculty, but by another department that I won’t name.

I love readings.  I have a theater background, years of experience on radio, and I’ve done hundreds of readings on three continents. I’ve also taught workshops for writers on how to do readings, which require practice and art and thought.

Only four people turned up for this particular campus reading, and the disappointed coordinator told me that despite her efforts, whenever she brought in a speaker who writing students would naturally be interested in, English and Creative Writing professors consistently failed to do anything to promote the reading.  They didn’t encourage their students to show up.  They basically cold-shouldered the event.  Why?  Territoriality.  Apparently they feel they’re the only ones who should be inviting authors to campus.

It made me laugh, because it seemed so very typical of academic pettiness.  But it also made me sad because the writing students might have learned something and enjoyed themselves.

I never obsess about  numbers when I do a reading: 4 or 400,  the audience deserves my best, and that’s what I gave them at this college.  Too bad the small-minded English Department and its writing professors don’t do the same, don’t really care enough about their own students to point them towards opportunities right there on their own little campus.  It makes you wonder how else they may be giving students less than they deserve as they jealously defend what think is their turf and nobody else’s.

Lev Raphael’s latest academic mystery is State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com and his June workshop is “Mystery Writing 1.0”