My Mentor is Always with Me

 

I write and review full-time, teach part-time, and my college mentor from years ago is with me in almost every class or workshop I teach.

I had dreamed of being a writer since I was in second grade, but it wasn’t until I took my first class with Kristin Lauer at Fordham University that I fell in love with writing itself.

Dr. Lauer was my first and best creative writing teacher and was endlessly inventive in her choice of assignments. But more than 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 with you.

She said to me more than once that I’d publish and win prizes some day 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 and transmuting 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. That 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. It wouldn’t have lived without Professor Lauer’s dedication, commitment, and teaching genius.

And I wouldn’t have had the career I’ve had or be the widely published author I am today, an author whose literary papers have been purchased by the Michigan State University Libraries.

Almost every time I walk into a class or leave one, she’s on my mind: muse, guide, inspiration.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutbordersHe’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.

 

Why I Love To Mentor Writers

My college 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 morbid dependency and other neurotic behavior. 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 times when the class seemed to go off on a tangent.

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While I’ve been a full-time author and reviewer since graduate school, I’ve been an adjunct for six years in a row and fortunate enough to teach writing workshops and literature courses I love. I’ve only taught one course a semester because teaching is so demanding and I want time to be able to write–and live. Perhaps because I’ve published more books than all the tenured creative writers in my department combined, many writing students asked to work independently with me.

I took on just two per semester so that I could give them the time they deserve, and I’ve been lucky so far in my choices. No matter what the genre they chose or how often we’ve met, everyone grew 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 progressed through various drafts and deepen their stories, I’ve 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’ve re-connected with my college mentor, whose devotion to students was exemplary. Working one-on-one during office hours, I often 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.

Now, that mentoring has taken a new form as I’ve moved to teaching creative writing workshops on line. I have control over class size, and don’t have to deal with the distractions of classroom teaching. It’s increased my dedication, and if I’m momentarily stumped for a comment or response, my mentor always 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, which you can find on Amazon.  His writing workshop website is writewithoutborders.com.

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

The Joys of Teaching Creative Writing At Home And Abroad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I’m Grateful To Know More Than One Language

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harlan Ellison Got Dissed By His Writing Professor In College

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

In Praise of Passionate Professors

I did an MFA in Creative writing and English at UMass/Amherst when it was rated the third best writing program in the country–not that I picked it for its status. I wanted a school that was close to my New York home but not too close, which ruled out many other programs.

dubois_pond_chapel_620x305UMass was where I got my start as an author because I published my first story while still a student, in Redbook, which had 4.5 millions readers at the the time.  This was after having won second prize in the department’s writing contest my first year, and first prize my second year.

Each semester I had a writing workshop, but some of my favorite professors were actually literature teachers (we had to do thirty credits of lit classes). I still think about them years later because they passed on the most precious teacher’s gift of all: excitement. They were so passionate about the writers they taught that they set off fireworks in my mind that still glow whenever I think about those writers or read them.

Paul Mariani was a Hart Crane expert and while I’d read a biography of the doomed poet and some of his letters before signing up for Mariani’s Symbolist poetry seminar, Crane’s work seemed inaccessible to me, arcane and closed. But Mariani made the poems intimate, open, immediate, and I still quote lines from “Voyages,” “Chaplinesque” and “The Broken Tower” today. Crane feels like an old friend and I re-read his poems more than any other poet’s.

white buildingsThe late Ernest Hofer taught Contemporary British fiction and brought over English paperbacks for his students because we couldn’t buy them in the U.S. in those pre-Amazon days. Under his tutelage I read writers I probably wouldn’t have found on my own: Iris Murdoch, Susan Hill, Alan Sillitoe, Anthony Powell. Hill’s Strange Meeting is still one of the best WW I novels I’ve ever read. Hofer was also a Henry James expert and he let me co-teach a James class with him in which I also supervised an honors student. That gave me even more teaching experience than I already had.

susan hillCynthia Griffin Wolff was just about to publish her psychological biography Feast of Words about Edith Wharton which would change Wharton scholarship forever. Her seminar was rigorous and exciting. She knew Wharton so well that she never consulted her manuscript or any notes.  Even though I was already in Wharton’s thrall, I left Wolff’s class with a deeper respect for Wharton that led to three books of my own connected to that author.

feast of wordsEach of these professors was dedicated, focused, patient, good-humored–and in love with their subjects. You can’t fake that last quality.  It’s why I try my best to only teach books and classes I’m enthusiastic about now that I’m a guest at Michigan State University.  My hope is to pass on some of the gifts that were given to me in those formative years with such grace and generosity.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in genres from memoir to historical fiction.

Has a Teacher Changed Your Life?

This is Teacher Appreciation Week and I’m giving a shout-out to the writing professor who changed my life.  Her advice and guidance in college echo in my mind decades later now that I’ve been teaching at Michigan State University as a guest for several years.

I had dreamed of being a writer since I was in second grade, but it wasn’t until I took my first class with Kristin Lauer at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus that I fell in love with writing itself.

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She was my first and best creative writing teacher and was endlessly inventive in her choice of assignments. But more than that, she was a model for how I would teach when I entered academia myself right after graduate school to teach for a few years before I quit to write full time. She didn’t 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 tried to work from the inside out of your story or sketch, to see it the way you did, making you feel like she was communing with you, not knocking you down.  And her overall goal was to create a community of learning, not set students against each other as rivals.

I took every class she taught and read two authors in her American Novel survey course who’ve stayed with me for thirty years, Henry James and Edith Wharton.  Dr. Lauer is one reason why years later my second mystery The Edith Wharton Murders has two (fictional) Wharton societies at war with each other. In a tribute to her, I made my sleuth the author of a Wharton bibliography, just as she was. I also based one of the continuing characters in the series on her because she loved mysteries so much and I wanted to feel her presence in the books as I wrote them.

She said to me more than once in college–privately–that I’d publish and win prizes some day if only I wrote something emotionally real. That was my El Dorado, the mystical goal that I reached with my first publication. 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.

I had already graduated and was in an MFA program, but she midwifed the story because she knew I was so anxious about broaching the subject matter. She made me read a bit to her on the phone and she’d comment and then urge me to keep writing and keep calling her. That story won a writing contest judged by Martha Foley, editor of The Best American Short Stories, and was published in Redbook, which then had an audience of 4.5 million readers. It wouldn’t exist without Professor Lauer’s dedication, commitment, and mentoring.

And I wouldn’t have had the career I’ve had or be the author I am today whose literary papers have been purchased by the Michigan State University Libraries. When MSU’s English department invited me to start teaching for them a few years ago as a guest, I realized that Dr. Lauer’s imprint was still so strong on me that I was teaching the way she did, interacting with students the way she would–filtered through my own personality, of course. And I remembered that after a terrific class one day I asked her how I could thank her. She smiled and said “Just pass it on.”

great-teachersLev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.