The Joys of Teaching Creative Writing At Home And Abroad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Harlan Ellison Got Dissed By His Writing Professor In College

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authors Need to Respect their Fans

A writer I know recently asked on Facebook if people wrote fan mail to authors, and also asked authors if they responded.

When I was twelve, I read a kids’ book set in Paris. I don’t remember the title or the author, but I loved it so much I sent fan mail to the author via his publisher. He wrote back.  I was astonished.  I already knew I wanted to be an author and his gracious letter made me decide I would always respond to fan mail.

If I ever got any.

Well, the fan mail started with my very first publication, a prize-winning short story in Redbook, and it’s kept coming every year for one book or another. Of course, now it’s via email, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

Back before email was a thing, one of my first editors was surprised that I replied to my fans. “Why would you waste the time?”

I treasure my fan mail and the correspondence I’ve had with authors.  If someone’s been moved by what I’ve written, writing back isn’t just polite, it’s fun.

All my fan mail before email is archived by Special Collections of Michigan State University’s Library, which bought my literary papers.  Someday, perhaps, a researcher will find the correspondence useful for its insights into my career.

When I sold my papers, old friends reminded me of many things. One who used to type my early stories back in the 1980s because I was such a slow typist, told me that we had discussed the possibility of some university buying my archives one day. I don’t remember that, but I have no reason to doubt her. Another friend reminded me of a long period in my career where nothing I wrote could get published, and that in more than one fit of despair I threatened to take everything I’d written and destroy it in a bonfire—as if that could somehow purge my failures. “Aren’t you glad you didn’t?” she asked wryly. “Special Collections wouldn’t have The Lev Raphael Papers, just the Lev Raphael File Cabinet.”

My eldest made the best comment. When I told him about the papers deal I said, “This makes me part of history.” He corrected me: “You’re already a part of history. Now you’ll have an index.”

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

 

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

“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.

Writers Are Always Writing, Even When They’re Not “Writing”

People at my health club often ask me “What are you working on?” or “Are you writing another book?” This happens even if I’ve just published a book. and it was covered in the local newspapers and on local radio.

When I say “I’m always working on something,” most people look bemused. It probably sounds too vague, or maybe they think it’s an excuse, a cover for the fact that I’m not actually writing anything at all.

But it’s the truth. I never stop writing. I don’t need a PC, tablet, legal pad, Post-it notes or anything physical to write. Once I have an idea, it settles into whatever part of my brain has become Lev Raphael, Inc. and has its own independent life.  Sometimes it has Casual Fridays or staycations, but that company is busy 24/7.

Watching a movie or TV show, I’m not a passive viewer. I rewrite dialogue in my head and sometimes say it out loud (only at home). When I caught an episode of The White Princess, I winced when two characters in Tudor England said to someone whose daughter had died, “I’m sorry for your loss.” That struck me as way too 2018, and Lev Raphael, Inc. was thinking of ways the show’s writers could have expressed the thought with a less 21st century feel: “Your loss grieves me” or maybe “I mourn for your loss.”

Dialogue that misses the mark makes me think harder about the dialogue in whatever book I’m working on.

Of course, I enjoy it more when the dialogue is memorable, and that’s one reason I’ve watched Scandal. It’s showcased characters each episode by giving them moments where they go off and repeat themselves in various ways with different emphases. Sometimes the feel is comic, sometimes it’s threatening or even grotesque, sometimes it’s all of that–and it’s always entertaining.

On Scandal the character playing Attorney General David Rosen once actually brought a human head in a box to his ex-girlfriend’s apartment, asking her to store it briefly in her freezer or fridge. She was incredulous and demanded to know why the powerful, shady character Rowan had given it to him. Hapless Rosen said it was because he needed a DNA sample to track down a deceased villain. While the box sat in his lap, he explained:

That man terrifies me, I was not about to argue. He gives me a head, I say thank you for the head. I take the head and I go, right?

I had DVR’d the episode, so I replayed this a few times. His lines made me take mental notes about a character in an extreme situation not responding with panic, but acting almost normally while reporting something completely bizarre. The contrast between the box and how he spoke about it was highly instructive: Lev Raphael, Inc. opened another file…..

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir, including, Writer’s Block is Bunk, a guide to the writing life.  You can study creative writing with him on line at www.writewithoutborders.com.

Be Prepared: Finishing Your Book Can Bum You Out

I’m currently a few chapters away from a solid draft of my 26th book, and even though I’m excited that it’s been going so well, I’m sad to be seeing the end.

I’ve published books in a wide range of genres–including memoir, historical fiction, erotic vampire tale, and literary novels–but no matter what I’ve written, the experience is always the same: immersive.

I may be worried about something in my own life, about a friend’s health, or about the state of our nation’s politics, but when I’m writing a book, I feel protected and cocooned.

It’s not that I don’t register what’s going on around me; I experience it all inside a kind of bubble.  The book-in-progress is always on my mind, whether I’m at the gym, grocery shopping, taking a shower, or walking the dogs.  I may not be consciously working out the next scene or chapter, but the book is as real and present as soft music coming from another room.

A book of any kind is an adventure, a promise, a series of doors that open and some that close.  It changes as it grows and I change with it.  The end point likely won’t be what I thought it would be, though sometimes the last line is waiting for me like a charming host ready to pour me a great glass of wine.

Ironically, with the end in sight, everything is clearer and I usually write faster, but I feel a countervailing pressure to slow down, to enjoy these last moments with the companion of many months–or even years.

Don’t get me wrong. I love what happens when it’s done: editing and revising, the chance to revisit a manuscript and see it with fresh eyes after a break.  And working with a good editor is one of the joys of publishing. But that’s not the same as creating something new.  When I’m done, the sense of wonder and discovery that Mandy Patimkin sings about in Sunday in the Park with George has vanished.  “Look, I made a hat…” he sings.  “Where there never was a hat.”

When the book is done and revised however many times it needs, the technical, business side is ahead.  It becomes a product in the marketplace. And though I love doing readings from my work and have a great time on book tours thanks to being an extrovert with some acting experience, I’m already thinking about the next book, the next adventure….

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

Clashing with Copyeditors

Years ago a novelist friend told me that the only thing worse than not being published was being published.

I liked his phrase so much that I later made it the epigram of my second mystery, The Edith Wharton Murders. But at the time, I had no idea what he could mean. Once you got published, what could you have to worry about? Wouldn’t life be perfect?

That was before I had my first collision with a copy editor.

In my debut fiction collection, there were a number of stories about Holocaust survivors, and I was careful about having their dialogue reflect that English wasn’t their native language. Like many immigrants, they “translated” from the language they knew best, giving their English a Yiddish-inflected twist.

The copy editor didn’t get it and relentlessly standardized every line of their dialogue in one story after another. An author friend I shared this with said that a writer friend was once so enraged by his copy editor’s rampant lack of imagination that he just wrote across Page One of his manuscript, “Stet the whole goddamned thing.” I could never do that, because copy editors do catch real problems, but I’ve come to understand the sentiment.

On a recent book, I found the publisher’s copy editor aggressively changing everything—my style, my syntax, my vocabulary—to some imagined idea of good prose. The effect was to make it sound as if it had been written by a computer program slavishly conforming to grammar and style rules without any room for originality.

This person even had the nerve to commend a word I used as “a good word”–as if I were in elementary school. That was before telling me I wasn’t using it strictly correctly. But after having published nineteen books, hundreds of reviews, essays, and articles, I had my own ideas about what was correct for my book, and I said so.

The project wasn’t spoiled, but I had to put far more work into restoring my prose, excavating the dull ruin it had been turned into. I was pissed off to have encountered such tone-deaf copy editing.

And yes, I mean pissed off–not annoyed, irritated, steamed, put out, or vexed.

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