Watching “The First” As A Writer

At one writing workshop I recently taught, one of the students said she never watched television. I told that my experience was very different. I watch TV series and movies on Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netflix–but not just for entertainment or escape.

I watch them as a writer. I pay attention to how scenes are constructed, to dialogue that feels natural and moving, to how conflicts are sparked and develop, to character creation through habits, quirks, gestures, evasions, and everything else that makes them real.

None of that detracts from the sheer pleasure of being lost in someone else’s world–it adds to it.

Sometimes I fall in love if a show or movie seems to be doing something I haven’t seen before, or gives old ideas a new spin.

Recently I was blown away by The First, a new Hulu show in eight binge-worthy episodes that features Sean Penn, Natasha McElhone, Oded Fehr and a very strong supporting cast.  Created by Beau Willimon, it’s set in the near future where almost everything seems voice operated and cell phones don’t exist: your phone is a small device set in your ear and responds to voice commands.  People also share things like virtual reality concerts by linking special lightweight eyeglasses.

In Louisiana, a private company and NASA have teamed together to send a manned mission to Mars.  The whole first season explores the monumental problems involved, but more than that, it dives deep into what it’s like to be an astronaut in such a program–or married to one.  The impact of potential loss and distance from your loved ones is a major theme.

Fear and sacrifice are also themes, but the show creates an almost dreamy sense of wonder about space travel and expanding human knowledge that’s emphasized by a subtle and moving sound track.  Best of all, people’s conflicts aren’t neatly resolved–they’re left open and it feels so much less mechanical than most series because of that.

The show has moved me to tears many times for many reasons, and inspires me to make my own work as powerful in my own way.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of twenty-five books in many genres.  A veteran of university teaching, he now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

Teaching Creative Writing Should Be Creative, Not Destructive

I’ve done a lot of speaking at colleges and universities around the country and faculty tell me many behind-the-scenes stories. Properly disguised, they make great material for my Nick Hoffman academic mystery series: tales of petty infighting, squabbling committees, ridiculous vendettas–all the simmering snarkiness that Borges called “bald men arguing over a comb.”

But I also hear stories from students that aren’t remotely amusing, stories about what it’s like for them to be in a classroom with a professor who sees teaching very differently than I do. Teachers who seem to enjoy shaming students in front of the rest of the class, 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 worse. I’ve never done that. I have stopped stopped students to ask them to slow down or read more distinctly, or to say something positive if I was blown away and couldn’t wait till they’re finished. And sometimes I just start laughing if the work is really funny. As for dissing a student’s work, seriously, who does that help?

I’ve heard of some professors who can be so intimidating that they make students shake with fear when they challenge what the students have to say. I’ve also heard of professors in creative writing classes who don’t let everyone read their work aloud, but keep picking their favorites, creating resentment and embarrassment. In my creative writing classes, everyone has read aloud because the class should be a creative community, not a jungle.

I see it that way because I had an amazing creative writing teacher freshman year at Fordham University; she became my mentor and model. She ran her 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. Nobody ever dreaded being there.

Teaching isn’t combat or coaching, 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.

That’s what I do with my online creative writing workshops, too. 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 Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books which you can find on Amazon. His creative writing workshop site is writewithoutborders.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com

Writers Are Not Robots

Well, I’m not, anyway.

I do have writer friends who can produce a book (or more) a year no matter what kind of crisis is hitting them at home. Contracts pull them through. That, and stubbornness. I couldn’t work with so much pressure; I’d feel like I was on an assembly line….

I was recently at a party and someone asked me what I was working on. I said, “Nothing. I published my 25th book last Fall. I’m taking time off.” He looked at me like I was a slacker or something. But that’s not an unusual response.

I’ve been a member of the same health club for over two decades and lots of people there read my Nick Hoffman mysteries set in a college town not unlike East Lansing. No matter when I publish a book in the series, someone will always ask, “So when’s the next one coming out?”

It could be the very same week there’s been an article in a local paper or a radio interview. Really. As if I’m churning them out on an assembly line with the help of a team of research assistants.

And if I don’t have news about another book in press, I often get blank stares. What’s wrong with me, am I lazy? seems to be the unspoken assumption.

Okay, publishing 25 books in different genres over the last 25 years isn’t shabby — but they haven’t come out on any sort of regular basis. Some years I haven’t published anything and one year I published three different books just because that’s how the publishers’ schedules worked out.

In case that sounds like I’m Type A, I should explain that my second novel took almost twenty years to finish. Yes, twenty, working on and off because I kept re-conceiving it. I’m glad I did, because The German Money got one of the best reviews of my life. The Washington Post compared me to Kafka, Philip Roth and John le Carré — and I was sent on book tours in England and Germany to promote the editions published there.

But some books took me only six months to write from concept to completion for various reasons. And another book was fairly easy to put together because it was a collection of already-published essays and didn’t need extensive editing. So it’s all highly unpredictable.

You can’t explain that to the cheerful guys who call you “Dude!” and ask about your next book while you’re on the way to the showers just wearing a towel and flipflops. Or people who decide to chat with you while you’re sweating on the treadmill. Or the people who think that popping out another book can’t be that difficult since it’s not like I have a real job, anyway.

Maybe I should ask them, “So, when are you doing your next brain surgery?” or “When’s your next super-messy divorce case?’ or “When’s your next multi-million dollar real estate deal?”

Nah. I’ll just blog about it, or write them into my next book. Whenever.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

My Mentor is Always with Me

 

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.

Whenever I walk into a class or leave one, whenever I work with a student on her writing, my mentor is 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.

Harlan Ellison Got Dissed By His Writing Professor In College

Harlan Ellison, who died at 84 last year, 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 twenty-six books in many genres, and his latest is mystery is State University of Murder.  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, Michigan

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.