The Road To Here

I'd like to tell you how I got here. It's important because I did get here and even more important because many don't—many who could and should, but don't through no fault of their own. It's a trip along a tangled path, one you may be on already, one that may have led you to this very course. It's one you will avoid if you haven't set out upon it already. My journey isn't about me as much as it is about the world of writing and the teaching and learning of writing.

I took my first writing course at night at a junior college in Chicago. I took it just to pick up a few credits while I was working and saving money to go back to college full-time. I had no idea what I was doing in the writing class, but I had a lot of energy, and I had no conceptions or misconceptions because I had almost no literary background. The teacher and the class liked my writing. I was thrilled and started thinking that maybe, someday, after I got a degree in a sensible subject, I would do some writing. Our night class produced the first literary magazine in the Chicago junior college system.

I went back to school full-time at the University of Illinois, majoring in psychology but writing in my spare time. After a year, I took another writing class, taught by a professor who was a well-known author. I was excited and eager, a serious student ready to be molded into a successful writer by this literary expert. Now that I'd been writing awhile, I was full of questions: Why was it I kept starting stories I couldn't finish? Why did my clear ideas so often drift off into tangled messes? What should I do when a story I was writing that was full of energy and drama suddenly shut down and stopped dead before my eyes, never to rise again?

Unfortunately, the professor had few answers. He told us little about how stories work. "Write a twenty-five-hundred-word story for next week," he said. The following week he proceeded to take our writing apart, telling us what was wrong with it, but little about how to fix it. At the end of the course I had more questions than I had when I started, including: Was it beyond me? Was I just too dense?

The next time I had an elective, I took another writing course from a different professor. By now I had formulated my confusion a touch more. I kept wondering, "Does it have to be this hard, this vague, this disorganized?" I couldn't figure out if the problem was I just wasn't getting it or they just weren't giving it. It seemed like guesswork, trial and error, hit or miss, with no real guiding principles or techniques. "Does everybody do it this way?" I asked in class one day.

"How else could you do it?" the professor said.

"I don't know. I'm not very clear on exactly how this works."

"Look," he said. "It's art, not science. It doesn't come easy. If you want me to make it easy, maybe you shouldn't be here."

What was he saying? Do it his way or get out? "I'm not trying to be lazy. I just wish I knew a little more about what I'm supposed to be doing," I said.

"You work and work and work, and eventually you start to get a feel for it. It takes years."

Here I was again with more questions. Years? How many? When did you start to get a feel for it? What was it anyway? Did it hit you all at once, or did you get it little by little? What did that feel feel like, exactly? How did you know if the feel you were feeling was the real feel? I didn't ask any more questions, because I didn't want to get kicked out. After all, what did I know? Put in my years and wait for the feel—if that was what it took, I'd do it. Still, it seemed there should be a better way.

The more I wrote, the more possibilities I could see. My big fear was that I would follow the wrong one and drift off in a direction that would take me nowhere. If my aim was off just a fraction at the start, I might miss the mark by a mile.

Next, I took what I call the shit course. It was at one of Chicago's most famous universities, and it was taught by another well-known author. The first day, he swaggered in, looked at us with contempt, and said, "What makes you think the shit you write is worth reading? What makes you think the world needs to hear anything you have to say?"

Uh oh! Here was something else to worry about. Was my writing worth reading? Did the world need it? How could I know that? I was here because I liked writing. I just wanted to learn to be a good storyteller. I wasn't trying to tell the world anything.

It turned out that this teaching style was common at that university. "We know everything. You know nothing" was their motto, and this professor and author could have been their poster boy. He told us we were shit and then proceeded to shit on us and our writing throughout the entire course. He was scary, but I held on, clinging to the hope that he was wrong. It turned out that he was wrong—totally wrong. Neither concern —whether your writing is worth reading and whether the world needs to hear it—has anything to do with being a successful writer. Writers have enough to do without having to wrestle with such intangible issues.

This professor was also totally wrong about how to help writers develop. He was a successful writer, but a lousy teacher (a frequent combination). (My hunch is that this kind of high-handed cruelty is a cover-up for not knowing how to help writers develop.) Teaching and coaching writers are a specialty in themselves. It's taken me as long to become a good coach as it took me to become a good writer. Some great writers are lousy teachers, and some mediocre writers and nonwriters are great teachers. The two need not go hand in hand.

Maxwell Perkins was a great editor who coached Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, James Jones (From Here to Eternity), and Marjorie Rawlings (The Yearling), but never wrote a word of fiction in his life. Picasso would not talk about his painting, saying, "If I could put it into words, I wouldn't paint it." Klee, on the other hand, was not only a great painter but a great teacher. He taught and wrote and spoke volumes about how he painted and what he was trying to do in his paintings.

My belief is that being able to teach well has a lot to do with how you learn. When I learn anything, I make every mistake possible before I catch on. I suffer, but when I get there, I've got it. I know what I've learned and how it relates to the rest of what I know. More importantly, for teaching, I know how I've learned. So, I've written fiction every wrong way imaginable.

I've had every writer's affliction known to man, and I've made every storytelling mistake possible—and some that are supposed to be impossible. In addition, all the bad guidance lured me off into areas I might not have gone into on my own. I've learned from that also. I've learned how to do it, but, just as importantly, I've learned how not to do it, what not to waste time on.

After I took my lumps in the shit course, I looked around for where to go next. My choice was made for me by the U.S. Army. I was drafted. The Vietnam War was raging, and I was lucky or unlucky enough to escape combat. I was stationed in a research post on the East Coast that was largely run by civilians. I spent two years producing, directing, and acting in plays for the few soldiers and the large civilian population. It was a cushy job that gave me time to do a fair amount of writing. I put together in a notebook what I'd learned in all the writing classes and set to applying it as best I could. I began writing and submitting stories.

Harper's magazine sent me a personal letter saying, "We enjoyed reading your story. It doesn't come together, somehow, but it does ring true, and we'd like to see more of your work." That was a real boost, but what did "doesn't come together" mean? And then there was the issue of "somehow." Somehow how? And "ring true"—how did that work?

"Sorry, and thanks. Try us again," the New Yorker said. "Keep trying. Sooner or later we'll click on something," came from the Atlantic Monthly. It seemed I was on the threshold. Maybe. Maybe not. I was flattered by the personal letters from senior editors and dying to publish, but I had only the vaguest notion of what I was doing or how I was doing it. If I ever did write a story that sold, could I do it again? Something was missing. It had to be, but I had no idea what it was.

When I got out of the army, I enrolled in a fiction night course at Northwestern University. I'd been writing and taking writing workshops for eight years now. This course was taught by Bernard Sabath, a man who regularly published fiction in the major national magazines (over one hundred stories in all) and was a successful playwright. One of his plays, The Boys in Autumn, starred Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster on the West Coast, ran on Broadway with George C. Scott and John Cullum and is still touring Europe and the United States.

I didn't know about his successes then, because Barney's course wasn't about him, but about his students and what he could help them become. It had a different tone from the other courses I had taken. He wasn't out to get us, but to help us. In his class, Barney gave me what I'd been asking for all these years. He defined story and story technique in clear, concrete, usable terms. And what happened?

I missed it. Because the brainwashing I'd been through over the years had convinced me, in spite of myself, of how hard and complicated it had to be, Barney's teaching went right past me. Thank God I wrote it down, even though it seemed too simple, too easy, too straightforward to be true. I wrote it down the way I wrote down everything.

What Barney gave us was a neat, simple little package—a story model with a few rules—complete, flexible, easy. Because it was new and because I couldn't see around the tangle of concepts that was already littering my mind, I couldn't see how it could work. No, this model was just too neat and too pat to work.

I worked on my own that summer, not sure if I was going back to the Northwestern workshop. Barney was by far the most specific, direct, and sensible writing coach I'd had. I had his simple, fundamental approach in my notebook, but I didn't look at it for most of the summer—until I was stumped by a story I was working on. It was driving me nuts. I had no idea where I was or how to find my way back to where I was supposed to be—wherever that was. Then, while poring over the first page of the story, something Barney said popped into my mind. I tried it, and it worked.

I got out my notes from his class, reviewed them, then started going over my story, line by line, page by page, using what Barney had given us. As I did, a new dimension in my story began opening up. It was Barney's model, his method, but it was my imagination, my characters, my story that were coming to life. I was able to see more revealing ways for the characters to act and more exciting ways to turn the story. There it was! All I had to do was use it. For the first time, I felt I'd really connected. I'd found what was missing;— the full use of myself and my imagination in a scheme that shaped my ideas into a complete, meaningful story. It was his method, but it put me in touch with what I had. It drew me out onto the page in a new and exciting way. Plus, I could see how it worked. For the very first time, I knew what I was doing and why.

I was so thrilled, I called Barney and told him I wanted more than his class lectures and would pay him for his time. "No. No," he said. "Come in on Monday at seven o'clock."

Monday, I went over the whole thing with him. Damn, if I didn't have it right. I'd found it—finally—and I knew it. "It seems so simple," I said.

"Simple, yes, but you still have to perfect your craft," he said.

"But for once I'll know what I'm doing—I'll be working on the right things."

"Exactly," he said, smiling. "And that makes it happen all the faster."

It did happen. And it happened fast. At that time Playboy was printing some of the highest-quality fiction around (Updike, Algren, Mailer). They were one of the toughest magazines to break into, but they were the highest paying. They bought the second story I wrote with the new model and paid me the highest price they would pay an unknown author at that time.

I was thrilled at what I'd discovered, but I was also furious that it had taken so long and that I'd been misled and stifled so often along the way. There was no need for any of it. Of all the arts, writing is taught in the vaguest and most inconsistent and disorganized way. My friends who were painters were given all kinds of guidelines and principles (line, composition, color theory, sketch classes). Art classes went way beyond the draw-a-picture-and-we'll-tell-you-what's-wrong-with-it approach, which was what my writing classes had amounted to.

Because of my Playboy success other writers began approaching me for help. In addition to doing my own writing, I became intrigued with the challenge of how to teach, coach, and help others learn what I'd learned and learn it in a way that wouldn't put them through all the confusion, false starts, and wasted effort I'd been through. Learning to coach others has turned out to be an even more formidable task than learning to write and just as exciting and fulfilling.

I stayed in the workshop at Northwestern with Barney Sabath, the man who had become my mentor. I wanted to learn what he knew and know it as well as he did, if that was possible. He coached me as I coached others. Eventually, I mastered his approach and went on to teach it myself. After ten years, I left Northwestern and created The Writer's Loft in Chicago, where I've spent the last twenty years perfecting the techniques in this course.

There's no need for anyone to have to go through what I went through. There's no need for it to take that long. My personal estimate, after writing and working with writers for over twenty years, is that a good writing coach can speed a writer's development by a factor of ten. This means that, with good guidance, you'll develop ten times faster than you would working on your own or with bad coaching. The reason why

99 percent of all writers never publish, why people write for a lifetime and get nowhere, isn't because they don't try or don't work hard or don't write their hearts out or do what the "experts" tell them. The reason they don't make it is because they haven't been given the right tools. The tools they need to teach themselves to write. In the end, you must teach yourself, but there are a lot of ways to teach yourself. Some are quick and effective, and some take forever.

The reason I can make such definite statements is that writing stories is different from the other arts. In music or painting, for example, you need some inborn talent to be successful, whereas no special talent is needed to write successful stories. The reason is that your life experience and life skills are also writing skills. You have a full set of emotions and enough dramatic experiences to draw on. You know how you work and how the world works. If you didn't, you wouldn't have survived this long. You don't have to know how to play the piano or paint a picture to get along in the world, but if you want to get by, you'd better know how people behave and how you should behave.

So, the ability to write successful stories is an acquired skill, not an inborn talent. For purposes of writing and selling your stories, talent is irrelevant. Don't let yourself use lack of talent or lack of ability as an excuse.

That's not to say that talent or personal brilliance doesn't exist or that they don't figure in at some point. If you're talking about the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Prize, then talent makes a difference. But you don't need that level of ability to write successful stories. What you have is plenty.

If you read at all, you should have noticed that plenty of talentless writers are making fortunes. The success of some published writing seems to defy explanation, but in most cases what makes the difference is the ability to tell a strong story. If you can do that, any mistakes you make otherwise will not hurt you. A number of well-known novelists require heavy editing to make their stories readable. But the story is there, and that's what counts.

So what are the important points in all of this? There are two important messages to keep in mind. First, you can do this. Showing you how is what this course is all about. Second, for every writing problem, there is a simple solution.

Although the story is the thing, before you get to the story, you must first get to yourself, to what you have inside you. That's not always easy. Sometimes you stall out before you get going. Getting past yourself, your doubt and anxiety, is often the first hurdle. Helping you over that hurdle, helping you anticipate and avoid that kind of trouble, are what the first chapter is about.

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