Yes. I took his undergraduate creative writing course twice when I was at UC Berkeley.
Professor Michaels passed away last year. I’d always planned to go find him again once the book was on the shelves—but since I had every reason to believe he’d hate it, I didn’t keep an eye on him. So I didn’t know he had lymphoma last year, and didn’t know he died until about a week ago, when I went to check and see if he was still around. I figured he either would be, or I’d have missed him by about a decade—probably the latter.
It was only when I saw the memorial page that I realized that in my heart of hearts, I’d figured he was going to outlive me.
# # #
Just barely out of high school. Young. Dumb. When I was a freshman, I’d found out I wasn’t nearly as good at math as I thought I was. Having failed to generalize the lesson, I figured I’d take a creative writing course. Not quite having realized that UCB had low tolerance for people meandering through their academic careers, I also figured the English department would let anyone who wanted to take creative writing do so.
But UCB has tens of thousands of undergraduates, and “creative writing” is a luxury. They offered one creative writing course a semester. Maximum attendance: 25 people. “Special course prerequisites; check with department,” the catalog said.
As it happened, I had a writing sample ready—a short story I’d done in high school. I turned it in before the deadline; checked the appropriate place at the appropriate time to see if I’d gotten in. I had.
The first day of class, the 25 people on the list showed up. Along with about 75 others who just knew that they were number 26 on the list, and one of the 25 was going to fail to show up. Many of the 75 were easy to spot; they were reassuring each other that of course a little more room could be made for the Truly Deserving. Often loudly. In a rare display of common sense, I kept my damn yap shut.
Ten minutes after the nominal beginning of the course, Leonard Michaels walked in. “If you’re on the list, you’re in the class,” he said. “If you’re not on the list, you’re not in the class. People on the list, I’ll see you in two days. People not on the list, I’m sorry; try again next semester.” And he walked out again. Trailed by slightly less than 75 people saying, “But… but… but…” I don’t know what he did after that, but I always imagined him sprinting for his office, slamming the door, and pushing a filing cabinet up against it.
# # #
The first real day of class, Michaels explained what he was going to do. It took a while, but it boiled down to, “I’m going to read out loud something one of you have written; I’ll read as much as I think is necessary. Then we’ll discuss it. This is the lower division version of the class, so I won’t be naming any names. Ready?” And he pulled a paper out of the stack at his side, and started reading.
25 people listened. He stopped after the third paragraph, and said, “Well?”
25 people metamorphosed into Great White Sharks. We tore that thing apart. We found six hundred things wrong with the first VOWEL.
Those of you who are good at math may be wondering—if 25 people turned into sharks and attacked, who had written the text? My friends, if you’re sitting in a room with 24 Great White Sharks, you go and get you a Great White Shark mask. To this day I don’t know which one of us wrote that first paper.
And then he did it again, and did it again.
By around the time we got to the fourth paper, our jaws were tired. So we started actually thinking about whether what we were going to say was really going to contribute to efficiently Crushing the Soul of the Enemy. We calmed down a little more… and eventually got to the point that we were applying all the literary criticism stuff we’d already learned through a lifetime of reading and trying to write. Suggestions started to appear—“That could be a lot better, if…”
Being a hyperintelligent being, I saw what Michaels was doing. “This guy’s just a coordinator,” I said to myself. “He’s having us do all the work. That’s not valueless, of course, but geez.” I was very proud of myself for having spotted the man behind the curtain.
By about the third week, we were no longer in feeding frenzy mode. People with something insightful to say would say it, and everyone else would shut up. This made things a lot easier on the authors of the day; they could just feign disinterest, instead of having to put on a shark mask. And right around then, I started noticing which of the comments Michaels was listening to and expanding on, and which ones he’d cut off and say, “Yes, yes. But what else is wrong with this piece? How else could it be improved?”
The light finally dawned. “Oops,” I said to myself. “That guy standing behind the curtain wasn’t the great and powerful Oz, either…”
It was about a third of the way through the course that my turn in the barrel came up. I heard Michaels start reading my words; I put on an expression of feigned disinterest and sat back, smug in the knowledge that there wasn’t going to be a damn thing these kids could say about the piece I’d worked so—
—and twelve people turned into Great White Sharks, and they tore my piece to shreds. The found SEVEN hundred things wrong with the first vowel. The letters crawled right off the pages in shame and went and hid behind the wastepaper basket. The paper SPONTANEOUSLY COMBUSTED.
Michaels brushed the ash off his fingers and said, “Yeah. We can all see that this one is going nowhere, right? Let’s move on.” He didn’t look at me.
It’s entirely possible that at some point during the next half hour, a giant squid ate my backpack. Certainly I wouldn’t have noticed. I don’t remember much of anything until I was back in my co-op, looking at a copy of what I’d written.
At which point I realized that the twelve sharks had taken it easy on me. There were fourteen hundred things wrong with the first vowel. The sharks had just hit the high points.
Michaels required that you always have at least two pieces of yours in the stack at all times. I looked at my copy of the second piece already in there. I said, “Oh, God, no.”
First time in my life I ever blew off a computer science assignment to write. And when I was through, there were only a hundred things wrong with the first vowel, and I didn’t know how to fix them—and I wanted to know. And I knew that if the sharks didn’t find them, Michaels would start asking people leading questions until they spotted them—and if they didn’t have ideas how they might be fixed, he would.
Waiting for the next session of the class was a long two days.
# # #
I’m a lousy teacher. I wish I could tell you what Leonard Michaels taught me with as much detail as he did. But I can tell you the most important parts:
(1) You can’t write if you don’t read. If reading is a burden for you, or if you don’t have time to read, you’re not going to be able to write. This is because:
(2) If you read a lot, you already have a sense of what works and what doesn’t work. You should be able to think of paragraphs that made you double-check the spine of the book to see if they were written directly by God/Buddha/Cthulhu, and you should be able to think of paragraphs that made you wonder why the author’s keyboard didn’t leap off his desk and beat him to death for them.
(3) The hard part is applying this sense of what works and what doesn’t work to your own stuff. Authors are often blind to the flaws in their own work, and it’s not just because we’re megalomaniacs. (That’s a separate problem.) The problem is, we know what we meant. We know what color the sky we’re describing is—we can see it, we can see how the sight of the sky is affecting the mood of the protagonist—but it’s damn hard for the guy who wrote it to see that
The sky was the shade of robin’s egg, darkening to a cerulean topaz at the zenith, with a faint haze over the distant moss-green trees; the sun stabbing down like a bleeding hot lance of actinic yellow to pick out deep blue shadows on the ground by the emerald sea and the turquoise prow of the Dawn Sloop Sapphire Bright as white clouds tinted with the faintest indigo backscatter off the teal grass momentarily darked the brow of Grongoram. He murmured to himself, “Oh, this sky matches my mood so; just as the zenith darkens, so too darkens my libido; and my hopes are unto this salt mist.”
should be taken out behind the chemical sheds and shot. All those details are important to how you see the scene… but the reader could give a rat’s ass. In fact, the reader tripped over “cerulean topaz,” and is wondering what the hell that even means. Sure, if the reader could see it the way you see it, it’d blow his socks off—but you’re writing, not mind-melding, and That Paragraph Doesn’t Work.
You have to learn to see the flaws anyway. And you have to know what the rules are—all the rules, from grammar to basic plot design to how to write a joke and beyond—so that you know when you’ve decided to break them, and you can be extra sure that despite the fact you’ve broken Rule #716, It Still Works.
# # #
Professor Michaels wanted us to come to his office hours. All professors say this—and believe it or not, I think they’re all telling the truth. The key is what they really want is for you to come to their office hours and be interesting. What they find interesting may not have the slightest thing to do with what you find interesting, though—particularly in the sciences, which is why most engineering types don’t bother. (I used to make a game out of it. I’d wander by and see if my professors looked bored—or if they’d been trapped by someone asking them to explain something that should properly have been handled by a graduate student, peer tutor, the textbook, their sixth grade math teacher, or a parole officer. Being surrounded by tens of thousands of people, many of whom were skilled at brown-nosing, I figured that to thrive, I should brown nose by actually being useful and pleasant.)
I finally got around to doing this with Michaels. I wandered by; he looked bored, so I went in. I wasn’t well prepared for this. I knew how to get a computer science professor talking, because I more-or-less understood What Computer Science Was All About. But I didn’t have the foggiest idea what a professor of English even did when he wasn’t teaching. I panicked, and tried to sympathize with him about his administrative burden. Unfortunately, this means that what I said was, “So. How goes the old fill-in-the-bubbles thing for the course grades?”
He looked uncomfortable. He started telling me that assigning a grade in something like “creative writing” was more or less arbitrary, and he understood the pressures students faced with maintaining their grade point averages, but department chairs give professors funny looks if they just spew out “A” grades across the board, and about eighteen other things I tuned out on because I didn’t really care. I was in brown-nose mode: be a sympathetic audience. So I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah” a lot.
Finally, he wound down. “But… to answer your question: I’m going to give you an A minus for this course.” And a man two and a half times my age winced, in preparation for my exploding at him.
And I said, “Oh. Okay, thanks. But how goes the paperwork and all? Are there a lot of people arguing with you this year?”
He said, “Uh…” And we looked at each other for a while.
My eighteen brain cells sparked and fizzed feebly for a while, and finally I said, “Oh, shit. Is that what you thought this was all about?”
“That I came in here to ask you about my grade?”
“You did ask about your grade.”
“No, I didn’t! I asked how the paperwork was going!”
“What? Why would you care about the paperwork?”
“What, you thought I cared about the grade?”
“Professor Michaels! I’m a damn computer science student, you know that! I don’t care what my other grades are! Nobody on the face of the earth cares what grade a computer scientist got in a creative writing course! Christ, Professor, I’ve already got a job! Do you know how few people can handle an array of pointers to pointers to functions without losing their fucking minds? I could quit school tomorrow!”
Undergraduates at Cal don’t say things like that often.
“My God!” I went on. “Screw the A minus, give me a C! If you have to put down a certain number of Cs on the page so the department doesn’t think you’re going soft on the students, save the A minus for someone who needs it!”
Undergraduates at Cal don’t say things like that ever.
His eyes narrowed. “You’ve got an angle or something,” he said. “What is it?”
“Angle? I have no angle.”
Michaels was the son of first generation Polish immigrants, and grew up on the streets of New York City. My father was the son of first generation Polish immigrants, and grew up on the streets of Buffalo. We looked at each other. We didn’t know what was going through each others minds—but we knew all the steps of the kind of dance we were about to do. It was like homecoming for both of us. The kind of homecoming where you say, “Oh, God, I have to spend the holidays with my family, again.”
“Honest,” I went on. “I don’t need it.” I have a very faint Polish accent. It began thickening.
“You’ve got something going on. What, you’re trying to trick me into making some sort of do-this-by-then-and-I’ll-give-you-an-A deal?”
“C minus!” I said.
“You think I can introduce you to a publisher?”
“Professor, I can’t go any lower than a C minus. My faculty advisor over in the CS department knows I can write—if he sees a D or an incomplete, he’ll come after the English department and demand to know the reason why, and probably want me to take the course again. He’s pushing me to go to grad school.”
“Aha! A letter of recommendation for grad school, is that it?”
I was a kid, and I was het up. He gave me a perfectly good out. Not only did I not take it, I didn’t even see it. “From an English professor? They’d laugh me right out the front gates!”
He ran out of ideas. “What the hell did you come in here for in the first place, then? Answer me that!”
“YOU LOOKED BORED!”
We glared at each other for a while.
My eighteen brain cells sparked and fizzed. Finally, I saw an out. I quickly put on a not-quite-perfect poker face over shrewd. “Although… You know that undergraduates can’t access the stacks in the main library directly.”
He blinked. “They can’t?”
“No. We have to ask for a specific book at the desk. They fetch it—eventually. It takes a while.”
This totally derailed Michaels’ train of thought. “Wait a minute. The students can’t get to the books?”
“Not in the main library. There’s a smaller building that we can use. But we can’t go into the stacks—unless a professor signs a little sheet of paper every semester, saying that we need access for some reason…”
“Can’t argue with you there.”
“If I had known about this, I’d have signed the damn thing anyway.”
“Really? The guys at the library said it hardly ever happens…”
“What? Are you sure that’s how it works?”
“Professor, you may have noticed that this campus is getting just a little crowded here and there. The books in the main library are old, lots of them—no way to replace them if anything happens to them—and they don’t want twenty thousand kids not old enough to drink sneaking cigarettes in the back…”
“But,” and then he started sputtering. “It’s a library. They’re books. Books are supposed to be read. This is a fucking UNIVERSITY!”
“Y’know, I could probably walk over and get the paperwork now,” I oozed.
He pointed at the door. “Go! Go now!”
I stood up, checked my watch. “Oops—your office hours are almost up… Tell you what; I’ll bring the form by tomorrow in class.”
“I’ll wait,” he grated.
On my way out the door, he yelled, “And you’re taking that A minus, too!”
I have no reason to believe that he didn’t go to his grave thinking I was the slimiest negotiator for a trivial beneficence he’d ever seen.
# # #
But I kept showing up for office hours, and we would talk. And the course ended, and summer came, and I kept coming by to chat.
I’m under no illusion that there was a Deep Connection O’ The Soul between us. Even though it’s damn near obligatory in reminiscences like this to say something like, “Nobody else had the deep understanding of my issues and background I needed so badly at the time; truly, he was a guide and guardian to me, as he was to so many others…” Yeah, yeah, save the purple crap for your fiction. Besides, I don’t know how he was with other people; the rest of his life was his. He was nice to me, though; I know that much.
He was a Pole from New York City who could write—yet somehow found himself in California. I was a Pole who could about put together a compound sentence without impaling myself on a semicolon—born in Buffalo, but raised in California. That ain’t much of a connection. I didn’t need a father figure; I had one. (Better still, he was actually my father, too—which meant one less phone number I had to keep track of.) But having said that…
There’s an old, old image: the angel sitting on one shoulder, the devil on the other. It meant one thing to the medievals, who thought in terms of sin and good works. It meant something else to me when I was in school: the devil said to do the smart thing, and the angel said to do the right thing.
I mostly listened to the devil. It was the correct decision at the time, and I wouldn’t change any of the specific choices I made.
But at the risk of violating the save-the-purple-for-the-fiction sneer I just made, Michaels was the angel. And more important, he saw that when I dreamed, I wasn’t dreaming about being the best damn computer scientist on the face of the earth. Neither he nor I knew what the hell I was dreaming about, but we knew that wasn’t it. And he didn’t psychoanalyze me, he didn’t try to be a father or an older brother or a drinking buddy… he was just Professor Michaels, who sometimes I would go to to talk about certain things.
Although I should note that he didn’t like being Professor Michaels. Some time that summer, he said to me, “Call me Lenny. My friends call me Lenny.”
“I can’t do that,” I said. “Lenny is a diminutive. It’s too familiar.”
“I call you Stephan.”
“Yeah, but that’s as it should be—I’m an undergrad, you’re a professor. And if you ever call me Steve or Stephanku, I’ll punch your lights out.”
Now, though, I’m beginning to warm to the idea. I’ve got a stick up my butt about formality—but it’s been a decade and a half, now. It’s taken me a little too long to get used to the idea—but I think I can call him Lenny now. I no longer care that it’s diminutive; it’s far more important that it’s affectionate.
# # #
I took the course again in the fall. It was the same course, really—Lenny said that the only difference between the lower division version and the upper division version was he’d read the name of the person who’d written the piece to be discussed. As God is my witness, I don’t remember whether he actually followed through and read names. By then, I’d figured out it was fundamentally unimportant to the process—and when one deals with computers, where equipment becomes obsolete very quickly, one gets into the habit of deliberately forgetting information that’s no longer important. I’m pretty sure he used one of my pieces during the first few weeks as chum to set off the sharks’ feeding frenzy—but of course, by then both he and I knew I wouldn’t take anything about it the wrong way.
The two most important things I learned the second time around:
First: mythic feel versus realistic feel. In Little Red Riding Hood, it doesn’t matter where the forest is, whether the characters are speaking English or French, or what year it is—the story is totally divorced from such things. Circumflex Vachss’ Flood, which has to be New York City in the present day. The rules are different for myth versus reality—but it’s real easy to screw this up and accidentally let a mythic story founder on the rocks of specifics, or a realistic story suddenly float off into the ether of abstracted storytelling.
Second: sense of location. I remember this primarily because it was the first of his lessons that I just plain flat out didn’t get. Location informs the tone of a story; a forest in Oregon is not the same as a forest in California, and I’m not just talking about what species the trees are. Two towns separated by five miles of country road can be so different as to bring about century-long feuds. Slowly, slowly, I’m beginning to understand this. But I can look at things I’ve written, and I have to say, “Lenny, I know this part, right here, doesn’t reflect the location; it’s just a place. This sucks. But I’ve tried, and I’m sick of beating my head against this particular wall; I’m going to have to move on now, work on something else. I’ll get it eventually.”
# # #
Graduation day. No, not when I got my degree; that was just a day. By the time I had everything I needed to get the scrap o’ parchment-colored paper, I was already deeply cynical about computers and how I’d just spent the last four years—not to mention in possession of a good head start on a pretty serious alcohol abuse problem. When they called my name to walk across the stage and collect my handshake and beribboned scroll, I walked backwards all the way to do it. Nobody blinked an eye; computer people think things like that are slightly admirable. They’re a sign of someone capable of thinking outside the box—while remaining close enough to the box not to rock the boat.
Graduation day was when Lenny reached into the stack and pulled out one of my pieces. He read the whole thing, every word. The last line of the story got a tremendous laugh from the class. People kept grinning and chuckling over it as they were settling down, getting ready for the discussion. Lenny put it down, and said, “Well?”
Nobody said anything.
“It is a good piece. Maybe even great, a little—but still. What’s wrong with this? How can it be improved?”
“Come one. What, it’s perfect?”
“Maybe if you read it again,” someone said.
“No, no. Well… it is pretty good, at that. And I’ve got some other points I want to make; think about it, and we can come back to this one later.” He put it back into the stack, and we went from there.
I was sick. Other people in the class had written things that were better. And that last line wasn’t supposed to be funny.
Sometimes, you graduate not because you’ve learned everything you need to know—but because the rest of what you need, you can’t learn there.
# # #
I don’t remember what grade he gave me that semester. An A, probably. We never discussed it, before or after he filled in the bubble on the form.
Bad Magic is my first book. Lenny would have hated it. But that wouldn’t have mattered to him; when he taught writing, whether he liked the pieces he read had nothing to do with anything. So he would have gone through it, and told me what worked and what didn’t work, and then sat back and said, “You know, you actually can write, a little. When are you going to write something real?” And then, maybe, we would have had our old argument where he’d sneer at authors who substituted zombies for people and violence for death and called it “Science Fiction,” and I’d sneer at him for wasting everything he knew how to do on short stories about fragments of time and place that have been gone for thirty years; and those opening steps of the dance done, we’d have taken it from there.
I didn’t know I missed him.