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West Words — How the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program changed my life (and maybe yours, too)

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By Samantha Dunn, Photos by Mathieu Young

Published Apr 1, 2015 8:00 PM


The UCLA Extension Writers’ Program would be famous enough if it were just the largest and most comprehensive continuing education creative writing and screenwriting program in the world. But it’s also an incubator for talent, a creative community, a symbolic shoulder for shuddering writers to cry on — and a primary catalyst for Los Angeles’ thriving literary scene. Sam Dunn, Writers’ Program alumna, teacher and esteemed author, takes us inside this iconic program.


A sampling of the breadth of talent among UCLA Extension Writers’ Program instructors and published students. From top, left to right, by row: Lisa Lieberman Doctor, Mary Rakow, Julianne Ortale Ben Loory, Melanie Thorne, Monica Holloway, Christine Schwab, Dennis Danziger, Eduardo Santiago, Shawna Kenney, David Ulin, Samantha Dunn, Tod Goldberg, Carolyn Kellogg, David Francis, Mark Haskell Smith, Aimee Liu, Shanna Mahin, Amy Friedman, Michael Datcher M.A. ’94, Mary Otis, Leslie Lehr, Dan Jaffe, Deanne Stillman, Mark Sarvas, Rob Roberge, Lou Mathews, Hope Edelman, Bruce Bauman Suzanne Lummis, Janet Fitch, Linda Venis ’70, M.A. ’74, Ph.D. ’78, Billy Mernit.

“There is somebody in this room who will become a writer. There’s someone here seduced enough by the vision you see, or think you see, that you’ll keep going. You are the person here who has wanted this all your life.”

This is how Les Plesko began a letter to the students in his fiction writing workshop at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, one of the hundreds he taught there in the years before his suicide in 2013. Les — a onetime drifter, former drug addict, country and-western disc jockey and Hungarian immigrant — offered these words to would-be writers because he knew them to be true. Les himself had been that exact student, sitting in a class in the same writing program some two decades earlier.

By the time he jumped off a building at the age of 59, Les had mentored, cajoled, inspired and edited the work of more than 1,000 students and more published writers than I have room to list here, but among the novelists who started as his students are David Francis, Alice Greenway, Eduardo Santiago and Wendy Delsol, as well as nonfiction writer Donna Sozio. He was the author of three published novels, including the critically acclaimed The Last Bongo Sunset. But his magnum opus, No Stopping Train — the novel he’d worked on for years — sat in a drawer, passed up time and again by major publishers.

You have carried this seed around like a lump in your throat … You have felt it rise and thought, “Why not me?” or “I can do this,” but then “life” took over. Yet you always felt your real life was waiting for you somewhere else. You know there’s something you should be doing that’s been neglected, and it is. It’s your writing calling you.

The story of how No Stopping Train came to be published by Counterpoint Press in the fall of 2014 does not merely prove how beloved was this wiry and walleyed guy who had a smile that parted clouds. It also reveals, perhaps for the first time, just how profoundly influential the Writers’ Program is to the literary life of Los Angeles. It is the central root, nurturing and sustaining the professional and personal connections in this city. The Writers’ Program, with its 250 instructors and 415 course offerings a year, is the biggest and most comprehensive continuing education creative writing and screenwriting program on the planet.

I just call it the place that gave me my whole life.

Writing will break you and mend you. It will tear up your heart, but the heart heals and grows stronger. You will shatter yourself as you now know yourself, and you will welcome the shattering.

I’d been in Los Angeles for a few years by the time I met Les, working day jobs at trade magazines and university publishers, freelancing music articles on the side. But I longed to be a writer’s writer; I was obsessed with Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table. A romance had led me to Hollywood instead of New York, where “real” writers supposedly lived, but the stars that thrilled me were literary ones like Joan Didion. I ached with wanting to write a book that would make an indelible print on a reader the way this writer had marked me.

I don’t honestly remember how I heard about the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, but I signed up for a literary journalism course with Alan Rifkin ’77, and that inspired me to pitch stories at places like the Los Angeles Times Magazine, BUZZ magazine and the Los Angeles Reader. My journalism career started to gather steam. Maureen Murdock’s classes on personal mythology opened my mind to the richness of personal narrative and helped me grapple with demons in my family story.

But it wasn’t enough. The desire to conjure stories that would break hearts and change minds gnawed at me. I was driving the 101 on the way to an office job one morning when I heard the writer Kate Braverman interviewed on NPR. The way she talked about writing mesmerized me, siren-like. When she mentioned her courses at UCLA Extension, swear to God, I pulled over on the berm right before the Forest Lawn exit to scratch down the info. I called as soon as I got to the office and signed up for a weekend course.

Out of Braverman’s courses a workshop formed, a tribe of writers with the same clawing desire to write to the bone. Not all would publish, but many did. Les was there. Cristina García, who became a National Book Award finalist for Dreaming in Cuban. Donald Rawley, whose brilliance would only be discovered by The New Yorker and whose books were published the year he died of AIDS. Mary Rakow, who would author The Memory Room and be a Lannan Foundation Fellowship recipient. Filmmaker Joshua Miller, only 18 when he joined us, publishing his novel The Mao Game out of the pages he brought in. Nancy Spiller, author and artist. Short-story writer Julianne Ortale. And then there was our pal Janet — as in Fitch.


“I had long wanted to work with Kate Braverman — she was a tremendous literary hero. I saw her at a reading at Small World Books — it must have been in ’91 or ’92 — and I was dying to work with her. She said, ‘I don’t work with anyone who hasn’t taken my class at UCLA,’ ” recalls Janet, who would publish her first short story in WestWord, the literary magazine of the Writers’ Program.

“I had been in a writers’ group for a couple of years — a big one composed mostly of screenwriters — and I felt lost there, like I wasn’t making any improvement. I had such a craving for a breakthrough in my fiction; I wanted something seriously literary and demanding, something that would change my life.”

Like the rest of us, Janet found that in our workshop, where she worked tirelessly on a novel that would become an international sensation, Oprah pick, and major motion picture, White Oleander, followed by the much-lauded Paint It Black.

Everything you thought you knew will be proved wrong. Everything you thought was important and necessary will fall away. If you love someone, your love will be tried. It may survive. If you’re looking for love, God forbid, you’ll find it.

As much as we all strived for professional success, the longest-lasting prize has been something I don’t think any of us realized we needed — lifelong friendships. Janet taught me how to sauté spinach, I taught her how to drink martinis. Les gave me the most important edits on my first novel — after it was published he called it “swell,” which meant he really liked it. Mary Rakow has been the 4 a.m. friend you call when your marriage is ending. Nancy Spiller the friend you share a cry and a laugh with over coffee. The threads connecting us have woven in countless other writers, creating not merely a “professional network,” but the tapestry of our lives.

Janet explains: “We all came up together as a literary generation. We permeated one another’s consciousness to a pretty high degree. And the level of trust is very high. If I trust you with my work, that’s trust. You’ve seen me cry, plenty. You’ve seen me over the moon. You know me in a way few people ever do.”

To this day, the seedling planted in a UCLA Extension weekend course continues to grow. Janet again: “We read and continue to read each other’s work, and because we all grew up in the same literary school, we have a common vocabulary. Our lives change, children are born, marriages made and ended, but we’re still writing. The tie is always there.”

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