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


By Samantha Dunn, Photos by Mathieu Young

Published Apr 1, 2015 8:00 PM

In the course of the writing, you will know exhilaration such as you’ve never known, like the top of your head has come off, and your chest aches, and you’ll weep tears of joy. And tears of grief, and frustration, and a bottomless sinking, but you will forget this when the exhilaration returns. And you will chase this. You will find it again. You’ll say, “Yes, this is why.”

It is not accurate to say that Linda Venis ’70, M.A. ’74, Ph.D. ’78, director of the Writers’ Program, consciously conceived of the program’s becoming a nexus for a Los Angeles literary community when she took the helm nearly 30 years ago. But as any writer who has learned a thing or two in the program will tell you, plot follows character — and the character of Linda Venis was primed for just this sort of result.

A lecturer in UCLA’s Department of English from 1979 to 1985, Linda specialized in interdisciplinary study on pop culture and the history of Los Angeles, as well as a large lecture called American Popular Literature.

“When I would meet writers, I would invite them to come to my classes, and I really fell in love with writers and hearing about their processes,” she says. “When this job came open, I really jumped at it because I wanted the chance to move from working with mostly dead writers to live writers.”

(Wait — you have to know she holds a Ph.D. in British romantic poetry to realize the “dead writers” line was funny. Another thing the Writers’ Program will teach you — don’t withhold vital information from the reader.)

To grow the program from the 180 courses offered by 50 instructors when she first took over in 1985 has required having a “broad embrace”: The program doesn’t develop curriculum so much as curate it from the ideas harvested from the writing community.

“One of the things I love about this program is there is something for everyone. When you look at the diversity of the instructors and the subject areas — it’s not a one-size-fits- all,” says Linda. “Every teacher who has come in has contributed to the thinking and the curriculum and the reputation, to guiding the students. I really hope the program has grown along with the literary community and reflected and embraced it.”

Many of the instructors are like me — former students who went on to publish and achieve some degree of professional success. Les was, too — he was the one who told me I should pitch a course even though I’d never taught a thing to anyone in my life. The place where I first started to write turned out to be the place where I learned to teach.

“When someone applies to teach a course, I look at where they have published,” says Linda. “If they have taught, that’s fine. If they have not taught, that’s OK, too, because this is the place where they can learn, where they think about their art and their craft and what they want to convey to students. We are not a vetted program — we are a 98-percent open-enrollment, postbaccalaureate program. Ninety percent of our students have undergrad degrees, and over 30 percent have advanced degrees. It is a very educated audience, and to teach here one has to have an appreciation for a breadth of talent and abilities.”

You will see the light, then it will fade until another light appears. You will follow the lights down into yourself. You will be broken and you will be recast. You will have a deep and abiding spiritual experience, and then you will lose it and wonder, “Where did it go? What was it I felt?”

Tod Goldberg, author of the novels that were the basis for USA Network’s wildly popular Burn Notice series, was one who had the triple threat of talent, discipline and, if I may, the chutzpah to put the other two together. Today he is the director of the UC Riverside Palm Desert Low-Residency M.F.A. Program, but back in 1997 he was a student in UCLA’s program. There, he found his mentor of many years, Tom Filer, and made lifetime friends, including writers Mary Yukari Waters and Rob Roberge. But why am I telling you? Better to have Tod say this in his own words:

“It was at the Writers’ Program where I wrote the first stories I’d ever publish, where I learned how to be a professional writer, and where I met other writers as serious about the craft and improving as I was. When I decided I wanted to start teaching, I contacted Aimee Bender, who had just started teaching at the Writers’ Program, and she referred me to Linda Venis, who interviewed me and — I’ll never forget this — asked me why I thought I could teach, since I’d never taught before. I was 29 and I thought I ruled the world, and at that moment I realized I didn’t know anything. So I said, ‘Because everything I learned about how to teach creative writing I learned here.’ She hired me, and I ended up teaching in the program for seven years. I loved it. It absolutely taught me how to be a professor, but it also gave me an idea of how to run an M.F.A. program, how to apply the professional aspects of writing to the craft parts. … You don’t show up at the Writers’ Program by accident. You go there to see if maybe the dream is possible. And very quickly you see the difference in the level of dedication needed to really succeed.”

The UCLA Extension Writers’ Program started well before the proliferation of M.F.A. writing programs throughout the country — there are now more than 300 in North America alone, according to the database of Poets & Writers magazine. But rather than diminishing the need for a noncredit program, people like Tod and Janet and, well, me, see the extension program’s importance heightened: It serves as a place to hone your craft so you are prepared for graduate study and gives you the lay of the land, an introduction to the literary world. Even if you have a degree, it serves as a way to keep learning and connecting.

“If someone with an Internet connection on a boat in the South Pacific wanted to take a screenwriting class, they could take an amazing one with a working professional, and it would have the irrefutable quality of the University of California behind it,” says Tod. “I think providing that kind of access goes beyond just the small world of people who want to write. It’s about creating outlets of learning beyond what’s available in your community. That’s hugely important socially, culturally and, of course, personally.”

And you will say to yourself, “Of course I can stop.” And of course you can. Sure, you can stop, but only at the risk of your soul. You’ll know this. So you will risk everything, again. You will be heartsick and afraid, then heartswollen and fearless. Writing will infect your life until it is your life, and there will be no turning back.

Only now can you really understand how it came to be that novelist David Francis, a student of Les’ and a board member of the literary nonprofit PEN Center USA, came to seat Counterpoint Press editor-in-chief Dan Smetanka ’92 next to Janet Fitch at a literary gala, and how the two of them started to talk about Les’ death and the manuscript he had worked on these many years. Because of the reach of his students and his colleagues, because of this interconnected web spun through the Writers’ Program, there were so many who could pull together and do the work of getting it out into the world — Janet and David spearheading the charge.

And so it was that more than 100 people, all either authors themselves or students of Les’ or both, filled the auditorium at Kerckhoff Hall in the fall of last year for the publication party the author himself would never see. Like the student-led memorial months before, where people were packed shoulder to shoulder on the patio of Beyond Baroque to pay tribute, Les would have rolled his eyes. “Oh, brother,” he would say.

And he’d be shaking his head at this story, too, because its tone has gone sappy and sentimental. He’d run his pen through most of these words and say “no” and “unpack.” Oh yes he would. So I’ll let him have the last words.

You will be utterly and irrevocably transformed. You will wonder, “How did I get here?” But you’ll know how. Then you’ll get back to work.