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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

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.”


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.