Writing Workshops LA: Beware of Dog!
Michele Filgate Talks to Edan Lepucki About West Coast Writing Community
The writer Edan Lepucki, author of the bestselling novel California, founded Writing Workshops Los Angeles a decade ago. Similar to Sackett Street, the classes often meet in the instructor’s home. It’s an excellent option for people who never got their MFA and want to take their writing seriously, or post-MFAers who miss the structure of a workshop.
When did Writing Workshops LA open, and what was the mission?
I started teaching a private fiction class in my apartment in 2006 after I graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I couldn’t find an academic job teaching writing (I had few publications to my name at that time), so I decided to just do it myself—I’m sort of stunned now, looking back, at how much chutzpah I had! There was no real mission beyond the desire to teach writing in the same rigorous, serious way I’d been taught in college and graduate school… but to offer wine and cheese, so that the rigor was balanced with a casual, inviting atmosphere. One class became two became three, and then I hired another teacher—an old classmate from Iowa, the novelist Leslie Parry—and it got bigger from there. Writing Workshops Los Angeles became an official business. Our tag line is “Private creative writing school for the brave, enthusiastic, and talented.” Mission-wise, I’d say that co-director Chris Daley and I want to continue to offer rigorous, in-depth, and thoughtful instruction of creative writing, as well as to be a haven and source of support and community for writers and readers all over Los Angeles.
How many writers have taught for Writing Workshops over the years?
Right now we have 17 teachers on our faculty, though not all of them teach every session. I believe there are five or so others who have worked for us in the past. We’ve also recently begun having “visiting instructors” who come from out of town to offer a 1- or 2-day seminar. We also held a big writing conference at the Gene Autry museum [in 2014], which offered small classes and panel discussions on both craft topics and the writing industry. Aside from our regular teachers, we had guest instructors like Claire Bidwell Smith and Adam Wilson, among others, and a keynote by Michelle Huneven. Agents like Bonnie Nadell, and editors like Dan Smetanka from Counterpoint, also attended.
How many classes are offered at a given time?
We offer approximately eight to ten workshops a session (there are four sessions a year) in three genres: fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. We also offer 1- and 2-day seminars on topics like dialogue, the art of the paragraph, and writing about sex. We have a few long-running private workshops, too, which are by invitation-only. We are working to expand our nonfiction offerings, as well as more classes in West LA (we started on the other side of town, so it’s been a slow expansion toward the ocean!).
How many Writing Workshops students have gone on to publish books?
We haven’t had too many students publish books, but that is quickly changing. In the last month, two of my novel students, for instance, were offered literary representation, and Chris has a few nonfiction students who are working on book proposals with agents. My student, Catie Disabato, published her novel The Ghost Network recently—to great acclaim! One of our students, Zan Romanoff, is publishing a YA novel with Knopf in September. We have had students publishing regularly in literary magazines and the like. One reason we held WWLA: The Conference was to help students learn about publishing and meet people from the industry. LA is a big city, but it can often feel far from the publishing world, and our classes are so focused on craft and technique (which matters most, in our opinion), that students were writing a ton, but not submitting as much as we wished they would. The Conference really helped change that, and we’ve also started offering a Submission seminar to help students get their work out there.
How has launching the Writing Workshops helped your own writing career?
Although of course teaching takes away from my own writing time, I find it makes me more productive. I have less time, so I need to schedule it wisely! I’ve worked with the same group of novel students for a couple of years now, and I’ve always kept myself on the same writing schedule as the class—so if I assigned them ten pages, I also had to write ten pages, no excuses. I try to lead by example, and supporting them makes me more compassionate toward myself. In general, teaching makes me a better writer, because it makes me a better reader. I learned how to write novels by reading them, and by teaching others how to write them. I’ve benefited enormously by the discussions I’ve had with my WWLA students about character, pacing, paragraphs, and so on. On a larger level, starting WWLA let me feel like I had a real foothold in the LA writing community, and that has been rewarding. It was especially a lifesaver when I was trying, and failing, to sell my first novel!
What are your thoughts on MFA programs vs. writing programs like Sackett, Grub Street, The Loft, etc?
We have students who decide not to get an MFA, students who are applying to MFA programs (and then attend), and students who already have MFA degrees and are continuing their education. So it really runs the gamut. I try not to think of these writing programs in opposition to MFA programs; instead, they seem to co-exist in a larger ecosystem. I myself have an MFA and am glad I went, but I also feel confident that a student can learn as much, and write just as much, without attending one. I’m happy we can offer the same level of rigor in our classes that you would find at an MFA program. I generally believe a student should not go into significant debt to attend graduate school in creative writing. Aside from that, I say: To each her own.
What are the biggest challenges when it comes to running workshops at Writing Workshops?
The biggest challenge for me is handling all the administrative duties. Chris and I send countless emails to one another about the schedule, about a teacher’s availability, about enrollment levels, about payments, refund issues, etc. A lot of this is easy but time-consuming… it’s also just so different from teaching and writing. I never thought I’d spend so much time staring at Excel spreadsheets!
Another challenge is how to keep regular students continually challenged, inspired, and supported, while also attracting new writers, who might have less experience, and for whom writing isn’t (yet?) central to their daily lives. Some of our writers are working to publish, to have writing careers, and others are writing simply for fun, and to become better readers, to have richer lives. How can we appeal to these different types of students, perhaps even within the same class? And, how can we hire teachers with diverse ways of approaching writing so that there is a perfect teacher for every student, and so that students get exposed to many styles of literature? These are big questions that I love to tackle. In the next year, too, my challenge is to help WWLA students connect better to publishers and the like.
Can you share any anecdotes from the classes over the years?
Ah there are so many, but at the moment nothing particularly shiny comes to mind. The time a new student came to class and realized I had a dog (who is seven pounds!) and flipped out, trembling, so fearful was she of canines, and how, after that, I had to include a “class mascot” description of vicious Omar before the class began. Or the time Patton Oswalt was a creeper at WWLA: Conference. (In truth, he was just at the museum that day, but everyone was pretty excited!) Or the many times my students stayed late, drinking wine and eating cookies, and arguing about Donald Barthelme or Donna Tartt. Every teacher, I’m sure, has fond memories like these, or one of a student emailing to say their essay or story or poem was accepted for publication. I sometimes think about how many WWLA teachers and students came to the launch of my novel, California, and I am filled with so much love for the community.
I'm interested in how writing programs help shape a literary community. How does the Writing Workshops promote community for both instructors and students?
For me, a community is a sphere where you’re allowed to be yourself, to be curious, to try, to make mistakes, to prosper, to improve, to have fun. I do feel like WWLA has provided that to our students. We have high expectations of our students, and I think that makes them try harder, to be ambitious, to take risks—to feel safe to do that. And because our classes are so small, and usually at the instructor’s home, they are warm and welcoming, and friendships form. There isn’t the separation between professor and student that you so often find in academia; the teachers are in the trenches with the students, and everyone is a writer, no matter their publication history or education background. Chris and I also want to make sure our teachers feel supported. They can come to us with classroom issues, and they can also take a session off to attend a writing retreat, etc. We want them to be working writers as well as dedicated teachers. (The yearly margarita-fueled holiday party also helps the faculty feel supported… I hope.)