“To Make It Memorable” — a fiction writing class at Idyllwild, California

Thursday, June 16, 2016

“To Make It Memorable” – a fiction writing class in its third decade

In the weeks since the graduation ceremonies for the College of Liberal Arts at CSULB in mid-May, I have been concentrating on addressing the health care issues of my mother, who is in her mid-90s at this point. Her particular problems are not new ones, and my youngest sister, Joni, is visiting her right now in an attempt to get her access to better doctors. While my family is certainly not the only one that has to mitigate the encroachments of old age on family connections, I will confess that the deviations in life choices between my mother and myself are so extreme as to make us almost unrecognizable as parent and offspring. The differences between my sister, Joni, and myself are only slightly less radical.

These kinds of disparities are, of course, the source for much of the creative writing that is characterized as fiction. Unfortunately, I have never been able to write fiction, although I was a fairly successful teacher of fiction writing for 20 years at the summer youth arts camp at Idyllwild Arts Academy. I got the job in the summer of 1995, less than six weeks after my ten-year run as a typesetter at Radio & Records had terminated. I had enough money in the bank to last me about three and a half months, but I had no idea of where I was going to find my next job. It certainly wasn’t going to be typesetting. Computers were eroding that occupation quite rapidly, and I found myself sitting at my desk, feeling slightly bemused, in my apartment at the corner of W. 18th and Robertson Blvd. on a Monday morning at 8:45 as the phone rang. “Hi, Bill, this is Steve Fraider at Idyllwild Arts.” We exchanged 20 seconds of pleasantries, and Steve cut to the chase. “Hey, Bill, I know you teach poetry, but do you also teach fiction?”

I had never taught a fiction class, but I certainly had read a lot of fiction and had had formal training as a playwright and written several full-length plays. In the two seconds after I heard his question, I thought to myself, “What do I have to lose if I say yes?”
“Sure, Steve, I teach fiction, too.”

“Well, would you be interested in teach a two-week class here at Idyllwild?” I said, yes, and asked when it would start. His answer jolted me: “Now.”

“You want me to start today?” I asked. “My car needs some work, and I’m not sure it can make it up the mountain.”

I had finished that sentence before he pounced on my concerns: “We’ll send a van.” And indeed, a van showed up at my apartment about 2:30 that afternoon, at which point I had packed a suitcase and a couple of boxes of books. The driver was a Native American animator who was studying at CalArts, I believe. His institutional van had air conditioning, which my car lacked, so the two and a half hour trip to Idyllwild went by in considerable comfort.

At 7:00 that evening, I was in a small classroom at the far rear edge of the campus. It was built into the start of a hillside, and was hoisted on thick wooden stilts. The ten students were quietly anxious. Their teacher had walked off the job, leaving a note in his room saying that he was going back to Redlands to think over a few things. My job was to soothe the students and assuage their sense of being abandoned. A few of them had studied with the teacher the summer before, I learned later, and they had looked forward to working with him again. I began teaching the class, and by the end of the session, at 9 p.m., they students were writing and seemed reassured that the class would help them become better writers. Two weeks later, the class had a culminating reading, and it was a thorough success.

I was not a fiction writer, however, and never expected to be asked back, but a few months after I returned to Los Angeles, I received a request from Steve to write catalogue copy for the course for the following summer. It was due by December. It turned out that all Steve cared about was that I was a published writer – and indeed, my publications did include prose – and that I was a very good teacher. During the first decade of summers that I worked at Idylliwild Arts, I taught a single two-week class, but we began to notice how quickly it was filling up. Word seemed to be getting around that my class was an invigorating experience of young fiction writers, and I suggested to Steve that we offer a second class. When that class also filled up fairly quickly, I told Steve that I would be willing to teach a third session, too. That, too, reached its enrollment goals.

About three years ago, I told Steve that my 20th anniversary was coming up and that I had decided to retire from Idyllwild Arts’s summer faculty. It seemed to be a nice, round number that had the ripeness of a cycle of time behind it. I taught my last workshop at Idyllwild in the summer of 2015, and there are ways that I miss it. On the other hand, by retiring, I get to feel the pride of seeing something that I helped build up continue at full strength. A program that only had one two-week session when I started is still currently offering three sessions.

I highly recommend the program and the arts camp as a place that young people can learn the advanced basics of fiction writing. Kim Henderson and Eduardo Santiago are the teachers this summer. Here is the link to the program and the class, which still carries the title that I gave to it when I wrote my first catalogue copy: “To Make It Memorable.”
There are three two-week sessions scheduled from July 3 to August 13.

There also is a poetry writing workshop for young people taught by Brendan Constantine, a very fine Los Angeles poet who attended high school at the Idyllwild Arts campus.

It is perhaps part of the odd twists of life that I always wondered if my mother would succumb to a sudden shift in her health when I was up at Idyllwild. If she had collapsed and died, for instance, when I mid-way through a six-week residence at Idyllwild, it would have been a situation fraught with divided loyalties. Idyllwild became a home for me in a way that I never experienced as a child. It would have been a very tough home to leave under duress. That I left my tenure there as a person should leave a fulfilled part of his or her life makes my time there as memorable as anyone could hope for. In addition to Steve, I want to especially thank Emma, Andrew, and Denise for making Idyllwild a second home for me in addition to my residence in Los Angeles County, and to Cecilia Woloch for introducing me to Steve Fraider.

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