A Tricky Business

Bernays teaches a fiction writing class to Nieman Foundation fellows at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Teaching folks how to write fiction is a tricky—and relatively new—enterprise. You have to be coach, therapist, parent, and performer all at the same time. Some question if it’s even possible. From day one, you have to convince your students—many of them skeptical of you to begin with—that strong prose requires a high level of skill in arranging and rearranging 26 letters and a few punctuation marks and at the same time being able to retrieve from your root cellar the most useful, passionate emotions. In effect, the teacher is telling her students to be precise and wild at the same time.

The first time I was hired to teach— almost fifty years ago—I had never taught anything to anyone, except some rudimentary table manners to my children. The idea, I was assured, was that if you can do it, you can teach it. No sweat.

It took me only a few weeks to realize that my students—bright kids at a prep school—needed structure, that simply telling them to go write a story was as useless as handing a French horn to someone and asking to them to play “The Blue Danube”. So I invented several exercises that isolated particular ingredients, like dialogue, description, point-of-view, and even plot. So far so good. It took me somewhat longer to realize that I had left out an element of fiction that is just as important as craft: writing from your pain. The most distressful moments in your life contain the richest lode to turn into fiction. Not surprisingly, they were not all that enthusiastic about doing this sort of emotional

I’ve taught writing in 17 establishments, including three high schools, several colleges and graduate schools. I’ve been writer in residence (which doesn’t mean you live there) in three, had half an endowed chair (with my husband Justin Kaplan) at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, and finally, on Zoom, taught a self-selected group of men and women. Along the way I’ve had an unexpected education myself, having been introduced to both geniuses and people with tin ears, folks who were, emotionally speaking, stuck at the age of 17, and that rare bird, the natural writer who will never need a teacher. You can spot these the first time they read aloud in class.

Many who join writing classes have a tough time separating their work from their egos. You have to keep reminding them “One step at a time;” “don’t get discouraged”; “don’t compare yourself to your mates—this isn’t a class in calculus.” Learning how to write well is a struggle. A lot start out with an “I can do this” attitude, quickly realize that it’s not so easy and then week by week, struggle on up the mountain. The brave ones respect and even love the climb; others drop off and are never heard from again.

I fall for most of my students; it’s the parent in me. Their successes are mine. Their
frustrations sometimes keep me awake at night. I have met and become friends with men and women whom I never would have met otherwise. Some are too famous to mention; most are working stiffs who just want to keep in touch. I play “Words with Friends” with three of them. Some are not so savory. One was a young woman who fell in love with me and informed me that I had written the bible. When she asked me if I loved her, I stupidly said, “No, but don’t take it personally.” She stalked me on the streets of Cambridge and one night came to my house dressed like Lawrence of Arabia. I persuaded her to see a shrink, who after seeing her, called me and said “the young woman you sent me is a paranoid schizophrenic—but not to worry, she’s unlikely to cause you harm.” Wonderful.

Eventually my stalker moved to New York from where she sent me a pair of gold and ruby Tiffany earrings and—good girl that I am—I returned to the store at some cost. For more than two decades I found an email message from her a couple of times a week.

A young man who took my adult-ed class began yelling at me one day : “You promised me that I would get published if I took your class. You broke your promise!” When I reminded him that I had never promised him anything, he got up and left the room. Another delicate child/woman began crying as she stood up and inched toward the door of the living room where I taught. “I can’t take this,” she said. Goodbye.

Mr. G, approaching middle age, was one of the laziest students I ever had the pleasure of teaching. When it was his turn to read aloud, he started to read stuff that was perilously close to pornography. How to tell him that this particular genre was not what I was in business for without sounding like an old fart? I got him alone after class and asked him not to read any more porn. “It makes some of the women uncomfortable,” I said. “I know,” he said. When I asked him why he had joined the class he told me: “I wanted to get laid.”

Then there was a beautiful woman (whom I’ll call Nancy) who was deaf, unable to talk clearly and almost blind. The thing she had in abundance was self-confidence. She was one of those people who believe that if they want to do something badly enough, they’ll succeed. It was painful for me to watch her struggle—even with the signer she brought with her. I tried to act as if she were just like everyone else in the class. I had to run the class very slowly in order for Nancy’s signer to translate. As for the other students, they showed remarkable kindness and patience while I was torn between sympathy and exasperation. One day I got a call from one of the university’s sub-departments. I can’t remember what it was called but I remember precisely what I was asked by the well-meaning woman who, when I sat in her office, asked me to run the class as if Nancy were the only one in it. I told her I couldn’t do that. That however much I empathized with Nancy, there were fifteen other people in the class who deserved an unadjusted style and tempo. I thought that I was going to be fired but heard no more about it.

Adult-Ed brings together people who otherwise would never bump into each other. My students ranged in age from late seventies down to teen-aged. One man had been a bomb defuser in World War Two. Several were bartenders, an ideal job for someone who wants to write stories. One woman asked me if I thought she should give up her job and concentrate on writing. I usually hesitate to give advice. Suppose they accept it and it turns out a disaster. But I had no hesitation with this student. She turned out to be an obscenely successful novelist.

When I was a very young woman, I thought that writers were the most interesting and sexy people in the world. I still think so. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have spent all that time explaining, cajoling and applauding folks whose burning hope is to be a published author of glistening prose.

And what have I learned? Among a host of other things, that everyone has an imagination; the trick is to give it wings and set it free. If you want to hold your reader you have to write from your pain. Don’t be surprised if your first draft makes you want to throw up. And, finally, you know you’re on the right track when your students understand this advice from Elmore Leonard: “If it sounds like writing, revise.”


Image: Courtesy of NPR, November 18, 2015.

Anne Bernays
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  1. Thanks Anne! Blessings
    I was a hopeful aspiring writer but never got published and am still glad I wrote. At 83 my writing is about answering memoir questions for my family. The writing skills I did attain make me sound like a writer to them.
    Actually writing saved my life back when it fell apart and no one came to help me begin again. I wrote at night after the children were in bed and I too had gone to bed. I taught my left hand to write when my right hand tired. I kept at it till something made sense. Then I could fall asleep. I did put a world together word by word. Blessings, Kate


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