Notes from Leonard Bishop’s class, 1977-78

Part One: May 2 to May 9

I’ve had these notes tucked away in a drawer for a long time, and they’d been calling to me. These are from a writer’s workshop that met back in the 70s, made up of students who’d been in Leonard Bishop’s UC Berkley extension class. Going through them was like puzzling out lines of an old papyrus — I wish I’d written more neatly back then! Still, the bits and pieces I salvaged illuminate the writing process as only he could — I thought they’d be helpful to anyone struggling with a novel. And those who studied with Leonard will probably be able to hear him while reading this.
Here are two weeks’ worth; I’ll post more as I transcribe them:

May 2, 1977
“It’s not important that anyone think of you as a good writer — what matters is, can you get to what you need? Forget style — it handicaps getting to content. Content carries you.”

This one I love. He’s giving you the freedom to be messy. If you’re trying to be literary while you write a scene, it’s all over.
“Content” was one of his favorite words. It popped up constantly. You had to be in the class for a while to puzzle out exactly what he meant by it. It doesn’t just mean having something happen in your story. It’s more than providing a good strong motivation for your character. “Establishing a conflict” almost covers it but not quite. It’s all of these and greater than the parts. I just know I got it wrong dozens of times before I ever got it right.

“By chapter 10, there are no simple episodes. Many complications have occurred by then; the scenes are a compendium of events that have already taken place.”

“Be more versatile in what you have people do — you need versatile situations that absorb the complexity of what precedes them. Go from the immediate to the wider picture.”

(Said in response to a student’s chapter)
“You are still writing on capabilities that already exist. You’re not reaching for other ways of presenting material. The material lacks versatility, invention — it’s stuck in sameness. A series of adequate chapters adds up to the mundane. Take chances.”

“Change should happen on scene — it shouldn’t be summarized, quickened or glossed over. Narration deals with less valuable material.”

“Write fast. Don’t let go until you say all you have to say. Linger on details.”

May 9, 1977
“Discover the use of the scene and don’t put more in. You don’t need an in-depth probe of a character’s motivation. You don’t have to even know the motivation — many things you couldn’t know. Keep a scene short. Show the moments of illumination. Do it visually. Use small paragraphs at the beginning, then lengthen them. Don’t go into detail about a character whose function is merely mechanical. Find the range of your focus. Have a point of revelation. Select from many possible scenes. And don’t settle for a scene just because it’s the only one you can think of.”

It surprised me that he thought you really didn’t need to know why your characters did what they did. People are complicated, he would say; no one understands anyone else, anyway, so readers will accept it! Related to this is something I heard him say repeatedly: “The writer herself is so much more fascinating than the characters she creates.” (Yes, he often said “she,” something I loved at the time.)
Scene selection was another of his favorites topics. He taught me to think in terms of “trying out” scenes — like you’re auditioning them, more or less. Or running experiments in a lab. You expect most experiments to fail.
Which is why writing a novel takes so damn long.

“Don’t spend a lot of time on secondary characters before the main character has started off — he is like a frame holding everything else.”

Said of the short story I handed in that week:
“The writer overwhelmingly tells the story. It is never acted out. (You are) caught up in the flow of the prose…after a while it becomes facile…. You have to hold a scene down. Your scenes aren’t scenes, but contributors of information. Create the same effects through different scenes. You should be able to tell your story 1000 ways.”

This was a problem I never did iron out until I stopped writing short stories and started a novel. I was drowning in my own prose. The big shift came with chapter 8. I had things happening so fast in that chapter, to me it read like a cartoon strip. But Leonard loved it. I thought he was nuts. And it was wise of him, too, to lay off criticizing all the other things that were still wrong with that chapter. He was just so happy I’d learned to make things move.

“Think of your book as a wheel. The first chapter is the hub — it is the place of emergence. The second and third chapters are spokes. The final chapter is the rim.”

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4 Responses to Notes from Leonard Bishop’s class, 1977-78

  1. Char says:

    So much wonderful advice! I wish I’d had the opportunity to be part of Leonard’s writing group. At least I get the side benefits through Cathy, Mark & Marie. Looking forward to your next installment.

  2. Thanks, Char! It was so much fun going through those notes — it felt like time travel — I could hear him; I remembered students I’d forgotten. I have a whole notebook full of Bishopisms. I just hope I don’t go blind trying to decipher my messy writing!

  3. Carol Lopez says:

    Wow, no wonder you were so inspired by him!

  4. Yes, he was pretty amazing. I can honestly say I never would have had the guts to start a novel without him.

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