Notes From Leonard Bishop’s Class, 1977-78: The Next Two Weeks

Here are more Leonard quotes harvested from that moldering notebook I kept in his class circa 1977. For those who don’t know him, Leonard Bishop taught a novel writing workshop at UC Berkeley Extension until 1983 — he was the man who made me believe, during my 7 years in his class, that writing was more important than food, clothing, shelter. (I talk about how much he meant to me on my first post at http://www.peninhand.org, under “About Me”)

June 5, 1977

“The omniscient viewpoint of the writer never replaces content.”

What I think he means here is that an overused omniscient viewpoint is in danger of morphing into the“telling”option from that cautionary phrase everyone’s heard — “Show, don’t tell.” And here’s that word “content” again, Leonard’s holy grail, that slippery wisp of a notion sometimes more easily described by what it isn’t. I’ve always imagined that, while I’m writing, I can feel it when I’m creating content — it’s like a tension on a line, or the grab of a river current, or maybe the lift a surfer feels (not that I would know!) in that moment when the wave takes over.

“Don’t waste the main character’s time by having him merely observe what occurs. Use him more fully by having him react.”

This one’s important. It’s amazing how quickly a lead character can lose main-character status when s/he is reduced to the role of onlooker. This is closely related to another matter I remember Leonard harping on, though I don’t see it in these notes — “The character who is under the most pressure becomes the main character.”

“Heroines should be more complex than the people around them.”

And heroes too, of course. I always appreciated his surprisingly frequent use of the feminine as a default position when he was obviously referring to both sexes. Back in the 70s it made him a pioneer.

“It’s better to be excessive in the first, second and third chapters — you must overwrite to discover your own material. You can’t do it editorially — you can’t serve as your own editor. Don’t place value on material that doesn’t exist. If it’s not written, don’t judge. The need to edit keeps your work tight and academic. Don’t reduce in your head. If you have a paragraph in your head, don’t select one sentence. It might be the wrong one.”

He had me believing something magic happens when you allow the writing to flow from your head to the pen, as opposed to just sitting there, trying to think it all through. Somewhere in that flow — that’s where writing lives and grows.

“You can’t take vacations. Write, even if only one hour a day. You must always be desperate.”

Leonard thought the natural state of a writer was to be possessed. This held a huge romantic appeal to me — the hapless writer, swept away by forces greater than herself. These days I have a slightly more sober approach.

June 12, 1977

“All knowledge about human behavior first came from writers. You don’t need crazy experiences.”

“It’s not enough to give a character a problem; it must be a desperate problem — open with them sitting on a twig. And someone is hacking it off.”

This one reminds me of a constant problem I had in the beginning: Starting my scenes too soon. I had to slowly, by degrees, train myself to begin a scene right when things began to get tense.

“You can’t just write about what you intend to write about. You cannot plan — you will lack the fullness of freedom.”

“Don’t narrate for too long; narration absorbs the dramatics that have gone before. Keep getting back to scenes. Break into narration with short scenes — be aware of the rhythm of your structure. Dialogue within narration is fine. But narration loses its effectiveness quickly. If the story has enough velocity, then you can stop and start to narrate.”

Leonard was always suspicious of narration, and had me so wary of it that for several years I gave it up altogether. I wrote only scenes. I was sure I’d lose my momentum and my audience. But after a while this started to feel like stacking bricks without mortar. I built up the courage to start using narration again by injecting a little bit of it here and there to show passing time — and discovered to my relief that my audience didn’t abandon me. (How did I know? We always knew when we’d lost our audience. Leonard read our chapters aloud. You’d see the slumping of shoulders, the rapidly expanding doodles on notepads.)

I’ll sign off with this beauty:
“There is no such thing as a simple character, only a writer who sees a character simply.”

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4 Responses to Notes From Leonard Bishop’s Class, 1977-78: The Next Two Weeks

  1. Ah! Sitting on a twig…these are great quotes and I love your description of losing the audience. Thank you for posting. I’ll get back to work!

  2. I haven’t encountered a more wise teacher about writing than Leonard before or since.

  3. What amazes me is how many writers’ lives he’s changed and how many books he’s affected — even when people never knew him. His message doesn’t seem to get diluted when it’s passed through intermediaries. I know several writers who know him only through me and two other members of our writing group, and their writing began to improve when we started feeding them a steady diet of Leonardisms!

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