Here at the Writers’ Program, our students find it wise and integral to learn from professional writers who have dedicated years to learning and practicing their craft. Writers yearn for sharp insight and look to learn from creators who have journeyed in their respective fields, so that they too, can build a literary and creative life. In Lowell Cauffiel, we find an award-winning journalist, a true-crime author, and now a novelist and film & television writer. This winter, Lowell will be teaching No Nonsense Writing: Putting Professional Principles to Work, where students will learn six professional principles drawn from Lowell’s lengthy writing career to increase the productivity and salability of their own work.
Read on for our interview with Lowell, and get ready to mine some gems of wisdom. He’s got plenty!
WRITERS’ PROGRAM: Hello, Lowell! Tell us a little bit about how you got started as a writer. Who and what influenced you to write?
LOWELL CAUFFIEL: I had no intention of pursuing a writing career when I graduated from high school. That changed when I started at Wayne State University, an urban college in Detroit where some of the most depressed areas of the Motor City surrounded the campus. There was so much profound urban experience nearby – homelessness, drug addicts, prostitution, homicides, and I began trying to capture it with poetry. Then I took a journalism class and fell in love with the idea of writing about reality and being able to make a living at it as a reporter. The city room, where I started as a copy boy, was populated by all kinds of volatile characters. This was in the seventies, which turned out to be the last days of old-school, politically incorrect, deadline journalism – and it was intoxicating!
WP: This may not count, but I’ve seen enough episodes of Mad Men to imagine that city room you were in! You were a successful journalist before you began your book-writing career (Lowell was a writer for The Detroit News and Detroit Monthly Magazine, folks!) What did you learn as a journalist?
LC: Journalism taught me the value of extensive research. I also fell in love with what was called “New Journalism,” developed by nonfiction writers such as Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and Hunter S. Thompson. They were using fiction techniques such as symbolism, dialogue and narrative structure to write newspaper and magazine pieces. I began using that approach in feature and magazine stories and began winning a lot of awards. That approach required meticulous, in-depth research. After all, it was journalism and you had to get all the facts right or you would be writing retractions, or worse, getting sued.
WP: And how does this influence your novel writing and film/TV writing now?
LC: My research approach carried over into my fiction. When you write fiction you’re essentially telling an elaborate lie. But you make it believable by getting all the details right – details like laws, procedures, descriptions of real locations, how people in various occupations talk. Even today, I cringe when I see works that don’t get the details right.
For example, I saw a Detroit detective on a major network TV series threaten a suspect with the death penalty. Michigan was the first English speaking government in the world to outlaw the death penalty in 1846. The show was cancelled after its first season.
WP: What does a typical day look like for you as a writer?
LC: It’s all about sticking to a routine for me. I believe sleep clears the unconscious of clutter through dreaming, so my mind is at its best in the early morning. I get up at dawn, and after a shower, wake up at the keyboard. The earlier the better, so I’m not tempted by distractions.
Being prolific is all about overcoming resistance. That can come in a variety of sneaky forms, like getting the bright idea that I need to go to Staples to check out multi-colored paper clips. I write until lunch. Then nap afterwards and can often get a few more pages out. I also find taking a nap can solve a writing problem. More often than not, the solution appears after the nap.
WP: Oh, we like you even more now that you’ve endorsed napping as a creative activity! We have a couple of creative nappers here at the WP (including me). You’ll be teaching No Nonsense Writing: Putting Professional Principles to Work this winter quarter. What can your students expect to learn in the class?
LC: I designed this class, which I use to teach in Ann Arbor, Michigan, after noticing that a lot of accomplished authors appeared to have the same mindset and writing routines. I also found many authors struggled with the same demons particular to the writing trade. Students can expect to learn the mental and practical techniques that accomplished writers use to not only be productive, but to get a measure of satisfaction out of writing, which can be elusive in the quest for perfection. Students should be prepared to abandon some of the myths and unproductive practices that are associated with the writing game.
WP: You have an extensive career as a professional writer. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve heard along the way that you’d like to share with students?
LC: That came years ago from my late friend Jack Olsen, a New York Times bestselling nonfiction crime author. “Don’t talk about what you’re writing. Tell it to the page. Otherwise you will become bored with your story before you ever write a word.”
WP: Lowell, that’s noteworthy advice. Thank you.
If you’re interested in enrolling in No Nonsense Writing: Putting Professional Principles to Work during the winter quarter, click here to register for the course, or call (310) 825-9415 for more information.
Ani Cooney is the Program Assistant for Creative Writing (Online) and Events. If you have any questions, contact him at 310-825-0107 or email@example.com.