by Marcus Hennessy
Amy Friedman’s path to the podium at the 2007 Outstanding Instructor Award luncheon has passed through virtually every genre of creative writing, from short story to playwriting to newspaper columnist to screenwriter to essayist and memoir writer. The wisdom she has accumulated on this personal odyssey has made Amy not only a skilled and successful writer, but a sagacious instructor as well, reflected in the consistently glowing praise of her students: “Amy is a very gifted instructor, supportive yet critical—accessible and smart and grounded. Able to handle various kinds of students with varying degrees of experience, Amy is a very rare kind of teacher.”
Author of the books Kick the Dog and Shoot the Cat (Oberon Press), Nothing Sacred: A Conversation with Feminism (Oberon Press), Best Bedtime Stores (Oxford Canada), and the syndicated newspaper column “Tell Me a Story” (over 100 newspapers worldwide), Amy joined the Writers’ Program in 2002 as a seasoned instructor from Canada, and has since expanded her resume with well over 25 courses, seminars and workshops ranging from Writing the Personal Essay to Creating Memorable Characters to The Art of Creative Nonfiction.
Still fresh from accepting her award in December, and currently preparing to teach her Writing the Personal Essay workshop in the nationally regarded UCLA Extension Writers Studio, February 7-10, Amy took some time to talk about her past, her present state of mind, and the future of writing.
Q: While you’ve written two well-received books of creative nonfiction, can you tell us more about your syndicated newspaper column, “Tell Me a Story”? How often does it appear, and what-or who-is the main focus of your commentary?
A: “Tell Me A Story” was born in 1991 at the newspaper in Kingston, Ontario where I had long had a column (for adults). It began as “The Bedtime Story,” a six-day-per-week venture of adapted and original stories for children—mostly folktales, myths, legends and fairytales from around the world. After three months, the feature was picked up by ten other Canadian newspapers, and by November 1992, Universal Press Syndicate had hired me and my illustrator, Jillian Gilliland, and they began syndicating the feature, one day per week (you can see it online at www.mythsandtales.com). Again, these are stories designed for families—multicultural folktales, legends, myths. Over the years it has appeared in hundreds of newspapers as far away as Shanghai and Dubai and Western Australia, and it still runs in about 100 papers around the world. For the past two years I’ve also been independently producing CD Audiobooks with selected stories (www.mythsandtales.com).
Q: In your Writers’ Program Instructor Statement, you talk about studying with masters: can you give us a name or two, and what was it about their style that inspired you to pursue writing as a career?
A: Ah, happy to! Donald Barthelme was my first real writing mentor; I actually decided to enter the graduate program in creative writing at CUNY (City College, New York) in the late ’70s because he was teaching there. And then I had the amazing fortune of also studying with Manuel Puig while a student there (as well as Cynthia Ozick and others). But Puig and Barthelme were both heroes of mine for very different reasons. I love Barthelme’s wisdom, humor, the “spareness” of his prose, and its brilliance. He’s an absolute original, and he taught me to think, hard, that it’s not just the beauty of prose that matters—though he was a stickler for grammar, punctuation, selection of just the right word—but the wisdom of the story. I can’t rave enough about him, and more people should know his work—he sort of vanished too early and died just two months before the publication of my first book, one of my great heartaches. Puig was masterful, playful, witty, one of those amazing South American magical realists, and he also taught me the value of story, humor, and again, just the right word, the perfect image to convey meaning.
Q: There seems to be a real trend in media towards reality-based programming and film; do you see this same trend in the publishing industry? Are book publishers and sellers more inclined now towards nonfiction and memoir writers?
A: Hm, maybe. I know memoir has become the genre of choice and in many ways far surpasses fiction in popularity these days. I don’t know why, but I know some stories call for memoir. I still love fiction, and my earliest training—with Barthelme and Puig—was in fiction, but I think any genre can be artful, just as any genre can be schlock. Reality-based programming on television strikes me mostly as gossipy and back-stabbing and a little mean-spirited, while the trend in book publishing (perhaps this is my Polly-Anna view) feels as if it has more heart and soul. Not sure what this is about—I think trends come and go, and as soon as you try to figure out what the “latest” thing is, it’s gone.
Q: What is the single most important thing a teacher can impart to her or his students?
A: Wow, the single most? I think perhaps for a writing teacher at least the most important thing is to convey a sense that each of us has something to say and is capable of saying it, and that we owe it to ourselves to say it in the most effective, even elegant way possible, to pay close attention to our own voice, our stories—our souls, if you will.
Q: You’re teaching Writing the Personal Essay in the 2008 Writers Studio, February 7-10. Would you say that the market for personal essays is more or less vibrant these days, and how much writing skill does someone need to craft a personal essay?
A: It’s a wildly vibrant market, and it appears to be only growing. How much skill? Well, I’ve seen lots of pieces published that frankly I think should have been more skillfully crafted and could have been much stronger had the writer spent more time working on both the artfulness of the prose and the meaning of the story. I think it sometimes takes a long, long time—months, years even—to discover what it is we’re trying to say in a story (to find the theme, that is), and I think we live in an impatient world. So I push people both to delve deeply but also to publish. It’s a funny tightrope walk. I didn’t publish anything for a long, long time—my first publication didn’t happen until I was 32, and I’d been writing (seriously writing) since I was 13. But I know the spirit of the writer is buoyed by seeing him or herself in print, so…I push people to send their work out there, too.
Q: What does winning the 2007 UCLA Extension Outstanding Instructor Award in Creative Writing mean to you?
A: You know, I was sort of floored when Linda Venis phoned to tell me. Stunned, really, and I think maybe I’m still a little stunned. I know a lot of the teachers at UCLA Extension, and though I haven’t had the opportunity to study with them, I have heard from other students so much praise about these other instructors that I can’t imagine how anyone can select “the outstanding instructor.” I’m just flattered, honored, and, yep, still a little stunned. It makes me feel great, much the way I know sometimes publishing a piece makes my students feel that, wow, someone noticed all the hard work. A writer’s life is mostly solitary, and I don’t think most teachers are enough appreciated, so, well, …a lovely, pleasant surprise.
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Marcus Hennessy is a member of the Writers’ Program staff.