Last Tuesday, the UCLA Extension Department of the Arts gathered in DeNeve Plaza to honor 10 instructors in the areas of interior design, landscape architecture, studio arts, design communication arts, directing, music, creative writing and screenwriting.
Now in its 22nd year, this award has singled out and celebrated the rich diversity of teaching styles, skills, and strengths within what is the country’s largest continuing education Arts department. In particular, the Writers’ Program had the chance to honor some of our teaching all-stars: David Borofka, for Online Writing Education, Laurel Ann Bogen for Creative Writing, and Tim Curnen for Screenwriting.

As instructors came up one-by-one to accept their award, each expressed their gratitude toward not only their administrators, but overwhelmingly, they were appreciative of their students. It was a nice reminder that teaching is a reciprocal act, both parties walk away with something in hand, whether it’s literally in the form of a finished manuscript or screenplay or in sparked creativity or revised insight into a problematic story line.

Before the big ceremony and luncheon, I asked the winners to reflect on teaching, writing and what receiving this award means to them.

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Iowa Short Fiction winner, David Borofka, came all the way from Northern California to accept his award for Online Writing Education.Though Dave’s teaching ability extends to all levels of fiction writing, it’s particularly been his attention and dedication to students at the advanced level, the most demanding and rewarding group, that has earned him his Outstanding stripes.

Question: What does wining the 2008 UCLA Extension Outstanding Instructor Award in Creative Writing Online mean to you?

Answer: This has been a wonderful validation of ten years of teaching online, one more example of that old saying that we go to school in order to get jobs that aren’t even invented yet. I have appreciated the opportunity to teach for the Writers’ Program and to work with writers who literally come from all around the world. To be recognized in this way by this program is quite an honor.

Q: You’ve had success recently in the literary world. You won the EWN Short Fiction Prize (Congratulations!). What one piece of advice do you think most helps writers on the brink of advanced work?

A: Thank you! There’s nothing better professionally than having someone say that your work is valued. I was not a quick study as a graduate student, and it took five years after I’d finished my MFA program before I ever had a story published. And then it was in a magazine that was sold in the racks at grocery store checkout counters—next to The National Enquirer and The Star. Yikes… But I was so happy at the time for that tiny bit of positive reinforcement! I am the poster child for dogged persistence rather than huge talent and overnight success. So when I tell students that perseverance is all, I mean it, and I can prove it: achieving a certain level of success is possible; it just might take longer than we have the willingness to imagine or bear.

Q: Your students have recently had success as well. The student you nominated won first place in the James Kirkwood Prize competition. Did you have any significant mentors in the beginning stages of your career? If so, what did they teach you?

A: I’ve had many excellent teachers over the years, as well as kind and supportive colleagues and friends, and a long-suffering wife who encouraged me even when she hated the things that I wrote. What they each taught me—in one way or another and most with all manner of kindness—was this: shut up, sit down, do the work. Don’t complain; it’s a choice you made. Go to bed. Repeat.

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When poetry instructor Laurel Ann Bogen came up to accept her award for Outstanding Instructor, you would never know a serious illness almost prevented her from continuing her teaching career with the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Laurel Ann has been involved in the Los Angeles poetry scene since the seventies, and has been instructing poetry writing courses at UCLA Extension since 1994. When Laurel told the gathered group she was overjoyed to be well and teaching, it was clear she gives her students 100 percent.

Question: What do you see as your strength as a teacher? Is there any facet of teaching you find particularly challenging?

Answer: Not comparing one student to another — or to me. I believe that each writer has a unique voice and that they grow at their own pace. Often I have a student who feels frustrated at first, but then comes to realize that becoming a poet is a bit like being in a tapestry and that we are always in flux. We are more today than we were yesterday and will be more tomorrow than we were today. I encourage students to write as themselves, not to write like I do or anyone else. I sometimes get overly enthusiastic — I guess that can be difficult.

Q: If I asked your students, “What is the most significant thing you have learned from Laurel Ann?” what would you hope they would say?

A: That studying with Laurel Ann I found out things about myself I did not know before.

Q: What does winning the 2008 UCLA Extension Outstanding Instructor Award in Creative Writing mean to you?

A: I cannot even begin to tell you how much this means to me. About four years ago I had to take a leave of absence from the Writers’ Program because of a serious illness and I feared that I would never be able to teach again. When I was notified that I had received this award, I literally wept.

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Screenwriting instructor Tim Curnen teaches one of the most important sequences of courses in the Screenwriting unit, Introduction to Screenwriting I, II, and III. Tim’s dedication to his students is evident in their evaluations of his teaching, and I became privy to his dedication to writing when I received two sets of answers to the interview questions. In his second email, Tim wrote, “writing is in the rewriting, after all!”

Tim generously shares his thoughts on teaching screenwriting and the joys and challenges of the job.

Question: What do you see as your strength as a teacher?

Answer: As a working screenwriter and as a seasoned teacher, I’m pretty well tuned to the creative challenges my students face and to the pressures they’ll be up against if they choose to pursue a screenwriting career.

I try to teach my students the things I wish I had known when I was starting out–to show them ways to approach a story, to familiarize them with the tenets of the craft, to suggest constructive working methods, to help them find their voice, and to encourage them to be unafraid. I try not to be too dogmatic about any of this. I want my students to absorb the fundamental rules of the craft and to understand how those rules can help them creatively. But I also want them to try new approaches, if they can justify them.

And I’d like to think that one of my strengths is simply taking the time to give my students the attention they need and deserve. It’s not easy for beginning writers to get their work read and critiqued by someone who knows the ropes, and that’s something I enjoy doing.

Q: Is there any facet of teaching you find particularly challenging?

A: I love the challenges – that is teaching to me. The most rewarding challenge? That each project is unique. Students come to the Writers’ Program from every sort of background with ideas and aspirations drawn from the widest imaginable range of experience. So far, in my classes, they’ve included a world-famous movie star, a veteran Los Angeles police detective, at least two helicopter pilots, several district attorneys and public defenders, Iraq War veterans, medical doctors and EMS workers, novelists, musicians, playwrights, CPA’s, school teachers, aspiring writers from all over the world, and professionals from every facet of the motion picture business – actors, editors, cinematographers, composers, animators, computer techs, producers and studio executives. And that’s just for starters. They all have stories to tell and experiences to share with their fellow writers, making every class unique and every student a resource for the group.

The challenge is to help each of these writers to develop the talents they already possess – to give them the encouragement and the skills they need to move the visions in their minds accurately and effectively onto the page.

The most difficult challenge? Addressing the sometimes wide gap between a student’s aspirations and the realities of the film industry. I try to spend some time in each course opening up this avenue of discussion, to give students as clear a picture as I can of the challenges that lie ahead for a new screenwriter. They must know what to expect, and they must be well prepared if they plan to continue.

Q: If I asked your students, “What is the most significant thing you have learned from Tim?” what would you hope they would say?

A: I’d like to hear the answers they’d give to that! But here are three things:

That writing is a process that takes time. Good ideas don’t come all at once. Be patient – work steadily and put in the time necessary to let the story and characters evolve fully. Work out the characters and story first, then write a rough draft from beginning to end without fussing too much over the details, then revise it and enrich it and revise it again (and again), drawing on everything you’ve learned about your characters and story along the way. It’s a big (and common) mistake to try to write a polished screenplay in one pass, revising and reworking every detail as you go along.

Second, that the best stories are shaped by the fundamental nature of their characters. “Plot flows from character” is close to a cliché in writing circles, but it’s true and it’s so easy to forget. Working out plot first, then backfilling with appropriate characters, is a common error and a sure path to a dull script.

Finally, that screenwriters are in the business of creating memorable experiences. We tend to toss around the term “compelling” a lot – compelling characters, compelling stories, compelling scenes. I ask my students to get behind that word. What makes us care about another human being? Why should someone else care about some story that you care about? Where in a scene will the audience lean forward, eager to know more?

Q: What does winning the 2008 UCLA Extension Outstanding Instructor Award in Screenwriting mean to you?

A: I’m incredibly honored and moved by this award. I’ve worked with the faculty and staff at the Extension long enough to know and deeply appreciate how talented and giving they all are, and to be granted this honor in such good company means a great deal to me.

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The Writers’ Program heartily congratulates the winners of the 2008 Outstanding Instructor Awards!

Gabrielle Stephens is the Program Assistant in Creative Writing (Online) and Events.

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