I saw him on Main Street in Venice before I knew who he was…

Posted: September 27, 2013 by Janet Fitch in pleskoisms
Tags: , ,

From Jamie Schaffner–

I saw him on Main Street in Venice before I knew who he was. Later, when I’d become his writing student at UCLA, I remembered I’d already seen this man: wild gray hair protruding everywhere from his head but for his bald crown. His haggard bronze face was speckled with a day-old beard and a gray mustache. He’d worn a ratty dark blazer. It flopped up as he pedaled his rusty bicycle on the sidewalk. I’d thought he was homeless.

At my first workshop, Les Plesko spoke for over an hour to us twelve students crowded along both sides of a narrow table, then announced a short break by flinging fun-size chocolates at us, and left. He returned to the room smelling of cigarette smoke, and continued to speak for another hour. I never heard him lecture again, not like that. I took plenty of notes that evening and have read them often— it’s everything he ever taught me.
So why did I finish the course and take many more classes with him? According to my Les lecture notes: you can’t write and pay attention to the rules of writing at the same time. You need a mentor. A guide that nudges you along as you write through the unknown, fishing for characters so they, not you, can tell the story you were always meant to tell, though it won’t come out like you’d pictured.

On week two, we students again sat elbow-to-elbow along that narrow table, and each of us read a single page aloud from our work. My turn came and my voice shook. When I finished reading Les raised his pencil and said, “I’m getting that your character is thirsty.”
The following week in workshop after I’d read, I pressed my palms into the table and waited for Les’s comments. “There was a bottle of water mentioned on your page,” he said. “Maybe you could have your character drink it.”

The next week Les said, “I find it interesting that your character talked about juice.”

On the forth week, I’d barely finished reading before Les said, “This is awesome!” He looked at me with his good eye, the other roving, as usual.

“Thanks,” I said. “I figured out this thing about my character. She was thirsty.”

My classmates laughed. “Good move,” Les said over the din. “Keep doing that.”

And we did, he and I week-by-week for 120 weeks. Les taught the uncomfortable process of writing with gentleness and infinite patience, all in service of cultivating your own unique voice. He never once talked about what ought to be happening in your novel on page such and so, and he never uttered the terms rising action, character arc or plot points. That nonsense, he thought, could only produce characters with no souls. He taught us how to tell our stories through whatever was written on each student’s page. Twelve times a week, on the fly, he dug up and served the object lessons.

It’s been two years since I’ve been in workshop with Les, and thankfully I still hear his voice in the afternoon when I read what I’ve written earlier in the day. That’s not nothing, but Les was also a brilliant editor who made my sentences beautiful. It was pure joy to use his edits— except the ones like “huh?” and “open this up,” those were hard, but an even bigger joy once I’d wrestle them down. I’ll miss the stench of his cigarette smoke emanating from my page as I raised it closer to decipher his penciled, almost legible, comments.

The more pages you eked out, struggling to find the complex truths of your characters, the more Les gave you back. He never shirked his responsibilities to students, peers or employers, even at the end. He was scheduled to teach Novel IV at UCLA in early October and took his life in mid-September. Clearly, he gave his two weeks’ notice.

Fuckin’, Les.

I was lucky. For years, I sat at his narrow table and learned over and over again—my character was thirsty.

  1. virgpaz says:

    Thank you, Jamie. So spot on, but now I’m thirsty!

  2. virgpaz says:

    So agree with “pure joy to use his edits”

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