Most people who apply to an MFA program do so for a very simple reason: they want to become a professional writer. Which makes Stephen Jay Schwartz, a second year fiction student, somewhat unusual — he’s the Los Angeles Times bestselling author of Boulevard and Beat, a screenwriter, and a former film executive, too. And the fact is, Stephen’s not alone — over 50% of our students are previously published or produced, often many times over — so what was Stephen looking for when he decided, in the middle of a successful writing career, to come back to school to get an MFA? We sat down and asked him the hard questions…including about the spa…
You worked in Hollywood for several years and you’ve published two well-received novels, so in essence you’re in the middle of the career most MFA candidates are striving toward…so what made you decide to go back to school now?
Seems a little crazy, doesn’t it? In many ways I’m the MFA student’s worst nightmare. I mean, really, shouldn’t I be relaxing in some island paradise, cranking out one popular novel after another, chumming it up with the other successful novelists of our time? I think my presence in the UCR program provides a great life-lesson for the young author-to-be; that is, we write because we have to write. We do it because we love it. We don’t write to make us famous and we don’t write to support our families.
I spent a number of years in the film business as a development executive for a major film director. It was the kind of career that would have led me to become a film producer or senior studio executive. I left because it didn’t give me enough time to write.
I found a joyless day job as a salesman at a residential lighting company. It kept the creditors at bay while I wrote my first novel. It took three and a half years to write that novel, hammering out pages every night, weekend, vacation, holiday and sick day available to me. That novel sold to a major publisher and got me a contract for another. The two book sales did not provide me with enough income to quit the day job. I wrote the second novel in a year and it nearly killed me doing it. I actually had to fake a psychiatric meltdown to get the two-week “mental health” vacation that permitted me to finish the novel by my publisher’s deadline. I managed to write twenty hours a day for fourteen days, then drove right back to the day job, “fully refreshed.” After the release of my second novel I got the opportunity to take a screenwriting assignment for a low budget film being produced by a company with a deal at Sony Studios. It wasn’t much pay, but I figured it was enough to justify quitting the day job and writing full time. Between the writing assignment, the small cash I received from my book deals, and cashing out my 401K, I managed to squeak out a year and a half of full-time writing. But, still, I’m the breadwinner for a family of four, and I simply couldn’t pay the mortgage on writing alone. I looked around desperately for work, applied to Trader Joe’s and all the restaurants I frequented when I was a film biz exec. I even spent two weeks driving a taxi, which was both illuminating and humiliating at the same time. I ended up finding work in the lighting business again and continuing the struggle of balancing a 40-50 hour per-week day job with writing the novel and raising the family.
So, what motivated me to get my MFA? I decided I was tired of compromising my dream. I decided that I wanted to live STORY twenty-four-seven. I wanted to wake up from story dreams to days of story-thoughts that bled into nights of story-debauchery and, ultimately, story-dreams. I realized that someone who teaches literature and creative writing carries a license to live this kind of full-time story life. And that license is an MFA.
But with UCR I get more than just a degree. I get the finest set of instructors assembled under one roof. It’s an amazing program—the instructors are all published authors, authors whose work I admire. I find myself devouring their work, marveling at the nuances of their craft, taking everything I can from the experiences they’ve had and the lessons they’ve learned and share. Because you never stop learning how to write. It’s a life-long process and, if you pay close attention, you find that every day you get a little bit better.
So now I balance my day job with the MFA program, my family, and the novel I’ve been writing since the release of my second novel. And I dream of the day I can teach and write full-time, and live and dream story until the stories I have to tell have been told.
It was exciting. I always wanted to get my masters, and I always wanted to attend a UC school. I couldn’t wait to talk to the instructors, many of whom I know personally from sharing time on panels at different writing conferences and festivals. I accepted the whole process as yet another opportunity to learn something new about life. Everything we do, every job we have, every adventure we take gives us something to write. I’m known for being a bit eccentric in the research I do for my screenplays and books—I’ll do just about anything to get a real sense of the world I’m writing. Going back to school is just another adventure, and a great opportunity to explore the adventures of others. I think a lot of the younger students aren’t quite aware of the fact that the coolest people they’ll ever know are the writers they’ll meet in this program and at the writers conferences they attend. I spent so much of my life feeling like an outsider, and after I was published I was introduced to a thousand other awkward outsiders who called themselves, coincidentally, writers. These are the people with whom I feel most comfortable. I think many unpublished authors are in such a rush to get published, to get that validation, that they miss the opportunity to truly enjoy the presence of other people who see the world in a similar way. At our core we are lovers of language and story and, for most, the MFA program represents the first step in a long journey that teaches us to trust our inner voice and the stories we are meant to tell. So, was there an adjustment period for me upon returning to school? Only as there’s an adjustment period one encounters upon taking the first step in any adventure. I experienced nervous anticipation and a desire to learn everything I can before the adventure comes to a close.
Your classmates must come to you for advice—what do you tell them about being a professional writer?
I don’t get a lot of people coming to me for advice—at least not in school. There are too many other wonderful authors–our teachers–who have as much or more experience as me. It’s odd how I hang in the balance between student and professional, and I think it generates a little confusion among my peers. And by my peers, I mean the other students in our program. I mean, here’s a bizarre anecdote – UCR screenwriting professors Bill Rabkin brings in his agent, Mitch Stein, for an interview and meet-and-greet with the students. Well, Mitch was my first film agent over twenty years ago. Because of UCR we’ve been reunited and now Mitch is taking my books out to television producers. I almost feel like I’m taking opportunities away from other students in the MFA program who haven’t had the benefit of spending years as a professional writer. But what these guys will have that I never had is an MFA, and with an MFA they can find a way to combine their creative lives with creative jobs that support their interests as a whole. With my MFA I intend to leave the sales jobs behind and focus entirely on teaching and writing. When students do ask me about being a professional writer I tell them it’s a journey, and it’s never the same experience for any one of us. You can’t follow someone else’s path. Write, listen to constructive criticism, don’t compromise, but make concessions when necessary. And don’t give up—that’s the only thing that can sink you.
Have you seen a change in your writing since coming to the program? Are you looking at your work differently?
The program is definitely influencing my writing style. My genre is fiction, and I started with Mary Otis as my teacher. Mary is a brilliant short story writer and I would compare her to Amy Hempel, who is one of my favorite authors. Working with Mary gave me a new perspective on my writing. She gave me permission to explore the boundaries of the craft—validating my belief that a good crime novel can have as much complexity and depth of character as any great work of fiction. I also took non-fiction as a cross-genre, studying with Deanne Stillman. Deanne is yet another wonderful writer, and I respect her work tremendously. I had the opportunity to begin writing a memoir while in her class—something I was holding off doing until I’d had enough “life experience” to justify it. After a bit of self-examination I realized I had more than enough going on in this troubled little head to warrant such an endeavor. Deanne has been a great influence on my writing for this process. For my third quarter I switched it up a bit. I changed my cross-genre to poetry and studied with Anthony McCann. I’ve always loved poetry and I’ve written a pound or two of poems in my time. But I didn’t have the confidence to see things through. Anthony assured me that my poems had a leg to stand on, and his guidance gave me the confidence to submit a selection of my poems to a major publisher of poetry collections. I’m waiting on the results, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. One of my goals in joining the UCR program was to work with as many of the talented author/teachers as possible during the short time I’m enrolled. With that in mind, I switched to Rob Roberge for my main genre. Rob’s writing is truly exceptional – I’ve read everything he’s published. And as a teacher, I’ve never met anyone with as much insight as Rob. One conversation with Rob Roberge is worth the price of admission. I will value his advice, guidance and friendship long after I leave the grand institution of UCR.
So, really, residency is at a spa. What’s that like?
It’s kind of like UC Santa Cruz deciding to make their mascot a banana slug. Who cares what anyone else thinks? We’re writers! Do you think any one of us is ever going to get the opportunity to spend ten consecutive days in a resort in Palm Desert again? I love the renegade spirit, and I love the community that’s been built. The resort is key to the message. We can do anything we want in this world. We can reach for the sky and, like Icarus, we will succeed. Um…maybe I need to take that cross-genre class in Mythology again…
Is your first book or screenplay…or third…ready for the world? Applications for our fall class are due August 1st.