Mentors: Marvin Mudrick

I would not tear papers apart — say they're no good and say they don't work — unless I believed that all of you are capable of writing good fiction.

By Bob Blaisdell, Jervey TervalonDecember 30, 2011

    Mentors: Marvin Mudrick

    MARVIN MUDRICK CREATED the College of Creative Studies at U.C. Santa Barbara in 1967, and was its provost until two years before his death in 1986. His book, Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery, remains a key text in the criticism of Austen. He was a prolific essayist and frequent contributor to the Hudson ReviewThe New York Review of Books and Harper's. Bob Blaisdell's memoir Well, Mr. Mudrick Said... appeared this summer, and all selections from Mr. Blaisdell are from the book, which was reviewed in July on the Madeleine Brand Show. Transcripts of Mudrick's Narrative Prose class also appear in Mr. Blaisdell's memoir, and are excerpted from Mudrick Transcribed: Classes and Talks by Marvin Mudrick, edited by Lance Kaplan (Santa Barbara, 1989).


    Bob Blaisdell: That first quarter of the College of Creative Studies at U.C. Santa Barbara, the spring of 1978, the end of my freshman year, besides finding Louise and falling in love with her (though she had a boyfriend back home in the Bay Area), and working in the library, and missing San Francisco, I found Marvin Mudrick's Narrative Prose class. It was his policy to enroll all first-quarter CCS students in his class ("So I can get to know you — and you to know me"), and in describing the class he probably said something like, "You write stories, and I read them and we talk about them."

    I realized when I showed up the first day that I had not accurately imagined the class. I thought we would sit at our desks and write stories, and he would walk around, looking over our shoulders, and make comments. No, into the big, wide, well-lit Girvetz 1115 (this was his usual classroom, close to his South Hall office; to have class with him elsewhere became weird and amusing: this isn't his classroom, we're just visiting!; his real classroom is ... well, you know!), he came in and sat down at the table in front of the class, and, sometimes — though never at the first meeting of the quarter — without even a hello or nod, picked up a story from the pile of stories that had been left on his table, and, not naming the author, read it aloud. Sometimes he would stop and point out something good or bad in the story, and sometimes, but less often, he would just read through the story until he got to the end. Then he usually asked us for comments. We were cautious, as if stepping out onto thin ice.

    Jervey Tervalon: He read our stories cold and anonymously; and it seemed humane and perfect with none of that weird hot-house drama of fiction workshop in graduate programs where everything is political and calculated as a dozen or so writers sit about a round table, sweating about their future careers as the next Jonathan Franzen or Michael Chabon.

    Marvin Mudrick: The class is conducted very simply. You turn in stories, and I read them aloud — I don't identify the author. One of the nice things about having a fairly sizable class is that it takes a long time before you figure out who's writing what. These wretched little cozy classes in which you have five or six people, and after a while you know — I mean as soon as the firstword is read you know who wrote it. And then you begin being very careful, you walk on eggshells, you don't want to hurt anybody's feelings because you don't want them to hurt your feelings, and it's just a pain in the ass. The great virtue of a class of this size is that it really is anonymous.

    So you're not going to get at least personally offended by having your incapacity to write exposed to public opprobrium. That doesn't help too much — I'm aware of that too. Because oddly enough, even though you're not identified, you know who you are. And if you are — if your story is being made fun of, then you will take it that you're being made fun of: your feelings will be hurt, you'll be outraged and crushed, humiliated, depressed, and so on.

    And there's nothing I can do about that. I know there are a number of things that you want me to do. I mean you want me to be (as you might say) kind. The trouble with kindness is that it takes a long time. That's really my only objection to kindness. If it were possible to be kind as quickly as it is possible to be cruel or funny, I would be kind all the time...

    Tervalon: It was Mudrick's Chaucer course and we were discussing Troilus and Criseyde on a Tuesday afternoon where I would look outside and see beautiful women walking under the Jacaranda trees. I tried to keep a low profile in that class because everyone seemed able to easily read Middle English except for me. I tried to hide my parallel translation from prying eyes, like anyone cared but me. Though I didn't always follow what was going on in his courses — it was quick-paced to say the least — I recognized that love was a constant theme and I was very interested in romantic love at the time. Mudrick talked about love enough that I expected it to surface at each meeting of his class. When it finally did, he could be insightful or coarse but it was never dull, always entertaining.

    Thing was, I was in love, and it wasn't going well. My girlfriend, a year behind me in high school, had arrived on campus and discovered to her great joy that being skinny was really appreciated at UCSB in a way that was inconceivable back in south Los Angeles, where skinny was bony: something a woman shouldn't be. She was now popular among her freshmen peers and white guys were into her, the thin and exotic, café-au-lait girl who could throw a Frisbee better than most of them. She was tired of me and my set of parlor tricks wore thin. I had gone to the well too many times and there was nothing left to impress her with: I had already shown her how to throw a Frisbee and how to print photos in my makeshift darkroom, which just happened to be conveniently located in my bedroom so that we could make out among the romantic odors of Fix and Developer. She was sick of my ass and wanted out. I knew this but couldn't stand the idea of it, so I clung to the delusional hope that she would love me again.

    That day in the Chaucer class, Mudrick's words pierced my thick skull as he spoke about the difficulty of maintaining intimacy in a relationship: "That the problem between Troilus and Criseyde is the problem that we all face; that try as we might, it's the inevitable diminishment in love that we face, and there's nothing that we can do about it but endure it."

    His words overwhelmed me. It was exactly what I felt. Words that so precisely described my emotional state that I thought it possible Mudrick was staring inside of my head; that he had been spying on me. I sat there in my desk, crestfallen, sure that he was absolutely right about the state of my personal life. And still I would not accept the truth of his words. When the class ended I rushed to her dorm room and knocked on the door and she was on her bed, studying. I sat next to her, waiting for her to regard me, which she did only reluctantly. I tried to kiss her and she turned her head. That was that, I accepted it was over, and in that moment I wondered about Mudrick's penetrating trick; how he knew what was going on with me better than I did. Later, when he decided I was a serious writer, he mentioned how he was surprised that romantic love had become my subject matter. He didn't say, but I knew he approved and that made me happy.

    Mudrick: What I'm going to say now is of the highest importance. I would not tear papers apart — say they're no good and say they don't work — unless I believed that all of you are capable of writing good fiction. I do believe this. I think there are some of you who have taken this class about six or seven times and still don't believe that I believe this, but I do. That is, I do think it would be cruel to — I mean it's like attacking a paraplegic for not doing a marathon. If you can't do something you just can't do it, and it's wrong for people to make fun of you if it's physically or mentally or morally impossible for you to do something.

    But that's not true. For me the most interesting fact about the writing of fiction, and I think this is not true of any other artistic medium: you are all experts. You don't know it but you are. And you're experts for a very simple reason — because you're in command of the medium, which is ordinary colloquial speech. I mean that's where it all comes from — you're all masters of that. You don't know it, in part because you very seldom allow yourself to speak your own language. You're usually speaking somebody else's language. You're usually sucking up to somebody else, you're trying to speak formal English, you're trying to evade some responsibility, you're trying to ingratiate yourself to your parents or your superiors — something like that. Or, for that matter, because don't get the idea that what I'm saying is that street speech is the real speech — very often it's the phoniest speech of all. Like locker-room male speech, which is the phoniest and most disgusting of all phony speeches. I mean fuck, shit, piss, and so on: very very boring, very dumb, and completely inexpressive of anything except male limitations.

    Blaisdell: When Mr. Mudrick picked up my story — recognizable to me from the back of the classroom by its curled, handwritten pages, and announced, "Hot Mush," I was so prepared for his amazement that I had probably already written the enthusiastic review of it in my head. I was surprised, then, when a page or two into the story Mr. Mudrick remarked that this character "Steve" was an imbecile, and that anybody but an imbecile would know what the girl's actions meant. The class laughed a lot at this. The more serious problem, he said, was that the author didn't seem to know that Steve was an imbecile. Someone later told me I turned red during this discussion.

    Later, it might have been in that first quarter, but possibly not until the fall, I wrote a story about my friend Pete from San Francisco, and how he had spent the night with his wild new girlfriend, who was Jewish, whose father was a college professor who didn't like non-Jewish boys dating his daughters, while he, "The Schnozz," was the Roman Catholic son of a recent East European immigrant. Mr. Mudrick liked "Schnozzola." He might have even said immediately afterward, shrugging, setting the story down on the have-read pile, "I like it." (Sometimes he let the story and its reading be its own commentary, and a one-word or one-line remark would be the complete and final discussion.) In any case, I remember it as my first success! I had written a good story, and now I could die happy.

    Mudrick: From time to time you'll see evidence of it in what comes out in the class. Somebody will come up with maybe a paragraph or a sentence or a whole story which will be absolutely amazing. It will come from nowhere and very often from a person who has turned out the most awful nonsense before.

    So I would be very grateful to you if you would grant me — if you would make that concession, that possible concession: In spite of what he says, in spite of how rude, cruel and unfunny he is, that he does believe that. He keeps saying it, so until he has proved it beyond any possible doubt, I'll believe that he believes it. I do believe it.

    Blaisdell: I have always associated Anna Karenina with Mr. Mudrick, and Tolstoy has always been the literary colossus with whom I associate my personal colossus. They were authoritative, they were moralistic, they were interested in discussing everything about human beings, never mind whether it was a literary topic or not; they were headstrong, they were independent and accustomed to upsetting the apple-carts of literary and pedagogical convention. While I am usually mild-mannered, they were not. They would have their say. I was a mouse, and they were my champions.

    So from the first quarter in Narrative Prose, I understood Tolstoy as Mr. Mudrick's touchstone. He did not say, "Jane Austen couldn't have written that better!" He did not say, "Chaucer could not have written that better!" His customary comparison of sublimity was, as he laid his hand atop the story that one of us had written, "Tolstoy could not have written that any better!"

    Tervalon: Outside of love, my experience of mystical revelations — epiphanies that reveal startling truths about my existence — are more comic than enlightening. Once, a girlfriend invited me to see a popular psychic at the Biltmore in Santa Barbara. I wore a suit with a purple muscle-shirt and sported a full beard; I didn't think the psychic, a blind fellow with an English accent, would mind. He worked a very crowded room making very precise statements that seemed to demonstrate knowledge of their lives; he would say in a shrill voice: "Madam in the pink dress, your aunt on the other-side says all is well and that the real estate transaction will happen soon," and "Sir, in the tweed jacket, your loving mother lost to you for so very long, says that the lost silverware is under the couch." It went on like that endlessly, and I wanted to leave as I usually would when at church, but most everyone seemed to want their money's worth of the psychic's attention except for me. Then the psychic pointed in my direction: "The lady in mauve," he said, and I thought he might have meant my girlfriend, but she was wearing white. "You have a message from the other side. Do you want to know what communication is being directed to you?"

    Suddenly, everyone is looking at me, and I'm shrugging, wondering what to do. "If the lady in mauve is not interested in learning what information there is for her, then we'll move on."

    The crowd began to laugh as I stood there awkwardly, wondering how even a blind man could mistake me for a woman. That's how it usually works: I don't respond to inspirational speeches, or those who profess secret knowledge. I don't easily invest emotionally or intellectually; and even being near people who do is often just uncomfortable. I assume I was born that way, with a surfeit of natural cynicism, or maybe it was because I was raised in a working class black neighborhood; and having emotional control was the difference between getting hurt or walking away with all your limbs intact.

    Writing instruction is about trust; trusting yourself and trusting that those that you respect will tell you the truth about your own work. Once, in his office, Mudrick said being a novelist is an incredibility difficult thing to do, that it's a minefield; so many things can go wrong. I said, without thinking, "I can do that." And a split second later I realized what an arrogant a thing I had said, but Mudrick just paused for a moment and said — without sarcasm in his voice, or caution about the difficulty of the task of being a good novelist — he smiled and said, "Then you should do it."

    LARB Contributors

    Bob Blaisdell is the author of Creating Anna Karenina: Tolstoy and the Birth of Literature’s Most Enigmatic Heroine (Pegasus, 2020) and the editor of The Wit and Wisdom of Anthony Trollope (Blackthorn Press, 2003).

    Jervey Tervalon was born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles, and got his MFA in Creative Writing from UC Irvine. He is the author of six books including Understanding This, for which he won the Quality Paper Book Club’s New Voices Award. Currently he is the Executive Director of “Literature for Life,” an educational advocacy organization, and Creative Director of The Pasadena LitFest. His latest novel is Monster’s Chef.


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