In Memorium: Paul Max Rubenstein

Last week, I spoke at the funeral of the finest teacher I ever had, Paul Max Rubenstein. Paul is the main reason I am a writer today. What follows are the words I spoke at his funeral on February 7, 2019.

There are those people in life who are truly larger than life itself. You expect them to just live forever. Paul Max Rubenstein was one of those people. I was lucky enough to have Paul Max as my professor in the mid to late 1980s. His wife Deborah asked if I might say a word about Paul as a teacher, mentor and friend. I am deeply, deeply honored. This is no small thing, you see. Paul changed the trajectory of my life completely and totally, irrevocably, forever.  I extend my sincerest sympathies to Paul’s children and grandchildren and thank them for sharing Paul with me and so many others.

Paul Max Rubenstein, August 1988. Photo courtesy of Scott Holmgren

Paul Max Rubenstein, August 1988. Photo courtesy of Scott Holmgren

As I understand it, a Yahrzeit candle is lit during a time of mourning. It is re-lit, annually, on the anniversary of passing.  When my mother passed away from cancer in 1992, my three siblings and I lit a candle. The light brought us some hope. It made us feel a tiny bit better. As Dr. Martin Luther King wisely stated, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”

The candle we lit after my mom had died honored her. It symbolized driving out the darkness of our grief. Paul knew my mother and she had tremendous admiration for him and how he changed my life and the lives of so many other students in so many positive ways.

Paul was a remarkable teacher. Inspiring. Challenging. Riotously funny. And I’d never actually heard a teacher swear like they were in a Quentin Tarantino film. Paul would come into class, always fit and trim, in his khaki pants, an oxford shirt, a sweater, and a tweed jacket — the consummate professor. He always carried with him a steel canister of water and a bag of granola or nuts and he sat and he really listened. He made us all feel valued. Like we mattered. And that’s what any young college kid wants, at least I did, with our whole frightening life out there before us. Paul validated us. He empowered us.  He recognized in each of us our strengths and encouraged us to take risks and believe in ourselves.

Ever since I was eleven years old, I wanted to be a writer and artist. And when I met Paul at the age of twenty, this was the first time I had actually met a real writer, like an actual published writer with actual books and actual film credits. The first time I went to Paul’s office, I marveled at the piles and towers of papers and utter and complete chaos stacked in every nook and cranny and corner. Did he ever throw anything out?! This was a real writer!

In August of 1988, Paul offered to do something sort of crazy. He had really connected with a cohort of students and he offered to lead us all on a short trip to Los Angeles where he would introduce us to his own connections, screenwriters, producers, even his agent. None of this was sanctioned, sponsored or approved of by our college, Paul just did it anyway. All by himself, he chaperoned thirteen students, a diverse, rag-tag lot of creative nerds and weirdos from multiple generations who all felt important because Paul said we were.

I’m sure that trip was a logistical nightmare for Paul, he set up all the meetings, our accommodations, he arranged for multiple rental cars—strangely, four Lincoln Town cars being driven by students on the 10 freeway that may as well have been the Autobahn.

There is a picture taken of us while in L.A. We are all standing by a fountain on a sun-drenched California morning, all together, Paul right there in the middle, wearing dark sunglasses, our teacher, our mentor, our guru, our leader, our inspiration, our creative papa. The future was all out there before us, an unknown road leading to unknown places and it was scary and exciting and mysterious and we had Paul so it would all be okay. 

We all eventually graduated and moved on and went down different career paths. I went into journalism first and then wrote books and after a time, I became the authorized biographer of the legendary science fiction and fantasy author, Ray Bradbury. I worked with him for twelve years on four books and a graphic novel and as I stand here I realize I had the two greatest mentors ever. Ray Douglas Bradbury and Paul Max Rubenstein.

I was also given the chance to teach in a college continuing education program because, as I learned later, Paul Rubenstein had recommended me even though I had no teaching experience to speak of. Today I am the author of five books with a new one on the way and I am a full-time college professor at the very institution where Paul once taught me. I would not be a published writer or a tenured college professor if not for the belief that Paul Rubenstein had in me.

And, so, this leads me back to the Yahrzeit candle, the candle of mourning, and I realize that a light burns in me and will burn for all my days, it will never go out. It burns in all of us who knew and loved Paul. Because he loved us. This light was ignited by the greatest mentor I could ever hope to have, the wonderful, kind, inspiring and caring, Paul Max Rubenstein.

NEW YEAR, NEW WRITING GOALS

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It’s that time of year, as the holiday crooners croon. New year’s resolutions and all that. Lots of creative folk take this time of calendar molting to reflect and to set writing goals for the coming months. Of course, we all know that most people don’t stick to their resolutions. We all have this incredible sense of annual renewal, but according to U.S. News, about 80% of resolutions go off the rails by the second week of February. Not the best odds, but setting goals is important, worthwhile and hope does spring eternal, so maybe this year will be the year you stick with the new game plan!

 So, let’s discuss.

I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions. Why? Because I set goals throughout the year. Resolutions are ongoing. Example: this past summer, I made a “To-Do” list that included ideas for five short stories I wanted to write. I finished them all. The cool thing? I’m confident they are some of my best. My longtime literary agent feels the same. All of these stories are in my forthcoming collection.

I love making “To-Do” lists and it’s vital that I write them down on paper and keep the list somewhere that I see every day. Digital “To-Do” lists just don’t cut it. WRITE THINGS DOWN. ON PAPER. I have recruited my entire family into this endeavor and we all take great delight in crossing accomplishments off of our long list of goals. So, start writing down your goals and stick them in front of your nose!

The next thing I would suggest to all you New Year’s dreamers is to make the resolution, stick with it to the best of your ability, and them give yourself a few days to blow it, to fall off the wagon. Just make sure to climb back on the next day. Taking the pressure of yourself, affording yourself a few days off, is paramount. Creativity must not be a chore. Sure, there’s work involved, but when it becomes albatrossian, you may as well be living the nine to five cubicle dream.

Next step in the writing resolution gambit? Set a somewhat realistic daily writing output for yourself. 250 words? 500 words? This is a page or two a day. Again, if you don’t hit this every day, it’s A-Okay. Just nail it four or five days a week for sure.

The moral of this story is that the only person who is going to make your writing resolution a reality is YOU. Stop procrastinating. Stop striving for perfection with your first draft. The only failure is in not trying.  Make steady progress. Slow and steady wins the race. A little bit everyday adds up after a month or two. And please, please, enjoy the process! Creativity is a gift! It is a privilege. Life can be very hard. It can be tragic and sad. Remind yourself, your writing is always with you.

We all started reading and writing for the pure enjoyment of it all. Never forget this.

I hope 2019 is your most prolific year yet.

Happy Writing!

UNSOLICITED WRITING ADVICE

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It’s been awhile (and several iterations of long-ago blogs) that I served up a platter of unsolicited advice for writers. Yeah, sure, everyone with a blog and the near sentience of a low-IQ squirrel can offer up wisdom for would-be-writers. But here’s the deal—I have been writing professionally since 1993. That’s (gulp) a quarter freaking century. I have probably published close to a million words if you count the books, the feature stories, reviews, comic book scripts, radio scripts, short stories and essays. And I have the war wounds to show for it. Along the way, I developed carpal tunnel (first 80,000 word book) and went from 20/20 vision to desperately seeking an ocular correction (second book; 140,000 words). But hell, it’s all in the name of the mighty word, right?

I’ve been teaching writing since 2001 and every day people ask for advice. So here are a few random thoughts, in random order, for any random people who might stumble upon this.

1. Read

It stuns me when young students mutter an apathetic proclamation of youth-induced hubris: “I don’t have time to read.”

Yes you do! I have interviewed so many musicians over the years, amazing creators, and they all listen to music constantly. All of them. And they listen all the time.

Could you imagine a film director who doesn't watch movies?

So read. Read anything. Novels. Short stories. Magazines. Newspapers. Graphic novels. Poetry. Just read. Through osmosis, you will become a far better writer.

 2. Write. Write Something Everyday.

Stop it with the excuses and the “I don't have the time” or the “I’m tired” routine or the “I’m not feeling it” banter. Write in the notes app on your phone. Scribble on napkins. Blog. Write well-crafted emails. On good days, write your magnum opus.

Just write.

Even if it’s just 30-minutes a day. Every time you write, you learn and you grow.

3. Make a List of Words You Love

Anytime you read and land upon a word you like, write it down. Look up the definition and make a note of its usage. Save it. These words will become a part of your lexicon over time. Words are tools. Collect them. Store them away. Build your arsenal.

4. Finish Shit

Young writers start far too many things and finish far too few. This is why so many writers are good at beginnings and awful at endings. They don't practice the follow through. Keep your story starts and musings and come back to them when inspiration strikes. Then finish them.

5. Jettison the Self-Doubt

There’s nothing worse than the neurotic, insecure writer. It’s boring and it gets you nowhere. Stop the whining and get your work done. Tell the shadowy nag of self-doubt to go lock itself in the port-a-potty at the gates of Hell.

6. Trust Your Subconscious

When we read and we write everyday, we train our subconscious in the art and craft of writing and storytelling. So trust your instincts. They are almost always right. As Ray Bradbury said, “Your subconscious is smarter than you are, so get out of its way.”

This means trust your first impulse with a piece of writing. Follow it through. Once done, then you can intellectualize, analyze, ponder and obsess.

7. Get an Agent

I have had the most remarkable agent for 17-years. She has always stood by me. I just had dinner with her last week in Manhattan. We have a new project just about set to be pushed from the nest. She has always given me great advice. Sure, we have disagreed at times, as dynamic creative teams often and should do, but she has been my partner and she has negotiated for me and defended me and allowed me to focus on being creative. Thank you Judith Ehrlich!

Funny story: in 2001 while at the National Book Awards, Ray Bradbury handed my agent a beautiful, leather-bound edition of The Martian Chronicles. Inside, he had written, “GUARD SAM!”

Judith has done just this for almost two decades.

8. Don’t Self-Publish

Okay, there are exceptions here, but generally, don't do it. Self-publishing is a vanity project with poor distribution. How do you get your book into stores and into libraries? You don't. The neophytes all think their Facebook author page will result in runaway indie-wildfire, and this has happened, but your odds are greater of getting gored by a great white shark.

Truthfully? Let's be honest. Self-published books often look self-published. Big houses don't want them for good reason.  The pre-publication outlets (PW, Kirkus, Library Journal) won’t touch them either.  Get your book in shape. Get an agent and shop it. Patience, grasshopper.

9. Stay Hungry

Be prepared to work your ass off. Never lose touch with your motivation. Never be above pounding the pavement. Stay humble and WORK.

10. Love it

If you don't love it, don't do it. You’ve got to want this. No one else will want it for you.

Well, maybe your Mom will. Or your Dog. But you get my point, so go!