Laurie Ann Doyle: A Writer Who Takes Risks

Writing instructor honored for her dedication to the craft

Extension Honored Instructor Laurie Ann Doyle is no stranger to revisiting her writing. After she graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in anthropology, she moved to Arizona for an internship and worked in the Hopi Indian community, teaching in an elementary school during the day and writing poems and stories that “literally trailed off mid-sentence” at night. Doyle found that the beauty of her environment—the endless sweeps of land, the orange-red rocks, the traditions that stretched back thousands of years—inspired her to write. Doyle says at the time she thought the poetry she wrote was “terrible,” but looking back, she sees the value in her writing and how stories and poems like hers can continue to resonate inside a person, years after it’s been put away. Going back to the stories and poems that mean something to you, revisiting your work again and again to make it better, that is revision. And that is one of the many lessons Doyle passes along to her students.

When she’s not penning her own work, Doyle is guiding students to publication as an editorial staff adviser on Ursa Minor, our journal of student writing and artwork. Working alongside fellow Honored Instructor Daniel Coshnear, Doyle has played a critical role in the publication’s production. Students in the Post-Baccalaureate Certificate Program in Writing benefit from both her publishing experience and her teaching of core skills in writing in the varied courses in which she instructs. I recently sat down with her to find out why she is such a sought-after writing instructor.

You’ve been praised by students for your organizational and communication skills, as well as for being an inspiration to them. As a published writer yourself, in what ways does teaching impact your own writing?
I began teaching at Extension in 2007. Teaching has consistently helped me be a better writer, which really paid off when it came to writing my own book, World Gone Missing (to be published October 2017). In the first class I taught, Learning From the Masters: Techniques of the Literary Greats, I had the opportunity to teach books by many of my favorite authors, including Baldwin, Paley, Flaubert and Hemingway. Preparing for class, I deeply studied how these masters constructed great stories, and along the way I gained both inspiration and instruction. I saw not only how these authors made use of the craft elements (i.e., character, plot, setting, point of view, etc.), but how they brought the story together in an organic and often groundbreaking way.

As I went on to teach other literature and creative writing classes—The Craft of Writing, fiction workshops, a literary history of San Francisco—my students’ energy and enthusiasm kept me going when my own work faltered, and it falters at times for all of us. I had to practice what I preached—make sure that my own stories started in medias res, or at a critical juncture in time; that my characters’ desires drove the plot rather than my manufactured ideas; that my dialogue was crisp and clean.

What made you decide to write a book of short stories rather than in another genre?
Jim Shepard, winner of The Story Prize, jokes that he writes short stories because “that’s where the money is.” The truth is, short stories are infinitely harder to publish than a novel or memoir because editors and other decision-makers say stories don’t sell. This has always struck me as a bit odd because the annual Best American Short Stories is always a bestseller.

My own journey to becoming a short-story writer began years ago when a friend gave me Alice Munro’s The Moons of Jupiter. Entranced, I read the book again and again. Up to that point, I’d only written nonfiction, with a few of my essays appearing in Bay Area publications. After reading Munro’s work, the idea of writing fiction took hold, and I began to write stories in earnest. As the number grew, the theme linking them all together emerged, like a Polaroid slowly coming into focus. Along the way, I published work in national literary journals, and was lucky enough to win the Alligator Juniper National Fiction Award.

“Revision is not the superficial correction of typos and punctuation errors, but re-envisioning your work, seeing it in profoundly different ways and taking risks.”

What is your favorite “subject” to teach? Why?
There’s so much I love about teaching at Extension; the students are smart, motivated and insightful, and the world of literature is endlessly fascinating. But if I have to pick just one favorite subject to teach, I’d say revision.

When I was a new writer, I hated revising my work. I had this fantasy that a first draft should come out fully formed and perfect. In graduate school, I learned that drafts are rarely—if ever—like that. They are for learning what your story is really all about. Revision is not the superficial correction of typos and punctuation errors, but re-envisioning your work, seeing it in profoundly different ways and taking risks. It requires playfulness and willingness to take big risks, including getting rid of a major character or turning your ending into your beginning. In World Gone Missing, all the stories were significantly revised, most many times over. The risks I was able to take, though only after I'd done a first draft, almost always paid off.

I’ve watched revision breathe new life into my own work, as well as the work of my students. As Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, put it, “Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” It’s been a pleasure to share my experience with revision with students and see their work blossom.

“One student wrote, ‘I’d take a bullet for her.’ Wow. I’d helped her realize a long-held dream to write.”

It sounds like you encourage your students to take risks and to keep revising their work, and it is that type of constructive advice that helps your students meet their writing goals. But what is the best feedback that you’ve received from a student?
I’m an instructor who takes student feedback quite seriously. About halfway through every class I teach, I ask each student to give me written input on what’s going well in the course and what could be improved and how. I get constructive criticism—which I appreciate—such as “Give us more time for in-class writing exercises,” or, “Share your favorite books on writing,” as well as compliments.

One student wrote, “I’d take a bullet for her.” Wow. I’d helped her realize a long-held dream to write. She went on to become a terrific poet. Another student who recently got two of his stories published told me, “You've really changed my life as a writer and I will always remember that. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Helping people tell the stories only they can tell—it doesn’t get any better than that.

You are also one of the editorial advisers for Extension’s journal, Ursa Minor, but this is not your first experience in bringing a community of writers together to support and showcase their work. What is Babylon Salon, and how does your involvement in it help you teach at Extension?
Babylon Salon is a San Francisco literary reading series that four friends and I began after we graduated from the M.F.A. program at USF to sustain the writing community we’d built in graduate school. What better way to do this than bring writers together to hear great writing?

Babylon is an entirely volunteer-driven effort and The Armory Club graciously donates use of their performance space for our free-admission events. During the past 10 years, we’ve been lucky enough to feature award-winning writers like Daniel Alarcón, Steve Almond, Chris Ballard, Edan Lepucki, Yiyun Li, Peter Orner, D.A. Powell, Jim Shepard and Ayelet Waldman, as well as many other amazing authors from across the country. Every Babylon includes performances by emerging writers, and we often feature a Bay Area literary magazine and one of their contributors, too.

Hosting Babylon Salon is a natural extension of my work as an instructor. Writing is necessarily done alone, and it often feels isolating. But the “business” of writing—activities like submitting work for publication and getting help with challenges that inevitably arise in the drafting process—is best done in the company of others. Being part of a vibrant literary community is critical to the life of every writer. Classes help build a writing community, and literary readings provide another great way to connect with fellow writers and get inspired. I invite Extension students to every Babylon Salon and several always attend. Some have even become regulars! It’s wonderful to see familiar faces in the audience.

What advice do you have for potential students who are shy about their writing skills but might have some great ideas in their heads?
First, write. Write as preciously and richly as you can about the world surrounding you. Write not just your ideas, but how these ideas translate into action, image and sound. I played a lot of air guitars in my writing head before I actually had the courage to put words down on paper. But nothing really happens until your hand moves across the page or keyboard. That’s when the magic and challenge begin. Classes provide the structure and deadlines to get you writing.

Second, read. I recently heard this terrific lecture by Paul Harding, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Tinkers, who said that your writing can only be as good as the best books you’ve read. He went on to say that it’s possible that your writing can only be as good as your best readings of these books. In other words, your understanding of literary masterworks is critical.

Third, keenly observe the world—pay attention to what interests you, from the smallest detail of a sparrow alighting on a branch to the immense spray of stars overhead on a summer night. As Henry James said, “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.” Your observations are indispensable in good writing.