A Discussion with Award-Winning Author & Instructor Michael Fuller

November 5, 2014

michael fullerNew York Film Academy Los Angeles Instructor Dr. Michael Fuller (English 101) was recently honored the Book Publicists of Southern California IRWIN Award for Best Fiction for his new novel, Legacy.

The book has received praise from critics, including a Midwest review which said of Michael‘s book that it was a “superbly crafted and thoroughly original novel. Legacy is a fascinating read from beginning to end and documents Michael Woodworth Fuller as an author of considerable and impressive talent. Very highly recommended for personal reading lists.”

We had a talk with Dr. Fuller about his writing career, his book, and any advice he would give to our writing students.

NYFA: Would you mind telling us a bit about your background and how you got into writing?
I started writing when I was thirteen. I was given a diary that had one page for each day of the year. I made myself write every day. I didn’t now why. Because of my obsessive-compulsive nature, I thought then it was because I had to fill the page. I still have the diary. Also, when I was at sea, I wrote a journal –influenced, of course, by Joseph Conrad – I remember in high school sitting after school while my English teacher, Mr. Englander, talked with a colleague, grabbing any scarp of paper I could find and scribbling something about something that had something to with something I knew nothing what about. Didn’t matter. Scribbling was the thing. At San Francisco State, after the service, I was admitted into an English class that I have since perceived as consisting of high-school brain children (what would be AP students today) and found that I could keep up with them and write, write, write and receive double A’s on my papers – went into the creative writing program for 6 units ‘till I found there was nothing more I was capable of learning from them. Desperate to find something, I went into the theater department was consumed by it, but all the time knew in my soul of souls that I was doing this activity until I learned how to write.

NYFA: You’ve written across a variety of mediums, including poetry, drama, non-fiction, film, television, and with Legacy, fiction. Do you feel your style changes on what medium you’re writing for, or are you able to explore certain themes or styles in one medium that you are not able to in another?
The medium mandates style changes because each medium has its own format. Certain themes drive the work – perhaps it is one single theme in different formats or media – it is the theme that mandates the medium for its expression.

NYFA: As a professor at NYFA, what advice do you give your students in approaching different styles of writing or distinct mediums? What lesson or piece of advice do you think applies across the spectrum of writing?
The first and foremost advice is that “writing is rewriting what you have rewritten.” It is Trigorin’s impulse that applies across the spectrum of writing. As he says in Chekhov’s play, The Sea Gull, “I must be constantly writing, writing, writing.” And so it is. As Gene Kelly says in Singin’ in the Rain, “Gotta sing, gotta dance.” Gotta have a gotta to write, sing, dance, act, direct, paint, draw, design, sculpt, compose, and/or any of the other arts I haven’t mentioned.

NYFA: What was your process in writing Legacy? Are you the type of writer who writes daily or at a fixed time, or do you compose when the inspiration comes? How do you lay out a narrative of this size?
My friend, Richard Russell Ramos, actor and director in New York and regional repertory summed up all the formulas for acting (“acting is believing” and all the rest of them) by saying, “Acting is acting.” And so it is with writing. Writing is writing. One has one’s most creative hours of the day – for some it is early morning, others, late at night – and you sit and do what you gotta do. Some people plan everything before they write a single word – others do detailed character analyses, others plot, others write the ending before they begin, others write and discover as they are driven by the work – for me, an idea or a feeling comes that there is a story somewhere there – sometimes words just come, a sentence that must be written and once it is, another sentence follows, and then another, and finally, the thing evolves and eventually, it comes together or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t good-bye to it – let it go and go on to something lese. Sometimes it won’t let you go, so you keep on keepin’ on. Then, come the disciplines of craft that you must obey.

NYFA: What was the inspiration behind the story of Legacy? Did your own personal history in the US Navy have any bearing on penning a story about the after-effects of war, as felt by those who both saw combat and those who did not?
The inspiration of what Legacy actually was came with the title very late in the work. There were some personal experiences that I drew upon- who doesn’t – but the dictum is true: “My life may be a story, but my story is not my life.” All work in whatever art form is autobiographical because it comes form you – who else is it going to come from? No one can write like Hemingway or Faulkner or Baldwin or Welty or Hurston because no one is they; one is one’s own self and that is the resource. In relation to the after-effects of war – I am not a combat veteran – but the military does provide a sense of being and camaraderie, of going forth that no other venue provides. Combat is unique to those who have experienced it.

NYFA: Were there any particular writers, artists, or works of art that helped to shape the themes and stories within Legacy?
Follow-Up: What were the over-arching themes or ideas you knew you wanted to explore before even sitting down to write Legacy?
Writers: Conrad, Hemingway, Shakespeare, Cheever, Faulkner, Baldwin, Agee (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men), and Steinbeck.

The socio-political dynamics of the times – 1950s through the 60s particularly (the Vietnam era being prominent), and the consummate stupidity of those in power. Eventually, the absolute miracle of the human being to transcend ruination dominated everything. This, of course, took a very, very, long time.

NYFA: In addition to fiction, you also write historical non-fiction, such as your book looking at the legendary Idyllwild Arts. What eras of history or historical topics are you drawn to?
All times are of interest if the story is contained therein, but mostly, I would say from late 19th century to the present 21st.

NYFA: You have extensive experience in the theatre, both as a director and writer. What skills or opportunities does the theatre allow you to explore as a creative that your other disciplines do not?
I have never written for the theater as much as I have loved the theater and still do love it. Perhaps one day I shall DARE to write a play – what the theater has taught me more than anything else is dramatic structure and conflict that drive the action forward to catharsis.

Regarding the theater, writing, and catharsis, my close friend Garry Michael White (Scarecrow, Golden Palm, 1975) some of whose plays I have directed, says this of catharsis: “I have seen many plays this season, and most of them fail to interest me. Not because of production values, not because of the acting, not even because of inept directing: it is the writing. I’ve asked myself repeatedly why this is, and I think the answer is a simple one. The person making the final decision to mount the play has not answered this one question: Where is the catharsis? That might seem like an antiquated question, but I would argue with anybody that it is not. It is as true as when Aristotle posited it 2700 years ago. Where is the catharsis? Theme does not make catharsis. Trend does not make catharsis. Clever plot twist does not make catharsis. You must feel it in the life and destiny of a character and if you cannot do that do not mount the play. A comedy can have catharsis (“Noises Off”). So can a satire (“The Miser” “M Butterfly”), as can drama which is arguably not a tragedy (“Streetcar”) and so can the simplest little situational encounter (“The Zoo Story”). I have seen one play in the last year which brought me to the level of those pieces, “The Mountaintop” which chronicles Martin Luther King’s last night alive, in a motel room. Two actors, one cheap set. Catharsis. Successful theatre.

NYFA: In addition to your upcoming collection of short stories, Five!, what other projects do you have in the pipeline?
Five! is now Six! and it may be even or eight. How Do You Learn ‘Em To DO Some of that Stuff? is a handbook of grammar – a practical hands-on guide to using grammar as a tool – grammar is nothing more than a bunch of tools people use – not a bunch of rules that people memorize. I utilized this approach when I taught English in high school (which I truly adored doing! Yes, high school is true epiphany!) and am still utilizing in classes I teach at NYFA. Seems to work.

NYFA: Do you have any parting words of advice for aspiring writers and how one can develop a singular voice and style?
Of course, everyone, at some time, wishes to sell what he or she writes and to be known for that writing. In the end, however, if that is why one writes, if one does not achieve those dreams, one will suffer greatly because in the long run and at the end of the line, that disgusting bumper sticker that said, “He who dies with the most toys, wins” is an egregious lie. He who dies with the most toys dies just like everyone else. Moss Hart was right: you can’t take it with you. What you do take is who you are. In the end some writers make money and acquire fame, others don’t.. Sometimes it’s because you have talent or don’t; often, it’s the roll of the dice, as the say. Those symbols of success don’t really matter. It’s the WORK that matters. My wife and I know someone who is an absolutely horrible singer. That does stop him from going to class, practicing, and singing? No. And it shouldn’t. This no-talent person has what it Takes- the courage to keep on keepin’ on because he has to, and so he does. He deserves great respect. As Arthur Miller said of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman: “Attention. Attention must be paid to such a man.”

Write. Don’t worry about being a writer. Just write. In addition, READ, READ, READ the great writers. Learn form them. Learn dramatic structure, learn what makes character, conflict, rising and falling action, all those things that people tell you but cannot truly teach you – suffer with your bad work – most of it will be bad – have the guts to throw out what does not work – learn the what the different forms of writing – or media – mandate. You DO have to have skills and discipline – and write. The one four-letter word ending in K that means anything is WORK. Gotta live for THE WORK. Worrying about what to say next, worrying about whether it’s any good or not, worrying about whether someone’s going to buy it, or if you’re going to become rich and famous, railing against the world are all waste of time. Writing isn’t.