Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Creative Writing: Leonardo Bercovici Legacy "Get into the Head of Your Character"

My teacher at the Writers Program of UCLA Extension, Leonardo Bercovici, used to talk about "getting into the head of your character." When he said this, he would sweep his hands by the sides of his head, to emphasize that you should inhabit the character's mind. You would then see, hear, smell, taste, feel, think, remember --- in a way BE that character.

He was already old when he was my teacher, an esteemed writer and highly respected, who was feared by all. I knew he was a novelist but was not aware of his importance in the film world. Nor did I know that he had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

He had a stern, no-nonsense way, and he had the ability to point out important issues in one's novel-in-progress. He hammered on "character" and "character development." This was where "getting into the head of one's character" came into play.

I was in his advanced Novel Writing class, working on my first novel, When the Rainbow Goddess Wept  (University of Michigan; Dutton-Penguin). In his workshop, you could submit 50 pages of your work, twice, and if you were lucky, three times. Participants read the work by four people, which meant a lot of reading for the week.

When I was first critiqued, everyone took turns giving their two-cents worth about my work (I like this; I don't like this, etc). Then it was Bercovici's turn. He stared at me with that strict, frightening glare and said,  "All you have to do is finish your work."

Even now I remember the feeling of relief that washed over me.

I learned a lot from him.

The notion that Character, Character Development, and Conflict are important in storytelling came from him.

He was fond of me and I would chat with him during breaks. I asked him about teaching, and his advise to me a fledgling Creative Writing teacher then was to keep asking the student what his story is.

But the most important thing I learned from him was to "get into the head of your character." He repeated this often, with the sweep of his hands. And I got it.

I pass on to you dear Readers, Leonardo Bercovici's advise to get into the head of your character so that you know that character intimately.

I will be teaching "Getting Started" a beginning creative writing class at the Writers Program UCLA this Spring; call the office for more information 310-825-9415
Here is an LA Times writeup about Leonardo Bercovici's passing in 1995:

November 23, 1995

Leonardo Bercovici, 87, veteran screenwriter and educator who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Bercovici, who worked for the film division of the Office of War Information during World War II, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951. He denied that he was a Communist, but refused to state whether he had ever been involved in the party. He lost his U.S. passport, regaining it in 1956, and moved to Europe for several years. Among Bercovici's screenplays were "The Bishop's Wife" in 1947, starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven, and "Portrait of Jennie," in 1949, starring Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten. His other films included "Racket Busters" in 1938, "Chasing Danger" in 1939, "Monsoon" in 1953, and two foreign films that he produced and directed as well as wrote, "Square of Violence" in 1963 and "Story of a Woman" in 1970. Bercovici later became a respected teacher of writing at UCLA and the American Film Institute, work that he continued until shortly before his death. On Wednesday in Los Angeles of kidney failure.
Read also
Leonardo Bercovici
Leonardo Bercovici: Screenwriter Blacklisted during McCarthy Era
Leonard Bercovici
Hollywood Blacklist

This is all for now,

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  • How to Write a Novel #2
  • tags: Leonardo Bercovici, writing, creative, literature, novel, book, author, workshop, screenwriter, Writers Program UCLA

    1 comment:

    araceli lorayes said...


    This is so timely for me. I'm giving a one-on-one workshop to my niece who is a reading specialist. She has a love-hate relationship with one of her young students who is borderline autistic. She wrote an essay for last Sunday, which was basically good, but like all professionals she slipped into jargon now and then. I asked her to improve it with more concrete, emotive words, anecdotes, etc. And a few days ago I thought that I should ask her to write another profile, this time in Steven's voice. So uncanny that you touched on this subject when I was thinking of it.