On the morning of September 16, 2013, my writing mentor Les Plesko committed suicide. I heard he fell backwards off the roof of his apartment building. At first, I chose to assume he’d been drunk and walked too close to the edge. I wished I’d been there to catch him. But I learned that when other attempts were unsuccessful, he went to the roof.
Soon after I received my diploma from the Master of Professional Writing program at the University of Southern California in 2007, I quit writing regularly. Like many postgrads, I was feeling burnt out and exhausted, lost within my newfound freedom and eager for the structure and support of a writing community. My MPW teacher Janet Fitch recommended her friend Les to me.
“If my left eye is looking at you, I’m looking at you,” he’d tell new students of his wayward eye. He smiled, exposing gaps where he’d lost teeth. He was balding on top, but his gray eyebrows and moustache grew thick and feral. Beach tourists often offered him change. His reader was the most important person and his sole concern. I admired his devotion.
For six years, Les taught me to be honest on the page and that writing was about emotions. The first piece of advice he’d given me was: “Think about what you’re committing to paper.” That is, every word counts. I can still hear his throaty cigarette-burned voice in my head: cut, more faster, pay attention, don’t be redundant.
I’d drive him home after class, and his lessons about love, relationships and storytelling continued. He talked about why he didn’t own a car (drunk driving accidents), his girlfriends, and the years he wasted using heroin. He wrote about his addictions in his most successful novel The Last Bongo Sunset. One night he said, “Falling off the wagon is great fun until it isn’t.” He’d triumphed for seventeen years before his last act against sobriety. Because of these open conversations, I learned to trust Les with every word I wrote.
Ours was an unlikely friendship. When I’m not writing, I surf, jog down the Pacific Coast Highway or practice yoga. I’ve touched Angkor Wat, the Giza Pyramids, and the Taj Mahal. I went camping in the Amazon Jungle, where I cradled caimans and ate lemon ants. I sew quilts, weaving modern fabrics together like scenes. I teach classes at a culinary school, measuring and mixing ingredients like the elements of narratives. As for liquor, I can’t hold mine. For that, I’m one of the lucky ones; I realized early in my college career that I wasn’t born with a genetic predisposition for addiction. Yet Les and I shared this inherent need to write.
I can only speculate about what drove him over the edge. Maybe it was the notorious bedbugs that we’d exchanged whispers about at Les’s memorial. (He’d assured me each week when he’d get into my car that he’d dusted off his backpack so that they wouldn’t travel with us. They never did, which made me wonder if the bugs were just a figment of his imagination/paranoia.) Maybe it was the alcohol. (He once said something about “drinking a fifth,” and I responded sarcastically, “Do people really do that?” He said, “Yes, Andrea, people really do that.” He saw that I’d never understand, and it made me sad.)
A lot can be written about his drug and alcohol abuse, publishing failures, the women who loved and pained him, and the negative book reviews he received. Instead, I choose to remember Les for his strengths as a writer, his talent as a teacher and for the priceless gifts he imparted to me. Writing instructors across the globe can learn from what he bestowed to the workshop platform. In the aftermath of his death, as I pieced together what I knew about Les and his life, what surfaced most clearly was the power of a great mentor to impact a writer’s work.
He grew up in Hungary but came to the United States when he was only eight years old, eventually settling as an adult in Venice, California. The Last Bongo Sunset was, as I understand it, autobiographical. The time: the ’70s. The setting: Venice Beach. The hero: a heroin addict from somewhere far away. In it, Les depicts a life of loneliness and addiction. He wasn’t a college dropout like his main character, but instead graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Literature from UCLA. When I reread the novel recently, Les’s lyrical prose felt like reading an old rock album. It felt similar to that of his mentor Kate Braverman; like that of his contemporary and my other mentor, Janet Fitch; like the one he emulated, Joan Didion. I’ve been reading Didion’s essays before falling asleep each night, hoping to understand what it was she gave to Les. Was it the sound of the words or the boozy descriptions of a California only those of us who live here can truly understand? In The Year of Magical Thinking, Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album, in essays about John Wayne and Joan Baez and the Santa Ana winds, I see Les’s California, his grungy LA dive bars, bus rides through Westwood and black crows that sing at dawn. It’s mine now too.
We all felt like we were Les’s favorite student. He listened to us laugh and cry and bitch and moan, and then he taught us how to deliver our feelings onto the page. We wrote entire novels page by page until we’d finished. He’d tell us not to worry about structuring the novel until after all the scenes were composed. He and I once joked that we should title our works Three Hundred Weeks, how long it took us to write the length of a marketable novel.
Class was always about our writing. That sounds basic enough. Sure, we’d spent the first fifteen minutes getting comfortable, discussing books we’d read and films we’d seen. Les was always reading something. I jotted down every recommendation he ever gave me. It’s a long list that includes fiction, nonfiction, poems, plays, short stories, and novels from his favorite authors like Didion, Denis Johnson, Robert Stone and Lorrie Moore, to those also loved by the hipsters in Los Feliz and Brooklyn like Roberto Bolaño and David Foster Wallace, to lesser known works in translation. Not ironically, he liked stories about people who were forlorn, lonely, including: Rawi Hage’s Cockroach, Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart and The Hour of the Star, and Yannick Murphy’s Here They Come. During one of our night drives, he told me about the time he’d spent living in the Southern California desert during the summer months, when the temperature would often reach a hundred and twenty degrees and the sand would coat the inside walls, so he’d stayed indoors with a fan blowing and read.
He’d also talk about what he recently watched on YouTube (Russian dash cam crashes, top rock song guitar riffs). Shortly thereafter he’d segue into a writing topic that was on some ghost syllabus I never saw, such as dialogue (“Use it for conflict between characters”), scene (“Characters shouldn’t just walk out of the room”), character (“Observations carry emotional weight”) or subtext (“What does he really want? Is he thirsty?”). As a professional editor—he also edited medical journals—he had his own ideas about what was necessary: “If you see the scene, then it actually happened.”
Each week, he required us to compose one good page—no more, no less—to read aloud. We were welcome to give him up to eight pages to line edit after class, but he was strict about font size and margins. He told me that he’d invented the “one-pager” after he’d attended a workshop as a student where everyone was allowed to read as many pages as they had deemed necessary. To Les “it was excruciating.”
So we read aloud. It’s no secret that writing is a solitary business. We writers sit alone at our desks and produce content, mostly for our own eyes. Some of us like being alone. Some of us have a lot of anxiety about sharing that work, but after a class or two with Les everyone in that room was eager to participate. We’d sit at the edges of our seats like kindergarteners with our hands raised waiting for our names to be called. Maybe it was Les’s feedback we craved. Maybe it was his your character might not do or say it this way, but hers does and that’s okay stance on peer-to-peer criticism. We felt respected. Les’s mantra was “Show people what they’re doing right.” But by reading out loud, I understood what was funny or sad to an audience based on their reactions. I learned where to present the emotional punches and where to slide more subtly down the page. And then I loved to do it.
He was the most vulnerable guy in the room. He took on this role so no one else had to. He wasn’t my personal Jesus, he hadn’t suffered for my sins, but he revealed his problems and was unapologetic about them. (Read: He liked drinking and hated the dentist.) During fifteen-minute breaks midway though a three-hour workshop, Les would open bags of Hershey’s Minis or Kisses or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and toss their sugary contents on the table, then he’d walk outside to smoke a cigarette. He was a skinny guy with a sweet tooth, and I often worried that candy was his dinner, so I’d bake breads and pastries to bring to him. He loved my mock Tartine Bakery lemon bars.
I’ve often heard the craft of writing described as slicing open your flesh and bleeding on the page, as killing babies, darlings, et al, the implication being that it’s something of a brutal, ugly, masochistic endeavor for the sad, the angry, the messed up artists whose hearts are too wounded for any other type of work, who can’t work well with others, who are—eek—introverts. Maybe. But if I ever tried to romanticize it in Les’s presence, he would say “Aw, boohoo,” or “Oh, brother,” just as he would have to anyone who’d written something self-indulgent or with forced sentimentality.
In my experience, writing is about a lot of hard work, period. Authors far more successful than I have said as much, many times over (see: Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, Ann Patchett’s The Getaway Car, Stephen King’s On Writing). And Les created a safe place to present that hard work. He would often say, “What do you fear? Be specific.” He made it comfortable to feel. We had to feel.
If I wrote something he enjoyed, Les’s eyes would light up and he’d say “Awesome!” or “Great!” in a cool-dude voice. If not, he’d say, “Okay,” and then explain what was working. He wouldn’t make faces or roll eyes. He defended authors’ choices, so long as they followed a basic principle of logic, and he encouraged us to create strong, unique voices. Eventually, he told me, “You know what sounds good now. Listen to you”—and I learned to trust myself. This was possibly the greatest gift he gave me.
I’ll always appreciate the community of LA writers Les gathered. We were published and unpublished, teachers and students, old and young, with or without MFAs and professional careers, and we united in our love for him and for writing. I made some of my best friends though Les. He became part of my identity. Recently, I joined Ivy Pochada’s Advanced Novel Revision workshop though Writing Workshops Los Angeles. Before our first class, we’d emailed the opening chapters of our novels to each other to discuss that evening at Ivy’s house. When I sat down and introduced myself, another writer whom I’d never met turned to me and she said, “I was Les’s student once too. I read your name on the Pleskoism website (created by his students and colleagues in his memory), so I listened for him in your pages.”
We met two days before his passing at a coffeehouse in Santa Monica. He’d offered to line edit my manuscript. I placed the stack on the table, and he glanced up from his book. He was reading Tree of Smoke. He’d read it twice already. He threw away less favored novels, especially the British ones, but those by Denis Johnson stayed with him. (Coincidentally, Tree of Smoke was the first book Les ever recommended to me.)
In drafting this essay, I realized Les lived and died on his own terms, and that grants me solace. He showed me that writing is a service. It might not make me rich or save my life, but the reader depends on me to do it. Without great writing mentors we wouldn’t have great books, and I wish Les had known how much we needed him.
Les Plesko’s magnum opus, No Stopping Train, has recently been acquired by Soft Skull/Counterpoint Press and will be published in October 2014.