"Write about what you know" is probably the oldest writing dictum of them all.
In the case of Doug Muir's usual undergraduate creative writing students, following that bit of literary advice typically means writing about a memorable surfing trip to Baja or last winter's romp on the ski slopes.
But writing about what you know takes on a whole new meaning when it comes to the students in the Muir creative writing class offered through the Emeritus Program at Irvine Valley College.
There's Bernard Fletcher, a retired textile company vice president, who is writing about his younger days playing saxophone in speak-easy and burlesque theater bands on Broadway during the '20s and '30s.
There's Ruth McIntosh, a former medical secretary, who is writing about working for the U.S. government in Berlin after World War II--a time when "you could still smell death all over the place," and if you flew over the war-ravaged city, as she did one sunny afternoon, you would not only see the gutted ruins of bombed-out buildings but "millions of pieces of glass that sparkled in the sunlight."
And there's Manfred Krutein, a former naval architect who rose to the rank of lieutenant commander in the German Navy during World War II, who is using his experiences on U-boats to write a spy thriller about the "mystery weapon" that the Nazis hoped would turn the war in their favor.
Although Muir's class is open to anyone, more than half of his 24 students are old enough to have at least 60 years of living to tap in their writing, which ranges from novels and short stories to poems and non-fiction vignettes.
"When you're dealing with the younger students, you're dealing with dreams as yet unfulfilled, the promise of the future and all of that. There's a lot of coming-of-age Angst, " said Muir, 57. "But with my older folks, wow! They have so many stories to tell."
For the Newport Beach author, who also teaches a writing class at the Art Institute of Southern California in Laguna Beach, teaching his Emeritus Program class is a two-way learning experience.
"They never cease to surprise me," Muir said. "As a result, it's an energizing experience. My own creative urge is given a shot in the arm just because of these wonderful life experiences."
Muir--whose 1987 World War II thriller titled "Tides of War" dealt with a group of French resistance fighters and an Allied commando team on a mission to blow up German submarines in the U-boat pens at St. Nazaire, France--was thrilled to discover that the 72-year-old Krutein had actually served at the submarine pens when he wasn't on U-boat combat missions in the Atlantic. Says Muir: "My jaw just dropped when I met him."
"I was, fortunately, never wounded, but it was a lousy experience on a submarine," observed Krutein, who moved to Chile in 1951 with his wife, Eva, who is a published writer. "I was afraid the Russians would move in and take over the rest of Europe. We said one war is enough for us, and I definitely had had enough of being on U-boats."
In Chile, Krutein became a mining engineer and, when he and his wife came to this country in 1960, he became an ocean-mining engineer. "As such," he said, "I was heavily involved in the Glomar Explorer project" to recover a Russian nuclear submarine that sank off the coast of Hawaii in 1974.
Having a life's worth of experience to tap, Krutein acknowledges, is a boon to a writer.
"We can remember all kinds of weirdo things that have happened in our lifetimes," he said with a laugh. "We can use them--massaging them a little bit--and build them into plots."
Muir makes good use of his students' extensive life experiences for classroom writing exercises.
"One day," Krutein said, "Doug gave us the assignment to write about one strange character we have met. Another day he said to write about something very strange that happened in your life."
Krutein said he simply lifted a chapter from his own novel-in-progress.
"That was the easy way out," he said with a laugh, "because these were all strange things I had experienced in my life, which I put in the plot.
"What is so special about Doug, for example, is that he forces us to write haiku--those Japanese poems which have only three lines: The first line has five syllables, the second seven, the third five syllables again. That forces you really to write precisely because every word and every syllable is important. It's a marvelous idea to use that technique as a teaching device."
Like several other members of the class, Bernard Fletcher is putting his experiences down on paper for the benefit of his grandchildren.
"I thought it would be a good idea," said Fletcher, 82. "They're all grown now, and I thought at this time I'm not going to sit down and tell them these stories. I thought if I could write them down they'd enjoy it."
Fletcher acknowledges that "there's nothing interesting to write about the textile business--nobody cares."
But "blowing a horn during those crazy days" of the '20s and '30s is another matter, he said, before launching into a detailed story about the way the speak-easy "hostesses," waiters and management worked their scam to lift the wallets of customers--and after getting a customer drunk, would have him write a series of checks to pay his bill. The Manhattan speak-easies along 52nd Street where he played in four-man bands during Prohibition were better known as clip joints, he said.
"We the musicians had nothing to do with it," he said. "All we were waiting for was to get tips. That was another routine: The girl (hostess) would get up to dance and say to the customer, 'Anything we can play for you, sir?' The girl would then say, 'Give the band a tip.' "
With a laugh, he added, "the tips were great."
Fletcher, who lives in an Irvine mobile home park and still plays sax in a small band at Leisure World a couple of times a week, said the stories he has written so far add up to about 100 pages.
"I don't embellish them. I just tell them as it is," he said, adding that he is grateful for Muir's encouragement. "I'm not trying to sell books. The only reason I'm trying to write these is for the grandchildren, because when I go they'll know nothing about me. You're not going to tell your grandchildren about speak-easies or clip joints."
While he maintains he's no writer, he said he is enjoying the class.
"I'm sitting around with people who are really serious writers and at times I'm saying, 'What the hell am I doing here?' " he said. "At the same time, they enjoy my stories because I'm telling them things they won't experience in a million years."
In November, the class was saddened when one of its members, 77-year-old Millie Daniels of Irvine, died of a heart attack. Daniels had been working on a collection of stories about her days leading USO tours during World War II and the Korean War, according to Muir, who eulogized her in class by reading a local newspaper story written last year when she received an award from President Ronald Reagan for helping the war effort.
For some members of the class, the passage of time has created a sense of urgency to get their experiences down on paper.
Ruth McIntosh said she did not keep a diary during her months in Berlin after the war, and her memory is getting "fuzzy on a lot of things."
But she still dreams of one day being published, so she took the class to help her write about her experiences in Berlin "and other things in my life. They say you should write about what you know about, and that's what I want to do."
Muir's next creative writing class through the Emeritus Program will start Jan. 26. Registration information is available by calling Irvine Valley College at (714) 559-3290.