The prestigious UC Irvine program gives grad students what they crave--time to write. But after they've created, they face some tough critics--their peers.

For someone undergoing her baptism of fire, Aimee Bender doesn't look nervous.

The weekly graduate fiction writing workshop at UC Irvine is in progress, and Bender, a 26-year-old first-year grad student from San Francisco, is having one of her short stories critiqued for the first time.

Bender listens intently as her 11 fellow writers, seated at two pushed-together conference tables, take turns holding forth in a sort of literary round robin:

The combination of "being plain and somewhat fanciful in style" works well, says one.

The transition of one character seemed too abrupt, says another.

"There's a part there in the first couple of paragraphs," says yet another, "where she says, 'My hands are the hands of an elephant.' Well, an elephant has no hands. . . ."

With that, the room breaks up, no one laughing harder than Bender.

The weekly Monday afternoon workshop--three-hour sessions in which students' short stories or novels-in-progress are analyzed--is the heart of the graduate fiction writing program at UCI.

Now in its 30th year, the program has served as an elite proving ground for launching literary careers.

"It's a supportive community for young writers," explains fall fiction workshop leader Judith Grossman, an associate professor of English. "It's that, and it gives every writer a bunch of really sharp readers. . . . If you can get your stuff past them, then you have a good chance of getting attention from editors and readers beyond that."

UCI's graduate writing workshop is considered among the best in the country. Many deem the two-year Master of Fine Arts writing program, which offers degrees in both fiction and poetry, second only to the University of Iowa's Writing Program, the nation's oldest and most prestigious graduate writing workshop.

And, even as the UCI workshop's reputation grows, the fiction program is in transition.

Geoffrey Wolff, a nationally recognized novelist and nonfiction writer, is the new director. He recently arrived from Brandeis University near Boston where he taught an undergraduate writing workshop and literature courses.

He succeeds Thomas Keneally, the Australian author of "Schindler's List," who has returned to Sydney after four years at UCI.

"My responsibility here is really to make certain the program stays as good as it is," Wolff says. But, just as he is settling in, a university search committee is seeking a replacement for Grossman, who will leave as early as next June.

After three years of bicoastal commuting during school breaks, she is returning to Baltimore, where her husband is a humanities professor at Johns Hopkins University. Grossman, whom Wolff describes as "the best friend this program can conceivably have," will be leaving reluctantly.

"These are clearly the best young student writers I've ever had or hope to have--that's unqualified," she says.

Wolff echoes her remarks.

"I just don't think there's any better," he says. "The students speak for themselves with what they've done."

Wolff was familiar with the UCI writing program long before he arrived on campus.

"A dear friend of mine, Richard Ford, went here and has followed it very carefully," he says.

Ford, MFA class of 1970, is an award-winning novelist and short story writer--one of a number of accomplished authors who have passed through the program.

Among the dozen alumni who have seen their MFA theses wind up on bookstore shelves in the 1990s are Louis B. Jones ("Ordinary Money"), Varley O'Connor ("Like China"), Lane Von Herzen ("Copper Crown"), Marti Leimbach ("Dying Young") and Whitney Otto ("How to Make an American Quilt," which spent eight weeks on the New York Times bestseller list in 1991 and is now a movie).

The most recent addition to the list is Leonard Chang, a 1993 graduate whose thesis novel, "The Fruit 'n' Food," about the life in and around a Korean-run convenience store in New York City, will be published soon.

Novelists Oakley Hall and the late Donald Heiney are credited with building the fiction workshop to its current status as a place where students turn out "literary" fiction. They were the graduate fiction program's guiding lights for more than two decades before retiring in the early '90s.

One book, though, in Heiney's words, "changed everything."

Michael Chabon's "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," which the then-23-year-old graduate workshop student sold to William Morrow even before it was approved as his thesis in 1987, brought the program national visibility virtually overnight.

The buzz over the coming-of-age novel was generated as much by Chabon's literary skill as by his $150,000 advance--a princely sum for a first novel, particularly one considered a serious work of literature.

In the wake of Chabon's high-profile success, applications to the program doubled. Each year since then, more than 200 writers from around the country have applied for the six first-year openings.

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Students are selected for the fiction program on the basis of short stories or sample chapters of their novels. Although the program's emphasis remains on producing "literary" works, as opposed to genre fiction, both Wolff and Grossman say they're open to all types of fiction writing.

"When we narrow it down to six applicants, they'll be the six best writers we can find," says Wolff.

Says Grossman, "We're looking for people who can really handle the language and who have a voice on the page."

The writing students are typically in their late 20s. Wolff and Grossman say it's preferable that the applicants not come directly from college.

"We want them to see something of the world, to do something," says Wolff. "Certainly their work will be better."

"It's a big advantage," Grossman agrees. "Your average fiction student will have been out anywhere from three to 10 years building up a writing practice independently. They need to be self-starters. You can't really teach them to be writers. They've got to arrive here already with a writing practice going, with projects that are already going on."

During their two years in the program, the graduate students go through six writing workshops. (This year, Grossman is leading the fall-quarter workshop, Wolff will take over in the spring, and visiting writer Ursula Hegi, a novelist who teaches writing at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Wash., will run the workshop during the winter quarter.)

In addition to attending the weekly workshop, the students are also required each quarter to take courses offered by the English department.

In exchange for teaching a freshman composition course during their first year and an introductory creative-writing workshop in the second, the grad students receive tuition and financial support.

The monthly stipend, which covers living expenses, frees them up to take advantage of one of the program's biggest benefits: time to write.

What makes UCI's graduate program in writing the best, Wolff believes, is both its small size--only 12 fiction students, which is one-fourth the size of the Iowa fiction workshop--and the presence of an "absolutely first-rate English department and comparative literature program" that gives the students a powerful theoretical base.

But always, Wolff says, it comes back to the individuals in the workshop--and what they give one another.

"These programs live and die by the students," he says. "That's what it comes down to: to teach one another."

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The weekly workshop--with its freewheeling criticism--is obviously fraught with peril for writers.

"Bad will can be catastrophic, indifference can be catastrophic," Wolff says. "But, as time has passed, ugly experiences in workshops have become rare. These students are very hip to how it works, and they're hip to the golden rule on that one: They understand that what goes around, comes around."

The "golden rule," Wolff says, is not really about being sweet.

"It's being thoughtful in the sense, really, of being reflective, meditative, careful with the work. It's the sense that it doesn't do anyone any good to say 'I hated it.' And it doesn't do anyone any good to say 'I loved it. I couldn't put the darn thing down.' You really have to explain how it was to read the book. The most useful way to do that is to find what in the piece of work the reader most admired in order to hold the rest of it to that standard."

However it is couched, some students have been known to be crushed by the criticism.

In Jervey Tervalon's case, however, negative criticism actually ended up working in his favor. The 1992 program alumnus remembers being so angered by workshop criticism--that the dialogue of the black characters in his New Orleans-set novel was not authentic--that he gave himself the "personal challenge to prove them wrong."

Tervalon, the only African American in the workshop at the time, abandoned his New Orleans novel and began writing a novel so filled with the dialogue of young black Americans that it would "blow them away."

The result was "Understand This," his 1994 novel about young people growing up in South-Central Los Angeles, where Tervalon had taught high school English.

"I owe the workshop the book because they provided a hostile-enough audience in the beginning to keep me on my toes to make me do the best writing I could do," says Tervalon, 36.

Now living in Pasadena and writing a new novel, he remains a firm believer in the workshop experience. What he least enjoyed about the graduate writing program at UCI, he says, was its lack of diversity.

"I don't necessarily mean racial diversity, but class diversity would be exciting," says Tervalon, whose workshop included a Latina and two Korean Americans.

"Sure, there were some people who came from working-class backgrounds, but they were far outnumbered by people who had graduated from Ivy League schools or came from a background of money."

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Most writers who apply to the program have a common goal: to see the novel or collection of short stories they write during their two years at UCI published.

The door to publication is sometimes opened at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Oakley Hall's annual writers conference where writers get a chance to meet literary agents and editors.

Squaw Valley is where Tervalon met the agent who sold "Understand This," thus adding his name to the list of successful UCI graduate writing program students.

But Whitney Otto, who followed up "How to Make an American Quilt" with "Now You See Her" in 1994 and is working on a new novel, says such success stories lead to a misconception about what writing programs in general, and UCI in particular, can do for a writer.

"It's that if you get into UCI's program you'll be published upon graduation. That happens to some, but not to the majority," says Otto, 40, who now lives in Portland, Ore.

Michael Chabon, now 32 and working on his third novel at his home in Hancock Park, says the realization of just how rare it is for an MFA thesis to be published "can be a very sobering experience."

He recalls visiting the campus library after arriving at UCI and seeing a shelf full of bound MFA theses--"year after year of novels and short story collections that everyone had worked as hard as they could on: There they were languishing, with a name here or there that might stick out, a Richard Ford or a Pat Geary."

Of course, Chabon says, not every MFA student winds up trying to get published.

"It's not like all the sperm swimming toward the egg and only one gets in," he says. "I think a lot of people get through with the program and have their thesis and say, 'Now I know I don't want to be a writer.' Which is kind of a valuable function for a writing program."

Wolff would agree.

"Some people say, 'This is too hard,' or 'I want more guarantees: I want to know more about what my life is going to be like than [writing] makes possible,' and so that's a hard lesson, but it isn't a shameful thing to conclude," he says.

"Anyone who teaches writing has been in that place and knows how exposed and difficult and terrifying it can be."

And even those students who are fortunate enough to see their work publishedwon't necessarily be able to support a writing life with their fiction.

"Sure, publication is good, but I haven't made a great deal of money off of it," says Jay Gummerman, 38, of San Clemente, whose 1988 MFA thesis--a collection of short stories titled "We Find Ourselves in Moontown"--was published a year later.

Gummerman says he earned $25,000 off the hardback and paperback sales of the critically acclaimed collection. And he received a $25,000 advance for the hardback sale of his second book, "Chez Chance," his just-published first novel about a paraplegic former telephone company tree trimmer who is trying to spiritually adjust to his condition in the bleak environs around Disneyland.

Gummerman, who teaches composition classes part time at UCI, says that doesn't amount to much when you divide it over six years. Without income from his wife's full-time job as a city planner in San Clemente, he says, "I certainly wouldn't have any time to write."

In fact, with the notable expectations of Chabon and Otto, Gummerman says, most former UCI graduate students whom he knows have to teach or hold down other jobs to support their writing.

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While the dream of financial success eludes many, most of those who continue writing after they graduate from the program do so for the same reason they wrote before arriving at UCI. They simply must do it.

"Most people who make the decision to write realize coming in that it's not something you're going to make a lot of money at, so there's something else that is driving them, some artistic impulse, something that needs to be expressed," Gummerman says.

And for those such as first-year student Aimee Bender, the UCI program provides the perfect opportunity.

"I'm writing every day, which I haven't done before," says Bender, who taught elementary school in San Francisco for three years after receiving her bachelor's in English from UC San Diego.

Bender hopes that by the time she completes her two years in the UCI program, she'll have written enough stories to have a collection.

"With the program, it's like you're given a little bit of a doorway for two years," she says. "You get to kind of relax and take yourself seriously as a writer."

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