PITC Community Interview with Ellie Herman

Ellie Herman is a PITC host teacher at Animo Pat Brown Charter High School in South Central Los Angeles. For the past three years (and again this year), Ellie has hosted a new writer in her classroom every month, as part of PEN In The Classroom’s Literary Journal Program. The Literary Journal Program aims to introduce students to a range of genres over the course of one school year by providing a series of in-class genre workshops. At the end of the year, PEN publishes a literary journal, called TRUTH, that includes poems, stories, and personal essays written by students, faculty, and staff—anyone can submit their work. Last year, for the first time, parents of students also were published in TRUTH. Recently, Ellie spoke with PEN about her experience as a host teacher and about how the Literary Journal Program has changed the literary culture at Animo Pat Brown.

Before you became a teacher, you were a television writer. What inspired you to change your career path? How has your life changed since then?
I’d wanted to change careers for a while. For me, I think the inciting incident was the Writer’s Strike [of 2007-2008]. I spent so much time walking picket lines with so many writers, getting to know so many people, hearing their stories. All of the people I met were terrific—and almost all of them were white. I started thinking: who is getting to tell stories in our culture? Why is this storytelling power restricted for the most part to privileged white people? If I’m going to fight for change, if I’m going to march, what’s really worth fighting for? I had a lot of time to think on those picket lines, and by the time we were done, I was ready to move on.

How did you discover PEN In The Classroom, and what made you want to bring a writer into your classroom?
I’d started a small literary magazine at Animo Pat Brown and it was the most rewarding thing I’d done at school. I wanted to expand but wasn’t sure how—I didn’t have any funding and though the school was emotionally supportive, no one really had time to work on it with me. God knows there was no money to pay for a beautiful publication. I saw that Animo Film and Television high school had partnered with PITC on an exciting-sounding project. I did a little research, found Michelle and Adam, and the rest is history! I love bringing writers into the classroom. It’s always been my goal to build a bridge between our community here in South Central to the larger creative community in L.A. When professional writers share their time and their stories to our kids, it opens their eyes to a world of new possibilities.

How do you think the monthly cycle of writers and the opportunity to submit to a literary journal has affected—if at all—the literary culture at the school, among both students and staff?
It’s just become a big part of our school culture in ways I find very moving. Our students now see writers as people they can contact, people they might try to get to come and talk to us. It’s only early September and I’m already getting submissions to the magazine—I haven’t even started promoting it yet! The most surprising kids come up to me and tell me they have a poem or a story. For me the most moving thing this year has been running into APB graduates who are still writing. In the last month I’ve run into two former students, now in community college, who each told me they’ve written a book!

How has the Literary Journal Program evolved over the years? How do you imagine it will evolve in the future?
Well, it keeps getting bigger, which is a good problem to have. I was really excited last year by the contributions by so many parents, and I’m really hoping to involve parents even more. This year, a parent has already approached me about submitting poetry. We’re using the previous journals a lot in class. Kids who have published in the past are like mini-celebrities around here.

Can you describe one of your favorite memories from a literary journal workshop?
I really loved the time Amy Friedman enraged me by doing an exercise where we wrote down five things we couldn’t live without, then made us tear up and throw away all but one of them. It was outrageous! Jon Sands’ visit this past year was really a highlight—his performance of one of his poems just enraptured the kids. And Dave Thomas’ workshops are always riveting. They always make me laugh uncontrollably, for some reason. He is just so intense.

Did you have a writing mentor when you were growing up?
Not really. I wasn’t much of a writer when I was a kid. Mainly, I just read all the time. I didn’t really discover writing until college. Once I moved to L.A. I found two wonderful writing teachers at UCLA Extension, Eric Wilson and Tom Filer. I would not be a writer today without Eric’s sharp, merciless, witty criticism and Tom’s nurturing guidance.

What advice would you give to a young aspiring writer today? What advice would you give to a student who doesn’t think that he or she has what it takes to be a writer?
I always give the same advice: write every day. Read every day. Find a group of people who can give you compassionate, honest feedback that will help you grow. If you can do that, you have what it takes to be a writer. In fact, you are a writer.

What are you reading now?
Swann’s Way. I’m not kidding! I’m in this really killer book club full of professors and super-serious people. Each member is expected to discourse for five minutes. It’s terrifying! I’m only on the first paragraph and we’re meeting next week. I assume that by the next time you see me, I’ll have been kicked out of the club.