by Debbie Burke
In the early 1990s, a successful screenwriter, producer, and military consultant named Dennis Foley left Hollywood to move to the small ski village of Whitefish, Montana. He’d been a popular writing instructor at UCLA and was now on the forefront of a brand new wave in education: online classes. He could live wherever he wanted, while students sent him assignments and manuscripts via email.
At the time, our local group, Authors of the Flathead, was a small rag-tag gang of hobby writers who fiddled around with words and supported one another in our fledgling attempts at publication. I’d sold my first story to a literary magazine that paid me a $5 check that bounced. A couple of other members wrote unpaid columns for weekly newspapers. Definitely not the big leagues.
We were the ignorant leading the inexperienced.
In a small town, it didn’t take long for word to get around about the new guy from Hollywood who had worked on hit TV shows like MacGyver, Cagney and Lacey, China Beach as well as motion pictures. The club president and I summoned our courage to invite this Hollywood big shot to speak at a meeting.
Dennis graciously said yes and he turned out to be anything but a Hollywood big shot. He not only spoke at that meeting, he came to the next, and the next. Pretty soon, he adopted Authors of the Flathead and was teaching our rag-tag gang the same material he was teaching at UCLA.
He showed us how to become professionals. We learned plotting and organization. He taught us John Gardner’s terms like profluence, the sense of a story always moving forward; and fictive dream, the near-trance state when writers delve deeply into imagination to create a fictional world more vivid than reality. He urged us to take the reader into that world and gave us tips how to preserve the trance.
He explained schadenfreude (delight in the misery of others) and urged us to chase our characters up a tree and throw rocks at them. Conflict was the key to riveting fiction. If life went well for the character, it was bad for the reader; if life went badly for a character, it was good for the reader.
He recommended scenes in novels needed to accomplish four tasks:
- Reveal character;
- Increase conflict and tension;
- Move the story forward;
A really effective scene accomplishes all four tasks but at minimum a scene should include two or three.
He taught us that consistent daily production would carry us farther than occasional brilliant flashes of talent. He counseled us to lower our writing goals to a level we could meet, even if it meant only writing a paragraph or page a day. At a page a day, he often reminded us, in a year, you have a book-length manuscript.
Consistently meeting smaller goals was a better habit to develop than setting goals too high and becoming frustrated when you fail.
For show and tell, he would bring us Oscar-nominated scripts to study, like Earl Wallace’s Witness.
In addition to teaching, Dennis continued to polish his own craft, earning an MFA from Vermont College. He brought back fresh techniques and shared them with us.
Dennis’s one inviolable rule: Don’t bore the reader.
When we needed speakers for our group’s annual conference, he contacted Hollywood colleagues as presenters, contributing to its well-respected reputation. When the pros from New York and Hollywood attended, they invariably commented about how rare it was to find such camaraderie and helpfulness in a writing community. Dennis had set that tone and example that has remained our trademark.
After weekly meetings, we often adjourned to a restaurant for coffee and camaraderie. At one of those early gatherings, we asked Dennis why he shared his knowledge and experience so generously with us.
For the first time, I heard what became my favorite Dennis story.
Before his retirement as an Army officer, Dennis worked in Hollywood as a military adviser for films and television. Once, when a writer didn’t meet his deadline, Dennis was tasked to rustle up an emergency script overnight. He delivered and more assignments followed, even though he had no formal training as a writer. In fact, he’d nearly flunked English in high school. He freely admits he didn’t have any idea what he was doing.
Stirling Silliphant, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of In the Heat of the Night, took then-newbie Dennis under his wing and coached him. When Dennis wrote himself into a corner, he would call Stirling, who always guided him to a solution.
One day, Dennis said to Stirling, “You have helped me so much, how can I ever repay you?”
To which Stirling replied, “Pass it on. If you don’t, you’re an asshole.”
Dennis took that admonishment to heart.
For nearly three decades, the Authors of the Flathead have been the fortunate recipients of his generosity and knowledge.
He taught us week after week, year after year, never accepting anything in return.
After our last meeting, Dennis and I were talking in the parking lot. His special forces years in Vietnam have taken their toll and long-term effects of Agent Orange are worsening. He expressed concern he soon may not be able to carry on the teaching he loves.
With tears welling, I hugged him and said, “We’ve had a good run.”
“A helluva good run,” he replied.
Even though this post will embarrass the hell out of him, I had to write it because Dennis has shied away from recognition these many years.
The sum total is his mentoring has improved the writing of thousands of students and launched many of us to publication success.
But the most important contribution Dennis has given us is his generous spirit of sharing knowledge. He followed Stirling Silliphant’s admonishment to pass it on and far exceeded it.
THANK YOU, DENNIS.
TKZers: Have you had a mentor who changed your life? What did s/he do to help you?
Your homework assignment is to track down that special mentor (if they’re still alive) and tell them thank you.