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Gutierrez, second from left, has been teaching in CSUEB’s English department since 1992; his favorite classes to teach are writing workshops in fiction. (Photo: Max Gerber)

Author, ‘Outstanding Professor’ Stephen Gutierrez coaxes student writers’ authentic voices onto paper

  • December 10, 2012

Editor’s Note: The following story first appeared in Cal State East Bay Magazine. Read the most recent magazine, view more photos; and check out back issues online.

It’s a scene taken from the pages of everyday life as English Professor Stephen Gutierrez reads aloud a fictitious account of the racial and ethnic tensions among teens in East Los Angeles. Drawing from a passage in his latest book Live from Fresno y Los, the narrator, a gifted student with Ivy League opportunities, describes his neighborhood friend and local hero Harold, a gridiron great, who displays a comfort with himself and his roots that eludes his compadres:

… Harold, he of the sleepy eyes and dark, white-toothed, handsome face, ended up going to the public high school where most of the kids from my neighborhood went, and I ended up going to the Catholic high school that wouldn’t admit him ... We were always friends that way, sharing acquaintances and gossip about them in a pleasant, easy exchange that didn’t disturb or bring up the fact that he had failed where I had succeeded …

Gutierrez says he hopes his stories, which he characterizes as tales of “people caught in the crux of life, facing their own demons,” offer a candid portrait of heroes and underdogs who struggle with identity, romance, and family life in the Chicano suburbs of Southern California.

“Broken people from whatever walk of life attract me for many reasons,” Gutierrez says. “Two of my great themes are father-son relationships and art-making itself, writing, that is.” 

For Gutierrez, who grew up in a Mexican American home just outside of Los Angeles, the story conjures up personalities and images from his old neighborhood. For his students, the passage presents a lesson in discovering their authentic writing voices by using experiences that have happened in their own lives as the starting point of a story.

“It’s apparent to me that Steve’s characters vastly interest him; that's the reason why, abetted by a sizable quantity of writerly skill, they come alive for the reader,” says Jake Fuchs, CSUEB English professor emeritus. “Everyone he writes about is complex and sympathetic. Moreover, the urban spaces where Steve’s characters live are rendered in brilliant detail, and I would say that one of his interests is the impact of environment upon people.”

As a playwright and the author of two books, Gutierrez’s own writing style has received numerous accolades. In 2010, he won a American Book Award. More recently, in recognition of his passion for the written word, and for inspiring many students to pursue a career in writing, Gutierrez was named Cal State East Bay’s 2010-11 George and Miriam Phillips Outstanding Professor, the University’s highest honor for teaching.

‘Make it live’ 

“I encourage students to write what they know,” says Gutierrez, head of CSUEB’s creative writing program. “Really, writers have only certain subject matter or material that they can advance credibly; quite often it’s tied to what one has lived. I think there’s a real link between effective writing and experience, no matter how disguised it might be.”

The quality that Eric Neuenfeldt, who received his B.A. in 2007 and his M.A. in 2009, both in English, remembers most about Gutierrez is his seemingly unlimited energy, and his enthusiasm after hearing a student read aloud his or her
best work.

“When you’re a young writer and first starting out, you have no idea whether or not your story is brilliant or, as is often the case, lousy,” Neuenfeldt says. “I would always carry my manuscripts into Steve’s class confident I'd botched the story. When a student would touch on a passage in a story that Steve liked, he would get pretty animated as he talked about why the passage worked. To me, it was pretty clear what I had to do to fix the rest of the story: Make it live.”

Gutierrez never anticipated the profound impact his surroundings would have on his life, or that one day he would make a living writing and teaching students the craft.

“My interest in writing, and pursuing a career as a writer, came in high school around the time that most of us begin to seriously think about the future,” Gutierrez says. “Before that, I wanted to be the usual assortment of desirable positions that roll off one’s tongue without any really serious thought attached to it — doctor, lawyer, politician, and, even briefly, a rock star.”

It was an English class his senior year of high school that motivated Gutierrez to dream big. Suddenly, the boy who remembered writing a play for fun in fourth grade seriously began considering a career as a writer.

“I remember reading William Faulkner in class and how his writing set me on fire,” Gutierrez says of the Nobel Prize-winning author who was known for writing Southern literature that included novels and short stories. “I went through spates of reading which cemented my proclivity for the written word.”

After graduating from high school, Gutierrez earned his Bachelor of Arts in English at Cal State Chico, and then obtained a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Like Faulkner, short stories also held appeal for Gutierrez. In 1997, he published his first book, Elements, a collection of short stories, many based on life in and around East Los Angeles. The book went on to win the Charles H. and N. Mildred Nilon Excellence in Minority Fiction Award.

“I didn’t grow up in East LA, but in the greater East Los Angeles area — not the barrio, in a word — and that’s where much of my fiction derives its tension, from this recognition of feeling outside to what one knows about but doesn’t really live,” Gutierrez says. “About the time I decided to be a writer, I did register many events as singular and worthy of being caught on the page.”

From writer to teacher

Just as Gutierrez’s writing career was beginning to evolve, his friend, poet and teacher Ernesto Trejo who had been diagnosed with cancer, asked Gutierrez to step in and teach his fiction writing class at Fresno City College.

“I immediately felt comfortable in the classroom,” Gutierrez says. “I get as excited about my students’ manuscripts as they do, and continue to learn from my students both about life and writing.”

As Gutierrez’s professional pursuits expanded, he also settled into life as a family man. In 1989, Gutierrez and his wife welcomed the birth of their son, and he embarked on what he calls “a 14-month journey as a stay-at-home dad.” In 1992, Gutierrez began teaching fiction writing at CSUEB, and two years later his wife, Jacqueline Doyle, was working in the same department as a tenured professor, moving over from Fresno State.

While Gutierrez has taught a wide range of English courses, his favorites are the writer workshops in fiction (beginning, intermediate, advanced, and graduate), where he teaches his students about plot, dialogue, characterization, and point of view. He also coordinates the English department’s annual Distinguished Writers Series with Susan Gubernat, a fellow author and associate professor in the CSUEB English department.

“We discuss the student manuscripts in class and offer constructive criticism,” Gutierrez says about the workshops. “I’m pleased that many of my students have gone on to write for magazines and to publish books.”

Gutierrez shares a joke with his students to emphasize the struggles aspiring writers often encounter and to prepare them for the inevitable criticism that all writers are subjected to at some point in their career. Question: “What’s the difference between a writer and a rhino?” Answer: “A writer has a tougher skin.”

It’s a lesson that Gutierrez mastered himself after editors and publishers rejected some of his early work.

“(Critiquing) the quality of a writer’s work can often be subjective and prove to be an intimidating experience for students,” Gutierrez says. “All writing is geared toward a particular audience; the suburban novel is going to bore the
urban reader.”

Going forward

In addition to teaching, Gutierrez, 52, also maintains his own writing career, often staying up late into the night at his Castro Valley home recording his thoughts. His second book, Live from Fresno y Los, won a 2010 American Book Award sponsored by the Before Columbus Foundation.

“I have a lot of ideas I want to get down on paper,” says Gutierrez, who is currently at work on his third book. In addition to his books, his fiction has also been published in variety of magazines and publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Puerto del Sol, Santa Monica Review, Fiction International, and CSUEB’s Arroyo Literary Review.

In 2010, Gutierrez took first place in the Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition for his play Game Day, which premiered in Alleyway Theatre’s Buffalo Quickies program in Buffalo, N.Y. last year. In 2011, he also wrote his sixth play, Exoneration, performed on the Hayward Campus in August by the CSUEB Highlands Summer Theatre.

“Playwriting is risky business for a prose writer,” says Gutierrez, who admits he enjoys seeing his characters come to life on stage and the challenge of writing tighter dialogue for a script. 

On being named CSUEB’s Outstanding Professor, Gutierrez acknowledges feeling excited and humbled by the dozens of letters that poured in from students, alumni, and colleagues, nominating him.

“I’m very honored at this point in my career to receive this recognition,” he says. “This distinction gives me the impetus to go forward with whatever I have to offer.”

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