Steve Hellman speaks fast and steady, so that you don’t want to miss a word, and occasionally punctuates his dialogue with laughter. He explains that during his drive to Mendocino College today, where he has taught English and Creative Writing since 2006, he decided, “the best way to describe what I do is to say that I’m a wordsmith.” He teaches creative writing at the Willits campus, and since 2014 has been the press agent for Willits Community Theatre.

About his creative writing class in Willits, Hellman states, “We’re going into our third semester in a row, coming back to community enrichment and adult enrichment. We have returning students for the enjoyment of it. We sit in a circle and are always positive, because the primary thing writers need is encouragement. Having a circle that’s an audience for their work is so empowering. I tell them they get to step outside their cocoon and air out their work and see what people feel and think, and after they read there’s always a round of applause.”

He comments, “Willits is a cultural hotbed with the two newspapers, the two theaters – the Willits Community Theatre and the Noyo Theatre – the college campus, the charter high school, and the regular high school. We have the art center, and bi-monthly we have a youth speaks out poetry reading at the Brickhouse café. I love being here as a part of that. Willits has a lot of really talented people and thinking people. People that pride themselves on being informed and being involved. It’s great being part of that scene. It doesn’t have a reputation of being a hotbed of culture, but Willits is like the gem of the county.”

“I’ve taught creative writing both in Lakeport and in Willits. Twice before we’ve done a reading at Willits Community Theatre, where students read before a live audience. Both times we’ve had a full house, mostly of their family and friends, and both times have been very powerful and very successful. This semester’s show is going to be a literary reading of short stories, poems, and memoir that will be on Sunday, April 14 at seven o’clock.”

Hellman opens a scrapbook from 1986, with a picture that shows himself being introduced on a panel in Havana, Cuba. “That’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez,” he says. Marquez, one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century and who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, is clearly seated third from the right at a table, and Hellman is standing fifth from the right. Hellman states that he’s the only North American who ever served on the Casa De Las Americas prize as a literary judge, following extensive travel in Latin America, including a trip to Nicaragua during their revolution.

Marquez is most famous for his novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” but was also a short story writer, screenwriter, and journalist. Marquez was born in Colombia in 1927, and about the act of writing itself, he wrote, “Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood.” Hellman himself acknowledges, “Writing is hard,” but says he tells his students, “Everything you need to become an effective academic writer is already inside you.”

“I came to teaching as a professional educator late in life after working as a writer in a lot of different capacities, and travel in Europe and Latin America. I don’t view myself as a peer academic, so from my life experiences of travel, as a writer, poet, full-time newspaper reporter, it’s a blend. What I call peer academics are ones who went to college, got their Master’s degree, and are teaching. The difference is I’m a writer coming from the street with it. I tell my students, ‘We’re teaching you rhetoric, which is teaching you the art of using words effectively.’”

Hellman grew up in the Highland Park area of Los Angeles, where, he says, “I went to school with a lot of Chicano kids. A part of who I am is a political activist. We marched in the peace marches in San Francisco in the ’60s, and the movement to end the war in South America in the ’80s. The activist background makes me really all about the power of the word. The ability of writers to shape cultural and political thought in a community.”  In addition to writing his own poetry, Hellman has also translated poetry from Spanish to English. In his work as a freelance book reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle, much of his focus was on Latin American subjects, with article titles such as “Showdown for Castro?” in 1992 and “Castro: Prince or Toad?” in 1991.

Hellman’s history in Mendocino County goes back to the early 1970s. “In 1972 my high school sweetheart’s family bought property up here. I moved to Windsor in 1975, and to Willits in 2000.” He earned his Master of Arts degree in English from San Francisco State University in 1992, following his Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1990, at which time he graduated Magna Cum Laude. About his work with Willits Community Theatre, Hellman said, “My mother was an actress, and acted in various playhouses throughout L.A. I helped my mom learn her lines, and being backstage with her after performances, got a sense of family and camaraderie backstage. I was initially hired as the manager of Willits Community Theatre in January 2014, and then became focused on doing just the PR later that year in May. I’ve been onstage as a performing writer, but I have no plans to direct or act.”

“The theater does five plays a year and it’s a performing arts center. We host nationally and internationally known musicians, and have a youth acting camp in the summer. We also host Speakeasy, which is local people who write and perform monologues. As the press agent, I do the publicity, write up the PR to newspapers, PSA’s to the radio, and Q & A with the directors, which goes into an in-house graphic email that goes out to 900 plus subscribers. I also write a mid-run kind of audience response for the plays.” The website has a volunteer opportunities section, which lists everything from delivering posters around town and labeling mail-outs, to being sound and light operators, and costume assistants. When asked if a person has to have previous experience to volunteer with the more technical aspects such as sound and lights, Hellman responds, “The theatre does have a standard crew, but they’re always looking for people to train.”

In 2014, Hellman was given the Mendocino College Professional Excellence Award, Part-time Faculty Member of the Year. He’s also received several awards for his writing, including the First Place Award for poetry from the East Bay Writers Roundtable Literary Contest in 1994, the First Place award for Dramatic Structure from the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in 1998, as well as the First Place Award for Fiction from Across the River Writers’ Roundtable Contest in 1998.

Hellman said, “I’ve mentored a number of students into getting published, which I’m really proud of. That’s the part of me that I bring in from the street. I bring it to reality for people. Nathanael Low did his research paper a year ago in spring semester on ‘Boontling: A Historical Treasure,’ which became the centerpiece of the Mendocino Historical Journal last September. The unique thing that’s important about an English class is it’s crucial for everything else they do in college, in order to be effective in the other courses they take. My students tell me, ‘You were really fun Mr. Hellman, but you made me work.’ I value the learning and importance of work. Learn to make it real. I ask them, ‘What have you done and what will you do?’”

“I teach my students how to be an effective writer for an audience, so their writing is engaging and authoritative. I’m effective in helping them become confident writers, which is my goal. This is my job here.”