When I first moved to Los Angeles, I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do — I wanted to be a screenwriter. I, of course had no idea how I would accomplish that goal. Once I was settled in my new Disney job (I was transferred cross country, remember) and started to focus on the real reason I had moved, a pathway started to present itself. I enrolled in the UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting. To apply I had to write 15 pages of a script. They were 15 terrible pages as I recall, and thankfully lost in a hard drive crash in 2007. Still, the program wasn’t exactly rigorous in its standards and let me in. It was meant as a way for those who could not get into the very rigorous MFA program to get a similar experience and instruction for significantly less money and no degree. For me, it was a bargain — I had a good office job and could well afford the tuition, and what I needed was some structure to learning what this crazy dream of mine was all about.
The Professional Program, at least when I took it, was two nights a week on campus. According to the website, I see they now offer an online version of the program, and a TV Writing track, which I am now very jealous they did not have back nearly 10 years ago, but that tells you how much power TV has gained in the last decade — also, how many more jobs are available writing TV than feature films. The two nights a week were each 3 hours – one night was lecture, which for me was Hal Ackerman, who is still there and who had just written a book, which, obviously, became our text for the class. The second night was a workshop class of only about 10 students as compared to the 75 or so in the lecture hall. The first 20 weeks you spent with one instructor and then you were moved to a new workshop for the last semester / 10 weeks of the program. My first workshop instructor was Tim Albaugh, who is also still there teaching. Tim was the one who helped me find my writing strengths and weaknesses. He overlooked the folly in my topic and genre choice for my first screenplay (A Western, about a Chinese Man who moved to Alaska and dealt with hardcore bullying. It was based on a true story but a really poor choice for first script right out of the gate) and did his best to encourage me as a writer.
Sidebar: Speaking of Tim reminded me of another person who had encouraged my writing at a far younger age. His name is Brad Keefauver. Brad worked with my mother at the local newspaper office and told her of his love of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. I remember his very distinctive BSI earring he wore, in part because he was the only man I’d ever seen wear an earring at that point in my life (I lived in a very sheltered midwest town). The BSI of course was for the Baker Street Irregulars, a national organization of which he was a member, having written many pieces about Sherlock Holmes. He invited my mother to a meeting of the Peoria Sherlock society – The Hansoms of John Clayton. My mother, knowing what a fan I was of Sherlock stories on PBS (Jeremy Brett was my first Sherlock) took me along, which is where I met Brad and admired his daring choice of ear-wear. He gifted me a large tome of the Complete Sherlock Holmes, Annotated. I still own the very large book, which in some years served as a way to prop up my small 13″ television. Of late, the book has been getting a bit of a workout again, as I pour back through some of the stories and the annotations provided to suss out details from either Moffat’s fine adaptation SHERLOCK or the CBS show ELEMENTARY, a fine show in its own right, honestly, even if it has strayed more from the traditional Doyle tales.
Brad not only introduced me properly to Holmes and the wonders of that world, but within the year he gave me real inspiration. I entered a Young Writers competition at my junior high school. I wrote a futuristic tale, told as a diary about a young girl named Sari transporting her brothers in an old Yugo across the post-nuclear war hellscape to a launch point to get them off Earth to a space station. I placed third in the competition. One of the judges was Brad. Somewhere in a box, likely in my parents’ garage are the encouraging words he wrote. I’ve neither time nor inclination to drive to San Diego to find them (I searched the entirety of my own closet last night, coming up empty). Suffice to say, they warmed my little 12 or 13-year old heart. It would be many years until I would purse writing as an occupation, but that little ember glowed for most of those years, reminding me that someone thought I had talent.
So, after the UCLA Professional Program, I spent about two or three months trying to finish the second feature I had written for the program in the final semester – a comedy. I learned quickly that while I had some interesting or quirky comedic sensibility, it was hardly mass appeal. I grew frustrated with my lack of output. Here I had been in a program that had required me to produce story, outline, script pages on a weekly basis and that structure was now gone.
I had just started watching this new show on FOX called HOUSE — it’s ratings were okay, but not spectacular out of the gate. I was a huge fan of Hugh Laurie from BLACKADDER and SENSE & SENSIBILITY among other things, so Julie and I were two of the few Americans who knew who the hell this guy was and actually anticipated this new medical show. Within just the first two or three episodes, we were hooked, and I used to try to come up with great ideas for stories for this character. It then occurred to me that I might increase my output by branching out to TV writing — I was a product of TV as babysitter in the 80’s and was well versed in all manner of shows. In some ways, I was more adept with talking TV than I ever was talking film. By some stroke of Providence, I decided to look at the UCLA Extension classes; I had heard they offered TV writing courses each semester, and as I was missing the structure of the classroom environment for my writing, it felt like a good option. What sold me on taking the class, was that the entry level TV writing course was being taught by a writer who was working on HOUSE — Matt Witten.
Of course, I couldn’t write a HOUSE spec in his class — it would cause him all kinds of potential problems, so I chose the other show I was obsessed with that year – LOST. I’m not sure what it says about me that I consistently choose high degree of difficulty for my first attempts. I guess I like to fail spectacularly.
Six or seven Extension classes later, I got a certificate in TV Writing. That and a dollar will buy you a scratch-off lottery ticket; it’s worth nothing to say I paid UCLA many hundreds of dollars to learn how to write TV. In the one full year of extension classes I took, I finished three TV spec scripts — the LOST spec, a HOUSE spec, which I wrote in a different class, and a COLD CASE spec. That output was far greater than what I had experienced in the Professional Program, and I was officially hooked on TV writing.
Why am I telling you this? I guess I’m more telling myself, looking back on my journey to what brought me to where I am now. At times I feel as if I am so far behind everyone else I know. It’s folly to measure your success against others, and yet, I cannot help but do so at times. There are so many factors that play into how quickly or slowly we progress in our careers and in our lives. Some of us have setbacks, insurmountable obstacles, and others get lucky, are in the right place at the right time, strike up a conversation with the right person, make what ultimately becomes the right friends…none can be planned. All you can do is try to take advantage when opportunity presents itself, and do your best to dodge the roadblocks.
I hope to take the next step in my progression this year. I want this to be the year I make it over the wall and into a TV writers’ room. It’s been a long journey, a journey that started when I was 12 years old and was delayed for many years. I came into the business “late” by many accounts, but I refuse to be beaten.
Thanks to Kay Reindl’s retweet of Chuck Wendig’s link to a guest post on his blog, I found motivation in Kameron Hurley’s words about Persistence being the key to success. It is often said that those who succeed in this business are the ones who don’t quit. I honestly don’t know how I’d quit now. Besides that, as I once explained to my father, who wondered where my line in the sand was — the point where I pack it in and go back to a nice cushy I.T. job, there is no line in the sand which I can see. I may take day jobs here and there, but I will always be a writer. I can never not be a writer.
So, if you’ll excuse me, I have a new pilot outline to work on. The machine stops for no one.
Posted under randomness, writing
This post was written by Shawna on January 23, 2014