Writing School

Today I graduate writing school and I officially become a writer. The words you’re reading now are not sanctioned yet–give it a few hours and suddenly you’ll realize how un-degreed these sentences were. I kid, of course, because graduating writing school is not like graduating medical school or (ahem) law school–you can be a practicing writer without a writing degree. So why go?

Several people have asked me about writing school in e-mails and since this is the official end of the journey, I thought I’d take a tiny departure from food blogging and write about it. Should the non-foodieness of this post disturb you, do a google image search for “carrot” and let the pictures calm you. Everyone else, click ahead.

Ok, so writing school–how was it? What is it? Why go?

I was in my third year of law school and miserable, angry and completely unwilling to spend my life practicing law. I wrote a play called “Tragedy at Camp Zebulon” about a rebellious Jewish girl and her brother sent to a Jewish summer camp that slowly morphs into a concentration camp. And it was a comedy. What had I written? I didn’t know. I invited friends over for a reading and they all liked it but, like me, didn’t know its worth. Would this get me in anywhere?

I sent it to four places: Yale, Juilliard, NYU/Tisch and The New School.

I heard from The New School first: they liked me. They wanted to meet me. Then a rejection came from Yale. I wasn’t sure I wanted to really study at The New School—all I knew about it was James Lipton hosted his show there. Would that be worth two or three years of my time?

Then two exciting things happened: I got an acceptance from Tisch and I got an interview at Juilliard. (Long-time readers of this blog will remember these events as I documented them here and here).

The Juilliard thing didn’t pan out–they only take two to four people each year for a fellowship–and I was momentarily disappointed, but then Tisch grew brighter and brighter in my future. (And ironically, Marsha Norman–who teaches at Juilliard–became my masters thesis teacher at Tisch. So I had the best of both worlds.)

I didn’t know anything about Tisch when I applied and my parents began to ask questions. I e-mailed one of my future teachers to ask about the program and he made a solid case (my mom, of course, printed out the e-mail to show everyone she met on the street): 500 people apply, 20 get in; graduates include Neil Labute, Kenneth Lonnergan, and Doug Wright; there’s not a living playwright who hasn’t taught there. I was sold, mom and dad were sold, and I was on my way.

Flash forward to today—what have I learned? Was it worth it? Am I the next Neil Labute?

These are hard questions to answer. On a practical level: yes, absolutely, 100% it was worth it. Believe it or not, writing is a technical process. The first thing school hammers into you is an appreciation for structure. When I became a Nabokov fanatic, I began to read his lectures at Cornell (a wonderful book) and I taped a quote from him on my wall: “Great ideas are hogwash, style and structure are the essence of a work.” Style and structure, style and structure. I knew I had style, I just didn’t know what he meant by structure. I took it to mean the order the story was told in and that didn’t seem very hard.

Today I lay down on the altar of structure and feel myself sacrificed by its difficulty and its wonder on a daily basis. Structure is so so difficult. I still haven’t quite grasped it–someone (ahem) called my masters thesis play a structural mess and he was right. The sequencing of events in a play or a movie or a TV show takes a certain kind of genius. I know someone who hates “Titanic” for its dialogue, completely ignoring its structure. Yet it sets up a pretty ingenious structure for telling its story and you can’t dismiss the success it had. People want a good story and they want a good story told well. “Star Wars,” “Jaws,” any episode of “The Sopranos”–these are incredibly well told stories. If you try to take an event from the end of any of these movies and put them at the beginning they’ll fall apart. And that’s structure.

As for style, that’s the thing writing school can’t teach you. Teachers can comment on your style (I’ve had teachers tell me: “You’re hiding behind your humor,” “Your characters are sitcom thin,” “You need more complexity”) but these are things that no one can teach you to improve upon. Undoubtedly, my greatest asset in writing school has been my imagination–people are sometimes staggered at how far-out I take my material. Yet, my style often doesn’t seem to synch up with those of my classmates. And that’s a good thing–we’re all individuals. But it becomes difficult when the majority of them are writing serious dramas and you have a scene in your play where a chef puts parrots in a blender. I leave writing school pretty sure I’ll never be a serious playwright–there are no Pulitzer prizes in my future. Though I do think my capacity to please and entertain an audience is significant–at least I hope it is. Parrots in a blender anyone?

See, writing school can make you neurotic about your work. Though explicit rankings of “best writers” and “worst writers” are never filed, they are constantly discussed. There are festivals each semester and though we all pretend we don’t care when our work is never chosen (and, I should note, my work was never chosen) it cuts deeply because so many of us have frail egos and want people to agree with that voice in our heads that says: “You’re a genius–nobody understands you–your day will come.”

And when your day does come–when you have a glory moment in writing school (and I’ve had a few)–you feel yourself lifted into the air like a helium balloon. Yes, soon you’ll deflate, fall into the ocean and choke a whale, but in that moment you feel blissful, like nothing can touch you. My best glory moment happened at the Public Theater. The first ten minutes of my play “Crustaceans” were performed and they went terrifically well. I’ll never forget that.

I’ll also never forget the day Edward Albee came to our class; or the day we had lunch with Peter Brook. Or the Q&A with William Goldman, or the trip we took up to Harlem to see “The Gospel at Colonus.” That’s the final thing writing school gives you that you don’t necessarily expect at first: access. I’ve had access to some brilliant minds–from Pulitzer prize winners to writers on “Friends” and “Sex and the City.” These people have all read my work and I’m a much better writer for it.

Now it’s 10:53 and I better skedaddle to get to school. I hope this glimpse into the past two years was illuminating. The end of my education is today and my future begins tomorrow. The very next post you read will be written by a formally sanctioned writer. My amateur days are over.

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