I’m Teaching Screenwriting

Because this blog is sadly neglected of late, I don’t think I’ve mentioned that I’m teaching a screenwriting class this term.  A friend alerted me to the opportunity around the same time that I was leaving my other day job, and it seemed like a message from the universe saying things would be all right. That if I jumped, a net would appear…or at least enough pieces of rope would appear that maybe I could weave a net.

Teaching has been an “interesting” experience, in ways both positive and negative.  (You could say “you don’t fall into a net without getting a few rope burns,”–although probably you wouldn’t say that, because people wouldn’t really know what you were talking about.) The class was available because it was a newly commissioned “outreach” class. Outreach classes are taught at various high schools. Half of the seats are for community college school students and half are reserved for high school students, who can earn college credit for taking the class. In many cases, these classes are successful. In the case of my class, there was apparently some communication breakdown, because when I called my assigned high school liaison to make arrangements, she informed me that “no one knew” I was coming, that they didn’t have a classroom reserved for me, and that none of their students knew about the class.

The results of this were twofold.

First, I ended up teaching in a classroom with no audio-visual technology. To each class meeting I bring: a projector, a speaker, my laptop, cords and adaptors. I set all this up on some pulled-together student chair desks and project the  resultant image on a cork board in one corner, since there is also not a screen.

Second,  since half of the seats were kept empty for high school students who didn’t know about the class, my class size dropped from a potential 35-40 to about 15, which then became thirteen. Thirteen students is an amazing class size for a beginning writing class. It allows me to get to know the students more as individuals, to read and respond at a different level, to have workshops in class where we have some chance of getting to everyone’s work.  I consider this a more than a fair trade for the lack of amenities.

Here are a few more pros and cons:

Cons:

  • It is time-consuming. The class is located in the valley, To safely arrive by its 3:30 start time, I need to leave the house by  1:30. I arrive home at 7:30. So on the days I teach a two-hour-long class, I am gone for six hours. I also tend to devote another day and a half before each lecture to  preparation.  I am  preparing my lectures from scratch, looking through my various books for the best definitions, browsing YouTube and our DVD collection for the right examples. The classroom has no internet, so I need to download all my media clips in advance and embed them in my Powerpoint presentations, and, since my Powerpoint skills are limited, part of each prep session is spent Googling how to do things like embed videos or make my bullet points appear one at a time.
  • It’s awkward and clunky. I’m constantly navigating the environment. I assign free-writes at the beginning of each class partly because I’m never sure the door will be unlocked in time to set up the equipment. At least once during each class something slightly ridiculous will happen: Someone tells us we need to switch classrooms; the broken clock on the wall  randomly starts loudly ticking as the second-hand jitters back and forth like a bad horror movie; the loudspeaker squawks, followed by an announcement about late buses, or someone’s mom waiting for them on the south side of the building. Yesterday,  out of nowhere, a Linda Ronstadt song began playing over the loudspeaker, continued for about three, agonizing minutes, and then stopped.

Pros:

  • Teaching forces me to do things I’ve intended and wanted to do anyway: Review and clean up class notes from my very expensive education; go through books that I enthusiastically ordered and then didn’t have time to read; really think about what I’ve learned and what I believe about writing, and what I think is important and worthy of passing on–and then think how best to articulate that.  If you’ve ever helped a friend study for a test, you know that the process of breaking-down and explaining helps you as well. That is the case here.
  • My students are interesting. They’ve had lives and experiences different from my own, and they have things they want to say.  Often, this isn’t apparent from their official writing assignments, but from our list-making exercises and free-writes that give me glimpses into who they are. And that inspires me more to help them express themselves in writing–because the world, for the most part, doesn’t let you turn in lists and free-writes before it judges who you are and what you can do.
  • It pays money. It’s not a kingly sum, especially when you divide it by the number of actual hours instead of hypothetical hours, but in our new “creative economy” which consists largely of gigs ranging from temping to uber-driving to admin that all pay in the same range, this is a job pays as well as the others while being intellectually and emotionally engaging and feeling karmically defensible.

That said, we are moving into that difficult part of the semester, when the end feels both intimidatingly close, and yet too far off. I have so much more information I want to cram into their brains in the short time we have left, but at the same time, I am counting down the lesson plans between now and winter break. My students wince when I talk about turning in their final projects, and I can’t pretend enthusiasm at the thought of grading them.

But this is just one more thing that is like writing–you dread it, but then you start it, and find things that surprise you and things that you love, and then you are glad you did it.

Visual Language and Fulcrum Moments

Have I mentioned that I’m taking a directing class?  Maybe not, because I spent the first three weeks thinking I might drop out before I officially added it.  I’m a little fearful that I won’t make some of my deadlines lately, and one might think that adding this new weekly activity, that meets at a community college in Hollywood–two trains from my workplace–might not be helping my cause.

But I do want to go through the process of directing a short, and this class, in the midst of the other deadlines, reminds me of that on a weekly basis, and pushes me toward my intention when I might otherwise be too tired to push myself.  It also breaks what is an intimidating amount of knowledge to acquire and organize into manageable chunks.

Sometimes directing class functions as a refresher–usually when it’s about directing actors. I think “I remember this” from undergrad stage directing.  Sometimes the concepts are familiar because they echo concepts from screenwriting.  But sometimes the information is almost entirely new, usually when it has to do with the camera and how it functions as part of the whole storytelling apparatus.

The class is not fancy.  The guy who’s been teaching has been teaching it for probably thirty years, and probably from the same notes for most of that time.  Beyond one dated video about “breaking in,” he doesn’t use film clips, visual aids or even a white board. But he’s knowledgeable and an agreeable guy, and each week he tells us some stuff that we will need to know and do in order to direct a scene, and how it might be good to think about it.

Here are a couple of things he’s talked about that have popped out to me so far:

1) “Shots are a visual language–you pick them the way you would choose a word.”

As someone who really likes words, and spends an inordinate amount of time trying to find the right words and put them in the right order, this  resonated for me. It might be the reason I stayed in the class.

2) Talking about scenes, he talked about how scenes (and acts and movies) have a “fulcrum moment.”  A fulcrum is the resting point of a lever.  The most simple example that I can understand is the middle of a teeter-totter. So a narrative fulcrum is a point in the scene where things can go up or down, one direction or the other. (It’s a metaphor–I also like metaphors!)

As a writer I tend to think much about points of decision on the part of a character, but as I write this, I’m thinking about how fulcrum points can also encompass the external. Is the character going to make it across the bridge before it crumbles?  He gives that last burst of speed–“effort” and it’s enough to overcome the “force” against his intention (the bridge crumbling) and he makes it! But that moment of “will he, won’t he” is the “fulcrum moment.”

Cool, huh? since then, I’ve been thinking how fulcrum moments are a big part of what keeps us watching. Both on the screen and on the page I’m guessing that these moments are the ones that get “stretched” so that the reader/audience can experience it fully.  So it makes sense to ask, both when writing, and when shooting, “Can I pinpoint fulcrum moment of this scene and how can I get the most out of it?”

fulcrum

Does This Seem Right? The Closing of a Graduate Program.

When Steve Kay, Dean of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, took leadership of the school in October of 2012, he said, “As a biologist, I have often focused on “nature versus nurture” to help me understand how we form ourselves and become who we are,” but, he said, he had come to realize that “only focusing on nature and nurture denies something critical: narrative. For it is through narrative that we learn to express our experiences, and place them in the context of what really makes us human.” This phrase, strictly parsed, strikes me as not quite accurate—but suffice to say, he voiced his admiration of narrative.

One year later, he called a meeting with the chair of the Master of Professional Writing Program—the 43-year old program dedicated to the study of narrative—and without any warning informed her he was closing the program down, with enrollment to cease immediately, and all students required to complete their studies by spring of 2016.

The shuttering of an institution is always a shock to those invested in it. But in this case, as the shock has subsided, what remains–with me, and with others I’ve talked to–is a sense of betrayal about the way the closure has been conducted. First, Dean Kay declined to give any reasons for the action beyond stating that it was “a business decision,” despite  a solid enrollment (just under 90 students), and no budget issues. Second, Kay seemed to discourage any official communication about the decision. There was no formal announcement of the closure by the Dornsife administration. Most faculty and staff of other departments learned of the move through the media, well after the fact. It’s difficult to imagine that this choice to  close the doors with no announcements could be anything but a strategy to reduce the risk of any protest—by the time a critical mass of people figured it out it had happened, it would be too late.

The one group they could not avoid telling were the current students. The administration now needed them—including many who had chosen the program because they could complete it part time while remaining in the work force—to take enough credits each term to matriculate by 2016. A student-instigated letter writing campaign elicited boiler plate responses from the dean’s office re-iterating the vague  “business decision” . When the same letter writing campaign garnered media attention from a major newspaper, a token meeting was granted with Vice Dean Steve Lamy, who elaborated on the business decision by citing fiscal difficulties that couldn’t be shown on paper, but that were partly related to declining enrollment—a confusing statement to those who had heard the program had been asked to be more selective in its admissions process and been given no sign that feelings on this had changed.

A common narrative device–we learn about these things in the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC– is called subtext. On TV, when the hot girl tells the disguised-but-still-hot super-hero, “You’re a jerk, I never want to see you again,” what she really means is, “I love you.” That’s the subtext.

In real life, when the dean of a big college says “business decision,” the subtext is “I don’t have to give you real reasons, and I’m not going to.” Which is smart, since real reasons might elicit real discussion, and real discussion might make the decision an issue in people’s minds. Instead of closing the program, he seemed to prefer to disappear it.

As taxpayers and American citizens we have the right to demand a certain degree of transparency from our government officials. As customers, we are entitled to ask for accountability from the heads of other institutions–like the banks where we invest our money. Transparency and accountability don’t always happen in these arenas, but there is at least the pretense that they should, and when someone gets called out for circumventing these requirements, other people who get riled up and form investigatory committees.

What weirds me out in this case is how no one has even bothering to pretend. And, publicly at least, how few folks seem riled up. Most MPW alumni have invested both time and in excess of $40,000 for degree that is being declared defunct. They are lifelong members of the “Trojan Family,” who will receive fundraising calls until they die, and probably for a few months afterward. Do they have a right to an explanation? Do they have the right to be satisfied that the leadership of their alma mater has acted in their best interests—if not as individuals, than at least in the interests of university that asked them to feel like one of its own? Do they have the right to informed at all? To date, program alumni have received no university notification that the degree they earned at USC is has been discontinued.

Programs close, companies get downsized, people get fired—and business decisions get made.   I’m not writing this to change the turning of the world. I am writing it to make a record, because I believe that just because we have to accept people’s decisions, doesn’t mean we should obediently accept their version of the narrative.

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MPW Farewell

As a rule, I often downplay naming people and things in my blog posts, thus the program where I take writing classes I tend to refer to, generically, as “the program where I take classes.” Today, however, I want to name it: It’s a graduate program at USC called the Master of Professional Writing.  I’ve been taking classes through MPW part-time for two years. I enrolled for a few reasons: because my job offered tuition remission and I’m a big fan of things that are free; because taking classes maintains my student status and thus prevents my mountain of student debt from toppling down on me; and because every semester I saw interesting topics and instructors. I figured I might learn something, and if not, I’d at least be pressured to write. I didn’t enroll because I thought I needed an MPW program. With two MFAs from highly regarded schools,  I didn’t need the degree, and I didn’t need any more friends who were aspiring writers.

That’s what I thought.

I thought wrong.

While it would be impossible for every concept to be new, I’ve been consistently surprised. I’ve gained skills and knowledge in my MPW classes that five years of MFA classes didn’t give me; and though I’d graduated from my screenwriting program with friends and acquaintances in the Los Angeles area, it has been the MPW program that has given me a  community–both a strong student community and an introduction to Los Angeles as a writing (and reading!) community.  I’d come to believe that my screenwriting pursuits were entirely incompatible with a path as a creative writer. Through MPW I have been shown that is not the case, and introduced to a number of role-models who work in multiple genres.  Finally, MPW has reminded me of my appreciation and gratitude for writing and for other writers, which is not a luxury, but a necessity for anyone who plans to persevere in a writing profession.

My current semester at MPW has been the best I have experienced in terms of all of these things.  My classes have been educational and directly applicable to my work; I’ve felt a real affection respect and compassion for the students I share the classroom with. I’ve been inspired by my professors and the literature they’ve introduced to me,  and I’ve been ever more impressed by the reading and events the sponsored by the program and the efforts its administration makes to give us ties to the larger community of Los Angeles.  Friday night, I attended a student/ faculty reading. Afterwards as I wandered through The Last Bookstore in the company of other students, I was struck by a sense of belonging. This is not to say that I spend lots of time feeling ostracized or alienated, but moments of feeling a real sense of belonging occur seldom enough that I notice them.  And lately, when I have noticed them, it’s been during in MPW-related activities: attending readings at bookstores around L.A., volunteering for the department-run journal, participating in professional seminars organized by the faculty on the weekends. Lately, when thinking of the MPW program, I’ve felt uncharacteristically warm and fuzzy.

Which makes it a little ironic that today I received an email saying that the dean has decided that the MPW Program will no longer accept new students. The current cohort will be the last cohort and the program will be discontinued as of Spring 2016.  So far, no reasons for this have been offered, other than the statement that it was “a business decision.”

This will likely not affect my own educational trajectory, but somehow it still changes things– like learning in your senior year of high school that after you graduate the city is going to burn down the building.  You’ll still get to go to school everyday, but when you’re done, there won’t be anyplace to visit, and all the secrets and advice you might have given your kid brother are no longer pertinent.

It’s an odd, sorrowful feeling.

But mostly I feel lucky.  Lucky that I found MPW when I did, and that it has given me so much that I didn’t even know I needed.

MPW Last Bookstore

The Not Comfort of Miles

P.S. This week I learned MORE about Miles Davis. He treated women like shit. He beat his wives and was psychologically cruel.

I’m still looking forward to exploring his music, but this information definitely taints things for me. Kinda like how I don’t think if I’ll ever watch Braveheart without thinking of how messed up Mel Gibson is. And I don’t think I’ll be able to listen to Sketches of Spain without thinking about how Miles made his wife give up her dancing career to follow him around, and how she finally had to divorce him because when he started doing cocaine, “the violence got to be too much.” In other words, he started to beat her up MORE than he was already beating her up.