Dermatologists hate me! Mortgage lenders curse my name! Why? Because I know the one weird trick that will help you, yes, YOU, pay off your mortgage, get rid of your wrinkles, reduce back and belly fat, and crack your script into shape to ensure total and immediate Hollywood screenwriting success in just minutes!
All of this is a gross exaggeration for comic effect, but you knew this, Gentle Reader. However, it’ll be interesting to see if my SEO skills result in some interesting search engine terms leading readers here.
Once upon a time, I knew a struggling actor, beginning playwright, and reasonably successful waiter. Just one? This one in particular, let’s call him Phil, had some bad networking habits. He was a schmoozer, and he was pretty good at getting into conversations about the business of making art with people more advanced in their career than he was. If you’re in any aspect of art-making, this will probably sound very familiar to you.
Inevitably, once some cheap wine or craft beer was flowing, and people were warming up, he would find whoever it was in the room that seemed to be the most advanced or successful in their career, corner them, and interrogate them, asking, “what’s the one thing, the one thing, the one piece of advice you can give me?” By then his interrogation had driven away anyone else, and the interrogated would be shuffling and hemming and hawing, until finally they muttered something about perseverance, and said anything Young Torquemada wanted to hear so they could slip out of the conversation.
What was never clear (to me, anyway), was whether:
A) he only wanted to know one thing, because he didn’t intend to take up too much of their time with his request for professional guidance
B) he thought there was one secret to success, one ring to rule them all, which could be easily summed up in one simple weird trick, task, or dance move.
The reality, as anyone with half a brain knows, is that there is no one weird trick that will get anyone where they need to go. While it’s true that someone’s life can be ruined with one weird mistake or choice, getting where you want to go takes many steps, lessons, and actions over time. Very few people get this until they’ve learned it the hard way (myself included). That’s why I’m using a bold font.
This past Thursday, I graduated with my Master of Fine Arts degree in Playwriting from Temple University. It was crowded and hot and fun and thrilling, and a big vindication of all the hard work I’ve done over the past four years. Now I have a bunch of scripts, an MFA, a rail pass, and a copy of Writing Movies For
Fun And Profit. I can take the train anywhere I want (at least through Sunday at midnight, and as long as I’m not planning to go past more than 2 SEPTA transit zones).
I also have a lot of new neural pathways burnt into my brain, from a four-year regime of writing, rewriting, reading, reciting, reiterating, re-reading, re-rewriting, researching, rehearsing, late nights, early mornings, too little sleep, too much coffee, and occasionally too much bourbon. I’ve built some good habits and learned a few things. Which means I think now is the only time in my life that it’ll be fresh in my mind to address the question I was asked, back at the beginning of this process:
“Why do you need to go to graduate school to be an artist?”
It can be assumed that art is subjective, originality is more important than craft, that meaning is in the perception of the beholder, and maybe learning too many of the conventional rules of art-making can destroy creative impulses. Therefore, graduate school could, effectively, stifle real originality and creativity. There’s the NYC vs. MFA debate (as if New York is the only city in the world where anyone does creative work and gets paid for it), where some people feel that rather than attending grad school, young people should get a job in their preferred industry and do it until they become successful.
Some of this is true. Some of this is not. I would make the argument that work and education need to co-exist. The ivory tower can insulate and stifle, and the working world can make you honest, but wear you down as well. You need both to improve as an artist.
Prior to applying to graduate school, I had a pretty good cultural education. I had worked in a lot of theaters where I had the opportunity to see world-class plays, music, dance, and whatever the Flying Karamazov Brothers are, for free, as long as I didn’t mind standing in the back. I heard Randy Newman play from the trap room underneath his piano, I saw the first production of Anna In The Tropics from 8th row center in a 300-seat house, I’ve been hugged by Dael Orlandersmith and kissed on the cheek by Tom Stoppard. For ten years, I absorbed all the culture I could, read tons of scripts, and sold probably thousands of tickets and subscriptions. Through this experience, I learned a lot about playwriting. Some of it I learned in weekly writers’ workshops and self-producing. Some of it I learned by seeing what shows were selected every season and where, and what wasn’t.
The biggest thing I learned is that if you don’t clean up real pretty, you don’t get asked to the dance. The competition for what I wanted to do was so fierce that if I didn’t have the MFA making me stand out, anything else that would was probably The Sarah Kane Solution.*
Right before I started graduate school, I was asked, “How is going to graduate school going to make you a better artist, something which relies on originality?” and I finally said, “I don’t know, but I have to try, because I can’t work the overnight shift at the big-box craft store for the rest of my life.”
So, here’s what I did learn in graduate school, how it changed me, and why I would advocate a mix of graduate school and “real-world” work in order to improve as an artist.
First of all, as Polly Carl said, it’s a terrible idea to go directly from your undergraduate years into a graduate writing program. You need to go out and make mistakes and get scared in order to fully understand risks, stakes, consequences and motivation. Many playwrights who come from Ivy League universities produce scripts which suffer from the consequences not of the stakes needing to be higher, but the consequences of your protagonist not reaching their goal be a fate worse than death. If you spend your summers playing piano and tending bar in Brooklyn or Prague while reading poetry, or using the word “summer” as a verb in Cape Cod, you don’t know what a fate worse than death is. You need to get lost in very bad neighborhoods, and find your way home all by yourself. You need to run completely out of food but still scrape up enough change to buy enough kibble to keep your cat alive. You need to work double shifts for a bad boss and too many customers and ache like you’ve been beaten with hockey sticks with no end in sight. You need to get so broke that you will do anything to get enough to eat, and then do that anything. You need to let time and tide and experience work on you. You need to learn the hard way who your real friends are. Then, when you do get a good job, survive the night, see the sun rise, sink your teeth into that excellent meal, you need to let yourself feel real, heart-warming gratitude and pay it forward. After all that, you’ll have something to write about.
Secondly, it is true that graduate school insulates you from the “real world,” but this is a good thing. Effectively, it is a safe space to make creative mistakes. If you make mistakes in a job, you get fired, so you learn very quickly not to make mistakes. What you’re really learning is what your boss, client, etc. wants to hear or see. So, you might not create the most meaningful or affecting work, but you might create what gets you paid. Then you’re making the work that makes the groupthink happy and innovation doesn’t happen. Next thing you know, you’re buying up creativity books and going to seminars on “Five Highly Effective Ways To Think Outside The Box And Move Their Cheese.”
So, okay, yes, in grad school you get some playground time, and this is necessary in order to learn new ways of thinking.
When I wrote plays back in 2009, I used to type drafts directly into my computer, maybe very rarely handwriting if I had to.
Now, I storyboard and collage through idea generation, use a whiteboard through organizing my thoughts and structure, type in Final Draft, and scribble throughout the process on paper. I also listen and talk out loud. I’ve traded various iterations of the same sentence back and forth with director Liz Carlson to find the right blend of craft and intention. We had a great time trying to figure out which was better, “lie back with your bed full of cupcakes,” or “lie back in your bed full of cupcakes.” I’ve done improvisation and used puppets to find new ways of telling a story. I learned from the most powerful brains in art-making fields, all with widely varied perspectives and methods. If I had been in a for-profit work world, the opportunity to learn from leaders, make mistakes and try again would never have happened.
It’s true that Mark Foster of Foster The People honed his skills in commercial jingle writing, and John Hodgman sharpened his scholarly sensibilities as a literary agent. However, these artists also were able to use grassroots and non-traditional media to create their own sandboxes. “Pumped Up Kicks” garnered its initial success via a free download on Foster’s website. Hodgman wrote a column for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and now hosts his own podcast, Judge John Hodgman.
Were I cornered at a beer-and-cheap-wine fundraiser, by someone like Phil, and badgered for the “one weird trick to ensure success” (See how great my SEO skills are? You guys can stop spamming me now), there would be a lesson I learned the hard way, to which I would refer.
In my second year of graduate school, I was working on a docudrama, which I grew to loathe. It dealt with a brutal murder, a woman falsely convicted via the court of public opinion, and her exoneration. The source material was so savage it gave me nightmares.** Writing this play was Not Fun Anymore.
Now, if you have a situation where you work nine to five and make your art on the weekends and in the evenings, you can, and probably should, walk away from it when it’s no longer fun. If you’re doing it for love, and the love is gone, don’t stick with it. If you’re making a project for money, and you don’t love it, you’ll take the path of least persistence and do what the money wants. Client wants a beagle with mustard-colored ears on the label, you’ll make the beagle’s ears mustard-colored, even though you know caramel would be better. But, in this situation, failure to take this painful situation and not give it the honest illustration it required, would mean disappointment from people I admired, and in myself. It would have been failure without honor. I needed to rely on craft to carry me through the emotional pain of this project.
So, I dropped back, took a good look at the project, and thought about what it was that brought me to this project more than anything else. The idea of being tried in the court of public opinion was the one thing of which I could not let go.
I invented a new character, Lucky Moskowitz. Lucky is a 35-year-old lesbian who wears a lot of black, has black spiky hair, big blue eyes, and runs Lucky’s Gas n’Gulp out by the Interstate. She comes from a Chicago family of cops, but moved to the heartland to get away from a painful past with a mob-related former girlfriend (none of this ever came up in the play, but it sure is fun). Lucky gave me a means to tie together the disparate strands of the play and move the plot forward. Everybody comes through Lucky’s Gas n’ Gulp, and everybody’s got an opinion. Lucky’s presence allowed me to look at the story in a new way. The point is, eventually, you will hate a project so much that it is impossible to continue in the same way you always have. Then, you have to get perspective, and either find or invent a new personal point of entry into the work.
Then you have to do it again and again and again, using the right tools and with the right people, until it becomes second nature. Then you have to forget all that, back up, take a good look, and just do it.
I don’t think an MFA alone is superior to real-world work, or vice versa. Neither is superior or inferior to building one’s own sandbox and using new technologies to find an audience. I think all these components have to work together. I do know that I’m definitely a better, more confident artist with more tools and techniques for play writing and screen writing now, after four years in the playwriting trenches at Temple University, than I was in 2010, left to my own devices.
I believe that the one weird trick for absolute success is going out there and finding it for yourself.
That statement may seem like an oversimplification, and I don’t mean it that way. I could not have the portfolio of scripts, confidence, or neural pathways burnt into my brain without the teachers I had at Temple University, or the colleagues. I am deeply grateful every day for their work, skill, and talent. What I mean is that the journey is the destination, and the goal is the work is takes to get there.
*Which would make a brilliant band name.
**I dreamt that I was employed by a tourism board to find all the haunted houses in a given area, witness the ghosts living out their own murders, write them down, and make it into a book to sell ghost tours. After describing the dream to my prof, Bob Hedley, he suggested I take a couple of days off from the work.