Those Who Can’t, Teach.  Those Who Can’t Teach, Teach Gym

Way back when at the turn of the last Millenium, there were dire predictions of global disaster because computers weren’t programmed to go past 1999.  Doomsayers were warning of aircraft falling from the sky, ruined water supplies, stock market crashes, famine, riots, martial law.  Think any Michael Bay movie. 

Of all of these predictions, only one actual disaster struck.  The debut of “Survivor.” 

            Well, it was a disaster for TV writers.  Suddenly the networks had discovered “unscripted” programming.  And since it did not need scripts, it didn’t need writers to write them.  And studios and networks love nothing more than to get rid of writers.  To be honest, we are a pain in the ass.

            The 2000’s dawned with fewer new dramas or comedies.  A lot fewer.  And for TV writers, work dried up.  Including my partner and me.  It was the first year since 1987 I wasn’t employed as a writer.  In hindsight it was a blessing.  I finally had time to spend with my two-year-old daughter which I wouldn’t trade for anything.  But at the time I was in deep panic.  I needed something to do.

            That’s when a friend offered me a chance to teach television writing at UCLA Extension.  I’d taken a writing class there in my early twenties and all I remembered was some retired studio producer regaling us with stories from his career for three hours.  It was fun, but I learned nothing about writing.

            So I toddled off to UCLA to fill out my paperwork, desperately trying to catalogue every juicy story I had from a decade and change in the business.  And a few of some other people’s stories.  But I was in for a surprise.  Things had changed.  UCLA expected me to actually teach writing.  I’d have to complete six units in the Department of Education and submit a detailed syllabus for every class before I got the job.

            Well, I had nothing else to do, so I sat down to write my syllabus and that’s when I was struck with a chilling thought:  Holy crap!  I don’t know how to teach what I do because I don’t know how I do what I do!  I just do it!

            I was going to have to quantify my methods.  I didn’t want to think of them as formulas.  There are plenty of books out there that give you formulas, like the sometimes useful “Save the Cat” series.  But if you’re writing to a formula, it’ll play like a formula and odds are it won’t be very engaging.  And pitching those formulas aren’t going to help you when you’re in a writer’s room breaking a story and you pitch, “The rise and fall of action must be between pages twenty-four and thirty-seven!” when the question at hand is “What does Jon Snow do next?”

             When I started exploring my “process” I came up with plenty of tips and tricks I’d amassed in my career, but the most important guiding principle I discovered was this: “What does the hero want and what is at stake if he/she doesn’t get it?”  Stake and drive.  Stake creates drive and drive creates stake.  It’s as old as Sophocles.  It’s the question I always go to when writing.  Comedy, drama, it’s pretty much the same.  In drama the drive tends to be earnest and the stake life-or-death.  And in comedy the drive is absurd and the stake relationship-oriented. 

After landing on this I started discovering all kinds of questions shooting off from this main idea.  Are the stakes relatable?  Is the drive active enough to last the entire book/movie/episode?   And not just your hero needs drive and stake, but all the other characters.  I realized starting from drive and stake gave me a spine to hang my ideas on.  It’s the litmus test I put all my writing through. 

I ended up teaching at UCLA for a couple of years, until my partner and I were offered a deal at Disney to write a pilot and once again I was too busy to teach.  Later I took a job in animation, splitting up with my partner and rebuilt a career that continues to this day.    

I hope my students learned a lot from my brief tenure.  But I don’t think they could have learned more than I did.