The Easy Way

Yesterday, in my cinema content development class, the instructor had a screenwriter friend of his come in to talk about the wonderfulness of being a writer of feature and television scripts. He was about the most mellow and self-effacing person I've encountered who works in Hollywood...thus far.

After his script was optioned and scrubbed up and down by the studio and made into a little movie entitled Hancock staring Will Smith, he, Vincent Ngo, declined to put himself in the media spotlight. As he put it, paraphrased by me, "Some writers need that kind of attention, like actors do. I don't."

The story behind his screenplay is that he wrote it as his final thesis project. At the time he was at UCLA getting his MFA in screenwriting. People liked it, his screenplay, but it was very dark and sexual, so it was passed on. It did, however, establish him as a writer who could write and for the next decade he made his living doctoring screenplays. And then one day, his agent called and said "Will Smith." Now he's writing his own stuff on spec because, while script doctoring paid the bills, he didn't find it personally fulfilling.

I already know screenwriting is a risky way of trying to make a living. In my opinion it's even harder than doing this publishing novels thing, but what I really was interested in was finding out how useful he found the whole UCLA MFA experience. He gave me an honest answer ("not really.") and confirmed my doubts about me pursuing my own MFA.

I've been thinking about it, but I'm not sure what I'd expect to get out of the whole experience...Besides a hefty tuition bill another diploma I won't bother to frame and hang. Oh and a whole lot of stress for a couple of years and maybe having to study poetry. Poetry makes me uncomfortable. It would also take, at least, a couple of years which I'm not sure I can spare. It would be nice to be able to check out and just work on writing but since I already am doing that, maybe it doesn't make so much sense. At least it doesn't to me.

In the end there is no way out of getting out of just doing the writing and reading. In no way am I saying school is a waste of money and time. If it hadn't been for community college and then going on to get my bachelors in journalism, I would never have gotten around to trying to make a living as a writer. I did learn how to write in school even if my focus was not on fiction. (I'm still a horrible speller, but that's why I didn't major in English.)

I'm not entirely turning my back on furthering my education, but I'm fairly confident in saying an MFA is not in my future, short, medium or long term. I have a book to write, a few others to polish and submit. I'm busy, like my friend Heather says about me when I protest that I'm not. Right now, I think my focus should be on doing the writing, school would be just be an expensive distraction. Though, UCLA does offer concentrated certificate in both creative writing and screenwriting. Not as fancy as an MFA, but half the price and twice as fast...

Addendum: All that being typed, truth is a writer needs structure both in writing habits and in practice. And I have been without both since September when I turned in the manuscript that wasn't meant to be. Since then, I've been halfway immersed in learning screenwriting and panic, both at having to adapt More Than This for my final in both the classes and figuring out what my next book would be. So, yeah, I'm in need of some help to get me back into the rhythm of writing without overloading me on information which just makes me question how the hell I did it the first three times. Luckily, I've found a writing book that is actually useful. Karen S. Wiesner's First Draft in 30 Days focuses on the bits and bobs that make writing the actual first draft a lot easier. True, you have to do a lot of prep work, but that's not a bad thing. Writing a book isn't always about writing a book.

You know what I mean? Great! Now please let me know...


Wendy Nelson Tokunaga said...

Hey Margo,

Sounds like you’ve really given it a lot of thought and maybe an MFA isn’t the right thing for you to do. I finally finished mine and am about ready to get my diploma (yay!) and I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. But it was a different kind of program (e.g. I never had to take a poetry class but could have if I’d wanted to), and classes were at night and it was doable--well, maybe crazy doable--while I was writing my second novel AND working on my thesis novel (both different beasts). What I also liked about it was that I got exposure to some great writers whom I probably wouldn’t have read on my own. Sounds like you’re doing a good thing by continuing to take classes -- it doesn’t matter if they don’t result in a diploma. In the end the MFA degree can be pretty meaningless unless you want to teach and we both know it’s not a requirement nor a free ticket to getting published.

And, yes, I couldn’t agree more: the word for the day (and every day) is STRUCTURE in both the book and the writing life.

Margo Candela said...

I was thinking about you while I was writing this blog. Remember all those questions I asked you about your MFA experience? Congratulations on being this-close to graduating!