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Saturday, October 08, 2011

Q. I'm a high school student who wants to pursue a career in TV writing. I've been working my way up to writing some specs, and also I've been doing a little bit of playwriting, as it's just easier to find youth classes devoted to that than any other media writing outlet. What do you recommend for a kid right out of High School

In Crafty TV Writing, you advise all prospective writers to get an internship/assistant position at a literary agency in L.A., or if you can on the staff of a TV show, but I felt this advice was given with "adults' in mind, and I wasn't sure if this was the optimal path right out of high school.

Would it be better to go through NYU's Dramatic Writing program (which I was not accepted to, though a friend of mine was) or to do as you say and get a job inside the business and save a degree for later? As you may have guessed, part of my hesitation stems from the whole stigma against not going to college--a stigma which I am ready to ignore in pursuit of a TV writer's position. But I just wanted your genuine opinion as to what a high school graduate should do to become a TV writer.
I would never tell anyone not to go to college. No one ever made much of himself without finishing university. Except, you know, Steve Jobs. And Steven Spielberg. And Bill Gates. And Thomas Edison. And Shakespeare.

I would still never tell anyone not to go to college. The facts you learn in college are rarely useful in themselves. No one is going to offer you $100 to compare Dante to Milton over the weekend. But you learn how to learn, and you learn how to think at a problem from different angles. And you learn to read deeply.

Also, you make a slew of friends who may be useful to you later. And if you're writing plays, it's a hundred times easier to get them produced at university than they would be out in the cold hard real world. It is a real pain in the ass getting a play produced at an Equity Waiver theatre. At college, they will produce your play for you, and offer you cake. (See "Sorkin, Aaron.")

I'm not sure you need a dramatic writing program in college. I was a computer science major; Yale didn't have creative writing, really, except one course with Harold Bloom. (I actually spent a semester hanging out in New York auditing classes at Columbia to circumvent this. I just did the work and no one seemed to mind I was just auditing.) I worked on a literary magazine at Yale (Zirkus) and founded another one (The Trumbull Review), and there was no shortage of poems and stories. A buddy of mine wrote plays which were performed at Yale. Neither the writing nor the performing were for credit. If you're a writer, you'll write. No writer ever needed a writing class. But you can't really study James Joyce on your own and expect to make anything out of Ulysses. And learning how to unpack some crazy Modernist's styles will develop your analytical muscles that you can then apply to figuring out the template to THE GOOD WIFE or 30 ROCK.

You can get part-time internships when you're a student. You can't come into an agency part time when you're 22, but you can when you're at UCLA. Everyone understands that you can't be full-time. So in some ways it's easier to break in as a promising student than as one of many underemployed adults. You could intern at an agency, but part-time, and without having to be a messenger. If you actually got offered a writer's assistant job, you could drop out of school, and then if it led nowhere, you would return to school.

Finally, there is nothing preventing you from writing TV specs while in university. I wrote lots of stories and poems at college when I wasn't debugging programs; and Computer Science was a ridiculously hard major compared to English. Your typical college student has a ton of time to write, if that's what he wants to do. Actual jobs are much more tiring. College gives you an excuse not to go get a job.

College gives you an excuse to be wet behind the ears. If you aren't in college, even if you're the same age as a college student, people expect you to be a grownup. People are much more forgiving of college students for tripping over things, or for offering their opinion when no one wants it.

I think it's great that you have a strong opinion about what you want to do. I wouldn't consider college an impediment, though. If you work it right, it can be a platform, or even a diving board.



I'd skip college, unless it's your only means of living in New York or LA. Take continuing ed classes in film and writing at NYU or UCLA (you can get a certificate if you want a "credential"). Volunteer to PA on MFA student films. Try to parlay that into PA-ing for indie films. Do film industry internships (being a continuing ed student is usually sufficient to qualify-- you don't strictly need to be a matriculated undergrad.) And write as many scripts as you can.

Of course, all of this presumes that you're mature enough to function in an environment where everyone is a few years older than you are. Only you know the answer to that.

By Blogger Lisa Hunter, at 6:11 PM  

Lisa makes a good point. I certainly wouldn't recommend going to college if it means going into debt. And the degree itself is completely useless in showbiz -- you get more street cred for going to work right away.

Look at actors: the most successful ones aren't coming from the universities, they're coming from working right out of high school.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 8:17 PM  

I'm with Alex on this one. Although a degree is not going to get you a writing job, a degree will make a difference in whatever day job you work while you're trying to get your big break in show business. Any degree will improve the day job income, and some degrees will allow for fairly comfortable day job.

Without a degree, you're likely to find yourself working two or three jobs just to pay the rent while trying to write -- and if you're working two or three jobs you won't have time to write.

Better to get a degree and work in a Dilbert office until you sell or option a script, or get a shot in a writing room.

Also, write all you can. It is said that most writers write a million words of garbage before they start writing their good stuff, so the more you write the quicker you get past those million words.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:57 AM  

Nitpick over metaphor. I'm not sure "diving board" is quite the image you want to use. Perhaps "launching board"? "Catapult"?

-Former English major at a large public university, after having been rejected from USC film school and realizing that NYU was much too expensive

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:01 AM  

I'm graduating from USC in December and lately I've been wondering a lot if it college was worth the time and money. Being in Los Angeles definitely was--opportunities have presented themselves relentlessly, and at a certain point it's my own fault if they don't wind up paying off somehow. But school itself... I'm not sure. I'm not saying it wasn't, I just don't know.

You're the first person I've seen actually address the question directly, so I appreciate that. The idea of skipping college is so generally verboten, you don't get to actually honestly consider the question too often.

By Blogger TDG, at 5:06 PM  

Okay, so I want to be a TV writer and I didn't go to college. I'm not sure anyone else here is in that position.

I'm 23. I've been in LA for 3 years, and this is my opinion:

If you can handle it, don't do college. Lisa's advice is spot on--take internships, work PA gigs, take classes at UCLA. But be prepared--it's tough. Very tough. You have to support yourself, and living on your own is much more difficult without college services to fall back on (it's a lot easier to get food at a dining hall than having to go to the grocercy story yourself and making the whole thing [and don't expect to buy every meal, because it's expensive]).

And to be fair, I had it very, very easy compared to most people who take that road: myt parents saved for me to go to college, and I was able to convince them to let me spend that money on supporting myself in LA. Without outside financial support, I would have gone broke and washed out in 6 months.

But the hardest thing is functioning in a world where everyone is older than you. You'll get a lot of respect for trying to make it without going to college. But you won't get any slack. You still need talent, and, much more importantly, perseverance. It'll be hard to meet people your own age--most of the friends I've made are over 30--and that can be disheartening and isolating.

It's a tough, tough road. But I've been out here since I was 20, and I've worked on TV show sets, read scripts for major companies, and I have contacts now at every level of the industry. Not once has anyone cared that I didn't go to college.

And I'd do it all going again.

By Blogger Reed, at 10:16 PM  

@Steve: I am fairly certain I meant precisely "diving board."

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 10:47 AM  

Here's why I'd argue for college.

As a writer, the people you deal with on a day-to-day basis - development execs, other screenwriters, and to a lesser degree directors - are all going to be college educated. Being college-educated is a major cultural divider, and although the difference seems opaque to those who didn't go to college, those of us who did can usually tell the difference.

Those people - who matter to your career - will think of you as uneducated. They will often conflate (not always fairly) "uneducated" with "dumb." In any event, you will seem, to them, as an other - less interesting, less connected, less worth spending time with.

And I know no 20-year-old wants to hear this, but ...

A college degree will make a huge difference in terms of what kinds of other employment are available to you. I know everybody at 20 is convinced that they're going to make it, and that's great. But realistically you're going to spend a lot of time doing other things for money, and what options you have depend a lot on whether or not you have a college degree.

Good luck getting a mailroom job or an assistant job or even a script-reading job without a college degree. It happens, but when someone is looking for a reader for their slush pile, and they have 20 resumes ... well, guess who's isn't getting picked?

Lastly, the kind of broad education you get in college is helpful to your writing in a lot of surprising ways. People who've spent their entire life focus on movies tend to write scripts about movies and screenwriters. They don't really know anything about the larger world.

There are exceptions to every rule, of course. But I'd pass up college only with extreme caution.

By Blogger Ronaldinho, at 1:41 PM  

@Ronaldinho makes some good points. If all you know is showbiz, you'll tend to write screenplays that read like the last 10 movies you saw, i.e. all too familiar.

I'm not sure I agree about assistant jobs. An Ivy degree is a big plus, of course. But someone who's done impressive things at an early age and seems really dedicated and passionate will also go to the top of my pile, provided they have an impeccable, personable cover letter. You have to compare a college degree with the experience you'd have after 4 years of jobs.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 2:01 PM  

I'm all for a liberal arts education, but I don't think college is the only place you can get it. And a danger of college is that you'll be surrounded by "practical," credential-minded people who think if you just punch the right tickets, the world will hand itself to you. It's the exact opposite of an entrepreneurial freelance career.

Alex and I went to the same high school, where lots of people were interested in drama. A few kids we went to school with skipped college to try acting, and miraculously they all made it; they have Tony awards, hit movies, etc. The kids who went to college first so they'd have something to fall back on? All they ever did was fall back and take the comfortable Dilbert jobs. It's very, very hard to fight the mindset.

By Blogger Lisa Hunter, at 10:36 AM  

I think the street cred you'd get from not going to college is about equal to the respect you get from going to college, so it's basically a wash in terms of "prestige." It's true that you can tell when someone hasn't gone, but *lots* of people (as in, nearly all the professional actors I know) haven't, so it's not really a huge deal either way, in my opinion.

I do think, though, that trying to make it in LA -- just at the level of paying the rent, not even at the level of getting a real foothold in entertainment -- is *incredibly* difficult right now. There aren't a lot of jobs and there are a lot of people -- and a lot of the people have been hustling for a long time, and are straight up good at it. If you're coming directly from your parents' home and/or if you don't have a really strong support system (ie, your family is going to really be there for you financially and emotionally), I think it could be legitimately dangerous to throw yourself into supporting yourself, making connection, etc, all in one big go. You've got to leave yourself some room for error, and coming with very little life experience, less money, and no credentials or qualifications really doesn't leave you with enough, in my opinion. Maybe it would have been OK when the climate was different a few years ago, and maybe you'd get lucky and it would be OK for you anyway even now, but it's economically rough here at the moment and that's a huge safety/peace of mind risk -- you've got to decide if the reward of going full-time on your career a couple years earlier is worth that risk. Don't make life hard on yourself out of a romantic notion of making it out of the depths of the gutter -- life is hard enough as is and will probably chew you up anyway (for a while at least), so no need to give it any extra help.

I also agree with what Alex posted about college being very helpful in terms of thinking skills. Writing is hard, making a living is hard, finding your way is hard, and those skills give you a huge leg up. The people from your college class are also a great resource during and after college -- as are your professors. Hopefully, you'll learn something from them, but they're also great as mentors and often have friends in the more "practical" side of their specialty.

Of course, the more connected and in touch with the industry you are before college, the less important college becomes -- but if you don't have either of those things, your college connections and being part of the ambitious, middle-class-and-above culture of a good college can be a huge boon.

For what it's worth, if I had it to do over again, my plan would be 1. attend college here in LA (something I regret not doing). 2. intern as much as possible. 3. if a great job (such as being a writers' assistant) comes up, take time off from school until the show's season is over. 4. spend summers in LA with your nose to the grindstone -- whether that means catching up on classes you couldn't take during the year because you were working, or following up on industry leads. 5. have as much work produced in college as possible (lots of schools have camera/filming equipment and will produce basically any well-written play -- those represent opportunities you can't get anywhere but college until you're a real big shot).

For context, I'm 25, went to college, and have been in LA for a little over a year.

By Blogger Sasha, at 3:26 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

By Blogger tales from the pole, at 12:56 AM  

i hate school so much, and i am an ex-egghead grind. i'm back in after 16 years out to "complete" my degree (aka i desperately need grant and loan money) and agree with lisa-it's a good way to get out to LA or NYC if you have no other. i see ronald's point too but if you've taken fairly demanding courses in HS and are reasonably smart you will do just fine. & don't forget one of my fave lines from "catch me if you can" = "you can learn a lot in life from reading books" ;-) very honest, brave post. can't wait to get your "inside the box" book, alex e.! looking for it at B & N tomorrow, other wise will order. glad i found u through ken's blog :-)

By Blogger tales from the pole, at 12:59 AM  

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