LB: My Foray into Teaching College Screenwriting Part 2

Glad You Asked Department 5/13/13

question_ditkoTwo weeks ago I answered the question, “Should I go to grad school or to L.A. as the next step to getting into the TV writing biz?”

And I followed that last week with the first part of the answer to a related query, “Why do you hate television writing programs so much?”

I said then that “my personal experience so far is that only about 20% of the programs meet my criteria” and went on and on about my one positive experience in the college TV writing arena, when I taught TV and film writing at The College of Santa Fe twenty – yikes! – years ago.

So now it’s time to talk about my four other experiences. For everyone who comes to this site, especially (because s/he asked) the visitor who signed her/his post “Bewildered College Teacher Who Really Wants to Know:”

Having enjoyed myself at The College of Santa Fe and becoming increasingly bored with my latest attempt at retirement in the early 2000s, I followed up a suggestion from a writer friend of mine who thought I’d be a great teaching fit at a Big 10 university where she taught part-time.

Big 10 was looking for someone to teach TV writing specifically, and when, aided and abetted my my friend, I e-mailed the Department Head about my interest, he jumped on it immediately and flew me out to talk further.

I got the campus tour from a student who was moving to L.A., hoping to get into the biz because, she said, “I’ve used up everybody at this place.”

Then I sat down with the Department Head, who said he was thrilled that a writer with my experience and reputation wanted to work there but couldn’t for the life of him understand why I would.

“The weather here stinks,” he said. “And we’re all underpaid. And you’re, well, you’re you. You don’t need this kind of thing.”

He also let me know that if I did need it I’d have to be ready to move to campus in, literally, “one week. We need you to commit now and come immediately.”

I said, “That’s impossible. I have a wife. And dogs and cats and horses and chickens. It’ll take months to work everything out.” Gwen the Beautiful, my wife, used to work in HR at UCLA. She knows how places like that recruit and hire. Which means I know it too. I stared at the D.H. “Don’t you guys usually hire people at least a semester or so in advance?”

“Yeah, we’re late on this thing. So you can’t do it, right?”

And, as he said that, I realized what was going on. They already had what businesses call their “preferred candidate.” But HR was on them to make it look, on paper, as though they were conducting a genuine search.

And, sure enough, a couple of weeks later my friend the part-time teacher told me that’s exactly what’d happened. They’d brought in a friend of the D.H.’s who had written and sold less than half a dozen TV scripts.

I’d written and sold hundreds. And produced ten times more.

A few years later, another friend, who taught on the East Coast, sounded me out about replacing a retiring professor at his illustrious institution. That sounded pretty cool, so I said yes, and they too flew me out.

And asked me to audition by teaching a mock class.

No big deal. I love teaching/talking to bright, eager, young people who love the same things I love – TV, films, and writing. I gave ’em my best hour and had a great time. I was pretty sure the students did too.

Afterward, I met with the Dean. “Wow,” he said. “That was something. You’re inspirational as hell.”

I started to thank him. He cut me off. “But we don’t need to inspire our students. They’re already so jazzed up that we can’t keep up with them. We get application from so many already inspired students that we’re turning them away.”

I flew back home shrugging. A couple of weeks later my friend there told me that they’d decided not to hire anybody, and instead retire the chair for awhile.

Fast forward another couple of years. A friend teaching at a Southern university calls and asks if I’d like to teach there because they’re adding a new TV writing track.

The Program Head is all excited when I say yes, and we exchange a series of e-mails and phone calls, all very casual and friendly and, “There are a number of ways we can set this up. We want to make sure everything works just right for you.”

Sounded pretty good.

Finally, since we’re such good buds, the Program Head says she doesn’t want to inconvenience me by flying me out and they do what I now know is the pro forma  interview as a conference call. Four faculty members and me.

As soon as we’re all on the phone, I relay a message from another friend of mine who I’ve just learned is the President of the University Alumni Association. A simple, “Alumni Honcho says hi.”

Silence. Then, in a voice that would freeze the Human Torch, the Program says, “I didn’t know that you knew Honcho.”

And doesn’t speak again for the rest of the call except for a curt goodbye when the other three teachers are finished shooting the shit with me.

The next day I get an official HR e-mail saying the University is talking to lots of applicants and will get back to me as soon as a decision has been made…and that may not be for quite awhile.

I never hear from my no-longer buddy the Program Head or the University again.

Let’s move on to the last time I expressed interest in teaching in a college TV and/or film program. This one worked out a little differently. A retired, non-writing, non-teaching friend who for reasons known only to the retired spent a lot of time checking job listings online e-mailed me with something he thought I’d be perfect for: A TV writing gig at a Major Southwestern State University.

I went through their online process without any “in,” got the e-mail that said I was among those being considered, and then, months later, got another e-mail telling me I hadn’t been chosen.

But that wasn’t the end. A few days afterward I got a call from a young woman who said she’d just been hired for that very same gig and “Would you consider taking me on as a coaching client and teaching me all about writing for TV?”

“You don’t know about television writing? You’ve never done it?”

“Oh no. I just graduated from Major Southwestern State University. All my teachers there thought I’d be a great addition to the faculty, so they arranged a new job just for me. I read your Television Writing from the Inside Out book in one of my classes, so I knew you were the best one to help me do the job.”

Which brings us to what we in TV call the Tag. Contrary to the impression I may have given, I don’t hate college television writing programs.

But considering how the schools I’m familiar with hire those who teach these programs, and who they do hire, I sure as hell am not impressed.

I absolutely guarantee that any new TV writer will learn more in one hour as a gofer on TV series…or, what the hell, as a food server in a restaurant close to a TV/film studio or TV network office building than in an entire post-graduate course of study.

Go to L.A.

Test yourself.

Learn.

LB

Coming next week: A new question. About a new topic. I swear!

Remember, my purpose here is to help as many undiscovered creative geniuses as possible. But I can’t answer if you don’t ask. So send your questions and make everyone’s day!

LB: My Foray into Teaching College Screenwriting

Glad You Asked Department 5/06/13

question_ditko

Last week I answered the not-so-musical question, “Should I go to grad school or to L.A.?”

And, yes, if you’re considering either of those two options in terms of a career in television writing I do think you should read that post.

My reply caused a lot of stir behind the scenes here, so I’m manning up and answering the most frequent follow-up question I’ve gotten.

In other words, man, did I piss a lot of people off.

From Bewildered College Teacher Who Really Wants to Know:

Good Morning, Larry,

Your article about studying television writing in grad school versus plunging into the showbiz maelstrom in L.A. really shocked me.

I thought you were all for education, but apparently I was way wrong. Just between us, Why do you hate television writing programs so much?

To which sweet, kindly LB replies:

Hi Bewildered College Teacher Who Really Wants to Know

Um, because the teachers seem so defensive of their turf and therefore inclined to be overly critical about working professionals in the field they teach and they (the teachers) also oversimplify what they (the me) have said?

Or, to put it another way:

I have nothing against television (and film) writing programs per se provided that their aims are clearly stated and understood by all concerned and their teachers are qualified to achieve those aims. Unfortunately, my personal experience so far is that only about 20% of the programs meet my criteria.

Five personal examples. (Because that’s all I’ve got.)

First, the good:

In 1991-1992, I retired from showbiz, fat, tired, and, yes, I admit it, rich, and moved to Santa Fe, NM. Loving the biz, especially TV, as much as I do, instead of staying totally retired I got a job teaching TV and Film writing and production classes at The College of Santa Fe.

The head of the Moving Image Arts program, Joseph Dispenza, was – and still is – a hell of a guy. Smart, wise even, experienced, funny, and, especially, brave.

Smart and wise because he knew the purpose of what he was teaching.

“Traditionally,” Joseph told me when we first met, “higher education has presented literature class after literature class to enable its students to become the most perceptive readers and critics they can be. If, along the way, they also pick up the urge and ability to create literature that’s been considered a wonderful bonus.

“The handwriting’s on the wall,” added my esteemed soon-to-be colleague, “books are dying. The moving image is the new book. Our job is this department is to give students a similar education in the ins and outs of communicating via film and TV. To enable them to become the most perceptive viewers they can be. And if this also enables them to create work of their own, then that becomes a bonus we can all be proud of.”

Brave because he took a chance on one of the most rebellious, anti-social individuals on the planet (that would be me), gave me some courses to teach and said, “Go.”

And go I did. I invited many of my friends to come in as guest speakers and, Santa Fe being a very hip and trendy spot – even more in those days than now – most of them were delighted to fly in and talk about what it was really like to be in the business as writers, directors, producers, even agents, and since one of the things being in showbiz teaches us is how to be entertaining and personable “in the room” my buddies charmed the crap out of the students, which means that one hell of a lot of information not only was given but actually assimilated. My students learned.

Of course, most of what they learned wasn’t general appreciation stuff but hardcore trade school material. I hadn’t started out intending to do that, but I’m a pro and I’m ambitious, and without even realizing it I took the most professional and ambitious route as a teacher.

Joseph caught onto this, but he didn’t stop me. “Instilling insight into how an art really works is the most valuable thing a teacher can do,” he said when I came in one day to apologize for my teaching style. “Don’t worry about it, Bro.”

I was in heaven. And so, I think, were at least a few of my students. A couple of them, sitcom writer-producer Joe Wiseman (1600 PENN, NEW GIRL) and producer Kent Kubena (PROJECT GREENLIGHT, AKEELA AND THE BEE), stand out in my memory. I wasn’t surprised when they both became world class pros.

As we all know, nothing lasts forever, not even (especially?) heaven on earth, and my College of Santa Fe Teaching Career came to a halt after a year for three reasons.

The first reason was that Joseph Dispenza left the program to become head of Greer Garson Studios, a pet project he’d been putting together for years with actress Greer Garson, who had retired to the Santa Fe area. Without Joseph and his fearless support (and good humor), teaching there just wasn’t the same.

The second reason was that I was learning the hard way that living in Santa Fe on a budget didn’t work very well. The cost of living there was at least as high as in L.A.

Combined with that was the third reason, which had been giving me a bigger and bigger itch to scratch. I was a writer, dammit. I loved to write. I needed to write. Why the hell wasn’t I writing?

So both my semi-retirement ended another way. I needed to go back to my real work.

Back to L.A.

Uh-oh, I’ve run out of space and time. (Does that ever happen to Inspector Spacetime? I wonder.) Why don’t we all catch our breaths and I’ll come back next week and finish this article?

LB

That’s it for this week.

I think it’s good to leave on the “good” side anyway. And now everyone’s got time to prepare themselves to face – OMG!!! – the upcoming Not-So-Good.

(Bet you thought I was gonna say “Bad.” Didn’t know I was such a positive guy, didja?)

My purpose here is to help as many undiscovered creative geniuses as possible. Please remember, I can’t answer if you don’t ask. So send your questions and make everyone’s day!