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PAINFUL TRUTHS: AN INTERVIEW WITH ROYAL YOUNG

Have you ever wanted to stroll through a book store, look on the shelf, and see your memoir?

 

Royal Young is a successful author, journalist and painter. His memoir, Fame Shark, was published by Heliotrope Books and is rated 5 stars on Amazon. He’s been published in The New York Times, The New York Post,  Interview Magazine, The Rumpus, BOMB Magazine and The Forward among others.

 

Royal’s teaching an Online Memoir Class starting Sun. 10/1. We asked him about his career, what makes a good memoir, and his advice is for beginners.

 

1) When did you start writing and how did you break into journalism?

 

I published my first personal essay in the New York Press when I was 21. I was taking a journalism class with author Susan Shapiro at the New School and she was hugely helpful in honing my ambition. The goal of the class was to get published and she had editors from top newspapers and magazines come in to talk to us about what sort of pitches they were looking for. It was inspiring and invaluable advice. I also interned at Interview Magazine before I started writing for them. It’s been ten years of writing articles since then and I’m still addicted to it. Best advice I ever got in that class was from a NY Times editor who said, “It’s not the most talented writers who succeed, it’s the most obsessed.”

 

2) Why did you decide to write a memoir and how did you get it published?

 

I had all these wild life experiences that I was processing and confessing them in writing felt right. Through my work interviewing authors for Interview and the New York Post I met Naomi Rosenblatt the publisher of Heliotrope Books, a cool indie downtown Manhattan press. She loved the book and got it and we were able to share a special vision, like including artwork of my dad’s and one of my oldest friend’s photographs of the Lower East Side. I was also lucky to get great blurbs and support from Jerry Stahl, Kristen Johnston and Simon Van Booy.

 

3) What was difficult about writing your memoir, Fame Shark?

 

Being so revealing, really going back and emotionally reliving moments in my life that were painful or hard to face. But I think writing is a way to take those dark parts of yourself and transform them into something beautiful. Besides there was no other way I would write a memoir other than no holds barred honestly.

 

4)Your memoir pulls you in from the first line. How do do it?

 

Writing about your own life there’s a lot you need to edit out. My dad likes describing boring memoirs as “and then I lit another cigarette.” Every page should be dynamic and compelling and it was really important to me to tell my story in a fast, raw, compulsive way.

 

5) How do you decide what to include and what to keep private?

 

The only things I kept out of the book were private things about other people they didn’t want to be revealed or I felt it wasn’t my place to discuss. As for me I went for it!

 

6) What are the elements of a good memoir?

 

Riveting, revealing, rapacious, illuminating, relatable, transforming painful truths about the world into a liberating narrative that teaches the reader something new about themselves.

 

7) What’s the best memoir you’ve read lately?

 

Some of my favorites are Tiger Tiger by Margeaux Fragoso, A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro to name a few! This summer I read and loved Donna Tartt, John Fowles and A High Wind In Jamaica by Richard Hughes.

 

8) You’re also a painter. Is the creative process similar between painting and writing?

 

Writing for me is a very slow sometimes painful process. There’s also a ton of editing involved. For me painting is where I can let loose, paint fast and get dirty without being too much in my head. Painting is more of an escape for me.

 

9) What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

 

Don’t give up. Only do this if it means everything to you. Persist. Be humble and open to edits and constructive critique.

 

10) What will students learn in your class?

 

How to tell their story in the most honest, compelling and responsible way. How to get a narrative ready for publication, how to create memorable characters, scenes and dialogue and how to edit their work.

 

Want to write your memoir? Take Royal’s Online Memoir Class starting Sun. 10/1.

 
 

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DUDE WHERE’S YOUR PILOT: AN INTERVIEW WITH PHIL STARK

Is it your dream to spend your days sipping a latte while crafting jokes for TV’s funniest shows with some of the biggest stars in the biz on the studio lot?

 

Phil Stark has been a working scribe for 20 years, contributing to some of the industry’s top shows. He’s written for “South Park”, been the Co-Executive Producer for “That 70s Show”, and wrote the screenplay for “Dude Where’s My Car?” We sat down with him to ask him about how he did it, his creative process, and advice for beginning writers.

 

If TV writing is your thing, he’s teaching a TV Comedy Pilot Class starting next Tues 9/26.


1) Tell us about your background, how you became a writer, and how you broke into the industry.

 

I’m from Texas, and moved here after college to try to become a screenwriter. I wrote features for a few years, then started writing TV comedy at night while working at cafes during the day.

 

My big break was getting a job as a production assistant on “South Park” before it premiered. A friend of mine was Matt and Trey’s assistant, and I came on board as a PA but they knew I was an aspiring writer. One day I was driving Trey somewhere and he was talking about how he was so busy and hadn’t finished a script he was writing, I offered to finish it, and he gave me the chance. They liked my work, and gave me another script to write, and soon I had a produced credit that helped me get my first agent.

 

2) What’s your biggest tip for aspiring writers wanting to write stories that stand the test of time?

 

Start with solid characters. Real characters. Characters who do things because those things are what that character would do, not what the writer needs them to do to service the plot. Then add jokes that are hilarious but more importantly that service the story and the emotions involved, not just funny for the joke’s sake. Make sure your story has a heart. If the audience cares about the arc your characters go through emotionally, they’ll buy into all the silly stuff that’s the icing on the cake of your story. In “Dude”, the dudes had this emotionally familiar story about trying to be good boyfriends. It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s an arc that we can empathize with, that makes them good guys, that makes you root for them. If the movie didn’t have any emotional arc and it was just Dude / Sweet tattoo scenes and random dogs smoking weed out of pipes… Well, it would still be pretty awesome. But having a story with heart and clear emotional arc will buy you a lot of silly gags.

 

3) “Dude Where’s My Car” starts with a simple escalating premise. How did this movie evolve?

 

“Dude” started as bunch of sketches about these two stoner dudes. The comedy and characters came out of those set pieces. Then it became about finding a narrative to put those pieces into. Then a good friend of mine told me a story about how he got so wasted one night he couldn’t find his car the next day. From there it all came together pretty quickly.

 

4) How do you find inspiration for your comedy writing?

 

I don’t ever feel like I’m running dry, comedy wise. The problem for me is finding ideas and characters to put into situations to use that comedy. If the comedy doesn’t come, then I know the characters or situations just aren’t right. Finding inspiration in concepts is something ethereal, it’s all around you.

 

An idea can be sparked by reading a newspaper article, in something that happened to you in real life, or even from seeing a tweet. I saw a tweet recently that was about Liam Neeson retiring from action movies. Well, there’s a movie right there! Liam Neeson tries to retire from action movies, but when on vacation he gets pulled into a real life one. Would be sort of meta, but still an interesting premise.

 

Sometimes ideas come not from story possibilities but from characters and relationships. You might have a family member or friend who has a relationship with someone, maybe you, that feels dramatic and compelling, and you might take note of what makes it feel that way and find a way to apply that to a premise you’re developing. Of course, if you do find inspiration in any way that leads to develop a story idea, you’ll know if it’s valid or not by how excited you get about it as you work on it. Sometimes ideas develop quickly with lots of potential into a script idea for you to write right away. Other times you get stuck, run out of steam, and then file it away in an idea folder that you can come back and revisit at a later date. Ideas are like plants, you have to water them, and they can’t be rushed!

 

5) What’s the #1 rookie writer mistake?

 

Ignoring the questions about your script that are hard to answer but easy to gloss over. What does your main character want? What is standing in his way? What is his plot driven story and what is his internal arc? How does he change by the end from how he was at the start? If you can’t answer these questions clearly it will be reflected in the script.

 

6) What’s your advice to aspiring TV writers for breaking into the biz & having a healthy career?

 

Keep writing. One of those scripts will be the one that someone reads and decides to hire you. Once you are working, you have to keep producing new material! It may surprise you how much you have to be your own agent. The agent’s job is to solicit work for you, but you always have to be hustling. This means networking! Which I used to think was a dirty word, but now I revel in it. I used to think it was tacky to talk to people about work things if i wasn’t really friends with them, I was worried they’d think I was using them or imposing on them. Now I just own it!

 

7) Take us through the process of selling a project.

 

Development is interesting. Two ways to go about it: develop your own material, or develop in an area that a producer already wants to develop. You should be prepared to go into a meeting with your own ideas to pitch, your passion projects, projects that mean a lot to you personally. But it’s also important to find out what producers want to develop, what areas they are interested in, and find something in those areas that you can apply your own personal experience to. When people say they want to hear your “take” on something, it means they like your style or manner or the way you’ve written something original, and want to see if you can bring that feeling to the projects they already want to do.

 

Pitching is funny. There’s the elevator pitch, and then the sit down on a couch pitch. One is just an area to explore, a situation, a character, a quick take. The other is about telling more of the story. But to tell more of the story, I need to know the whole story. So I typically do a lot of work to basically break the pilot story before I can pitch it. Then once I’m pitching it it’s about pulling back and not giving out all the information. Like, I might need to know exactly how a set of beats work to get a character to a certain point, but in the pitch, for brevity’s sake, I might say “and then there’s a set of events like x y and z that get our character to this place”. And if the producer asks how that would work, I’m ready to explain in more detail. You’re pitch shouldn’t devolve into a description of the plot (and then this happens, and then this happens, and then, and then). But you should be able to clearly state the emotional arc of your characters, this is more important than the plot.

 

8) What do you find to be the most valuable thing you’ve learned about re-writing?

 

Lose the ego. Step back and think about what’s best for the script. It can be hard getting notes that reflect negatively on something you have worked so hard on and are personally invested it. Some notes can feel like attacks on you. But it’s important to understand and master those feelings. The worst thing you can do is get defensive about a note on your script. Rise above that and see the note objectively. When you get into the production process, the notes can go from trying to make the script better, to trying to satisfy the many cooks that are now in the kitchen. You might have to change a scene that you think works as is in order to satisfy a producer, executive, director, or actor. It’s hard to figure out when it’s worth fighting for and when it’s not. That’s where you really have to leave your ego at the door. I’ve had experiences where I didn’t like a note, but instead of kicking and screaming about it, which will only make the people you’re working with think you’re difficult, I ran with it and tried to find a spark in the new scene, and then ended up with something I was really pleased with, and the producers were really pleased too. So realize that it’s a collaborative effort.

 

10) What was your biggest struggle early on in your career?

 

Rewriting! It’s so hard to look at a script you put so much work into, and realize that the way to make it better is to tear it apart and put it back together. But usually it’s the undeniable truth. It’s very easy to say to yourself “it’s good enough”. And sometimes it is. But you will know if your heart if it can truly be better, and that’s when you have to put in the work. I’ve read scripts and met beginning writers where this is very clear, and if the writer isn’t willing to do the work he already knows has to be done, that’s not someone I would hire. Remember: When you think you’re done, you’ve only just begun!

 

11) How do you create comedic opportunities?

 

Comedy opportunity is coming up with a premise that lends itself to conflict. For instance, the Odd Couple. Neat freak vs messy guy. Manners vs slob. Every single thing these two encounter has two very clear POVs that are in conflict with each other. If you have an idea where your main characters don’t have conflict, where does the funny come from? If they’re on the same team then the conflict can come from their interactions with others, but why not bake that conflict into the premise of your script? If you’ve got a type A lead, put them in a situation where they have to deal with a type B person.

 

If they’re responsible when it comes to money, have them hired by a boss who has no regard for a budget. If they just broke up with their girlfriend, have them hired for a new job they really want by the girlfriend’s mother. If they like the life they have now, put them in a situation where they have to deal with another character whose job is to change their situation. If the person is a racist, give them a minority new boss. People arguing = funny. People agreeing = not so funny. Conflict = comedy.

 

12) What can students expect to learn in your class?

 

Constructing a solid plot by developing your idea, defining your characters, establishing clear goals, and, creating dynamics that will lead to opportunities for comedy. Also, learning how to give and receive constructive notes.

 

Thanks so much, Phil! We can’t wait for your class.

 

Want to write a comedy pilot that opens doors? Take Phil’s TV Comedy Pilot Class starting THIS Tues 9/26.

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A LIFE SCRIPTED: AN INTERVIEW WITH STEVEN PEROS

By Laura Van Slyke and Jeff Bernstein

 

Picture it: you’re at your favorite cafe when out of the corner of your eye, you spot Spielberg picking up his early-morning latte. You follow him across the street through the revolving door of a nondescript office building and into the elevator where he asks you to press the fourth floor button. You’ve always wanted to break into TV. This is your big chance! You take deep breath and confidently pitch him. Luckily, you’ve just developed your perfect pilot with Steven Peros.

 

Steven’s done it all: playwriting, screenwriting, and TV writing. He’s sold 18 films and 4 pilots.

 

Add to that a staff writing gig AMC’s First Scripted Series and pilots sold to MTV and NBC-Universal. This is a man who knows what to say and how to pitch it. NYU pedigree, an eye for detail and a gab gift.

 

We were lucky to catch up with Steven to learn more about his life in show business, his work as a playwright and personal insight into what it takes to break into and stay in Tinseltown.

 

Steven is teaching an Intro TV Writing Workshop at the Pad starting Wed Sept 27th. If crafting a high concept show for TV, fleshing out the pilot or pitching it like a pro excites you, check it out.

 

1. How did you get your first gig as a TV writer?

 

I credit my first gig from being in the right place at the right time with the right piece of material. A producer knew I had written the as-then unproduced script for THE CAT’S MEOW which was about Old Hollywood. As it turns out the producer had a former partner who was trying to put together a writing staff for a new show on AMC called THE LOT, a half-hour single camera dramedy which took place on a fictitious movie studio backlot in 1938. They wanted writers who knew that world – as opposed to seasoned sitcom writers – and I had the perfect writing sample. So the lesson here is keep writing because you never know when it will come in handy.

 

2. What’s your advice for aspiring writers on breaking into TV?

First, learn how to write TV well. Read LOTS of pilots and take notes on what is happening and when it happens. Notice the consistencies. Don’t binge watch shows. Instead, watch every pilot and do it with the pause button so you can take notes on where each act break is and what has been accomplished in each act. Finally, don’t be afraid to be yourself. And don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t sell your first show. I did. Second, nurture relationships, contacts, and have the perfect elevator pitch for your show. Reach out to anyone you can who can help you on your path to a producer or agent.

 

3. You wrote on AMC’s Emmy-winning comedy, The Lot. This was AMC’s first serialized Period Show. Any differences between writing a period half hour comedy versus a period feature?

 

It was an unusual situation in that we all wrote separately and then met one on one with the show runner. There was no writers room. So it was like writing a little mini movie each week. Other than page count, there was no difference between the period TV show and the period movie except that there was more emphasis on “the joke” in THE LOT than there was in a more subtly “witty” script like THE CAT’S MEOW. It was also where I learned that all of our scripts ultimately went through the show creator’s laptop so that all episodes could sound like it was coming from “one voice.”
4. You’ve worked with legends (Peter Bogdanovich, Kirsten Dunst, Eddie Izzard, Dolly Parton). What was that like?

 

All of them wanted to do what was best for the work. They all have strong personalities and points of view, but were very secure so ego never came into play (despite Peter’s enfant terrible reputation from the 1970’s). I learned so much about directing and writing from Peter, especially economy. Kirsten and Eddie were both very hard workers and both wanted to say less, not more. Eddie is super smart, had just won two Emmy’s for his HBO special, and had great ideas. And Dolly Parton lives up to her reputation as both larger than life yet truly the nicest and most approachable person in show business.

 

5. You’ve sold pilots to prestigious networks like MTV and NBC/Universal. What’s the key ingredient to a successful pitch? Can you tell us about those pitches and what the studios/pods connected with about these projects (Barbizon, Dorian Gray, etc)?

 

You must be a showman when you pitch. You must make producers and network executives (1) SEE the show and (2) want to work with YOU. Those are your goals. For no more than 20 minutes (ideally 10-15 minutes) the floor is yours and they want you to entertain them and make them forget their stressful lives. They are hoping you will be great. So rehearse and be great. If there are a lot of characters, I have found it helpful to create a poster board with stills of known actors who look “in character” so that they have even more of the feel that they are watching the show unfold before their eyes and don’t have to keep track of all the names you are saying.

 

I always receive a big exclamation of delight when I pull out a character board because they know I am making it easier for them to focus. And don’t try to tell them everything. Just what is necessary to segue into Part 2 of the pitch meeting: Discussion (as opposed to monologue).

 

6. You’re a playwright as well as a screen and a TV writer. What are some of the valuable skills that you learn through writing plays and how do they translate in TV writing?

 

You learn how to write dialogue in scenes that are far longer than those found in TV shows. This is a plus because you learn how to write with subtlty and humor as opposed to story-story-story. As a result, when a playwright enters TV (networks are always interested in playwrights), you can show them how to bring nuance to scenes where the dialogue is too flat and/or “on the nose”.

 

7. What is the #1 mistake rookie writers make in their scripts?

 

They forget about the visual component of movies. Even though they may never go to see stage plays, their early scripts read like stage plays, communicating everything through dialogue only.

 

8. Would you let us in on what writers can expect to learn from your TV Pilot class?

 

They can expect this: if they come in with three ideas in Class 1, and if they do the work I ask of them each week, they will leave Class 5 with a thorough beat sheet, with a beginning, middle, and end, broken into acts and scenes. Every one of my students who followed my guidance left with a solid blueprint to then write their first draft.

 

Thanks so much, Steven! We can’t wait for your class.

 

Dream of breaking into the biz? Check out Steven’s Intro TV Writing Workshop starting Wed Sept 27th.

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REVELATIONS: AN INTERVIEW WITH JESSICA HENRIQUEZ

By Laura Van Slyke and Jeff Bernstein

 

Every aspiring journalist knows the dream: the Columbia degree, weekend jaunts in Central Park between celebrity interviews, hunkering down in a Harlem Brownstone with a hot cup of joe in hand while revising that line of a NY Times Piece. Jessica Henriquez has lived it for the last five years. We caught up with Jessica to learn more about her journey as a writer, her creative process and hard fought lessons as a freelancer and essayist.

 

Jessica is teaching an online Advanced Personal Essay Class at the Pad starting Wed. 9/20. If writing brutally honest essays for top tier publications like Salon or O Magazine is your thing, you should check it out.

 

1. Tell us about your background.

 

You know those obnoxious people who say things like: I’ve always been a writer, or I’ve been writing since I could hold a pencil?  Well, I am one of those obnoxious people. On my bookshelf, I have a dozen thick journals that hold every single one of my secrets, heartbreaks, and pages of the agonizingly boring analysis I’ve made about the world since I was 6. I didn’t pursue journalism or creative writing in college. In fact, I studied to be an Elementary school teacher until I realized that I wasn’t especially fond of other people’s children. 

 

I broke into the publishing world like a teenager breaks into a neighbors vacant beach house: clumsily and quickly. Many people have this assumption that you need to start at the bottom and work your way to the top and for many people–this strategy works. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I was too impatient for that. One of the first cold pitches I ever sent out was to an editor at Vanity Fair (about a luxury hotel in Big Sur that housed guests on one end of the property and employees on the other side). Within 36 hours she sent me a response! It was a no. And because I was so young and naive and ambitious, I didn’t let that “no” stop me.

 

I simply went down my list and sold the story to CondeNast Traveler – a more appropriate place for a story like that. Rejection is a good thing. Don’t fear it. Embrace it. There are a dozen reasons an editor rejects a pitch and it doesn’t mean you’re a worthless writer who should have listened to her mother and gotten a real job. No means not right now. No means revise. No means cut words. No means find another angle. No means find the right publication.

 

2. Any tips for appealing to A-list editors?

 

The best way to appeal to ALL editors is this: have a great story and be easy to work with. It sounds simple, but it takes a bit of effort. In the beginning of my career, I wrote EVERYTHING on spec (meaning – I wrote the entire piece un-commissioned and unsolicited and hoped the editor liked it enough to buy it). That was really motivating for me because if I put in the time and energy to find sources and interview them and write up a 1500 word article, you better believe I wasn’t going to stop until somebody bought it. Another thing to remember is that the writing world is actually REALLY small. If you have one contact that can introduce you to another, that can make a world of difference.

 

The last thing you want is to end up in the slush pile (the general submissions inbox for a magazine or news outlet). If you have one human person to send it to directly then you are WAY ahead of the game.

 

3. Do you process things that are difficult to talk about in your essays? For instance, is your NY Times Modern Love essay an example of that? 

 

That essay was a true labor of love (from living it, writing it and editing it with Dan Jones). There are so many things that personal essays should never be (cliche, naval gazing, written for revenge!), but one thing that all successful essays have in common is that they reveal something to the writer and the reader. Joan Didion has this quote that I love: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Writing has always been a way for me to ask a question about myself or the world or an emotion I don’t yet understand and hopefully by the end of my piece, something has been revealed to me as well as the reader.

 

An essay doesn’t need to end with a pretty little bow, but it does need to come to some conclusion.

 

4. Tell us about the your experience as an MFA Candidate at Columbia.

 

For two years, I was able to dedicate my life to writing down all of the stories that had only ever lived in my head and reading five books a week; it was in so many ways every artist’s dream. I studied with brilliant minds like Hilton Als and Margo Jefferson and Paul Beatty and Rob Spillman and so many others who were generous with advice and encouragement. One bit of advice that sticks out to me is something I was told by the memoirist/novelist/biographer Benjamin Taylor, “A writer is never more exposed than when he/she is writing dialogue.”

 

This is so true! You know when you read bad dialogue because it is clunky and leaves you feeling uncomfortable and thinking NO ONE SPEAKS THAT WAY! We all have conversations and overhear conversations every day. Yet, so much bad dialogue exists in writing. Take a small notebook with you everywhere you go (or use your iPhone notes app), and write down bits of conversation that stand out to you. Write down that thing a pilot said over the loud speaker that made everyone on the plane laugh. Write down the things children say. Write down how your waiter introduces himself to the table. All of these will be valuable to you when you write a character. 

 

5. You have such admirable willingness to share your life with readers in pieces like your O Magazine essay. One of the most harrowing things for writers about the personal essay is, well, how personal it is. Has the vulnerability of exposing yourself to your audience ever been difficult for you? What advice do you have for aspiring writers hoping to overcome that barrier?

 

I’m actually a very private person, ironically. There are secrets and shame that I wouldn’t share with someone in my day-to-day life but you could easily read about it online or in a magazine. It is hard to put your personal life on the page because while it does something beautiful like inviting a reader into your world to connect with your pain or experience, it also invites readers in who will judge, analyze, shame and speculate. I had no idea that I was wasting so much money on couple’s therapy when the people with all of the answers on how to have a happy marriage were trolling the online comments section!

 

Getting over the fear of exposing yourself in your writing is to really ask yourself why are you writing this and who are you writing this to? I write everything that I write because I want to connect with that reader that is 10,000 miles away who feels how I felt and truly believes that they are alone. I don’t write personal essays for the likes or the shares or for the money. I write about my experience hoping that it finds its way to that person who is in desperate need of solidarity. Reminding myself of the who and the why allows me to quiet the voices in the back of my mind.

 

6. Tell us about your creative process. 

 

I just read this great Shouts and Murmurs in the New Yorker about the writing process! My process is a little more chaotic than the one described there. I freelance full time. I’m finishing my first book. I have a 4-year-old son, and I’m training for a triathlon. We all have so many things going on in our lives that waiting for inspiration to strike is not an option. I don’t believe in writer’s block. I think it is another way to say I’m feeling scared today, or I’m feeling lazy today, or I’m feeling hungover today. Writing is my job. If I were a baker, I couldn’t show up and claim baker’s block. Do your job. Mix the ingredients together, whip icing, kneed things, (I have never baked in my life – is that clear yet?) and if it tastes disgusting when you’re finished, well, then you’ve had a terrible baking day but by god you baked because you are a baker. 

 

As far as routine goes, I don’t need to sit in the same chair every day and drink 2.5 cups of tea first and use my lucky pen, no. I get in 4-5 hour chunk of writing while my son is at school. I write in a hotel lobby, in a coffee shop, on the subway, in my head while I’m eating lunch in the park. The idea of an office and a cubicle seems unbearably loud to me. Other people’s chatter is my white noise. I start every writing session by editing what I wrote the day before and then I pick up where I left off. I write 1500 new words every day. That is my goal and if I don’t meet it I am miserable (ask my partner, he can always tell by my mood if I’ve had a successful writing day or not).

 

When it comes to personal essay I always have a dozen ideas floating around in my head so I choose the one topic that I feel the most angry/saddened/confused by. I like to start with a solid emotion and write my way out of it. 

 

7. When you write personal essays, do you have your upcoming memoir in mind?

 

I think a lot of personal essayists have a book of essays in mind, especially for their first book. I do not. The memoir is called, “Autobiography of a Broken Road,” and I am telling the story of one boy’s death from the points of view of the three people who blame themselves for it. The Modern Love essay was actually the first and only thing I’ve ever published about the story. That is probably why the day it was published was so nerve-wracking for me. I had no idea how people would respond to it. I’ve written about divorce and parenting and miscarriage and illness and therapy and etc… but I’d never written about this one death that had a lasting effect it had on my family. The response was absolutely remarkable. I had 749 emails filled with positive messages and encouraging words and people willing to share their own beautiful heartbreaking stories. Every writer should have that kind of response at least once in their career because it was such a solid reminder of why I write.

 

8. What’s your biggest piece of advice for aspiring writers trying to get an editor’s attention?

 

Know the story you’re trying to tell.  The first agent I ever met with was Lisa Bankoff (Ann Patchett’s agent) . This was years ago and we sat down and she asked me what my book was about. My answer took nine minutes and left ME breathless and left her bored. She didn’t sign me (obviously). Instead, she gave me her card and said, “let me know when you know what your book is about.” Do not send an editor 1,000 words describing what your story is about. Get it down to 2 sentences.

 

Know your audience. You probably wouldn’t pitch the same exact story to Teen Vogue that you would pitch to Harper’s Bazaar. Each publication is different and their readership is unique and accustomed to a certain voice. Read the magazines and the columns you are trying to write for, know what topics they steer away from and what subjects they’ve already covered. Know your publication: If you’re writing a personal essay about a sister who sets up her newly heartbroken brother on a date with his soulmate, make sure the publication you’re pitching hasn’t run a story even remotely similar to yours.

 

Also, if your essay is 3,000 words long and the section you are pitching to only runs essays between 1500-1700 words, then you’d better start cutting. 

 

9. Your essays is that they always have great hooks. How do you find them?

 

Back to the earlier question about the best advice I was given in my MFA – the amazing writer Mitchell Jackson told me that a personal essay should start naturally, like a conversation you would have with a stranger in a bar.

 

You are trying to lure your reader in with how interesting or enticing or unique you are or your story is. Your first line should be something you would actually say out loud to another human being, something that shows us who you are and why we should be listening to you. Writing is very much like having a conversation, you always want to be anticipating what your reader is wondering, what information they want next. 

 

10. What can students expect to learn from your class?

 

There was a controversial New Yorker article recently published: The Personal Essay Boom is Over. One thing that students can expect from my class is proof that this article is false. Personal essays are still valuable, but the social climate is requiring us to raise the bar higher than it has been in recent years. There is no more room in our heads or souls to read click-bait cliché. It’s time for the personal essay to go back to its roots: powerful words with a purpose.

 

In this class I will help you find a way to write what is personal to you AND still universally valuable. What does your story offer to the world? Together, we will write the story you need to tell while maintaining your dignity, your truth and we will leave your reader with something to think about. Remember, I have been freelancing for the past 10 years! Chances are, I know an editor & the submission guidelines for the publications you’re trying to break into. I’ve made all of the mistakes so that you don’t have to. 

 

Thanks so much, Jessica! You gave us so much excellent advice. We can’t wait for your class.

 

Dream of getting paid for writing? Check out Jessica’s Online Advanced Personal Essay Class starting Wed. 9/20.

 

In the meantime, check out some of Jessica’s amazing pieces:
NY Times: Keeping A Family Together After Divorce and The Accident That No One Talked About
Salon: Why Waiting Till Marriage Is A Bad Idea
O Magazine: Getting Back With Your Ex

 
 

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A COMEDIC AFFAIR: AN INTERVIEW WITH JENNY ROSEN

By Nicole Erb

 

Whether it’s with an improv ensemble or mastering her craft as an individual storyteller, Jenny Rosen is a seasoned Bay Area performer who has her roots in BATS, SF’s highly acclaimed and longest running theater(where she’s a company member). She also teaches improv to kids and has collaborated with her husband, Moth Host Corey Rosen, on a children’s musical. We caught up with Jenny in Potrero Hill to talk about her approach to improv and the fundamentals to her storytelling style.

 

If you have a passion for improv and storytelling, Jenny’s SF Improv Storytelling Class, starts Wed. 6/7.

 

1.How did you get into improv storytelling?

 

I had never really done any kind of acting, storytelling or improv. I had been working nights for 3 years and had recently switched to a “day job” I cannot really explain how or why I decided to sign up for an improv class, I just knew it was something I wanted to do. First day of class, I was hooked. Freedom to create on the spot, the magic of failure, of gifts, of creating stories, appealed to me instantly. 

 

2.Your chicken or the egg question: Which do you need to master first, improv or storytelling?

 

I was absolutely doing a ton of improv before I got into storytelling. It was a natural progression for me. One of the best skills I learned was the Story Spine, a nine sentence starter to create a story. Improv story telling taught me to find out about who the hero is, and how to take them on a journey.

 

3. Improv is famous for saying yes. What’s the craziest thing that’s resulted from you saying yes- in your art or your life?

 

Finding and marrying my husband! Corey was below me in taking classes and all of a sudden he was in our student improv group. I was like, “Who is this funny guy?, I want to hang out with him!” We were friends for many years, creating stories, shows and just hanging out. He finally asked me out on a real official, honest to goodness DATE. And I said YES! We have very similar storytelling and improv styles. We love telling stories. He’s a better singer.

 

4. How has improv helped you as a writer?

 

The best is the freedom to write it all down, good, bad, weird, dark and not judge it. To not get stymied by writers block. Also, to say YES AND to your ideas.

 

5. You’re a BATS improv company member. Any advice for improv and storytelling newbies?

 

Do do do. Go out there and improvise, write everyday. Fail all over the place. Take classes, see shows. I was either taking a class, performing, or watching theater 4 days a week when I first started.

 

6. What do you do when you get stuck on ideas? Do you have any go-to techniques?

 

It sounds funny but one thing I do is write down really bad ideas, absurd ideas and that tends to get me back and inspired. I also get up, move around, take a break, play a silly improv game.
There’s an improv game called, What Comes Next? where you literally can only say what comes next. “the door bell rings, you hear it, you get up from the chair and head to the door, you open the door, there’s a clown…..”

 

7. How do you keep yourself honest in the moment, if you think an exaggeration or lie would be more interesting?

 

The best stories are the honest, true stories. There are ways to keep it grounded and compelling without exaggerating or lying. Tell your story in a genre, create an act out in the middle, be a significant character. Most important is tell the story, yes?

 

8. You’re married to a fellow improvisor and storyteller. Ever feel like you’re competing for the spotlight? Any advice do you have for people in relationships with their collaborators?

 

I never feel like I am competing with Corey. We are two different people with two different styles. I adore improvising with him on stage however! My advice is to do things together but do things separately, have honest check-ins with each other.

 

9. Do you and Corey get to work together often? What’s one of your favorite projects?

 

We do get to work together. My favorite collaboration was our children’s musical, “Wish Fulfillment, ltd.” which examines what actually happens when someone makes a wish. Beautiful original music by Corey.

 

10. Solo or in a group. Which do you prefer to perform with and why?

 

I like both but if I had to choose, it’s with a group. I love performing live theater with fellow actors, creating something together. It’s that ensemble thing I like so much.

 

11. You do a lot of corporate training. What’s the biggest mistake you see big-wigs making in public presentations? What advice do you mostly commonly give?

 

I think one of the biggest mistakes is not reading the room. Advice I give a lot is don’t forget about the power of silence. You don’t have to fill in all the space with words. Stillness can be very powerful.

 

12. How is your approach to storytelling different?

 

You get narrative skills as an improviser, the feel for how a story should go, ways to approach a story all come from an improv background. Let’s play different characters, change the genre, all that juicy stuff.

 

13. When doing improv storytelling, do you have a goal before you start? Post-show check-ins?

 

My goal is always to tell a good, honest story. Have the story go somewhere and hopefully the audience be changed by it. Or at least give them something to think/talk about. If I am doing an improv show, we do usually tend to have a check-in. What did we like, what did we notice that didn’t go so well. When it’s improv, it’s never to be repeated again. If it’s a story I will be telling again, we look at: what landed with the audience, what went flat, how can we expand/condense parts that need that editing.

 

14. What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from improv?

 

From Keith Johnstone’s Impro: “The improviser has to be like a man walking backwards. He sees where he has been, but he pays no attention to the future. His story can take him anywhere, but he must still ‘balance’ it, and give it shape, by remembering incidents that have been shelved and reincorporating them. Very often an audience will applaud when earlier material is brought back into the story. They couldn’t tell you why they applaud, but the reincorporation does give them pleasure. Sometimes they even cheer! They admire the improvisor’s grasp, since he not only generates new material, but remembers and makes use of earlier events that the audience itself may have temporarily forgotten.”

 

15.What does improv bring to the storytelling process.

 

Improv helps you create an interesting, simple story. 

 

16. Which improv storytellers do you admire the most?

 

Dana Gould and Mike Birbiglia.

  

17. A preview of what students will learn in your class?

 

YES! We will be using improv and the tenets of improv to help create and shape our stories. Maybe it’s a story we always tell but using improv maybe we find a way to deepen it, find a different angle, and think of it in a different way. Learn to say not only, YES but YES AND. Let’s say your story is about the time you stole a candy bar from the corner store when you were six. So we get your perspective but what if you told the story in the perspective of your parent?, the store owner? the candy bar??

 

Thanks so much Jenny!

 

Be sure to check out Jenny Rosen’s SF Improv Storytelling class, starting Wednesday, June 7th. You’ll have the chance to apply all her seasoned techniques to your story and performance in a pro theater.

 
 

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