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.
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. You also write children’s musicals. 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?
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.
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.”
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.
Imagine seeing your work in the iconic New Yorker font. What was once scribbled in your favorite notebook or typed into a Word document now looks sleek and confident in that special type that you associate with Zadie Smith, quippy opinion pieces and political cartoons. Now picture that same name and bio in Harper’s Magazine, the Yale Review, Poetry Magazine, ZYZZYVA. . .
For fiction writer and poet Austin Smith, this hypothetical is a reality. We were lucky enough to catch up with him at Farley’s in Potrero Hill and he graciously agreed to chat about his humble beginnings on a dairy farm in Illinois, work, creative process, post-Stegner life and the secret behind his publishing mojo.
Austin will be teaching a one-day short fiction intensive at Writing Pad San Francisco on Sunday, June 4th (your only chance to study with him this summer). If you’re serious about literary craft, be sure to check out his workshop !
1. You were raised on an Illinois dairy farm. How do your roots inspire and impact your work?
My dad is a poet, so I was exposed to poetry at a really young age. I still have my first notebook. On the back cover, on the Subject line, I wrote “Poetrey.” I don’t know how old I was – apparently not old enough to spell the word correctly. My dad would give readings at the local art museum, and poets like Gary Snyder and Michael Mott would visit us on the farm, so from an early age I understood that being a poet was about more than just writing poems, but was also participation in a community. I’ve always thought that the phrase “giving a poetry reading” is a particularly beautiful expression, with its suggestion of offering something to others. So that was the context in which I first encountered the writing life.
My roots in Illinois certainly continue to inspire and impact my work. Though I’ve lived in California going on seven years now, the Midwest is still my subject matter. The place and the people of that place, are what I’m most interested in exploring, both in fiction, poetry, and in more recent nonfiction projects. One of my favorite writers is William Maxwell. He was the fiction editor for the New Yorker for a good part of the twentieth century. He grew up in Lincoln, Illinois, a town he left when he was fourteen. Until his death in his nineties, he wrote mostly about Lincoln and his memories of the place. I expect my career will follow a similar trajectory (minus being the New Yorker Fiction Editor and assuming living into my nineties).
2. Tell us about your creative process? How do you land on a story and how does it evolve?
I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately because my creative process has been thrown off a little by my obsession with the news and my teaching duties at Stanford. I’ve learned that one must be absolutely fierce in carving out time for one’s own writing. It’s not so much a matter of writing a certain number of words a day as it is giving oneself permission to sit at a desk and perhaps do nothing at all but daydream. I usually try to make time for this early in the morning, when I feel most alert. The prospect of drinking coffee is the thing that draws me to the page more than the idea of writing, which can be surprisingly intimidating considering how many years I’ve been doing it. I try to set aside all distractions and write by hand in order to make stronger my connection to the words appearing on the page.
It helps, I think, to be writing towards a certain moment, particularly when working on a longer piece of prose. But when it comes to short stories, I feel that one must really work swiftly, in a kind of desperation to reach the end or else risk losing the thread of the story. When I’m really working on a story (and I’ve only had this experience a dozen times in my life), the story will demand my full engagement and attention until the first draft is done. Then I can work it over in a more leisurely way. Finishing that first draft feels like tightrope-walking –hurrying across, trying not to lose momentum or look down for fear that you’ll realize that you have no business being way the hell up there in the first place.
3. How do you land on a story and how does it evolve?
My head is filled with what I’ll call, for lack of a better image, “story spheres,” situations that suggest the possibility of interesting and dramatic writing. For instance, there was a haunted barn that my friends and I used to go to at Halloween when we were in high school, and I knew that I had to set a story there, and tried to get the story off the ground for a couple of years before it finally took shape. So perhaps my idea above about writing the story in one sustained effort over the course of a few days is misleading, as one has likely been working on the story for some time (years, perhaps) before one lays the first word down.
4. Your stories and poems have been featured in massive publications like The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Kenyon Review, Poetry Magazine, and the Yale Review. Do you have special tips on how to appeal to A-list editors? How do you manage the submission process?
I’m really fortunate to have had work appear in the places listed above, but I think of the total amount of effort I exert as a writer, only 10% or so goes towards submissions. I submit work when I have the flu, am home for the holidays, or am in the midst of a busy teaching term – in other words, when I can’t write. I think at some point I grew tired of having work rejected that I myself believed was strong and deserved to be out in the world, so I started posting my poems on my website. I would suggest using caution when publishing one’s own work online, as it can lead to copyright issues, but for me it’s been a nice way to place my work in the world without the barriers of the submissions process.
My submission process has become much more organized since I started using a site called Duotrope, which helps you keep track of where you’ve sent what. This is particularly helpful for submitting poems.
5. Endings are notoriously tricky for writers. How do you approach finishing a piece?
It’s difficult to let go of a piece, whether letting go means deciding what image to conclude the story or poem with, or deciding the piece as a whole is ready to submit or send off to one’s agent. When I’m really working on a story I’ll begin, about halfway through the draft, to see where the story might end, and will begin writing towards that place. Upon finishing the story, I’ll go back over it quite obsessively, maybe twenty to thirty times, smoothing out the sentences. I’m not a big ironer but I imagine the process is akin to ironing a shirt. Eventually there are no wrinkles left and you know that anything you do from there on is probably going to harm rather than help the story. When the story starts losing my interest and my mind is wandering off towards the next one, I know it’s time to let it go.
It was a huge honor for me to be awarded the Stegner Fellowship. And quite a surprise. For several years I had applied in poetry. In 2011, having written one short story and part of a novel, I applied in fiction as well and was accepted. All my life, through my two graduate programs in poetry, I had considered myself a poet, and had never been very interested in fiction. I turned to fiction when I found poems insufficient vessels for the things I wanted to say.
My interest in both genres has kept me from fully committing to either. I never finished the novel I was working on as a Stegner Fellow and have since taken up other projects. The best part of the fellowship was working with teachers like Tobias Wolff and Elizabeth Tallent and reading the work of fellow Fellows.
7. As a Jones Lecturer at Stanford, what is one thing that you prioritize in your classroom?
There’s quite a bit of laughter in my classes. I try to get my students to loosen up and have fun, because I think that only when young writers are comfortable with one another are they going to be willing to be courageous and honest, both in taking criticism and doling it out. But “criticism” is probably too harsh a word for the sort of feedback I give, and that we give one another. Having had some quite withering workshops in my own life as a young writer, I’m leery of giving young writers the opportunity to lay into one another. In a speech she gave called “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” Flannery O’Connor compared this workshop model to the blind leading the blind. I think when people don’t know what to say about a piece of writing, the default is to criticize it, if only to make oneself feel better about one’s own work. So I try not to let a pecking-order sort of hierarchy develop in my classes. And I also make sure to let everyone know that poets and writers do not necessarily have to be “smart,” or have lofty philosophical or literary ideas. Taking away this pressure tends to make everyone feel more comfortable and open, so that the real work of figuring out what makes a piece of writing great can proceed.
8. Who are you reading right now? Who do you admire?
I’m pretty bored by most contemporary fiction and have a hard time getting into most new novels, which feel to me too packaged and artificial. Honestly, I don’t read much fiction at all. Maybe one reason I can’t finish my own novel is that I can hardly finish anyone else’s. Right now though I’m reading a really good novel by Walter Tevis called Queen’s Gambit, a chess thriller which was recommended to me by Tobias Wolff (whose taste I trust absolutely) and which I expect to finish. You’re more likely to find me reading something weird, like The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, or Donald Hall’s Remembering Poets or a book on Marian apparitions. I also love biographies, especially of poets and artists.
I have a pantheon of artists who are guiding lights for me, and who I return to again and again: James Salter, Norman Maclean, Frank Stanford, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Wordsworth…
9. Nature holds a dear place in your life and writing. Where in the bay do you go for inspiration?
Thanks for this question. It’s something that I’ve struggled with, because I grew up on a farm, and really miss being able to sit on a porch in the evening, far from all city lights, watching fireflies. My idea of heaven is walking forever down a long farm lane with a beer in hand, accompanied by an old dog. So living in the city is hard for me. Northern California is, of course, a stunningly beautiful place to live, but I often feel like I have to commute to find the sort of solitude I used to be able to find by just stepping off the porch. But the longer I live here, and the more desperate I become to find some space, the more places I discover. Lately I like running on the Nimitz Trail, which is up in the hills above Berkeley. And I love driving north to the Point Reyes area, and even further to Boonville and Mendocino.
10. As both a poet and a fiction writer, do you find that one feeds the other? Or do you consider your poems to be completely separate from your stories?
I guess I touched on this a little before. I said that I turned to writing stories when I felt that poems could no longer contain the things I wanted to say. I still think that’s true. But there’s also the fact that it’s a relief that I can turn to poems when I’m getting bogged down in a story. Right now I’m not really writing very much at all, which is always a terrifying and terrible period. As for whether I consider my poems to be separate from my stories, I guess I would say no, that they feel to me to be one body of work. If I had my way I would publish both genres together, poems interspersed with stories, like the Japanese form habuin that Basho worked in for his great travel journals. I think that the division between these genres, which is amplified by one having to choose whether to do an MFA in poetry or in fiction, is artificial, and perhaps is one of the reasons that poetry gets so marginalized in the publishing world.
Yes these are stories that I wrote while a Stegner Fellow, and in the years since while I’ve been working as a Jones Lecturer. They are loosely linked and take place in Pearl County, a fictional stand-in for Stephenson County, where I grew up. At left is a map of the county painted by my friend Emily Underwood.
I feel pretty confident that the story collection is finished, and can be published as is but I’ve had trouble getting it out there.
So it’s sort of just sitting around right now, which is a little depressing. Hopefully I’ll find a way to get the stories out there, because I think since the election people on the coasts are finally taking some interest in what is happening in so-called “flyover country” (which is the title of my new poetry collection).
12. You lecture at Stanford but live in San Francisco. What are your favorite literary haunts in the city? Any cafés or book shops that help you feel tapped into the bay’s rich creative vein?
I live in Oakland now. I used to live near Dolores Park but moved to the Adam’s Point area near Lake Merritt last spring. I still get over to San Francisco quite often. A few friends and I convene once a month or so for a gathering we call Poets’ Table. We usually get together at Vesuvio or Spec’s or Mario’s in North Beach and talk about poetry and share poems. Many of my friends have had to leave the Bay due to high rents, so I really value the friends of mine who’ve somehow managed to hold on here. Having a community of fellow writers is important, even if you only see them once a month for beer and bullshit.
13. Do you have any advice for aspiring fiction writers?
I think the usual advice people give is to read as much as possible, and of course that’s very important, but I think that young writers should turn inward in search of the reason they want to be a writer in the first place. I think not getting caught up in the idea of publishing and selling a novel, in social media, in all that stuff that is really extraneous to the creative process itself, is important. At the end of the day one has to be content with spending long swaths of time alone, doing work that may never be published and that one may never get paid for. And if doing that work still feels vital to you, absent all the trappings of publication and attention, then you’re giving yourself a much better shot at enduring the periods of disappointment and doubt that no writer, no matter how lucky, can hope to be spared from.
14. What do you think is the difference between a good short story and a great short story?
I really like this question, and it’s one I’ve thought about a lot. There’s a really interesting essay, a few years old now, by the writer Elif Batumen (it appeared in the journal N+1) in which she levels some quite strong and, to me, refreshing criticism against contemporary short stories. I’m very loosely paraphrasing her argument here, but I believe what troubles her about the stories she finds in Best American Short Story anthologies is that they’re perhaps too polished, too perfect. One can write a very, very good story that everyone agrees has nothing whatsoever wrong with it. It might be so unmarred by mistakes that it appears in an anthology of the best short stories published that year. But such stories don’t tend to stay around for very long, I don’t think. My favorite stories, like James Salter’s “Twenty Minutes” for instance, have a kind of rough, unfinished quality about them. There are moments in the story that continue to confuse you even after a dozen readings. One finds that one cannot quite grasp the story.
There’s something unwieldy about it, even awkward. One suspects that even the writer didn’t precisely know what they were up to. I think this is the essential difference between good and great stories: with a good story, the writer appears to be in control throughout; in a great story, the writer appears to have been working at the behest of the story. To reference a line by the great Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, the story or poem has outgrown the writer, and has thrown them out of the nest.
15. What will students learn in your class?
Certainly I will be extremely enthusiastic about whatever piece of writing I choose to share in order to demonstrate the qualities I admire in fiction. I often teach a passage by the great novelist Kent Haruf that to me perfectly inhabits the consciousness of two boys watching a horse being cut open for an autopsy. I feel that if I can convey to a student why I find this particular passage so brilliant, they may then be able to turn to their own work and try to imitate or in some way mirror that moment.
I am sometimes a little tongue-tied when responding to a student’s writing, perhaps because, rather than improving the piece on the page, what is called for is for the writer to re-approach the moment in an entirely new way. And I think that by really delving deeply into great scenes and stories and poems, one can impart a certain way of looking at the world to a young writer. So students should expect me to discuss their work in the same breath that I’m discussing a paragraph by Chekhov or Nabokov or some other writer whose name ends in “ov,” because I really feel that when it comes to the writing life, we’re all in this together, teacher and student, the living and the dead.
Thank you so much, Austin! We’re Looking forward to the release of “Flyover Country.”
If you’re itching to hone your craft (or if you’re as curious as we are about this brilliant horse autopsy passage), don’t miss Austin’s 1-day fiction intensive in SF on Sunday June 4th.
Ever dream of crushing the freelance beat? Meet Sophia Kercher. She’s written everything from deeply personal tales to researched pieces for huge journals. She knows what it takes to regularly be published in The New York Times, Elle, Variety, LA Weekly, Salon, and more. It takes guts, talent, persistence, and a dash of his girl Friday.
Sophia is teaching a Personal Essay class at Writing Pad in DTLA starting Sun. 5/21. You’ll learn everything you need to know to craft honest, publishable essays. Until then, get to know Sophia!
1. Let’s start with your background? When did you start writing & how’d you break into the biz?
I grew up devouring books. I always knew I wanted to tell stories even when I was very young.
I went to college at UC Santa Barbara where I started writing for my school newspaper’s arts section. The paper paid something like $35 an article, and I couldn’t believe I got paid to go see movies or bands that I liked and write about them—it felt too good to be true. Sometimes I still feel like that.
2. You’ve landed work in massive publications like the NY Times, Elle, Variety, and Salon. What’s one way to set your piece apart from the competition in the eyes of these prestigious places?
My strategy is what I call being an “idea machine.” I come up with as many story ideas as I can, research what outlet they would best fit in, and send pitches out into the universe (with my fingers crossed).
3. In addition to being a successful essayist, you’ve also been an editor and an editorial director. What is the most common mistake writers make when trying to make contact with an editor?
The most common mistake writers make is not following up. Editors are often balancing multiple projects at once and managing several different writers so it’s common for your email to get lost in the shuffle. Don’t be afraid to send a follow up email when you don’t hear back. And if you don’t hear back at all don’t take it personally, that means it’s time to send your essay or pitch to a new outlet.
4. One of the biggest challenges and most important aspects of the personal essay is a willingness to be vulnerable and exposed to your audience. How do you do it?
I still struggle with what I’m willing to share and what I’m not, but that tension is what makes writing personal essays exciting. My advice to writers is to keep a journal where they let their emotions spill out on the page. Don’t write on a laptop; use a good old-fashioned pen and paper. Don’t have to update your journal every day and don’t share it with anyone. Revisit the journal when you start your essay or you’re feeling stuck and need to remember the rawness of your feelings and how to describe them.
5. How do you approach personal pieces (your LA Times piece) vs journalistic pieces (NY Times)?
I’ve spent three months to a year and a half writing personal pieces. For me, personal writing takes patience. I tend to let personal stories sit for some time in order to add more depth, and distance from the story and its characters. Meanwhile, I can write a reported piece in less than a week and move on to the next project immediately. But I’m always surprised that some of my best writing can come from a tight deadline.
6. Any advice you have for aspiring journalists?
Find someone’s writing you admire that lives in your city and invite them out for coffee or tea and ask them about their career and writing process. You’ll be surprised.
So many people will be happy to meet with you. I still have journalist friends who I met this way. Also, go to parties. Some of my best new ideas come from talking to strangers at parties. It’s easy and fun.
7. The romantic friendship in your LA Times piece is so tangible and relatable thanks to your incredible knack for detail. How do you pick and choose which details to use and which to cut? Where do you find the balance between the universal and the specific?
I learned as an editor the more specific you can be in a piece the better. What details to pick and choose depends on the publication. When I’m writing for the LA Times or the Weekly, my details will focus on specifics to the city, for example I’ll include street names or well-known restaurants. Whereas when I’m writing for an audience that is national, like Salon, my details can be more universal but I always keep them as specific.
8. Pitching stories is one of the most crucial and nuanced steps of getting published. What’s your biggest piece of advice for aspiring writers trying to get an editor’s attention?
My biggest piece of advice for writers trying to get an editor’s attention is to be extremely familiar with the outlet they are pitching to. Find out what kind of stories the editor is looking for (it’s OK to ask), read the publication from top-to-bottom, and tailor your pitches just for that publication and that specific editor.
9. What do you think is the difference between a good and a great essay?
A good essay weaves a compelling story but a great essay has a narrative that makes you feel something: knees shaking, heart aching, head spinning.
Journalism is different than other forms of publishing because it speaks to this very moment in time. Have a timely hook in your pitch or essay that relates to the news cycle, trends, or season. That time hook gives you an advantage when you’re pitching. One thing to remember is it doesn’t have to be a complicated news angle. For example, for my recent New York Times piece about an app for mobile-first moms to connect (and the dark side of technology for parents) the time hook was Mother’s Day.
In my class, I’ll be passing on more than 10 years of knowledge and the tools and strategies that helped me land stories and essays in the New York Times, Elle, Salon, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications. I’ll offer writing prompts to kick-start ideas, a guide for how to crack the personal essay market, and tips for knocking down creative blocks. I’ll share how to include all the essential elements that editors look for in a personal essay: the hook, tone and angle—and some bad date stories, because who doesn’t love a good bad date story?
Thanks so much, Sophia! Soak up more insight in her Personal Essay class starting Sun. 5/21.
In the meantime, check out some of Sophia’s amazing pieces:
Ever thought, “I wanna hear myself on the radio”? Eliza Smith did and now that’s where you can find her! A producer of both non-fiction and fictional pieces for Snap Judgment, Eliza is living her radio dreams. Whether it’s writing, editing, producing, researching, or even acting in the stories, she leaves no stone unturned.
Eliza will be teaching a class on Radio Storytelling (4 Wk) at Writing Pad San Francisco starting Sunday, 5/21, where you’ll learn everything you need to know about creating great stories for radio or podcasts. Until then, let’s get a little personal with Eliza.
Let’s start off with a little bit about your history on the airwaves. What first attracted you to making stories for radio, how did you become a professional radio producer and how did you start working with Snap Judgment?
I’ve loved public radio since I was a kid. I grew up in Santa Monica, and my home station was KCRW. I remember hearing Terry Gross and Ira Glass and thinking, “I want to hear myself on the radio someday.” (I realize that that isn’t an original feeling!).
For a long time, I thought I’d become a fiction writer. I wrote stories from the time I learned to write, through college. But after school, I started a podcast with my friend; it featured flash fiction & small press authors. I realized that I loved editing so much more than I enjoyed writing. Where writing felt like pulling teeth, I loved finding ways for people tell their stories better.
I had worked in the social sector as a grant writer since I graduated school. When I met my now-husband, I told him that I wanted to be a radio producer full-time. He’s an audio engineer & a record producer full time, and helped me navigate the ins-and-outs of interning and juggling side gigs. At his urging, I quit my full-time job, and took an internship at the Kitchen Sisters. I ended up meeting Julia DeWitt, a former Snap Judgment producer, through friends. She helped me understand the radio world better, and introduced me to Mark and Glynn at Snap Judgment. The rest, as they say, is history. I’ve been at Snap for 3 years now, and I love every minute of my work.
You also write your own fiction which has been published on places like Spork, Pank, and the Litography Project. What is your favorite thing about storytelling?
I think my favorite thing about story telling is that I can become an expert on subjects I’m really interested in. Whether I’m writing fiction or producing a nonfiction segment on Snap, I need to research what I’m writing about. When I write fiction, I tend to write “fabulist” stories (I love people like Etgar Keret, Angela Carter, Alissa Nutting, Manuel Gonzales, Italo Calvino, etc.).
Fiction allows me to do more existential research. I can explore subjects and themes that may or may not be “real” in the traditional sense–like ghosts, inanimate objects-turned-animate, animal/people hybrids–and become a sort of “expert” in them. I’ll read folklore that features the themes I’m exploring, reference writers who’ve explored this territory before me, even read scholarship that analyzes to these themes.
When I make nonfiction, I do the same thing, but my research is grounded in more concrete phenomena. For example, for the past year or so, I’ve been researching what happens to homeless people when they die. I’ve been researching Hart’s Island in the Hudson River. I’ve learned a ton about schizophrenia from a story I did about Charles Monroe Kane. I’ve gotten to learn a lot about what it’s like to be a teenager right now–I’ve been following a senior at Mission High for the last 9 months. My job allows me to be a student all the time. And this is great, because I LOVE school and thought I’d miss it. Turns out, I don’t have to miss it at all!
What’s one thing you can do in radio that you can’t do in any other genre?
I think you can be intimate in radio in a way that you can’t in other genres. You’re literally in someone’s head when you’re telling a story–and this allows you to deal with concepts are really personal. I mentioned this story above–I interviewed Charles Monroe Kane from To the Best of Our Knowledge about his experiences as a child preacher who had undiagnosed schizophrenia. I felt like I could really go deep and explore mental illness with him because we are on the radio. He has roughly 16 minutes to talk about what it feels like to hear voices in his head… and I love that listeners are experiencing him as a voice in their heads. I think there is such a closeness in that act of listening that can’t be duplicated in other media. And I love creating that experience for listeners, of losing one’s self in someone else’s personal space.
Can you speak to being the first SJ producer to consistently bring fictional stories to the show? What do you look for in a story when you want it to go from the page to the recording booth?
For fiction, we look for pretty much the exact same thing we look for in nonfictional Snap stories: a beginning, middle, and end with a good twist, strong characters, and a little bit of je ne sais quoi-freshness. We talk about our stories a lot as “movies for your ears”, and when I’m on the hunt for fiction, I’m looking for stories that have a filmic quality. I’m looking for evocative imagery, powerful scenes, and characters with agency, who are facing/resolving conflict.
The really fun part of doing fiction is that I get to adapt the work of writers I admire. It’s such an honor to work with authors whose work I’ve been so excited to discover. And I get to jump into that editorial role–I have raw material to work with, and I get to retell it. We’ve only done one of my original stories, and I had written the flash fiction version of it a few years ago, so I got to be an editor/adaptor there, too.
It’s also really fun doing voice acting, casting, directing, and collaborating with our sound team on foley, score, and audio context. When a fiction production comes together, it feels really magical.
We know that you’ll cover this more fully in your class, but would you let us in on one thing that Snap Judgment looks for in a story to air on the show?
I think my favorite part of our stories is that we demand the narrator/main character display a great amount of agency. They make decisions that affect the world around them–that have ripple effects. Personally, I value my own agency a great deal, and try to exercise it when I know I need to, even if it’s scary. And I love talking to people who have had to flex that muscle in difficult decisions.
Recently, I did a story about a woman who is was an Apartheid-government spy in South Africa. Her decision to defect and join the opposition was enormous, with great consequences, but she did it anyway because she felt she couldn’t live with herself otherwise. We did all our interviews at 3am, Pacific Time, because she lives in Italy now, and I just remember feeling so excited listening to her. I was (probably not) the only person awake in my neighborhood, listening to a woman talk about how she risked her life to help bring an end to an evil regime. *chills!*
Would you walk us through the process of a radio piece from story scouting to final touches? How many interviews do you conduct with a subject? How long is the original tape? How much time do you spend on editing/sound design?
I should say that every story is different–some stories basically produce themselves, and take about a month to make (this is the standard, everything-goes-to-plan, meet-all-your-deadlines production span for us at Snap). And some, I’ve worked on for quite literally years. So, I would say that time is a major variable.
But story scouting, or searching for pitches, is something I do on a daily basis. I think I spend, easily, about 3-5 hours a week looking for stories. This is really hard and really fun, simultaneously. I won’t reveal my sources, because I’ve found some weird places to explore that really work for me, and I’ve spent a long time locating those places. But I usually find a thread, an idea, and tease it out through research.
I’ll look for concepts, then people whose stories are examples of those concepts, if that makes sense. So for example, I wanted to do a story about impossible instances of survival. So I worked with my colleague, Anna Sussman, to adapt an Esquire piece about a group of people surviving a very deadly tornado by jumping into a large cooler at the back of a gas station. What made that piece magical? SOMEONE RECORDED THE WHOLE TORNADO WITH THEIR iPHONE FROM THE INSIDE OF THE COOLER. That’s holy grail tape, right there.
Interviews are about 2 hours long. Generally, we do 2-3 interviews, so we work with 4-6 hours of tape per story. It’s a lot of work cutting it down. But often during an interview, you know what parts of the tape are going to be very useful to your story. It’s easy to locate them if you get the sound files right away–if you get it a little later, a transcript helps with that. Editing can take a while, depending, as aforementioned, on how much time the story needs to be a story.
We have the luxury of having a phenomenal in-house sound team. Pat Mesiti-Miller, Leon Morimoto, and Renzo Gorrio write the original score & sound design all of our stories. So our stories really get the luxury treatment from these insanely talented people.
Also, it’s important to mention that sometimes, you do a ton of work, and your story gets killed. Lots and lots of Snap stories never see the light of day. And I hate getting stories killed, but I’m so grateful for my colleagues for killing my stories that aren’t good enough. Failing = growth, in my opinion.
What are your favorite podcasts right now (other than Snap)?
I’m really into the entire Crooked Media universe–I love Pod Save America, Lovett or Leave it, and now, Pod Save the People. I also really appreciate the levity of all the folks who make the NPR Politics podcast.
I listen to a ton of audiobooks on Audible. Right now, I’m listening to It by Stephen King, and I’m loving it.
What separates a good story for the radio from a great story?
A good radio story is one that is full of darlings that should have been killed. A great radio story is one in which every single word matters.
You’re passionate about representation in your work, and you have tremendous power over the types of stories that people consume. Do you think the rising craze over podcasts can help us build deeper empathy through storytelling?
I do, but I think we have to reach out to people who do not already participate in what we are doing as an industry. As a white woman in podcasting–and there are a lot of white women in podcasting–my aim is to use my job to be the person who hands to mic to people who we don’t hear from. I try to ask myself as often as possible: how can I amplify voices that I know we don’t hear from enough? Who do we need to hear from? And, how can I help listeners confront and digest ideas which are uncomfortable for them?
As a producer, my job is basically creating a really nice package for other people’s stories. Recently, I produced a story about Genetic Sexual Attraction, a concept that a lot of people are really uncomfortable with. My aim with the story was to give this couple the mic, to talk about their experience. Which, by the way, is really tender and wonderful and genuine. I hope that came across in the story that aired.
I am also really proud that, in a field plagued by a lack of diversity, I get to work for a show that talks the talk and walks the walk. We have a very diverse staff, and it’s such a service to our show: we have different backgrounds, different levels of experience, different areas of interest. I learn from my co-workers all the time. I think this is also reflected in our interviewees: we make a point to talk to lots of really different people. And yes, there definitely are times when we need to course-correct and make sure we interview less men, or more people of color, or more people from outside the US, but we are able to be honest and identify these disparities in our coverage and address them pretty nimbly.
Could you let us in on one thing that students should expect to learn from your “Radio Storytelling” class?
That failure is integral to growth when it comes to writing (or anything). I hope everyone can learn to celebrate the fact that sometimes, you need to write a thousand (okay, maybe less, but you get the point) shitty stories before you write one you love. It’s important to acknowledge that sometimes, things don’t work.
And it’s better to move on and devote your creative energy to projects that have legs, as opposed to trying to beat the proverbial dead horse. Most of the time, you write things that are terrible. Sometimes, you knock it out of the park. The proportions are unfair, but hey, so is life. Plus, it feels so much better to put out one story you’re obsessed with, as opposed to 10 stories that’ll embarrass you a year later.
Wow! Thanks for paying it forward and sharing so much with us, Eliza. Remember to check out Eliza’s Radio Storytelling class starting Sun. 5/21 in San Francisco.
By Nicole Erb
Breaking into the writers’ room can feel impossible. But persistence, flexibility, and talent pay off. Enter: Michael. Starting with a Daytime Emmy nomination (GENERAL HOSPITAL), Michael has written for sitcom (AWKWARD), family drama (BROTHERS AND SISTERS), and dramedy (JANE THE VIRGIN). Now he’s working on interactive mobile storytelling. In this interview with TV Writer Michael Cinquemani, he discusses his incredibly versatile path.
Michael will be teaching a live online class “TV Pilot Writing” at Writing Pad starting Tuesday, 5/23 where you will learn everything you need to know about TV fundamentals and crafting a great TV series. Until then, here’s a bit about Michael.
1. How did you land your first TV writing position and start your journey to writing on so many amazing TV shows?
Let’s see… my father’s-boss’-friend’s-cousin’s-former roommate had a production job on a soap opera and got me an interview as an intern on a show in New York. I didn’t go to a school with a screenwriting program like USC or UCLA so I just dug deep (obviously– that’s like almost six degrees of separation) and asked everyone I knew if they knew anyone who could help me break in. I got that internship and within weeks I was the writers’ assistant at the soap and soaking up everything I could learn about the process of writing for TV. From there I just kept generating new specs and taking any gig that kept me in and around the writing room.
Eventually I started writing scripts for soaps while doing a full time job as a script continuity editor, then I got my first full time writing contract. After a few years I wanted to try my hand at primetime, but no one would even consider me. It was frustrating, because here I’d written hours and hours of TV and been in writing rooms but I couldn’t get in the door. So I kept writing new traditional show specs and pilots and after a few tries landed the Disney Fellowship which opened doors to so many other shows. And I pretty much kept staffing after that.
2. You began your career working for successful soaps like General Hospital and All My Children and then made the transition to working for amazing shows like The Vampire Diaries, Revenge, Awkward, and Jane the Virgin. Is there a difference in the writers’ room between a daily soap and a weekly series?
Every show I’ve been on has a different system but the net result is the same. You’re trying to put out great TV. Soaps are much more of a factory. You have to produce so much long story, outlines, scripts and episodes per week to keep the show on the air. The jobs are a little more discreet and sometimes the writers aren’t even in the same state! The headwriters are mostly responsible for the thrust of the long arc, the outline writers help shape individual days and then someone else writes the actual script.
In primetime there is sometimes more collaboration and all the writers are present. The room might all work on the break. Even share the outline or divvy up scenes. And even that process varies from show to show and sometimes genre to genre. But at the heart of any room are the people you’re working with. Your team. You have to all work together to make something great. You all have to care and you all have to be passionate about the story, the writing and the final product.
3. What separates a good script from a great script?
Voice. Point of view. Heart. Dialogue. I’m obsessed with all of these. People talk a lot about the rules of the craft. I think you can break any of those rules if you have a strong voice. A strong point of view. If you pour your heart into it and even if you can just write aspirational dialogue that makes people wish they could talk like that in real life. That’s the Sorkin thing. Or the “Gilmore Girls” thing. The Buffy thing.
But at the end of the day the story needs to move people. It needs to be focused. That’s a lot of things that separate a good script from a great script, huh? The truth might be that when a script is great all of the above just comes together seamlessly and we’re entertained.
4. Selling a pilot is hard, especially to prestigious networks like MTV. You’ve sold them two. What’s the key ingredient to a successful pitch?
Know your story inside and out. Love, live, and die by it. There are a bunch of tricks you can employ to land a pitch. But nothing beats preparation. You can be insanely charismatic but if there are holes and they get called out you’re not gonna make a sale. They might like the idea but they’re not going to be convinced you can execute it. So practice, be passionate, and the audience will be compelled!
5. What is the #1 mistake that beginning writers make in their scripts?
Not hooking the reader in the first few pages. I want to give someone a script that they can’t put down. And honestly, people in the business are reading SO much, it’s hard to keep their attention. So do whatever you can to make the first five pages, ten, fifteen completely original and engaging. Make the reader HAVE TO keep turning them to the end. Engage, engage, engage. You can do that but surprising the reader, with an unexpected scenario out of the gate, with a really original character or a brutally honest voice. Don’t give them one single line that allows them to bail.
6. You have worked on some of the greatest comedies and dramas. How do you make yourself versatile as a writer who can seamlessly switch between genres?
That was totally by design. When I first started in TV I heard, “you can’t write primetime, you write soap.” Or “you can’t do half hour if you’re in hour.” “You want to work in comedy now– you’re a drama writer!” It pissed me off. I loved teen dramedy. I loved classy family drama. Basically I was all about character. If I wanted to spend time with a character week-to-week I didn’t care what format their show was in– I wanted to watch. I felt the same way about my writing.
So if I was on a teen half hour– when it came time to look for new work– I asked my agents to submit me for hour. I figured being versatile in an ever growing and changing marketplace would be make me more employable. And also, I watched these kinds of shows and considered myself a good mimic. So I got to have fun, face new challenges and work on a lot of shows I loved. It was win-win.
7. What is your advice for aspiring TV writers about how to break into the business and have a healthy career?
Try everything. The fellowships and writing workshops and classes and programs. Be knowledgeable about the business. Watch A LOT of TV. Read A LOT of books. Consume, consume, consume entertainment and know how to talk about it. Be educated and voracious about information. You never know who you’ll be talking to and how it could help. Never look down on a job. Whether it be a PA or working on an exec’s desk. If you want to be in the business, be around it, too. And of course write, write, write. It’s a struggle. But the worst thing is getting a break and then not being prepared for it. That means you’ve squandered a possibly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and that’s a tragedy.
8. You are currently working as a showrunner at the interactive mobile storytelling platform, EPISODE. How is the process of writing stories for mobile different than TV?
Turns out it’s not. EPISODE is a cool place that is fostering an online community of writers to tell stories visually. For any of the branded product (like MEAN GIRLS or PRETTY LITTLE LIARS) or Episode Originals (like JUVIE or THE ROYAL BABY) I run the room the same way it’s done in TV. We take an idea, we flesh it out, we come up with a long story, arc that over the designated number of chapters we’ll have in a season and make sure that the cliffhanger on the story makes the reader feel like they MUST continue reading or die. We laugh, we tell personal stories, we argue about plot points and character motivation. We work together collaboratively to make the story fun and entertaining
The biggest variation in mobile at this point is that the reader gets to make choices along the way in the story that will take them in different directions– something we’re not seeing on TV yet. And that leads to variation in the narrative and the character’s journey. Sure you can’t do everything that they can on a big budget TV show yet but this is a different medium and it’s growing and evolving and in the future we’ll definitely get there. At the end of the day story is story and writing is about communicating that story in the best, most clear and entertaining way possible. You can’t do that without writers!
9. How do you keep shows gripping for multiple episodes and seasons?
I’ve always felt that in serialized fiction that the character is key to keeping people coming back. A great plot isn’t going to resonate if you don’t care about the characters. Soaps and comic books have proved that for decades. Movies are doing that now with all the legacy franchises like STAR WARS. People want to keep going back to those narratives because of great characters. TV is the same– in fact it’s the BEST medium for constantly getting to feed the audience character story.
A character doesn’t have to be shocking to be compelling either. That’s an idea that seems to have been popular in the last ten years. You don’t have to be an anti-hero to be a compelling character. I think you just have to be true. Honest characterization is the best. If we trust that the character is being true to themselves and their struggle I think we come back season after season. We want to believe people can change and evolve. TV let’s us follow that journey. If it works, we’re hooked.
10. Where do find stories? Can you give me an example of something that happened to you that you adapted to storylines that were used on a show that you worked on?
There’s a popular adage: write what you know. And boy have I found that’s true. That doesn’t mean if you’re a kid from Long Island who moved to Hollywood to be a writer EVERY story you write is about that. It’s all about how you take the experiences of your life, your unique point-of-view and apply it to any given scenario that you’re writing.
I used to say that people always mocked soaps because of the “back from the dead” storylines. But then I’d ask them to imagine that they had a relationship that ended tragically. And that they had to deal with that grief and eventually move on with their lives. And then one day, that person, who maybe moved away or cut you out of their life abruptly showed up again wanting to get back in. How would you react? How would that feel? It’s probably happened to everyone at some point in their lives. Well that’s how you approach a back from the dead scenario in your writing. Sure, it’s more extreme but the emotional core is there.
Specifically I can say that I had a personal story in my youth– about how I had a crush on a girl and tried to woo her in the fourth grade by giving her a really special birthday present– and how CRUSHED I was when she liked another boy’s gift more– that I used in my storytelling that got me several jobs. What made the story kind of unique was that I turned out to be gay– but at the time– I had no idea. I just wanted this girl to like me! And I think the adults around me were thinking– this is kind of weird. I used that story as a C story in a spec for “Ugly Betty.” Her nephew Justin was gay but didn’t know it. People just really reacted to how personal and unusual the story was. I think they thought it was funny and sweet and human. It got me my first two jobs in primetime.
They’ll learn everything I know from twenty years in the business. I tend to over share. And I’ll do that here, too. I think they can expect honesty, passion, practical advice and more than a few colorful anecdotes to help them either not make the mistakes I did or hopefully inspire a direction in their own work. I’ll talk about (in no specific order here) everything from pace, rhythm, voice and point of view to long story, triangles and cliffhangers. Nothing they want to know is off limits. And I think we’ll have fun!
Thank you, Michael! We’re all one step closer to writing our buzz-inducing pilot. We can’t wait for your TV Pilot Online class. Sign up before it’s sold out!