Welcome to the fifth in a series of interviews with Athens-area writers. The hope is to inform you about new techniques you might want to try, increase your knowledge of the individuals in your community, and inspire you on your path. Please contact me if you’re interested in answering our writing questionnaire and being featured here as a future ‘local writer’.
NOTE: Special thanks to AWA co-founder Jill Hartmann for originally supplying us with these wonderful questions for the series, and to the author below for supplying the photos and memes.
At what point in your life did you become a writer and how did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
I have one of those amazing stories of superb teacher intervention. I was eleven years old, combating a rough spell of pre-adolescence and lost my drive to succeed. I wouldn’t do my homework or take any tests. Rather, on the back of the forms I routinely refused to fill in, I would write stories about a rebellious young girl who could do no right.
I should have failed that year. I was practically begging to fail. But rather than seeing a flunkee, Mr. Patrick saw a kid in need of a little special attention. He called me after class one day to make me an offer. If I could muster the ambition to ask him for an alternative to the homework or tests, he would give me a unique story-based assignment. However, if I ever asked and then failed to hand in the work, the deal was off.
From that day on, I never answered math equations, but rather, wrote word problems that proved I understood the lesson. I never took another scantron exam about ancient Egypt, but rather wrote stories from the point of view of King Tut. Mr. Patrick saw potential and put the pen in my hand. He could have failed me that year. Many other teachers would have. Instead, he gave me my career and a creative outlet has never let me down.
What books have you read that shaped you as a writer? Which authors’ work do you admire and why?
No book shaped me more as a writer than Catcher in the Rye. That book inspired my foray into screenwriting. I had never read anything written in that way; in the first person with such a command of voice and such a unique world-view. As a fifteen-year- old, Holden Caulfield was my heartthrob of choice.
I was so smitten by CITR, that – in my free time – I wrote monologues from the perspective of the other characters in the story who didn’t get a fair chance to speak. The monologue I wrote from the perspective of the prostitute won an award the following year when, at sixteen, I attended summer-college at Syracuse University. It was there that a professor told me for the first time that I could write professionally. If only I were brave enough to try.
Which piece that you have written are you most proud of and why?
Oh man, I have no idea. When I am writing for myself, I always like to push myself to try something new. I will tackle a new genre or story-telling style. Anything to force myself to learn and adapt and mold language in new and exciting ways. A few of these attempts have ended in miserable failures, but each of these experimental babies are loved equally. I can’t pick a favorite because, since they were each equally out of my comfort zone, they each equally taught me something profound.
The accomplishment comes not from believing I have a new style or genre nailed down, but rather, in knowing that I don’t have to be afraid of it. In learning that now I have yet another arena in which I can play. And isn’t that the best part of being a writer, getting to play?
All this being said, getting to go to the Emmys when Project Mc2, a show I helped develop and write, was nominated for Best Children’s Program, was a pretty spectacular experience.
— Walt Whitman
Do you gravitate toward a particular genre(s) and/or format when you write? Tell us more about which genres and/or formats are your “passion?”
As stated in the previous question, I love to play and try new things. However, I will say I have two passions and though folks find them quite dissimilar, I couldn’t disagree more.
I love to write for kids, particularly around the preteen age, and to give them stories full of complicated emotions. It is so important that we tell kids, “I see you” and offer them stories in which they see themselves and their feelings are validated. Superheroes and dystopia are fun and have a place, but to take a story that walks along the school halls with them and shows the complicated inner-workings of young friendships is key to a kid’s self-esteem and understanding of their placement in the world.
My other passion is female raunch-comedy, such as Bridesmaids or The Heat. And though it seems like an odd departure, I love it for a similar reason. Women, for too long, have been silenced. Our humor is silenced. Our sexuality is silenced. Our emotional wants and needs are silenced. We are currently in another wave of the feminist movement and I love being a part of it. I have spent my entire life (not just career) being asked whether I think women can be as funny as men. Duh! Now, finally, this is changing. Of course we are just as funny.
The true question was never whether women are funny, but whether men are willing to laugh. And the answer we see now, is yes!! Male allies are supporting funny women. And through these stories, women can talk about things we were never allowed to talk about and show off talents that, before, many felt uncomfortable with us showing off.
Just like with writing for kids, this is a genre that helps women see themselves reflected in media in a way they haven’t been allowed to see before. For as silly as it can be, it is also important because it validates and helps women find their footing and their voice. I love them both.
Have you studied writing and/or attended writing seminars, workshops or conferences? Where and what did you learn from your classes/sessions and other writing teachers? Did any of them stand out to you and why?
I majored in Creative Writing at Miami University. Two teachers stand out above the rest: Steve Bauer and Dave Kajganich, both excellent writers. They were hard on me. They were clear on what makes a story and what is just fluff. They didn’t give a whistle if you used pretty words. They cared about conflict, about stakes and about emotional connection. They geeked out to authors who did it differently; they encouraged me to try new things. They didn’t get annoyed or dismiss your talents if you failed, but kicked you in the butt to try again. I’m so lucky to have had them as my mentors.
Have you had any formal writing jobs and/or published any of your work? If so, tell us about your jobs and/or your publications.
I am a TV writer and I have a syndicated humor column that appears in newspapers every week around the country. My television work is primarily for kid/teen shows: Lalaloopsy, Project Mc2, etc. Before moving to Athens from LA, I also worked on the network-side of things as a story development executive. I’ve been fortunate enough to keep getting work writing for television since I moved here 10 months ago. I’m currently writing for three TV programs (including a live-action show coming out of Atlanta), but due to the NDAs [nondisclosure agreements — Ed.] I can’t disclose more. Other fun scripted work comes in the form of writing scripts for games and apps. A Disney game I wrote should be coming out soon. I’m also a columnist for Script magazine. Last year, my book was published, titled, Stop Farting in the Pyramids.
What is unique about your writing process? What works for you, and what doesn’t work?
My number one must-do is finding my emotional connection to the story. Emotional connection is everything. When people ask me what is the one thing publishers and producers are looking for, my answer is always this: all they want, is to feel something. And here’s the trick, when you feel while writing it, your readers will feel it to.
So the challenge now becomes, how, during the writing process, do you, the writer, get out of your head and into your heart? Whenever I coach writers through my company, Write in the Wild, one of the first things I have them do is take a walk in the woods with me. There is a lot of science behind this that I won’t get into here, but suffice it to say, nature provides a quick access road to emotionally connecting with your story and characters in a way that can’t help but show up on the page.
It’s probably the most unique thing about the way I work and has never failed me. It took a girl with no film school experience, only $86 to her name and no Hollywood connections in one of the most competitive industries in the world, and provided the career of a lifetime. I love what I do, and getting my readers, specifically the publishers and producers, to feel is what earned me my career.
What is the most challenging area of writing for you?
Dialogue is my forte, so I often get so wrapped up in what my characters are saying, that I forget (or neglect) to account for what they are doing. This is particularly bad when it comes to the cartoons I write, because cartoons are visual and rely far more on action than words spoken.
What are you currently writing?
As I mentioned earlier, I’m currently on 3 shows and ghostwriting a really awesome book about service dogs. I also have my weekly humor column. But, man, I really can’t wait until things slow down a bit and I can write some stuff for me again. I have 3 books I want to write and a deliciously cheesy Christmas movie that would be perfect for Hallmark channel. It’ll pour some sap right into your eggnog.
What advice do you have for someone who is just beginning to write?
Good question! Take the time to read about and learn structure and character archetypes. It’s important to have this in your arsenal. But do not, under any circumstance, feel beholden to them. Humans have been telling stories since the dawn of our existence. It’s a species gift and a special gift. You have storytelling in you. So study it, then put it on the backburner and really consider what it is that you want to say.
What is the message you are trying to send out into the world? People always like to say, “It’s true that every story has been written, but no one has written like you would.” But this statement is only sorta true. You can only add something new to say if YOU actually show up. If the unique YOUR shines through. So, get in there. Get dirty. Find your emotional connection to the story, to the characters. Let them surprise you, inspire you. Let them make you cry. Let them make you laugh. Let yourself feel all of this.
Because you can’t write anything worthwhile if you are simply following someone else’s mile-markers. Set off on this new trail and see it as an adventure. Don’t force the course, or your story, in any particular direction. Once you are tuned in to your craft and into your characters, you can let them lead you. Writing is hard, but it is oh-so fun.
And lastly, be brave and be kind to yourself. If you want to be a writer it takes guts to put stuff out into the world and then you have to be prepared to accept that rejection will come. It does for all of us. Bravery is a must to get started. Being kind to yourself is a must for having a long career.
How has being a writer changed your life?
I don’t even know how to answer this; it’s given me my entire adult life, my entire career. I get paid to jump into the mind of a teenager saving the world, and then into the mind of a bumblebee out to become a princess. How cool is that!? And, I believe, if you are doing it right, writing anything can be a healing experience. When you breathe emotional truth into your characters, the actions and decisions they make, give you pause. The connectedness creates a mirror from which you can see how you personally respond similarly or dissimilarly. You are able to play with choices and thus get to know yourself better. By empathizing with characters, you can better empathize with, and forgive, yourself.
Writing is such an amazing tool that utilizes your complete mind, body and spirit. Your imagination leaking down into your fingertips, your brain and heart communicate in open dialogue. It’s a wondrous thing.
Cheers to everyone who has chosen this path, it is a winding, twisting road, but the views are amazing and the adventure is oh-so worth it.
A NOTE FROM Katherine Cerulean: I’m very excited to have such an experienced TV writer teaching here in Athens and I’ve signed up to take Katiedid’s special 8-week screenwriting / TV writing class which will begin mid-September! She’s offering it at a one-time only introductory price and it will go over the basics and then get into the tips, tricks, and nitty-gritty that made her – someone with no connections who didn’t go to film school – a successful working professional writer – even from here in Athens. Come be my classmate and we’ll learn together!
She also has a writers retreat that she will hosting along with Silver Compass Tours – known for their fine wine and food tours – in Italy in spring 2018 (!).
Find out more at WriteInTheWild.com