Because I’m graduating soon, it’s about time that the nostalgia hit full force. Tonight is my last USC class, ever, and it’s all beginning to sink in.
I’ve been doing a few panels for admitted screenwriters and have been answering a lot of questions about the program, so I thought I’d write about what it’s been like going to school here for the Writing for Screen and Television program. The program itself is harder to get into than Harvard Law, and I’m part of a class of something like 25 other screenwriters. Not everyone can handle the pressure of the program, and not everyone will leave still wanting to be a writer.
Coming out of USC, I’ve written four original pilots, two TV spec episodes (one comedy, one drama), three features, 50 pages of a novel, and over two hours of original series that were also produced.
That’s roughly 860 script pages and 50 novel pages, and that’s not counting the dozens of short films, short stories, and writing exercises required for my classes.
I’ve won a few awards, am nominated for a College Television Emmy, and am slowly beginning to enter the professional marketplace with two of my low-budget features I hope to get made, so the program has been a success — but abandon sleep all ye who enter here! The program is intense, your professors will push you to your limits, your classmates will tell you that you can do better, and you get out of the USC WST program what you put into it.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the classes I took and what my experience has been like:
aka: that one year when all you had to do to make friends was show up at the dining hall
- CTWR-106A&B: Screenwriting Fundamentals (intro screenwriting class)
- FSEM-100: Writing to Be Read (short story prose class)
- CTCS-190: Intro to Cinema (with the legendary Drew Casper who is probably immortal)
- CNTV-101: Reality Starts Here (large lecture with creative lab section with all freshman film students)
- ARLT-100g: Noir Poetry (general ed class about poetry in Paris)
- CTPR-409: Practicum in Television Production aka Trojan Vision (crew on a live show. I also Senior Produced for Platforum Politics.)
- WRIT-140: Writing and Critical Reasoning (GE writing class)
- REL-140g: Religion and Ethical Issues (meditated at a Buddhist temple and learned how to wear a headscarf at a local mosque)
- CTWR-120: Genesis of a Screenplay (how to draw from your experiences and form them into a screenplay. Watched the infamous film, Father vs. Son.)
- CTCS-201: History of International Cinema (all of those art films that don’t make any sense? yep, you’ll be watching them.)
There’s this “game” that is put on by the faculty for first semester Freshman: you get a deck of cards, and they have different prompts on them. By making creative projects like films and scripts and collaborating with others and forming teams and completing challenges like scavenger hunts, you can win points and meet famous alumni. I helped my team win, and we had lunch with Robert Zemeckis for the grand prize. It was an experience unlike any other, and I remember for our first prize being picked up in a limo and not knowing where it was going, and ending up at the Museum of Jurassic Technology where John August was waiting for us to give us an exercise in storytelling.
And that — that was just an extracurricular. The actual classes were so incredible — I learned how to crew on a live TV show and also produced Platforum Politics and won an award for our segment “The Lonely Correspondent” about a political correspondent who is tasked with asking people about politics but really just wants to fall in love.
I took a religion class where we visited temples and religious sites around LA. I meditated at a Buddhist temple and learned a lot about different religious perspectives, which helped me learn how to tell stories with new perspectives.
This year I also got really into competitive ballroom dance and won first in Samba at a competition, and also did a showcase with my Brazilian dance partner.
aka: that one year I decided to start producing stuff for real
- CTWR-431: Screenwriters and Their Work
- CTWR-321: Intro to Television Writing (an intro class where everyone forms a writers room and writes one script together)
- CTWR-206A and B: Writing the Screenplay (writing a screenplay over the course of the year)
- CTPR-290/CTPR-241: Cinematic Communication/Cinematic Technique (write, produce, and edit three short films by yourself, then the class chooses a script and makes it)
- CTCS-464: Martial Arts Cinema (shockingly, a really boring class. At least the movies were awesome)
- DANC-188A: International Ballroom Dance (be still my heart)
- CTWR-422: Creating the Dramatic Series (Michael Cassutt helped us develop series ideas)
- CTWR-411: Television Script Analysis (lecture class with guests)
- CTWR-314: Writing to be Performed (acting for writers! really eye-opening to see how actors approach a screenplay and how to write for them)
- CTWR-250: Breaking the Story (an incredible class where we broke stories. I took it with the incomparable Peter Gamble)
- COLT-374gm: Women Writers in Europe and America (studying the prose works of great female authors)
This year I produced my first series, Antidote 15, and also made three short films in a semester. My short script, Anna Somnia, was chosen to be produced as a final class project for CTPR-290. It was incredible to see that come to life.
One of the most challenging experiences this year was my acting class. Our professor, Wendy Phillips, would routinely make us sing and meditate and cry and remember touchstones in our childhood that still affect us today. It was a rollercoaster of forgetting lines, writing scenes for our classmates, and performing monologues. I will never forget that class — and even better we filmed the scenes we wrote for our classmates at the end of the semester.
aka: that year when I got to work and drink way too much coffee with these lovely people
- PHED-104A: Self-Defense (beating up boys and perfecting backflips)
- EALC-350g: Chinese Civilization (learning how to tell fortunes with the I-Ching)
- ITP-125Lx: From Hackers to CEOs: Introduction to Information Security (learned how to HACK INTO COMPUTERS and get out of a pair of handcuffs in UNDER SIXTY SECONDS as well as how to buy drugs on the dark net. BEST CLASS EVER! So much to write about.)
- CTWR-421: Writing the Hour Long Dramatic Series (wrote a drama spec where the characters in Masters of Sex invent viagra)
- CTWR-416: Motion Picture Script Analysis (watched movies and broke them down)
- CTWR-305: Advanced Screenwriting: The Relationship Screenplay (wrote a screenplay in a semester)
- WRIT-340: More Essays (I wrote a “twitter essay” for my final for this class)
- GEOL-105Lg: Planet Earth (We went on a field trip where we spent five hours in the desert looking at rocks which pretty much explains why I almost failed this class)
- CTWR-453: Advanced Feature Rewriting (rewrote a script in a semester)
- CTWR-435: Writing for Film and Television Genres (writing a novel that could be turned into a screenplay)
- CTWR-434: Writing the Half-Hour Comedy Series (I wrote a Modern Family episode entirely based on a monopoly game gone too far)
Junior year is when things got real. I took the most incredible computer hacking class where we learned how to buy drugs on the Dark Net, got out of handcuffs in under 60 seconds with a paperclip, and con people out of personal information. This also inspired my miniseries I did with my showrunning partner, Jen Enfield-Kane, called “CON” which is nominated for a College Television Emmy.
My life also fell apart a bit — I fell out of my two year relationship, I crumbled under the pressure of holding down two part-time jobs (being a Resident Assistant and being an Orientation Coordinator) during the production of the first season of CON and kept getting sick and struggled to keep up with my work. I didn’t sleep, I felt like everything was falling apart — but it was all worth it and I came out the other side stronger (and also didn’t fail my pass/fail Geology course, but let me tell you it was a very close call.)
Junior year summer was also the summer I worked for USC Orientation as an Orientation Coordinator, doing what I do best: bossing people around, wearing business casual, and riding in golf carts.
aka: that year when ‘work hard play hard’ didn’t include sleep
- DANC-185: Hip-Hop (yep, it’s definitely senior year)
- CTWR-419A&B: Senior Thesis in Dramatic Television (write a pilot, midseason episode of your series, and series bible)
- CTWR-541: Dreams, the Brain, and Storytelling (keep dream journals, find inspiration from the unconscious. Lots of neuroscience and creativity theory!)
- PSYC-201Lg: The Science of Happiness (EVERYONE NEEDS TO TAKE THIS CLASS!!)
- CTCS-467: Television Symposium (watched brand new TV shows that haven’t aired yet with creators who came in to lecture)
- CTWR-468: Screenwriting in Collaboration (wrote a pilot with my writing partner)
- CTWR-459A: Industry Seminar (learned about the industry, contracts, managers, agents, and then WENT TO A BAR FOR CLASS as a networking event thing)
- CTWR-555: Pitching for Film and Television (took this with the amazing Janet Batchler — EVERY WRITER needs to take this class to learn how to pitch)
Can you say, “sleep is for the weak”? I definitely did, and it hit me hard this year. Every single semester, I kept pushing. How much can I do? How many pages can I write in a week? A day? An hour? How many projects can I say yes to before I get so little sleep I can no longer function? This allowed me to shoot two hours of content in a semester, but it also lead to the lowest points of my USC experience as I realized I had taken on too much with an internship, my RA job, and hundreds of pages of writing due.
but as long as you can pretend that everything is OK on live television, you’re set
I finally hit my limit — and now I know what that line is. The “working until you collapse” line. The “I’m sick all the time and keep making shitty bulletin boards for my residents” line. (Although, let’s face it, my bulletin boards have always been pretty shitty.)
an actual bulletin board I did where dead writers gave my residents study tips.
Senior year has been the hardest semester yet, especially since I’m one foot in the real world and I’ve added an extra 8 units of “taking meetings” and “networking” — real world “classes” I haven’t really been doing much with until now.
However, every step has been worth it. Every pitfall, every hurdle, every time I had to fight for my show or deal with challenging situations or realize I couldn’t please everyone or pulled an all-nighter just to stay afloat — it’s all worth it.
When I talk to students who want to come to USC to study Writing for Screen and Television, I tell them about my show, the class where we had to go to a bar to practice networking with alumni, that one time I was graded on my ability to hack into computers — but I don’t always tell them that this program is just about as much of the study of screenwriting as it is a study of who you really are.
If you do it right, you’ll push yourself to the limit. You’ll hit your all is lost moment. And then you’ll be reborn in the third act catharsis with a pile of scripts and connections and opportunities as you emerge into the real world.
Thank you, USC, for these incredible four years.