Podcast: How Did I Learn to Write (a film script)?


Working from notes I’m going to use for a panel at the Rhode Island International Film Festival, during this podcast I talk about how I learned to write, how I try to teach writing, and how a person might be able to get something going when it comes to the business of writing, screenplays, and film.

In the podcast, I expand on the following notes.

First, how did I learn to write?

  • I learned to read like a writer in an MFA program focusing on fiction.  Texts can be your best teachers.
  • I read and write a lot.
  • I finish stuff and I send it out.
  • The lessons in the stack. For example, I’ve read a lot of literary journal submissions,  lit agency submissions, and stacks of student writing.  The stacks show me what’s being done and what I might do that’s interesting with those stacks of ideas.  The opening films of the festival are another kind of stack.

 How do I try to help students write?

  • by creating writing territories
  • through experiencing an audience of each other
  • by providing examples of many writers have a different process for how they finish their work

Some Favorite scripts:

  • Diablo Cody’s Juno: her transitions
  • Tarantino’s InGlorious Basterds:  there is the fact that he is writing for himself, but I could see that you can just do it like you want.  I can envision something on the screen and just write it so that it makes sense to the reader. Doesn’t matter if it’s unconventional. That, in fact, might be a strength.
What was the result of winning the festival prize?
  • a bit of credibility at the festival, lots of little bits can add up to something substantial
  • the lesson of the films I wouldn’t have seen (back to the lessons of the stack)
  • the impulse to make my own short film which then accidentally became a feature documentary that will screen at the Phenom Film Festival in Louisiana
  • Good talks with Elfar Adalsteins who did the short film Sailcloth
  • That I won the film festival and was trying to make a film meant that I met more “like” minded people who may eventually be a part of future projects that we do together.
  • Last week I met William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg from Moonbot. Their Lessmore won an Academy Award. Their company is in Shreveport.  I first became acquainted with their film because I was in Rhode Island connected to the prize.  So my script Love on the Big Screen isn’t a film, but a lot else has happened that’s been fun and intellectually stimulating.

Some Books that helped me write or think about filmmaking:

  • Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434 (practical how to that got me started)
  • How Not to Make a Short Film: Secrets of a Sundance Programmer by Roberta Munroe
  • The Hollywood Economist by Edward Epstein
  • The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide: A Down & Dirty DV Production, by Anthony Artis
  • Stephen King’s On Writing
  • Donald Murray’s Write to Learn

Two Podcasts I like:

  • KCRW, The Business. Filmmakers are common guests and they explain how they get their work done.
  • “Here’s the Thing” with Alec Baldwin. Guests include Lorne Michaels, Michael Douglass, and Jon Luvitz
  • The Creative Penn: just got turned on to this one. Some interesting stories from writers and how they’ve marketed their books.
Torgerson film festival cusack hornby say anything john hughes sixteen candles


Hey English Teachers and Writers, any suggestions for a class that looks like this?

When I begin to write a syllabus for an upcoming class, I usually first think about the course’s goals and what the assignments should be.  Once that’s decided, I try to plan a schedule that will help us reach the objectives.  As I began this process for my upcoming summer courses, I was feeling kind of bummed out thinking about diving back into that same old work.  Class never ends up much like my ideal writing day, and so I’ve decided to mix up the structure for how I think about planning a course.  I’m starting with what is closer to an ideal writing day for me, and using that routine to give the class structure.  Here’s what I’ve got so far.  I’d love to hear what you think.

Daily Course Structure for Prof. Torg’s Composition Class

For me, to be a writer and thinker means to live within a mass of habits. I believe there might be as many ways to write and think as there are people engaged the acts.  By living in this routine three days a week for six weeks, I hope you’ll begin to think about how to craft your own routine for thinking, or it might be that you’re more of a person who will create an anti-routine.

(20 minutes)    Writing Studies / Annotating a Text

Let’s see what other people have to say about writing.  When I say annotate, I mean that I want you to try and have a conversation with the writer on a copy of their text.  After that, let’s practice using MLA guidelines to integrate the thoughts of others into our own texts.

(5 min)           Warm Up with Rich Language (I provide or you choose?)

Read something that will challenge your intellect, the sort of text that might introduce you to a new word.   Log the word, the context, the title of the work and the author into your daybook.  I think I’ll start you with Poetry magazine.

(10 min)          Teacher as Text.

This is like the first twenty minutes, but you’ll do this on your own with a text of your choosing.  Read something that you’d say is among the best of the sort of text you are trying to write.  I recently adapted my novel and so early each morning I tried to challenge/inspire myself by reading from Alan Ball’s American Beauty and Diablo Cody’s Juno. Look for one writerly observation of which you might make use.  Log the example in your daybook.  Make sure you take good enough notes that you could quote from this text and cite it in a works cited entry for your Writer on Writing Paper.

(20 minutes)    Write a Draft of Something you Need to Write.

Most, if not all of us, write on a computer screen with lots of distractions.  Here, we’re going to try something different:  we’ll write on paper ignoring our cell phone, instant messages, and the latest email to come dinging into our inbox.

(20 minutes)    Small Group Workshop.

Here’s something you might not be used to:  a real audience.  You can share what you just wrote or something that you’ve written and brought in.  It’s best that we all have a copy, but it is also fine if we don’t.  Readers should annotate the text:  underline phrases that get your attention, challenge the thinking, explain what you learn, and ask questions of each other and the writer.

(10 minutes)    A Lesson From Prof. Torg. Usually, there’s something coming up that I need to explain.

(10 minutes)    Work on Your Group Technology Project.

Your group is to make a movie and write a paper that focuses on one aspect of writing studies.

(5 minutes)      What happened worth mentioning today?

Let’s hear from a couple of the writers in the room.  What happened today that you can share?  Is there something you’ve written or read that you are willing to read to us?

(10 minutes)    Prof. Torg on a Text for Grade.

For this portion of the class, I want to show you the best I can what goes on in my head as I read a text written by someone I’m going to have to give a grade.

(10 minutes)    Research at Work.

I’m going to show you clips from a variety of documentaries and/or the work of previous students.  I see these films/texts as examples of those who are asking meaningful questions and pursuing answers.