Shelley Evans began teaching for us as a guest faculty member in Summer 2015, and we are thrilled to welcome her to our regular faculty in the Fairfield Low-Residency MFA. She showed an amazing movie she wrote about the true story of a transgender teen’s murder, “A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Arajo Story,” and we were wowed. Shelley teaches screenwriting in our MFA program and has also launched an innovative multi-genre workshop on storytelling with our co-director Bill Patrick.
Shelley Evans has written teleplays for ABC, CBS, Showtime, USA Network and Lifetime Television. Her produced scripts have starred, among others, Anne Heche, Sam Shepard, Josh Brolin, James Caan, Jacqueline Bisset, Candice Bergen and Mercedes Ruehl. She has taught writing at Harvard Extension School, Boston University, New York University, and Boston College and is a member of the Writer’s Guild of America.
I asked Shelley a few questions about her writing process, and here are her thoughtful responses.
What part of your own writing process is essential to your teaching? What have you learned from writing that you feel is always important to share with students?
I was an extremely good student, which in many ways is terrible for writing. I spent my entire education learning how to follow rules– of conformity, punctuation, structure and rhetoric. Not surprisingly, my desire to write, which was strong in childhood, slowly waned. Some time after college I read Silences, by Tillie Olsen, which is about all the ways that we (especially women, and poor people, and people without resources) lose our voices. I was working as a secretary at the time, and I would sit in the stairwell during my lunch hour reading Silences and crying. It had never occurred to me that writers are made, not born, or that anybody with the dream of writing had a right to pursue it. Having had that revelation, I started writing and was almost immediately paralyzed. I was pretty adept at identifying bad writing, intimidated by good writing and completely without strategies for invention. My brother, who is an artist, once expressed amazement at that– the first thing he learned in art school was how to play. Many writers, perhaps with better imagination or more courage, develop those habits instinctively. I had to start from scratch, teaching myself how to brainstorm, to build and rebuild stories, to fail and to dream. Cultivating those habits has been time-consuming and often frustrating– how could I have spent so much time in school and learned so little? Much of my work as a teacher is devoted to exposing the gears and pulleys that drive the creative process: it really can be as simple as setting a timer for twenty minutes and writing without censoring yourself, or studying a great novel (or movie) to identify its major dramatic turning points. When I was young, there was a great silence around creativity, and a shared assumption that only certain people were creative. My mission is to open the trunk and share the toys, so that anybody who wants to play can join.
What have you been working on in the past few months, and what’s your current challenge as far as the writing goes?
Last spring, for the first time in my life, I took a writing job for the sole purpose of making money and I worked on that project until just before Christmas. The process was both strange and liberating. In the beginning I struggled to make the writing matter, pushing back against network demands that seemed unreasonable and sometimes misguided. I told myself that I was fighting for the good of the script, but at a certain point I realized I was actually fighting for my ego. I couldn’t bear to be involved in a project I didn’t feel proud of. At that point I finally let go and started thinking of myself as a story engineer, brought in to save a collapsing bridge, rather than an artist. As a result, the experience got much easier. But it left me unsettled– is it possible to write for hire without hurting our own work? Does our internal compass get too damaged in the process? In the world of streaming media, where the demand for content is growing, the answer to that question seems extremely important. We might be able to make a living as writers, but at what cost?
Can you share a story about sharing your work with readers/viewers that helps keep you going?
I started working in television because it’s a popular medium that reaches a large audience. I hoped I would have a chance to influence our collective cultural conversation. That turns out to be harder than I thought. But some time ago I worked on a script about a transgender teen named Gwen Araujo. It was a heartbreaking story with a surprisingly uplifting message about a family that supported a child against overwhelming external odds. I am constantly grateful for that project, both because it gave me the opportunity to meet Gwen’s amazing, courageous family and because so many people have told me they were moved by their story.