Writing Classes



Neighborhood: Upper East Side, West Village

Cast of All My Children

There are 1700 writers per square foot in New York City. I will be one of them. It’s going to be easy.

First, I need to learn about the craft of writing. I peruse various catalogs and websites for classes. Nothing jumps out at me until I notice a class called “How To Write Funny.” Well, gosh darn it, I tell myself. I am funny. In fact, I’m hilarious. I sign up for the class.

It is the fall of 1993. The weekly class is held at the 92nd Street Y on the Upper West Side on Thursday evenings. I have never heard of the teacher, Michael O’Donoghue, but everyone else in the room has. O’Donoghue, with his tomato-red hair, turns out to be a big-shot, a former head writer and producer at Saturday Night Live, among other comedy stints. He specializes in out-there, dark comedy and is said to have a mercurial personality.

The class of approximately 12 people sits at a large square table. The first night we go around, say our names, and share something about ourselves. Seated to my left are two young males, both garbed in hipster work outfits including the mandatory skinny black tie. Both, it turns out, write for “Spy Magazine,” an influential, satirical monthly. I immediately have an intense dislike for these guys. Why are they taking this class if they write for “Spy?” Aren’t they already writing funny? I detest them more after learning they, predictably, graduated from Harvard. I have seen this before. I once worked at a pretentious political magazine in Washington, D.C., that, except for me, was all-male, all Harvard, all suck-ups, all the time. It was repugnant.

These two sham students are nothing more than brown-nosers who want to get in good with the teacher. As I gaze around the room, I wonder how many students are there to learn to write funny and how many are there to suck O’Donoghue’s rear.

But they might want to look elsewhere because the teacher appears to be disengaged. He doesn’t seem at all interested in this class, not that I blame him.

Besides, how can you teach someone to write funny? You can’t. Humor is an innate quality, maybe genetic. Nothing you can learn.

O’Donoghue says this will be a workshop class, where students bring in copies of their work, which the class will read and analyze. There is no organization — no scheduling people for certain weeks. This makes me anxious. What if everyone brings writing in on the same night? How will we get through all of them?

This lack of class structure combined with the miserable caliber of people leads me to rarely show up, and I never submit anything to be workshopped. Maybe it’s time to try a different sort of class. You can’t teach people how to write funny.

I decide to take the class “Writing the Soap Opera” at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

This is not a stretch. I have been entrenched in soap opera culture since biblical times. I still watch the soap “All My Children” daily. I was once the editor of a pink zine called “AMC Underground,” which I sold for a dollar a copy in front of the Pyramid Bar on Avenue A. I even watched “All My Children” on my mother’s 30-hour deathbed, much to the disdain of my family.

I will take this class and become a preeminent soap opera writer. Perhaps I’ll rent a loft in Soho.

The NYU Tisch School of the Arts is a venerable institution, thought to have one of the best film and theater programs in the country. Located at the intersection of Broadway and Waverly, it’s a short walk from my apartment on St. Mark’s, so there is no excuse not to attend.

The class is located in a sparkling white room resembling a laboratory. It is a class of ten dowdy women, perpetuating the stereotype of people who watch soap operas.

The kind, empathetic professor is equally dowdy. Suddenly, (epiphany) I realize that I am the best-looking person in the class. This has never happened to me before. I LOVE this class!

It gets better. We do the going around in a circle thing and introduce ourselves. The people lack luster.

Maybe I’ll buy a brown leather couch for my loft in Soho.

Our professor, Karen, explains the structure of the class. She will present us with the “Bible” (the overarching plot for a year of our imaginary soap opera). We will be responsible for writing a breakdown, a story outline for a one-hour show. Our final project is writing the story script, to be performed by professional actors.

The class is not too taxing, the teacher is amiable, the students are bland and unambitious. I’ve found my niche.

It’s a sweltering summer filled with soap opera elements: My roommate’s boyfriend overdoses, turns blue, and almost dies. Weeks later, I walk out my front door and witness something fall from the roof of the building next to the Yaffa Cafe. It is a guy. He falls on his back. His black chucks hang over the curb. A crowd gathers, but there’s nothing we can do. He is dead.

Class continues to go well, and I thrive. I am clearly one of the teacher’s favorites … or am I? She must like me because she confides in me about her situation. The head writer of a soap opera for over thirty years, she confides that she has left her job to move to Washington with her husband. “It’s good for his career,” she says, trying to reassure herself. She travels on a train weekly to teach this class and stays overnight with her sister in Brooklyn.

I make a few friends in class. Two teachers from North Carolina are staying in the NYU dorms and taking this class as a respite from their stressful public school positions. They seem to have money up the wazoo. They’re always going out to dinner or to see a Broadway show. Then, one day, the taller one shows up for class with long blonde hair extensions. I fake compliment her. They look absurd. They’re real hair, she explains. Hair extensions in Manhattan? It must have cost her a fortune.

It is finally the last class, the one where actors act out our scripts. I have invited my close friend Jill, an actor, to be a character in my script. The performance goes well. Jill embodies the Puerto Rican flavor of her character. I am proud of my ability to write dialogue. A soap opera writer job is a shoo-in.

I search for the teacher after class to set up a job-hunting appointment. Unfortunately, I can’t find her so I return home.

It is a week later. I’ve finally blocked out the image of the suicide. The guy was visiting his girlfriend, and they fought. He didn’t live in the building.

It is hard to receive mail at our apartment because three kids from the neighborhood sell drugs just outside our building. They stash the drugs in our mailboxes between sales so if a cop frisks them, they won’t have anything on their bodies.

As luck would have it, though, there is a crisp white envelope from the Tisch School of the Arts hanging out of our mailbox. I receive a B.


Wendy B. currently lives in the Washington, D.C., metro region

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