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Write On

A Writer’s Intention

When it comes to writing, I’m a mutt. I’ve written documentaries, books, textbooks, instructional videos. The nice thing about this kind of work is you pick up a few tips. I wrote a video on how to run a faster 10k and now I know what a fartlek is. I wrote a Martha Stewart Christmas special and now I can make a Christmas wreath out of a hanger.

rag wreath by heather knitz designs

by heather knitz designs

I even wrote a video course on college algebra when I was desperate for money. This taught me that even though getting older means that the things that seemed impossible when you were young are not only easy but fun (e.g. speaking in public, driving a stick shift, screaming into a megaphone on a picket line), algebra isn’t one of them. But for most of my career, I’ve written dramatic work – plays, some screenplays, and tons of children’s television.

There are those who write prose, people an agent I know refers to “real writers”. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about those of us who write stories that aren’t meant to be the final product, but the blueprint for the final product. Our work exists to be interpreted – by directors, designers, actors – which means that only a percentage of what we originally intended makes it to screen or stage. Occasionally, the result is better than one could have imagined; often, it’s worse; always, it’s different. Does this attract a certain kind of person? I teach in a low-residency MFA program in creative writing and trust me on this one, you can tell the dramatic writers a mile away. The playwriting and screenwriting students are the ones hugging and doing improv and putting on cabarets and one-act festivals. They’re upbeat and unpretentious, and give graduation speeches that are too long and require props. As far as I can tell, dramatic writers are sort of the clowns of the MFA program, minus the seltzer bottle and big pants. Maybe that’s because drama is not only a collaborative form, it’s as low as vaudeville and as ancient as the Greeks. Or maybe it’s all that hanging out with actors.

When you write children’s animation, of course, there are no actors to hang out with. The actors tend to be a bunch of eight-year olds in London, or a studio full of adults doing funny voices in LA. And there are only rarely table meetings, the kind I dreamt about as a kid watching Dick Van Dyke, meetings where you’re surrounded by funny, smart people all talking at once while punching up a script and eating deli and screaming with laughter.

Weavers at Work from The Library of Congress

My life as a television writer is the opposite, a sort of middle-class/Greenwich Village version of a 19th century Jacob Riis photo, the one where some nameless lady is sewing shirtwaists in an Essex Street apartment: it’s basically piecework, with internet access. Alone in my apartment, I pitch, I write, I recoil at the notes, I write again. The more shirtwaists I crank out, the more I get paid. If my stitching gets sloppy, I lose the gig. And let’s not even talk about insurance, since animation is so not covered by the Guild, it’s almost funny, but isn’t.

One of the pleasures of writing animation, however, is the relative control you have over the visuals. (Note: I say “relative”). Sure, there are restrictions. Some people think animation means you’re free to write anything, whereas the truth is you can’t even show running water or a character putting on a sweater. Still, what I write pretty much stays in the script. If I write that an octopus holds a balloon and floats up to the stars, or a jealous heron knocks her husband off a tree branch, or a starfish swoons with emotion (and in closeup no less)… it stays. If you pitch it well enough, if it’s affordable, if it’s good… the sky’s the limit. Within reason.

In terms of pure satisfaction, I’m lucky enough to have two graphic novels out now, books I wrote with my boyfriend/fellow Guild member, Laurence Klavan. We wrote City of Spies and Brain Camp as screenplays, which were handed over to two amazing artists, Pascal Dizin and Faith Erin Hicks, who then directed, shot, cast, acted, designed and edited what they read. I’m still stunned by how faithful both books are to what we wrote, down to the smallest detail… even while they utterly express the personality and vision of the two artists.

It’s about the purest collaborative experience I’ve ever had in my life and of course, I hope both books do well. But I’m not kidding myself. As a business, publishing isn’t TV (frankly, these days even TV isn’t TV); and even the most successful graphic novel sells only thousands of copies, maybe tens of thousands. Maybe even hundreds of thousands… who knows? Compare this to a single cartoon I’ve written, even a not-very-good episode for a lousy show, which can and will be seen by literally millions of children, around the world, for what I’m sure will feel like forever.

Still, I can’t complain. Whoever said this was supposed to be easy?

Susan Kim

Susan Kim

Susan Kim has written for more than three dozen children’s TV series, including Wonder Pets!, Arthur, Martha Speaks!, Dragon Tales, PB&J Otter, Ni-Hao Kai-Lan, Handy Manny, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Speed Racer, Reading Rainbow, and Stanley; she has been nominated for an Emmy and Writers Guild Awards four times. She won a Writers Guild Award for the documentary Paving the Way, which aired on PBS. She serves as a member of the WGAE Council

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