When MFA students arrive at AU, they bring expectations for their workshop experience– expectations shaped by past workshops, by reports from friend and teachers and, as of the past couple years, by HBO’s Girls.
When Girls sent its main character, Hannah Horvath, to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, viewers who had never even heard of MFA programs watched Hannah’s classmates dissect her work and saw Hannah fumble her way through interactions with new writing colleagues. But how close to reality can a TV experience get? And, let’s not forget: those episodes were written by writers like us. How does TV writing differ from the type of writing we do in our prose and poetry workshops?
We reached out to someone with some perspective on both questions. Alumna Diana Metzger has spent time in the Los Angeles TV writing world, and she enjoyed watching Girls after having her own MFA expectations both upheld and challenged at AU. Over email, she shared her insight.
The evolution of Diana’s TV writing experience
Before coming to AU to pursue her MFA, Diana lived in Los Angeles and worked as a writer’s PA/Assistant on the TV show Greek. She built a connection with one of the writers, Carter Covington, who went on to create Faking It.
“About a year after graduating AU, I found I really missed TV writing, and when I saw that Faking It had gone to series, I asked Carter for the opportunity to work on the show,” Diana said. “He’s been an amazing champion of my writing and read my short stories I used as my AU application.”
Because Diana had been out of the TV world for five years and was untested at screenwriting, he asked her to come on as a writers’ assistant at the beginning of the season and promised to work to get her her own script. Working as an assistant, Diana relearned the feel of the the writers’ room and had the opportunity to pitch her own ideas, and then she finally got the opportunity to pitch her own script, for the episode “Lust in Translation,” which aired in 2014.
Inside the writer’s room: How the scriptwriting process works
“TV writing for the most part is a very collaborative experience, almost like an MFA workshop would be if you were all working on the same story together,” Diana said. “All the writers work together to come up with the general story, then get more specific with acts, detailed scene beats, and even specific dialogue within the scene.”
The executive producers – the show creator and the showrunner – give final approval on story ideas generated in the writers’ room.
One writer then goes off to turn the group-generated story, called a beat sheet, into a detailed outline. The show creator and other executive producers will give outline notes, and the writer will go back and implement those notes. The next outline draft then gets approved, edited, and sometimes rewritten by the show creator, and submitted to the network for additional notes.
“The writer incorporates those notes and then goes off to write the script. I had about a week to write my first draft. I then went through the same process I did with the outline: a series of notes and revisions.”
Once those revisions are made, the actors do a table read of the script, and more rewrites can come out of that process and from the filming process.
“Revisions get identified by different pages in the script, so, by the end, the physical script looks like a rainbow with all the large and small revision to the script,” Diana said.
How well did Girls represent the MFA?
“First off, I’ll say that I’m a big fan of Girls,” Diana said. “I know it’s a polarizing and flawed show, but I’ve always found a lot that I related to, and I think Dunham and her writing staff are incredibly talented,” Diana said.
The show consistently sparked lively discussion about storytelling between Diana and her classmates K. Tyler Christensen (MFA ’14) and Philip Dean Walker (MFA ’13) in particular, and the episodes in which Hannah was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop gave her peers even more discussion material.
“I think Hannah’s workshop experience was very heightened and condensed, which didn’t surprise me,” Diana said. “I knew they were only going to shoot a limited number of episodes in Iowa, so she was obviously going to have to leave for some reason within a short period of time.”
Diana pointed out that Hannah, like some writers in Diana’s AU cohort, came into the MFA with specific life experiences she wanted to work into fiction. Also like some writers in MFA programs, Hannah struggled with feeling exposed as her work was critiqued and even felt bullied by harsh feedback.
“Workshops are made up of writers with disparate personalities, and we don’t all get our ideas across in the same way. When you’re putting forward a new poem or story, presenting it to other writers while you just sit there, you can feel incredibly vulnerable,” Diana said.
“It’s almost like giving birth to a baby and presenting your newborn to relative strangers, and having them say your baby is ugly. I mean, they probably didn’t say that, but you’re sensitive and are going to read into every grunt or mumble as a harsh judgment on this beautiful, flawless angel you’ve brought into the world.”
Unlike Hannah’s experience portrayed in the show though, Diana says workshops do get getter as you move forward.
“As an MFA student, you learn which professors best work for your style and interests as a writer, and you learn which other MFA-ers are going to be your best ‘plot whisperers’ and allies,” Diana said. “I think if Girls had more time in Iowa and Hannah was a less immature and reactionary character (though that’s what makes her so entertaining), we might have seen her find those workshop cohorts and professors that ‘got her.’”
While a smoother progression might make for a personally enriching MFA journey, though, Diana pointed out that it wouldn’t make for the most dramatic TV. “Although,” she said, “Ask me about the time I dropped an entire bottle of red wine in the middle of the street before my first MFA meet-and-greet party. That felt very Hannah.”
The post-MFA, TV writing life
Diana says she has moments of “existential crisis” like writers in all mediums. She wonders about moving back to LA to pursue writing, which she was doing already before her MFA, and whether the investment in the MFA was worth it. Ultimately, though, she is able to see how the MFA gave her skills that prepared her to return to the TV world.
“For one thing, I’m a much faster, more productive writer. When you have to write a new short story in a matter of weeks, it teaches you that you can’t be so precious,” she said. “You’ve got to deliver. I love a good deadline and the MFA gives you that.”
The MFA has also helped her hone her skills at following plotlines and identifying plot holes. She explained, “Hours of MFA critiques taught me to look closely at stories, and now in a writers’ room, I’m able to take a step back and look at the acts and beats and find what’s missing or when a plotline is not fully realized.”
When Diana was working on Faking It, the executive producers complimented her on her ability to follow several story threads at a time and to keep the threads focused. “That’s all my MFA training,” she said.
Beyond the practical skills, the MFA was also a time of discovery for Diana. “The MFA workshops were the chance to play and take risks and challenge yourself as a writer. It’s in that room that you discover the kind of stories or poems you should be writing,” she said.
In addition to pursuing TV writing in LA, Diana is also at work on a new prose project: a comic memoir about her experiences as a Millenial mom raising her baby and herself in Hanoi over the past year and a half. Diana said, “The beautiful thing about my MFA studies is that not only has it informed my scriptwriting, but it has also given me the dexterity and confidence to move within many different writing forms.”
Interested in making your own writing discoveries? Check out the AU Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.