Monday, August 30, 2010



It took a couple weeks, but eventually I settled into the semester. As time passed I became more comfortable in my role as an instructor. It was fun to work with the energetic young men and women who streamed into my lab three afternoons a week to soak up what they perceived (rightly or wrongly) as the wisdom and experience I brought to the course.

They were an eager bunch, determined to learn the critical skills they needed to fulfill their dreams of becoming media stars. That is what they all wanted, you know; not just to become broadcast journalists, but stars like Connie Chung, a young TV news woman who was all the rage at the time, or Dan Rather, then one of the fair-haired boys of television news. They all knew who Rather was because he made frequent visits to the university to see his former instructor and mentor, now the head of University of Florida’s Journalism Department.

One bright-eyed young woman asked me if I thought she should take drama classes to improve her presentation skills. I am afraid I left her somewhat dismayed when I recommended instead that she pick up some courses in history and geography so she would at least know what she was talking about when she read the news on-air.

As for my private life—it was flourishing. Within a matter of weeks I found myself with a supportive circle of new friends. Someone was always asking me to dinner or inviting me to attend a get-together of some kind. One of my new friends, Joy Anderson, a children’s book author who taught children’s literature in the English Department, brought me into a group of professors from different disciplines who met once a month to gain a broader perspective of what was going on at the university. It is easy to become isolated and myopic when your time is spent exclusively with colleagues in your own discipline. A bit of inter-department pollination breeds a sharper mind, and a more content soul.

Once I felt secure in my teaching abilities, I looked to the school’s affiliated public radio and TV stations for more challenges. Dr. Christiansen assigned me the task of writing promotional announcements for both stations, a responsibility that gave me a chance to use skills I had developed early in my career when I was the Assistant Promotional Director for WCAU TV in Philadelphia. What I was really hoping for was on-air work; radio or TV, I didn’t care. However, all the spots were already filled by other faculty, and they were very protective of those assignments.

Then one day, I got my break. I had just sent Eileen off to school, placed two eggs in boiling water and was about to set the timer for four minutes, when the phone rang. It was the TV station manager.

“Sunny, can you get down to the station right away. Dr. Jacobson is sick, and we have a writer coming in in just a few minutes for an on-air interview, and no one available to do it.” I didn’t have to be asked twice. I was out the door in a flash.

I reached the studio just as we were due to go on the air; there was no time to prep for the interview. Fortunately, Dr. Jacobson had left his notes at the station and I had a chance to glance at them as I took my place. This gave me enough information to get the conversation started. I played off the author’s answers for the rest of my questions. Everyone, including the author, seemed to think the interview went well, which put me in high spirits for the rest of the day—until I spoke with my daughter.

There was a note on my desk when I returned to my office that afternoon after class: “Your daughter wants you to call her right away. She said it’s urgent!” All those instinctive fears that come with motherhood kicked in. They were exacerbated the minute I heard Eileen’s voice.

“Whoa, slow down,” I said. “What stinks?”

“The kitchen...the kitchen stinks,” she yelled into the phone. “and the whole apartment.. And there’s stuff all over the stove, and the ceiling. It’s gross! What did you do?”

At first her words didn’t compute; then it hit me. “Oh my God, the eggs! I forgot to shut off the stove.”

Eileen raved on: “And there’s a big hole in the bottom of the pot, and its stuck to the stove. It’s ruined. Everything’s ruined. You’ve got to come home right now!”

I had hoped my daughter was exaggerating—she was prone to drama—but she wasn’t. The apartment did stink. The acrid odor of sulfur hit me even before I opened the door. When the water in the pot evaporated the eggs had exploded, splattering the ceiling and wall with a malodorous hard yellow, white and brown residue. In my daughter’s words, it was “gross.” It took me two hours to clean everything up, and much longer before the unpleasant odor finally faded.

“You could have burned the place down, Mom.” Eileen was cross with me, not just because of what I did (or, actually, didn’t do), but because she was the one, not me, who came home to discover it. To save face, I insisted that she was being over-dramatic, but I knew she was right. I was lucky my carelessness had only created a mess. It could have created a tragedy.

After the egg incident things settled down again between Eileen and me, and I reclaimed my role as parent—well almost. She still occasionally confused our roles, like when I would go to spend an evening with friends and promise to be home around ten. Inevitably, at ten o’clock on the dot, no matter where I was, the phone would ring. “Has my mother left yet?” the young authoritative and slightly ‘pissed’ voice on the other end of the line would ask. It got to be a running joke among my friends. No gathering was considered complete until  Eileen called.

The fall semester was about four weeks away when Dr. Christiansen called me into his office. “I have a new assignment for you,” he announced. “You will still teach the news writing lab, but a number of students have requested that we add a screenwriting course next semester, and I want you to take that class too.”

“I don’t know anything about screenwriting,” I protested.

“You write scripts for documentaries,” he said.

“Yes, but that’s not the same thing.”

“Well,” he said, “it makes you more of an authority on writing for film than any other members of the faculty, so you’ll do the class. See if you can put something together by next week.”

I had been nervous about teaching broadcast writing, but at least I had people I could turn to for help. The prospect of teaching screenwriting petrified me, particularly after Dr. Christiansen designated me the department’s prime authority on the subject. This was, remember, in the days before Syd Field and a flood of other “experts” began glutting the market with books about screenwriting.

I wrote to studios and TV stations asking if they could send me some old scripts to use for the new course. (I didn’t know about the Writers Guild of America in those days.) I scoured the library for books about screen and television writing or writers—there wasn’t much. The closest thing I could find to a guide for writing for film or television was a classic book on playwriting I remembered from a playwriting course I took in college: The Art of Dramatic Writing, by Lajos Egri. (I still believe this book to be the best book on how to write a dramatic script; a belief, I learned when I moved to Hollywood, shared by numerous successful screenwriters.)

A few scripts found their way to me; I analyzed them the best I could. I also found some books critiquing films, and a few books by screenwriters discussing their careers. Out of all this I at least learned a little about the language of the profession, the technical terms writers and producers used.

To test out my newly formed theories about how to create a screenplay, I began my own screenplay, guided by the skimpy resources I had gathered. (It was about an emotionally damaged returning Korean War veteran and a young Indian boy who befriends him, and I managed, eventually, to get some option money for it, although it was never produced.) Once the new semester began, I tried to stay a lesson or two ahead of the class so I could anticipate their questions. It worked, well, at least some of the time.

Fortunately, I never realized how much over-my- head I was with this class until, a couple years later, I moved to Hollywood and began taking screenwriting classes from writers and directors in the profession who actually knew what they were talking about. At the time, what I taught seemed to satisfy the students and Dr. Christiansen. Some of my students even moved on to eventually work professionally in the motion picture field, and I have never received anything but grateful notes from them.

This “forced” assignment changed the course of my life. Without it, it never would have occurred to me to move to Los Angeles. I never would have gotten my job with Disney, or taught screen writing at Pepperdine University in Malibu, which helped sustain my daughter and me while I tried to build a career as a screenwriter. I never would have written or sold my "Quincy" script, which got me into the Writers Guild of America, West. I never would have written, with my partner, Pat Holmes, “Terminal Malfunction,” a TV movie Lucile Ball’s husband thought perfect for the redheaded star, and Estelle Getty liked so much she pitched it to the network herself. But all this is for a blog for another time.


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