Last month, longtime Writers’ Program instructor Billy Mernit was honored at the UCLA Extension Distinguished Instructor Awards ceremony. A screenwriter, story analyst, and novelist, Billy was selected as one of this year’s recipients for his longtime (nearly two-decade) dedication to his students in both screenwriting and creative writing. With professional experience in so many realms of writing, he’s taught over 20 different courses over the years, from The Essential Beginnings: An Introductory Creative Writing Workshop to Writing the Character Driven Screenplay. Billy and I chatted recently about writing, teaching, and how a jack-of-all-trades manages his time. Read on for pearls of wisdom, sage advice, and some killer movie recommendations.
Writers’ Program: You are a screenwriter, novelist, author of Writing the Romantic Comedy, a contributing author to Cut to the Chase, and a story analyst. What’s your best advice for aspiring screenwriters? How do newbie writers distinguish and set themselves apart from all of the other smart, hard-working people with the same dream?
Billy Mernit: Write and keep writing until you begin to figure out who you are as a writer, and then write to your strengths. Everyone is writing the same stories–and it’s a very good idea to study and steal from the storytellers you admire–but only you can write the best version of your own story. So that’s the thing to aspire to: become yourself. That’s where your power as a writer ultimately lies.
WP: You’ve taught for the Writers’ Program for nearly two decades. What keeps you coming back for more?
BM: The writing life can be an isolating life, so going to the UCLA campus to teach 8-16 people every week is one way I get out of the house. And the Program, embodied in Linda Venis and her supportive spirit, gives an instructor free rein to follow his/her passions. Linda offering me a shot at teaching a course on romantic comedy led to my writing a book on the form. That’s the best kind of synergy I can imagine between an institution and its employees. And my students are endlessly fascinating. Who wouldn’t want to come back?
WP: Between teaching, writing, and story analysis, how do you manage your time and fit it all in? Is it all about “working smarter” or do you just not sleep very much?
BM: Both. I keep a rigorous schedule because: no choice, and I try to squeeze at least 20 minutes of writing on my own project out of every day. Sleep deprivation is certainly an ongoing issue. And my consciousness is so inundated with scripts that I tend to dream dreams that are movies or stories I’m seeing as movies. Confusing enough as this is, I’m complicating it by going meta: one of the novels I’m working on features a reader protagonist who’s been driven mad by story-deluge.
WP: What’s your favorite movie of the last 10 years and why do you love it?
BM: I’ll cheat and cite a romantic comedy triumvirate from a sweet spot in the past decade: 2003-2004. I’d like to live in Lost in Translation, I love it so much–such rich, beautifully melancholic humor –and within a year there was Sideways, which is as verbally brilliant as Translation is visually. Right in that same span of time came Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, arguably the most inventive American film of the 2000s, which realizes a “be careful what you wish for” wish-fulfillment fantasy all of us have had (i.e. Can I just erase these bad memories, please?) in a darkly profound and artful way. Put me on a desert island with that trio–plus my three classic rom-com must-haves, Annie Hall, Tootsie, and Groundhog Day–and I do believe I’d survive and thrive.
Need a push to finish your script? Distinguished instructor Billy Mernit will be teaching Feature Film Writing Workshop: Acts II and III this summer. For those with a finished project, he’ll be teaching our small-group, 9-month Master Class in Feature Film Writing this fall.
Katy Flaherty is the Program Representative for Creative Writing (Onsite). Write to her at email@example.com.