Every year, the Writers’ Program—along with the rest of the Department of the Arts within UCLA Extension—honors two instructors with the prestigious award of Outstanding Instructor of the year. This year’s deserving winners are Cindy Davis in Screenwriting and Steven Wolfson in Creative Writing. Cindy has taught all levels of writing a feature film from introductory to advanced rewriting workshops—and will teach a course in the spring on TV spec scripts. Steven, a seasoned screenwriter, playwright and prose writer, has taught a wide variety of courses at beginning and intermediate levels such as Rolling in the Deep: Writing from Personal Experience, Discovering the Writer Within, and the upcoming winter course Building a Better Story and Sustaining Your Creative Momentum: An Intermediate Workshop. I asked Cindy and Steven for their thoughts on their newly minted “Outstanding” status, as well as their reflections on teaching. Here’s what they had to say!
What does receiving an Outstanding Instructor award from UCLA Extension Writers’ Program mean to you?
CD: Teaching in Linda Venis’s program is a sheer delight — she’s so supportive, brilliant, inspiring, and innovative. To receive an Outstanding Instructor award, too, just makes the whole experience over-the-top fantastic. Also, receiving this award is kind of surreal. I started my screenwriting career by taking classes at UCLA Extension and I selected my first teacher because he had won an Outstanding Instructor award.
SW: The question I often ask my students is, “Why do you feel COMPELLED to write the story you’re writing?” For me personally, I feel compelled to teach. I love being in the classroom and working one-on-one with writers. Teaching feeds a certain part of my soul. It’s a creative act. Just like writing plays or recording albums with my band. The Outstanding Instructor Award says that the time I spend with writers at UCLA Extension is having an impact. Every lecture, writing exercise or note only has value if it helps to make a student’s work stronger. I’ve taught 130 classes at the Writers’ Program and hopefully my classes have inspired and compelled writers to do their best work.
What inspires you as a teacher?
CD: Here’s an example of one of the “teaching highs” that I’ve had. I had a student who was struggling with her screenplay’s outline. We worked through it together, and I witnessed the moment when everything clicked for her, the moment when she cracked her story. From that moment on, this student was a different person in class – she went from excruciatingly shy to laughing and confident. It was AWESOME. For me, teaching doesn’t get more inspiring than that.
SW: The sheer bravery of my students! To come to class and write, especially the more autobiographical work we do, takes an incredible amount of guts. I am constantly blown away by the places my students will go in their stories. I believe the one thing you can’t fake in your writing is emotion. But to tap into the authenticity of one’s emotions is difficult… and scary. I remind my students all the time that the vast majority of human beings on the planet would never think to do what they’re doing in my classes. I don’t take their commitment for granted. I know they are often stepping outside their comfort zone. As a fellow writer, that moment when a student takes a leap of faith and writes something that speaks to who they are and how they see the world, ALWAYS inspires me.
What’s something students should know about your teaching style and classes?
CD: I love to cram as much learning as possible into class time. As soon as class begins, I just start shoving information into students’ brains with the most efficient methods of brain-insertion I can craft. I follow the shoving with an exercise to test for learning. Then I start shoving some more. At first I thought I might be hurting the students’ brains, but they usually ask for more. Extension students, by the way, are badass.
As far as my teaching style goes, I have an analytical approach to screenwriting. One of my favorite pastimes is to dissect screenplays and figure out how they work – both on a macro and a micro level. I’ve also learned thousands of tricks and techniques from all the screenwriting classes I’ve taken and all the screenwriting books I’ve read. I recently codified all the information, so each technique and trick is easy for me to access at each phase of writing. And it was a watershed moment for me. I swear, clouds split open and angels started singing, it was that helpful. So this is what I teach. Tools, tricks, formulas, techniques – everything I use to make my life as a professional screenwriter better.
SW: I love this question! The key word is ACTIVE. If you want to come to a class and have someone lecture to you for three hours, I’m not your guy. But if you want a class where you write, and I mean write A LOT, then you’ve come to the right place. My approach as a writing teacher in many ways mirrors an actors workshop. Loads of writing exercises, scene work, detailed discussions of students stories. The idea is that we can take the primary elements of how to build a story and immediately apply these things such as character, conflict, want and action into a student’s work. Theory means nothing unless it can be put into practice and my classes are always workshops, always places to explore one’s creativity, to make mistakes and try new approaches. Students are always blown away by how much they get written in my classes.
What’s something important you’ve learned from students over the years?
CD: When I first started teaching, I assumed the students who had the most stylish writing would be the most successful. Instead, it’s the students who are most tenacious who succeed. Isn’t that nice? If you want this dream, you can have it. You just have to put in the years. And I mean years.
SW: I’ve learned that the worst thing you can do as a writer is to doubt your voice. There’s always an impulse in workshops to covet the voice of the writer across the room. To be somebody else because being somebody else feels safer than being who we really are. My advice? Don’t do it. The sooner you embrace what makes your creative voice unique, the better. But it’s a process. A process I’m still working through as a writer in my own work. Teaching reminds me every day why I’m writing what I’m writing. I read the incredible work of my students and I feel like I have the best gig in the world.
Congratulations Cindy and Steven, and thank you for the dedication and talent you bring to the Writers’ Program! We are lucky to have you!
Click here to enroll in Steven Wolfson’s winter course, Building a Better Story and Sustaining Your Creative Momentum: An Intermediate Workshop.
Carla Janas is the Assistant to the Director. Write to her at email@example.com.