Since we had a captive audience with professional writer and actor Kate Peterman, of Abbott Elementary, we asked her to include some extra thoughts for teachers who are shaping young writers.
What was your path to writing?
I went to school for theater and was really into acting. I definitely still love acting, I was in the first episode of Abbott, which was really fun. I started to get frustrated and didn’t feel like there were any roles for me. It was easy to go out and say everyone’s words, but there was something nice about having all of the control and getting to decide what I say. I did stand-up and then I did a lot of writing with Quinta Brunson (creator of Abbott Elementary). We bonded over a mutual love of the Office, 30 rock, Parks and Rec. I started writing for her shows at Buzzfeed. Buzzfeed gave me a nice and safe crash course on how to really write. I wrote for Broke, Up for Adoption, I wrote and acted in a few things, did some podcasts, and that led me to the writer’s room at Abbott Elementary!
What’s your writing process?
If I’m being completely honest, I will talk about it for weeks and never do anything about it. (She points to a corkboard with index cards.) This storyboard that’s a mess needs updating. It’s an animated movie I’ve been “writing” for two years, but probably only about two weeks of actual work. I’m thinking about it all the time, though! I’d like to be able to work on it every day, but that’s not really my process. But no one asked me to do it. If I’m getting paid – and I have a due date – my writing process is to get up super early, get a super-duper caffeinated beverage, and just crank through it. Get it on paper and force the burst of inspiration. I write better under pressure. And under pressure, you immediately trim the fat off stuff. It narrows your options. You have no time for options, you go with your first instinct and you get it done.
How do you prime your creative pump?
My favorite show of all time is the Office. 30 Rock is non-stop comedy – joke after joke after joke. It’s almost like music, they’re in a rhythm. Lately, I’ve been watching dramas and I find a lot of humor in people taking themselves so seriously. After a big long scene, if someone is going to storm out after threatening everyone, then I picture something stupid like storming out and running into a door.
Advice for Writing Teachers & Students
- Understand the parts of a story. I never wanted to add conflict for my characters or put them through anything. I just wanted my stories to start happy and get happier. But a story needs conflict to really grab a reader. And understanding those parts can apply to crafting everything, from persuasive essays to fiction.
- Remember that people can’t see what’s in your head. If you have a great idea but you can’t communicate it, it may get missed. Be short and to the point whenever possible. Some people overwrite and “trim the fat.” I don’t love editing that much, I’d rather write it succinctly the first time. But whatever approach you use for the first draft, make sure the final draft is concise and clear.
On Writer’s Block:
- If you get stuck, walk away. Sometimes you hit a wall because you can’t figure out what’s next. I’ll just stop writing. If I’ve tried and I’ve hit it from a few angles and nothing is coming, then I need to take a break. Like Leslie Knopes in Parks & Rec, who took a nap and then woke up with a thousand new ideas! If you give it a lot of space, something will come to you. Get a snack, get a coffee. Let it breathe. Unless you’re on a deadline. Then caffeinate, put your butt in the chair, and write the thing. There’s no way around it!
- Play with a bad idea. Write out a few bad ideas and run with them for a few minutes. Sometimes playing with a bad idea leads you down a path to a good idea.
- Teachers – Give feedback that includes a solution. To say, “This doesn’t work.” or “Dry” doesn’t tell me what to DO. Everyone in the room is trying their best. So help me fix it! I don’t have anything else. Give me an example. “I think this character might be softer. Maybe they do (insert idea here).” That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned in receiving and giving constructive criticism. There’s a difference between “I personally don’t like this” and “Here’s how the story falls short.” If I don’t like something, I may not have a suggestion. But feedback without constructive ideas is just criticism and that will stun anybody.
- Students – Try your best, even though it’s personal, to not take it personally when you get feedback. Be willing and open to learning from others and their feedback and then decide whether or not you agree with it. That’s finding your voice. Determining what’s important and worth standing by and where you should listen to others is the trick. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and heartache and you’ll probably get a lot more opportunities if you know not to take things personally.
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