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An e-mail Interview with Winnie Holzman

Writers Guild Association
March 1997

An E-Mail Interview with Winnie Holzman

Edited by Robert J. Elisberg

Winnie Holzman is best known for her work on two critically-acclaimed television series -- "thirtysomething" (for which she wrote nine scripts during the show's last two seasons) and "My So-Called Life," which she created and also served as Co-executive Producer. Her first feature film screenplay is "Til There Was You," released in April, '97.

WGA: Were there any movies, TV shows or books that first got you interested in writing?

WH: I began studying acting at age thirteen. My teacher was a Russian disciple of Stanislavski: Sonia Moore. Consequently I was influenced in general by the entire Stanislavski system. Also I read a great many plays during this period, especially Chekhov William Inge, and Tennessee Williams. Two of John Van Druten's plays "The Voice of The Turtle" and "I Am A Camera" affected me deeply, both feature a quirky, irresistible, sexually experienced yet essentially innocent heroine named Sally who was very real to me. I can vividly remember seeing "Chinatown" for the first time when I was about fifteen: How adult and multi-layered it seemed, how inspiring that depth was for me.

WGA: When you write, how do you generally work?

WH: I don't have a specific time period for writing, I often feel this must be a terrible flaw. It's really just rebelliousness. I struggle with procrastination constantly and have recently begun accepting this as just "how I am," trying to judge it less. I tell myself to write very little but write something, I promise myself I need only write one or two lines, this helps me with my procrastination. I prefer to write with people around me who are interacting with each other but (hopefully) not with me -- I have several cafes I frequent.

WGA: What sort of characters and stories interest you?

WH: Characters who have problems. Who behave badly. Who have much to learn. Who lie. Who do things without knowing why. I'm bored by "good role models." As to what kind of stories interest me -- if I have a story, I feel I'm ahead of the game.

WGA: How do you work through parts of a script where you hit a roadblock in the story?

WH: What seems to happen to me is not so much a feeling that there's a roadblock in the story as the sudden horrible certainty that there is no story, that I've run out of story or that I've been deluding myself thinking I had a story. See above!

I've come to expect this feeling to overtake me once or twice during every script, but it's still quite uncomfortable. I try to remind myself that all the elements of the story which I now take for granted and have grown horribly bored by will be less dull -- hopefully -- to the audience. I don't usually buy this, though, and for days become convinced that what I imagined was a story is in fact way too thin. Sometimes at this point I turn to books that recount the Great Myths, or one of the ten million books out about story structure, to reassure myself that I even know what a story is. This usually helps, if only because taking any action when one feels fear usually helps. I also like to say to myself: "What would really happen, forget the clichÈ, what would happen if this were really happening?"

When I studied with the brilliant writer Arthur Laurents ["West Side Story"] he told us to put ourselves in the character's shoes. I've been struggling to do that ever since. I rarely if ever feel when I'm writing like I'm telling a good story, or that I would know a good story if one bit me. This is just a feeling I've grown accustomed to and I try not to let it hold me back.

WGA: Was there any particular writer who acted as a sort of mentor to you?

WH: As I mentioned above, Arthur Laurents was my mentor. Having him as my teacher was a huge turning point in my life, the biggest stroke of good luck and just plain fun. I can't describe everything he taught me, it was such a complete experience. His belief in me made me see myself as a writer. On a technical level there was so much. He taught me brevity. He was incredible with a red pencil: He would look at a speech and just show you how you could say the same thing with fewer words. And of course say it better.

To this day whenever I see a big speech I immediately ask myself what I can take out. When I'm thinning out a script I feel Arthur is reading over my shoulder, reminding me how few words I really need. He showed me my tendency to have a "ping pong" thing happen with my dialogue, because I will fall in love with the sound of my own clever words and things will start to be clever instead of interesting or real or surprising.

I co-wrote a musical that opened off-Broadway, it closed because of bad reviews, and a few months later I was on the phone with him telling him I didn't know if I could write again. He said it was like being thrown from a horse, and that I had to get back on the typewriter. He is still and always will be a treasured friend

WGA: Why do you write?

WH: I can't explain it. Copyright 1997, Robert J. Elisberg.


“Do we have to keep talking about religion? It's Christmas.”

Danielle Chase, Episode 15: "So-Called Angels"