One Hundred Quarters: Part I–Guilt and Goals

Richard Walter writes about his journey from first joining the UCLA faculty to celebrating his 100th quarter in October 2010.

UCLA’s calendar operates on the quarter system–a trio of ten-week sessions instead of the traditional pair of fifteen-week semesters. It dawned on me the other day that, at the time of this writing, I have entered my (gasp!) hundredth quarter. Couldn’t I be forgiven if, upon cranking up the new school year this fall, I felt both wary and weary? Couldn’t anybody understand if I contemplated academic ’10/’11 with misgiving and even a little dread?

Nothing could be further from the truth.

If you’re going to squander a life, let it be at a world class center of higher learning, not to mention one with so beautiful a campus, enjoying award-winning weather, surrounded by artists and scholars, not to mention the best and brightest students, located in so diverse and vibrant a community as Southern California.

I never sought this job; it fell into my lap at a party in Malibu in August of 1977.

I went to the party mainly out of guilt. My bride (of more than forty years) and I are hermits. A crazed, wild night consists of pizza and Scrabble. I grew up in an east coast corner of show business, and was never particularly wowed by celebrities. The aforementioned party happened to be at the home of Arthur Knight, a venerated USC film professor, who was also the movie critic for the Saturday Review, writer of the monthly Sex in the Cinema chapter for Playboy, and author of various books treating film, preeminent among them The Liveliest Art, an engaging, insightful history of film’s first half century.

“Aren’t we going to go to Arthur’s party?” my wife asked me.

“Do you want to?”

“Not particularly.”

“So why should we go?”

“He’s been so generous to you, so supportive of your career. And isn’t he a bit of a fuddy-duddy? We didn’t go to his last party. Isn’t he likely to feel snubbed?”

I had served as Arthur’s teaching assistant when I was myself a film student during the ‘60s. Arthur loved to hobnob with celebrities. He had from time to time referred me to producers approaching him in search of writers. I’d been his guest at many gatherings during my early days in Hollywood, where I’d chugged his lethal martinis and gabbed with his USC film class guests who included showbiz’s then-stellar personnel, among them personalities like John Cassavetes, Peter Falk, Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Peter Bogdanovich, Clint Eastwood, even Mae West and, most memorably, Alfred Hitchcock.

Out of guilt, therefore, we schlepped up Pacific Coast Highway to the sprawling beach house. As I entered, Arthur pointed at me and addressed a man standing beside him. “This is the guy I was telling you about.” He had no idea who I was, but I recognized him as the head of the UCLA screenwriting program at that time. He said to me, “We need an instructor immediately. Arthur says you’re the guy.”

I was a busy writer and was not seeking any job. I’d already enjoyed a spate of freelance assignments for the studios and had sold TV material to the three networks. I had written my first book, the novel Barry and the Persuasions, which had just been released by a major New York publisher. I had served as a staff writer at Universal, and had worked also as a dialogue director on a number of studio pictures and made-for-television movies. At the time I happened to be busy adapting Barry and the Persuasions for the screen at Warner Brothers, the studio having purchased the rights earlier that spring.

Nevertheless, exactly as I would plead with my kids when they were young, “You don’t have to eat the whole thing, just taste it,” to shun this opportunity struck me as sinful. Exactly as guilt had driven me to the party, it now caused me to try out the assignment in Westwood.

Whether the subject is How to Succeed in Business or Real Estate or Your Love Life, people will tell you that guilt is a negative commodity serious artists should eschew. It gets in your way, slows you down, dampens your spirit, darkens your outlook, and sullies your prospects.

To me, however, guilt is the writer’s best friend. It keeps his butt in the chair and his fingers on the keys. Can anyone doubt that this would be a better world if more people were in touch with their guilt?

Growing up in Queens, I had never expected to be a writer, much less a college professor. In my youth I saw myself as a lawyer. Becoming a writer and/or educator was nowhere among my goals.

Self-actualization pundits preach that success, regardless of the arena, particularly within a world as competitive as screenwriting, requires clear, well defined, sharply focused goals. Some gurus advise you to visualize yourself in your future office, your home, your car. Focus sharply and, above all, avoid distraction.

My view is precisely the opposite. I believe that clear, well defined goals are the enemy of serenity and success. I hold that one’s best bet is to stumble around dumbly and blindly, banging into a potpourri of experiences, circumstances, and situations. Upon bumping into one that excites and fulfills you, grab onto it and cling to it for dear life. I argue that ultimately it is the distractions that pay off.

For a kid like me, growing up in New York, the thing to be was a doctor. It’s no surprise that these days I know a lot of doctors. All of them are accomplished. Many of them are happy. But many among them are miserable. Becoming a doctor requires early focus. In your undergraduate years you major in pre-med. Then you apply to medical school, then serve as an intern and resident, finally achieving your goal in your late twenties or early thirties.

There’s a Chinese curse: “May your dreams come true.” Remember, it’s a curse. For those who overspecialize, who focus prematurely on their life’s goals, dreams may well turn out to be nightmares. Among the doctors I know, one wishes he was an anthropologist while another regrets he is not an oceanographer. Still others wish they were screenwriters. Indeed, over all my years in Westwood there’s been a regular parade of recovering physicians enrolling in our UCLA Master of Fine Arts in Screenwriting program.

What’s true for life narratives is true also for dramatic narratives. To be sure, at the beginning it is necessary to have some semblance of a plan. Call it an outline. As the story progresses, however, it becomes necessary to let go of that plan and to stay open to the twists and turns in plot and character that inevitably flow. I’ve never known a writer who wasn’t startled by a particular event in his story that seemed to materialize out of nowhere. I’ve never known a writer who wasn’t surprised by some action taken by a character, and who wasn’t stunned by a line of dialogue that seemed to emerge from the ether.

Comedy playwright master Neil Simon has visited our UCLA classes from time to time. Having Neil Simon visit a dramatic writing class is like a theological seminary having a guest by God. On one occasion I asked Mr. Simon if he laughs at his own jokes. “Of course I do,” he said, “the first time I hear them.” I love this notion that the writer hears his own jokes, as if they were spoken to him by the invented characters of the narrative, rather than thought up and written down by the artist.

The lesson here, both in screen and life narratives alike, is to avoid over-planning. The challenge is to let the story unfold naturally, even though movies are surely the most unnatural enterprise in the history of western civilization. The worst mistake a writer can make is to drag back a spontaneous and alluring eruption of story and character to some pre-ordained outline created weeks or months earlier.

The trick, again, in life and in art, is not merely to tolerate but to welcome the surprises.

– Richard Walter

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