Lunch at the Russian Tea Room with Marshall

by JV Hart

When I fled LA in the mid 70’s, in debt as a failed producer, and returned to NY, I had no idea what I was going to do to support my wife and someday family. My wife Judy said, “You’re going to write.” That had never occurred to me as a real job where I could earn real money. I had been raising money for other people’s films and complaining about the scripts. Agents and producer-friends in LA said I would never have a career if I did not live in LA. In retrospect, that was all I needed to hear. My first writing experience in NY was not as a writer but with another writer–and one of my heroes. Marshall Brickman will not remember our lunch at the Russian Tea Room that the late, great Robbie Lantz arranged, but I certainly do. Marshall met me cold and without really knowing what the meeting was about. My intention was to pitch him on writing the Southern version of Annie Hall. You can imagine my joy when I learned he was a member of the famed Tarriers and played guitar to Eric Weissbord’s brilliant banjo that was the “dueling banjos” music performed in DELIVERANCE! Perfect. Brickman. Deliverance. I was home free. He would write a brilliant screenplay for free that I would produce.

Marshall patiently drew out of me stories of my Southern upbringing, life in the South and my colorful in-laws and outlaws. And I do mean patient and nurturing, which I have learned is his generous way, having served with him on the WGAE Foundation board. He finally looked at his watch and politely informed me he had to meet Woody (Yes, I was impressed). Then he quite genuinely spoke the words that clearly I needed to hear. “You should write this, Jim, not me. This is in you. Write it.”

We parted ways and would not meet again until our kids performed Shakespeare together in school. I walked uptown to our apartment repeating over and over, “Marshal Brickman said for me “to write”….”to write”….”to write”.

And so I did. My wife was right.

Thank you, Marshall. I think he even paid for lunch.

More Long Hair for the Long-Hairs

by Jeremy Pikser

Writing in New York? It’s like everything else in New York. Smarter. More complex. Sometimes more complicated, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

When my wife is on one of her periodic how-can-we-live-like-this-with-all-the-noise-and-concrete-and-craziness jags, I always say the same thing. (Isn’t this one of the true satisfactions of a long marriage: that one of us will periodically go on a jag and the other will always say the same, hopefully balancing, reassuring thing?)

I always say, “But where else is there the cultural and intellectual stimulus of New York?”

And then she always says the same thing back: “But we (by this she means “you”) never do most of the cultural things in New York.”

This is true. I don’t go to the theater more than once or twice a year. I enjoy art museums and galleries, but to tell you the truth, I’m too lazy to go to those very often, either. Dance? Never. Classical music? Not unless my distant cousin from Chicago happens to be playing. Opera? You’ve gotta be joking. Of all the cultural riches offered by the city, I really only take regular advantage of two: “art” films and live jazz.

Despite the continual and worsening onslaught of Mammon, there do in this city still survive (heroically, astonishingly) several places where one can experience a good movie—a movie made with at least a sliver of intention involving something other than the bottom line—and the live, spontaneous creation of new musical beauty that only happens (for me, anyway) in a jazz club.

How seeing independent and foreign movies is essential to my screenwriting (not to mention the general state of my human intelligence) should be obvious. Listening to live jazz, perhaps less so. But as it happens, for whatever reason, my mind, my imagination, my creative energy—whatever you want to call it—get stimulated in that environment like in no other. I don’t think there has been a single screenplay that I have written without at least one significant intervention inspired by an idea I’ve had while listening to live jazz.

OK. Sure, that’s all well and good. But is that enough to justify the claim that I want to live and write in New York because of its cultural and intellectual richness? No, it’s not. Looked at this way, it is a transparently pretentious and specious excuse for something else, like not having the courage or will to actually move somewhere with a yard and more than a few inches of open sky.

But to look at it that way really misses the point. Not only can I indulge my cultural passions in New York, but the guy a floor below me who loves the opera can, too. My dear friend in Greenpoint is constantly in art shows and museums. My aforementioned distant cousin from Chicago is in New York because Juilliard is here.  Many of my other friends are devoted theatergoers. I might occasionally even bump into someone who goes to the ballet. There’s more of all of it here than anywhere else. More long hair for the long-hairs; more high-brow for the high-brows; more be-bop for be-boppers; more hip hop for hip-hoppers; more punk for punks… you get the point.

I know all these people, and they know me. We share meals, chat on the check-out line, walk the streets, wait for buses and ride the subways together. The cultural experiences we all have individually inform and enrich our interactions with each other.  The singular cultural richness of living in New York doesn’t come from doing everything there is to do here, but from the collective experience we all share.

Next time your significant other wants you to go to an art exhibit, try that one out.

Why I Write in New York

By Alice Childress

Visitors come here with every minute planned to the second. They visit museums, Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, United Nations, Radio City, Central and Bronx Parks, theatres, markets, and do sight-seeing bus trips to El Barrio and Harlem… plus shopping! Restaurants? Chinese, French, Armenian, Italian, Soul food, on and on. Their farewell comment… “New York is all right to visit but I could never live here.”

Writers should have mountain retreats… rustic log cabins with refrigerators, dishwashers, open fireplaces… and friendly, respectful neighbors who quietly leave wood and food supplies on the back porch. Writers need a VIEW… lake, seashore, cloud crested mountain or a deep, misty valley. We need good sounds, waterfalls, the rustle of green leaves applauding through a kindly breeze at twilight. We need another human being who is madly but quietly in love with the creative partner… a lover who perks coffee for time-out breaks, who reads first copy and softly chuckles or weeps at the funny and sad words which flow from the never-down-word-processor. Writers need money. Well, as Lillian Hellman said… “However…”

When I leave Manhattan, I miss the mix of people, and guessing at what they think and how they live. I miss visiting ships moving on the Hudson, towed by our sturdy tugboats. I miss garment district men pushing hand racks of suits… scenes for a tele-play. Where else do we see people reading foreign newspapers while ignoring background sounds of traffic, overhead planes and shouted conversation?

I can write here because few neighbors bother to note what time I wake up or bed down. Midnight oil burners draw little attention. Away, I miss watching drillers plow up the streets. An excavation, a good place to pause and take mental notes for a story about Charleston, South Carolina. In another town, I miss a New York feeling in the air. A something’s-about-to-happen feeling. Not the scary kind. Think positive. If I mind my manners, watch my back, plot for the better… and remember that while some fight racism, sexism, or ageism… a few of us have to fight all three at once. However… the best known city in the world is not a bad place to write. It could be great!

—1992

Why I Write in New York

by Eleanor Bergstein

When I am away for any extended period, I dream of New York every night. The streets are hazily long, gray and deserted. Shortly before I awake, I myself appear on them. When I awake I think of the dreams as fierce and particular and when I do come home, I’m always startled by all that they have edited out.

One might say I dream of a different New York. I would say that if I dreamed of the violent crowded New York we all know, I’d awake so full of impressions and longing it would obliterate whatever daily life I was experiencing in whatever non-New York place I was.

I write in New York because it holds me to a standard in finding my material. I do not mean that I ride past my bus stop to hear the end of the conversation behind me, or drink endless cups of coffee to eavesdrop on a quarrel in the next booth—though I have certainly been known to do both. It is not my material insofar as it appears in my work. But whatever material I choose must attempt to insist on itself in the face of a daily world so varied and so passionate—to earn a claim on the attention of so preoccupied an audience.

I once was given to an acting exercise to watch people in transition—subways, waiting rooms—to determine if they were either coming from someplace or going someplace. It didn’t work well in New York—here, even the idea of a passive transition seems a conceit—people are going and coming at the same time, and transition itself is an act of will, as focused and determined as any action.

I write to music. In New York, I never know what is going on in people’s Walkmans—Palestrina or Pet Shop Boys—nor in their heads. I only know that, Walkman or not, everyone I meet or pass is listening to some beat or rhythm or lyric inside their head which makes them angry, sweet, tender, preoccupied—and if for a moment I can compete, with equal sounds that join or transform theirs, then for that moment I’ve done my work.

Other people grew up wanting to get away from where they came from. I was born here, and I always wanted to find ways to stay. I still do.

Away from New York I have wild friends, surprising adventures, room service—many things I love—but away from New York, I am in exile, from my work and therefore from myself.

—1992

Constant Noise and Overwhelming Chaos

by Elliott Kalan

New York City is an infuriating place to exist, and the most infuriating thing about it is that what makes it infuriating is also what make it essential to a writer. It’s crowded, it’s filthy, it’s home to some of the grossest, smelliest summers and coldest, slipperiest winters around. Everything that happens here is set against the background of constant noise and overwhelming chaos. These are the perfect ingredients for writing.

There’s a line of narration in the surprisingly-clothed movie The Naked City that says, “There are eight million stories in the naked city.” If anything, screenwriters Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald were drastically understating the case. I seem to encounter eight million stories just on my commute to work–there’s a couple dozen crammed tightly into every subway car, from the old Chinese lady carrying a mysterious package, to the Wall Street-looking guy frantically trying to catch an underground cell signal, to the tourist family puzzling out a map, to the teens laughing maliciously at something you didn’t hear. People in New York wear just enough of their lives on their sleeves to hint at what’s going on when you can’t see them. But not enough to fill in the whole story. That’s where a writer’s brain comes in and starts making stuff up.

Which means that possibly the most frustrating part of writing in New York is how insanely fertile it is for a writer’s brain. The city’s simply too interesting, the amount of stories too much for one, or even a thousand, writers. Even in a city known for writers, we can never have enough on hand to do New York justice. The only solution, then, is more writers. Like the old garment or meatpacking districts, I envision a writing district clacking away on a million keyboards to get the stories down, imagining the tales of even the most distant corners of the five boroughs. There would still be more stories around us than we could ever tell, but at least we’d start to make a dent.

Maybe there are writers who can live in peace and quiet. Maybe they can look out the window at a bird or a light breeze rustling the leaves of a quiet oak and from that extrapolate an amazing story or a hilarious joke. Maybe they can accurately capture New York without marinating in it and wondering about the real people constantly performing their own lives. But if there are, I certainly don’t know them.

Why I Write in New York

by Nora Ephron

I am having a much harder time answering this question than I expected. The truth is I’ve forgotten why I write in New York. I used to know. I used to have fairly melodramatic theories about it: I used to believe I was the human equivalent of the ailanthus tree, the one that grows only in concrete; I used to believe that if I didn’t live here I would cease to be able to type even my name. In the old days I could go on at some length about how the discomfort of New York (as opposed to the comfort of Los Angeles), the crowds, the contact, even the crazy people somehow made me a better writer. I had a story I was extremely fond of, I told it often, about how my parents moved from New York to Los Angeles when I was five years old, and I knew, I knew even then, as I stood in the bright sunshine surrounded by happy laughing children, that a horrible mistake had been made and I had to get back to New York as soon as possible. Which I did. And here I am. And I still believe it all, I guess. But I am sitting here in my apartment in New York and the truth is I haven’t been anywhere in days that exposed me to anything other than some extremely good Italian food. The crazy people make me sad. And I can type my name almost anywhere. Some days, when it’s six p.m. and I don’t know where my children are, I wonder why I live here at all.

—1992

Leave Room for the Crazy

by Zoe Lister-Jones

I was born in Manhattan and raised in Brooklyn. Then I went to NYU. And until last year, when I began shooting Whitney, I had spent the entirety of my adult life in NY. So I suppose I write NY stories because that’s what I know. More specifically, because my last two films were personal in nature, New York was helplessly intertwined with those experiences. But, then again, that’s not giving the town enough credit.

I guess there is a level of extremism that is inherent to the NY experience which allows even the most banal stories to have stakes. And then the neuroses add comedy. And the locations add texture and energy. And then bam. You have a movie.

The best NY screenplays leave room for the city (or any of the boroughs, which are equally if not more enticing) to play a character within the fabric of the film. Moonstruck, Annie Hall, Klute, The Muppets Take Manhattan, Tootsie, An Unmarried Woman—none of these stories would feel complete without the backdrop of New York weaving itself in and out of the narrative.

And New York, while being highly structured, is equally amorphous. It can take any shape or form, as dictated by the tone and vibe you set out to achieve. It can be looming or slapstick, sexy or sickly. Because it is all of those things at once. Which is why we New Yorkers are so fuckin’ crazy.

But the crazy needs an outlet. And that’s why I write in New York. It’s the greatest city in the world. Well, second greatest. Let’s just say it’s tied with Brooklyn.

Written in New York: Celebrating the Empire State’s Writers

New York is home to legions of great writers who work in theater, books, film, television or online—and, quite often, in some combination of these. Our contributions to the culture are the better for it.

Television writing started in New York. People who wrote films, or plays, or books found a new medium through which to tell stories and move audiences. Over time, the TV industry moved westward, but there are still hundreds of New Yorkers who write great comedy/variety, episodic, public affairs, news and other programs, and we want to celebrate their work.

The Writers Guild of America, East represents writers when they work for TV, screen, radio and digital media. We set up this blog to share the stories of some of our members whose writing thrives in the Empire State. In July, to celebrate New York writers and New York writing, we joined with the Dramatists Guild and the Authors Guild on the rooftop of our building. It was a spectacular evening of conversation and conviviality. We’ve hopefully captured some of that dynamism in the images and words found here.

–Lowell Peterson,
Executive Director, WGAE

Written in New York’s Rooftop Party, July 17, 2012

The Written in New York campaign kicked off with a rooftop party at the WGAE Offices in New York City.

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