Students meet with Pulitzer Prize winner at spring writers’ conference

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Students in the Theater and Media Arts departments learned from successful professional writers at a three-day conference held in BYU’s Timpanogos Lodge.

Guests at the conference included Pulitzer Prize winner Margaret Edson and “The Simpsons” co-writers Mike Scully and Julie Thacker. Students also met with “Napoleon Dynamite” co-writers Jared and Jerusha Hess, as well as “Granite Flats” writer James Shores.

“It was a really unique opportunity for the students to hear from people who have had such major success,” said Media Arts professor Thomas Russell. “I felt like each guest brought really specific insights to the students.”

(From left) Media Arts faculty member Brad Barber leads a discussion between students and 'Granite Flats' screenwriter James Shores and producer Jared Shores. (Photo by Bryce Lawrence)
(From left) Media Arts faculty member Brad Barber leads a discussion between students and ‘Granite Flats’ screenwriter James Shores and producer Jared Shores. (Photo by Bryce Lawrence)

Students heard from playwright Edson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1999 for her stage play “Wit.” Edson wrote the play while working in a bicycle store in Washington D.C. Despite her play’s success, she has chosen a more quiet career as a kindergarten teacher.

Senior Annie Krueger of Midland, Mich., considered Edson the highlight of the conference.

“She is so humble and so intelligent,” Krueger said. “It’s nice to see that I don’t have to be a well-known writer right away. It really doesn’t matter where you are in life. You can still do great things.”

Russell noted Edson’s humble example was good for the students.

“She is really good at providing a perspective to the students that writing is not about trying to be famous and rich,” Russell said. “It’s about doing the things that you’re good at doing and love to do.”

Screenwriter Jerusha Hess spoke to the students about collaborative writing.

“The highlight of Hess’ commentary was her helping students understand the nature of co-writing — why it can be helpful and also why it can be extremely difficult,” Russell said. “She also helped them understand that each writer has their own method. There isn’t one structure or approach to writing. She freed them up to approach writing individually.”

Students spent time on the third day with Mike Scully and his wife, fellow writer Julie Thacker. Scully worked four years as the show runner for “The Simpsons” and later wrote episodes of “Parks and Recreation” for NBC. He gave students practical advice about entering the industry.

“Be your own worst critic on your scripts,” Scully said. “Be ready to hear criticism … You’ll have to go back to rewrite, throw things out and start over. Rewriting is not fun. You want to feel like when you’re done with it, you’re done. But if you’re working on a television show, 90 percent of your job is rewriting.”

Students commented that they felt encouraged by the event, and Russell hopes the department will be able to host similar conferences in the future.

“We were really lucky to have those people,” Russell said. “They brought a really beneficial perspective for the students.”

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