By Laura Foti Cohen
If the Ebell’s professional writers are any indication, the craft is a calling that begins very early in life. Those in our midst who have written for love, money or both started honing their craft as children or teenagers. (Your intrepid editor sold a piece to Seventeen Magazine in high school and was hooked.)
Writers’ favorite works hold a special place in their hearts, representing as they do heartfelt personal expressions. Looking back over their writing careers, Ebell’s writers fondly remember those books, articles or screenplays that have meant the most to them. They also struggle, whether for le mot juste, to keep writing when the muse is absent, or to believe in their own work.
Alison Swan, a writer for 20 years, started as a child, with “poetry and little stories.” In 1998 she wrote and directed her first feature film, “Mixing Nia,” starring Karyn Parsons and Isaiah Washington. The film is about a successful advertising executive who quits her job and goes searching for her racial identity when she is assigned a brand of beer being marketed to black ghetto kids. “It allowed me space to explore my feelings of race in America in an offbeat, funny way,” Alison says.
As a writer, it is hard to completely let go of the material and hand it over to the director. However, ultimately, it is wonderful to see the actors and director truly breathe life into the characters and add
unexpected dimensions. It’s especially interesting to hear the audience reaction, where they laugh and where they don’t, and to get a sense of what moved them in the story,” Alison says.
When asked about her greatest struggle, Alison says, “For me it’s self-confidence. It’s easy to undermine yourself by constantly questioning if people will like what you’re writing.”
Denise Nicholas is the author of Freshwater Road, the story of a northern college student who travels to Mississippi to volunteer with the civil rights movement during Freedom Summer. She is currently adapting it into a screenplay, working with director Kevin Hooks, as well as working on her second book, Bronzeville.
Denise has been writing since high school. “There were periods when I didn’t write at all, but something was clicking that early.” It was a hobby for her until she started acting in “Room 222.” She started presenting story ideas to the producers, and although none of her writing made its way onto the show, it was a start. Later, when she was on “In the Heat of the Night,” she pitched some ideas to Carroll O’Connor “and he bought the first one. I assumed he would give it to a staff writer, but he wanted me to do it. I ended up writing six shows for him.”
Denise began writing Freshwater Road, and through a friend submitted early pages to Toni Morrison. “She was kind enough to critique them.” It took five years from that point to publication and Denise also credits writing teacher and author Janet Fitch with helping her understand Toni Morrison’s critique and move on to write the rest of the story.
Writing is a second career for Hilary Liftin. She says, “I worked in book publishing for ten years and have been making my living as a ghostwriter/collaborator for only about five, but since I began I’ve written two or three books a year so I’ve been making up for lost time.”
One of Hilary’s favorite projects was working with Mackenzie Phillips on her memoir, High on Arrival. “She had an intense, at times excruciating story to tell, and finding the right words together was a painful and rewarding experience.”
Hilary started writing “poetry (if you can call it that)” when she was eight. “Ever since then, writing has been something I loved to do, but I was too pragmatic or cowardly to imagine I could survive without an office job. I still think it’s a great privilege and luxury to find success as an artist.”
For Hilary, making the transition to a career in writing meant overcoming the fear of having no steady income. “It was only when I was laid off from a job with a nice severance package that I wrote a proposal for a book I’d wanted to write for years (Candy & Me: A Love Story, a memoir told through candy milestones). Then I stumbled into ghostwriting and found that it was a perfect match for my skills and weaknesses. For someone who was wedded to telling her own stories, it would have been a tough pill to swallow, but I’ve never felt that the collaborations I work on are a ‘lesser’ form of writing.”
Liz Fuller has made her living as a writer since she was 18 and worked on her college newspaper, The Minnesota Daily at the University of Minnesota. Until that point, she had not seen herself as a writer.
“Oddly, I grew up telling everyone, ‘I have no idea what I want to be, but I know I don’t want to be a writer.’ That’s because, in my family, writing was sort of like breathing – it was nothing unusual or romantic, and something everyone just did. Both my parents were writers (my dad was a newspaper reporter for 40+ years and my mom did corporate communications) and neither of them seemed particularly happy. So I wanted to do something I really loved…and writing just never seemed at all glamorous to me. It was, however, something I was always very good at, to the point that – even as a teenager – people would bring me things they were having trouble writing and ask for help working them out. And I gradually realized that there’s a lot of value in following your talents, rather than trying to force an interest or talent you don’t really have.”
Liz is most connected to the MFA thesis script she wrote in the Graduate Screenwriting Program at USC. “It was based on some childhood experiences in a place and time that were (and still are) very important to me. And it got some great responses, which made writing it even more satisfying.” Since then, she has worked marketing her screenplays.
“I spent a lot of time doing that after grad school, and it’s always hard. I never had one made into a movie, but I’ve had a steady career in the corporate world since my undergraduate days, so that kind of writing has never been difficult for me, or difficult for me to find outlets for.”
Finally, Ebell President Shirlee Taylor Haizlip started writing her first book 20 years ago. “In the course of my professional life I had to do a great deal of expository writing, especially scripts for TV programs I was doing in the Virgin Islands. Basically, I thought of myself as a storyteller, and I still do. I heard my father tell stories publicly every week from the pulpit. My first book, the memoir The Sweeter The Juice; the book I coauthored with my husband, In The Garden Of Our Dreams; and a very long op ed piece ‘We Knew What Glory Was’ for The Sunday edition of The New York Times about the burning of Black churches in The South, have meant the most to me.”
Getting published is a hurdle for any writer, but Shirlee says she “was incredibly fortunate.“ “I told a friend who was an agent that I was writing my mother’s story. She said, ‘Let me see it.’ She took it to ten publishers and we got nine offers.”