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2016 Writers’ Panel Discusses the Pursuit of a Creative Profession

“Fact and Fiction” was the focus – but by no means the sole topic covered – during a 90-minute Writers’ Panel discussion at Northwestern’s Annie May Swift Hall on May 13.

The conversation, moderated by Department of Radio/TV/Film assistant professor Zayd Dohrn (and attended by students of the MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen program), ventured into the intersection of art and commerce, the creative process, and what keeps writers up at night.

The four panelists have worked in a multitude of artistic mediums:

  • Lisa Cortés, CEO of Cortés Films, was executive producer of the Academy Award-winning film Precious, and has guided a wide range of other projects including documentary and feature films, television shows, and music.
  • Laura Eason, a playwright and School of Communication alumnus, has written 20 full-length plays including the widely acclaimed Sex with Strangers; she is also a writer for the Netflix hit House of Cards.
  • Aaron Carter is an artistic producer at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, its former literary manager, and a playwright.
  • Deirdre O’Connor is a playwright and television writer who has a number of titles to her credit; she won an Emmy for her writing on PBS’ The Electric Company

To spark the conversation, Dohrn asked the panel: “What makes a great story? Are you looking for a connection to the real world, great fictional storytelling – or do you just know it when you see it?”

The writers responded by discussing the importance of “authenticity in the characters and stories” they explore. They also talked about writing underrepresented people into their work. But often what gets made and what gets seen is not the same.

Cortés said she is forced to contemplate the realities of artistic integrity and budget. “As a producer, one of the most important things I have to do is navigate art and commerce,” Cortés said. “I always say that it’s the story, but it’s the delicate dance between art and commerce that determines what I make a commitment to.”

Carter said his threshold for considering future projects is simple: “Is this a conversation I want to be a part of?”

He said the concept of originality is hard to quantify, since seemingly every story is built on the foundations of what’s come before. More than originality, he said, is relevancy. “I’ve stopped asking myself if a play is good or bad.”

For two of the accomplished writers on the panel, the storylines that endure most are those that tend to drive them to their keyboards and inspire their best work.

“I tend to write the things that keep me up at night,” O’Connor said. “Something is happening in the world and I’m struggling with it. And maybe I don’t have the answer; or more interesting to me, I think I have the answer.”

She said she doesn’t want to tell the audience what to think. She’d rather “dig into what I don’t know and be in that place (of discovery) with the audience.”

Haunting thoughts also drive Eason’s creative process. She said she knows she’s creating something worthwhile when she “falls asleep thinking about it.”

But as she’s found some financial success through writing, she’s had to modify what she first thought about the creative process. It used to be, she said, that becoming “obsessed with a big idea” would lead to a passionate pursuit of a project.

Can you still find that passion when you’re a hired gun? Of course, she said, though “you still have to be in love and feel the passion, even when there’s a paycheck at the end of the day.”

By Mark Wollemann