How I Stepped out of My Comfort Zone and Became a Teacher


There was something I’ve wanted to do for a while, but it scared me a lot: teaching screenwriting. Way back when I first moved to Los Angeles, I had a brief stint as a private Portuguese teacher. I was also significantly younger and eager to start in the film industry, so it didn’t last long, but I absolutely loved my students. There was a part of me that felt I could do it, but the fear was real.

I had so many reasons to tell myself I shouldn’t start teaching: I don’t have all that much experience as a writer (my first produced feature as a writer came out in 2009). I haven’t made a huge box office hit (most writers go their entire careers without doing so). I don’t have a Master’s Degree (for this one I don’t have a counter argument, I don’t have a Master’s Degree). What do I know about writing? (I hear a lot of fellow professional writers echo this sentiment, so I know I’m not alone.)

Mostly I think my imposter syndrome kept me from making this move. And then I saw my sources of income slowly dwindle. Projects that were slated to go got pushed back or disappeared completely. Life was uncertain in a lot of ways as it often is when you’re on the verge of major change both internally and externally.

After a conversation with a friend and colleague who encouraged me to give it a try, I submitted for a teaching position at UCLA Extension. I submitted thinking I wasn’t going to get it. It took a while, but I did interview and landed the job. After a few training sessions and a trial run as a guest lecturer, the time came for me to start my very first class.

I was super nervous. I don’t know how I did anything that night. The AV system in the room gave me some trouble and I couldn’t quite do what I planned but I improvised and moved on and kept on going. I couldn’t wait for the three hours to end. The best part of that evening was the fact that it ended. I felt like that first class was a train wreck and wondered if I had been on the other side, if had been my own student, would I want to continue with the class. I honestly don’t know.

I had to mostly focus on the words of my former therapist, words I tell my five-year-old daughter all the time when she struggles in school: “Learning is hard, but it’s worth it. It’s okay to make mistakes. You can’t learn without making mistakes.”

And then the second came and the students brought in their pitches. We worked through their material, we ran through the story beats, we talked about character, theme and three act structure. Class flowed and felt natural, like I had been doing this for years. We actually stayed a little late that night. I went home and no longer felt like an imposter.

But I quickly learned no two classes are the same. The group of people, the stories, where everyone is as far as writing, their mood and energy level, it all shapes the overall experience and makes it unique from class to class. No two classes are the same. My experiences with the first class versus the second class were opposite ends of the spectrum for me. I mostly stayed somewhere in the middle, I guess, for the duration of the ten-week course.

I worked my butt off week to week trying to come up with interesting examples, good clips, compelling talking points. I would go home and remember something I wish I mentioned. I would find myself thinking about how to help one of my students by recommending a film or a book.

I sometimes felt caught off guard or like I was being tested by my students. I blame the imposter syndrome. I had to fight my inner critic very often. I reminded my students I don’t have all the answers, but nobody does. We’re dealing with a highly subjective medium, most storytelling by nature always is. I also encouraged my students to speak up and to not be afraid to disagree with me. I told a lot of personal stories, I mentioned my daughter, my husband, my mom. I worked hard at being open and honest about my experiences and who I am as a person.

I also told some jokes that didn’t land with my students. I tried to be cute and failed. At times I felt like a stand-up comic testing out material and bombing completely.

I learned a lot with each one of my students. I continue to learn from them every time I step into a classroom. I got to the end of that first quarter as a teacher not knowing exactly if I had accomplished anything. When I read their final treatments, I knew I must have done something right. They turned in amazing work. They developed their stories to the end and improved immensely as writers. The feeling that you taught someone something is quite exquisite.

And now this amazing course was offered to me: “Inclusive Screenwriting.” It’s a new class UCLA Extension is offering in the Spring and I can’t believe I’ll get to teach it.

It’s a workshop designed for writers to craft stories about underrepresented voices and communities. It’s a way to further the conversation about what it means to give everyone a seat at the table.

I get to talk about the things I’ve been preaching all around town since my early days in Los Angeles. Where are the female stories? The people of color stories? There are more voices out there and more stories than the centuries of one point of view. Things are shifting, audiences are craving seeing themselves represented onscreen. There’s no doubt about it. It’s good business to produce underrepresented voices and stories. Just ask the producers of this year’s Oscar winning hit “Parasite.” I raved about this movie for most of the quarter to my students, and I was happily surprised to see it win so many awards. Because, in the words of Martin Scorsese quoted by Bong Joon-ho after winning the Oscar for Best Director: “The most personal is the most creative.” I also often tell my students the more specific you make a story, the more universal it gets. The more a larger audience will relate to what they see.

If you are in the Los Angeles area, I invite you to join me and take my class “Inclusive Screenwriting.” The course starts April 1st and meets once a week for 10 weeks. Come see me succeed and fail, try new things and figure out what works and what doesn’t. And hopefully, above all, contribute to the conversation of inclusion in our film industry. The class description is below.

“While there are many ideas of what inclusion means in film and television, one thing is clear–the urgency for diverse voices and stories are on the forefront of entertainment. With hits like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians in theaters and shows like Master of None, Black-ish, Orange is the New Black, and Transparent on television, the appetite for multi-ethnic casting and stories are in rising demand by studios. This workshop focuses on assigning your characters based on age, gender, race, sexual orientation, and physical disabilities and how that diversity adds dimension and drama to your story. The course also covers showing diversity through dialogue, the importance of research, and most importantly, how to stand your ground when stakeholders of your project may not understand your original vision. Toward the end of the course, special attention is paid to the problem of underrepresented writers in Hollywood and strategies of how you should navigate the tricky efforts of greater inclusion.”

Enroll here:

UPDATE: On March 10th UCLA Extension announced all classes are moving online until further notice. Here’s the partial official notice:

“In accordance with Chancellor Block’s announcement, UCLA Extension will transition all in-person courses to online. This is to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the community.

While there are no confirmed cases at UCLA at this time, beginning March 11, the following will be in effect: In-person classes will transition to online delivery until further notice.”

All UCLA Extension teachers are currently retooling classes to provide our students with the best possible instruction using the amazing technology available to us. I taught my very first class using video conferencing last night (March 11th) and I’m happy to say it was a success. In these uncertain times, I welcome you to fuel your creativity instead of your fear and come write your story with me. There’s a story only you can tell. Don’t let it go untold.