Roger Wolfson received his Masters in Creative Writing from John Hopkins University and before that he wrote an essay about writing his application for Johns Hopkins University. This lead him to a career as a TV writer where he has written for five major TV series including Century City (starring Viola Davis), Law and Order: SVU, Fairly Legal, and The Closer, where one of his episodes earned Kyra Sedgwick an Emmy nomination. As demonstrated below, he believes the first step toward becoming a professional writer entails deciding why writing is important to you.
Log on to http://www.go2net.com/Internet/onebook. It should surprise no reader that these days one discussing why to write would begin with a website reference. “Onebook” asks all its visitors to submit the title of the single book “that, for you, was the most influential, or thought‑provoking, or enjoyable, or moving, or powerful.” The site holds a huge variety of books. In addition, the author of the site ranks the books in order of the number of people who submitted the title. The rankings are telling.
“Catcher in the Rye” makes the top ten. As do “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Les Miserables,” and “The Brothers Karamazov.” But to give context to the value placed on the single, most revered book, one need only know that the occupant of the number two slot is “The Bible.” What book beats all?
“Atlas Shrugged,” by Ayn Rand.
Why? The answer to that question for me also addresses the question “why write?”
More primal than writing among my personal goals is to advance social change. My earliest memories betray this desire. I recall my fascination with the yellow, orange, and red stories told by the stained glass windows in the synagogue I attended as a child. It is hard to carry a history of 5,000 years of slavery, oppression, and genocide without feeling burdened with social responsibility. Likewise, my boyhood was filled with activist role models: My grandfather, who owned the communist think‑tank slash hotel named “Hilltop” in the Catskills; my great‑aunt Millie, the Israeli freedom fighter; my grandmother who helped women in the 1950s exercise their right to choose; my father, who as Vice President of his NAACP chapter brought Eleanor Roosevelt to his college; my mother, an influential feminist.
On a more intimate level, being raised in a Jewish academic family meant being surrounded by activists, but all‑too‑often spending little time with them. Lonely, I reached out for the love of my family constantly but received what I viewed as fantastic but decidedly intermittent responses. Perhaps all children feel this way, but my reaction as I grew was to parent my friends, to look out for their interests in the dedicated way that I felt had been denied me. As I grew, this sense of responsibility for others spread to my community. In my twenties, the size of my community grew with my awareness. I now believe that we are all part of a single community.
In the pursuit of social change, I’ve followed several paths. I began with acting.
Theater and democracy were both created by the Greeks, and in their purest forms, they mirror each other. Both are engines for personal growth and enlightenment. Democratic politics as created by the Greeks enhanced personal freedoms. Greek theater encouraged responsible behavior. Tragedies developed a cathartic relationship between a flawed character and the audience which imparted utilitarian values to citizens. Together, these dual forms of collective interaction produced the model of an enlightened society. I hoped that being an actor would allow me to play a role in this healthy process.
But capitalism, perhaps the best way of producing resources and expanding personal freedoms, has its abuses. Unenlightened capitalism allows those in power, the “haves,” to monopolize resources and manipulate them for selfish purposes. Not least in significance, bald capitalism has perverted both theater and politics.
As an actor it didn’t take long for me to see how capitalism has eroded drama to the
point where it no longer strives to enlighten. So I decided to try to help people directly, through public policy. I became a Congressional policy advisor handling a plate of domestic issues. Eventually I learned that the best way for the government to encourage people to help themselves is through education. I focused on education.
But during my own education, I learned that the major export of this country is not democracy, it is culture. Every American production of art that finds an audience inculcates in a small or large way its ingrained value structure, regardless of whether the artist so intends and regardless of whether those values are healthy. In today’s technologically driven free‑market world, Hollywood increasingly changes the world more than does Washington.
I realized that to reach the world, art is the way. But before moving to Los Angeles with the goal of raising the sophistication level of American entertainment, I came to believe that capitalism requires art to cater to the lowest common denominator and discourages art from raising the common denominator. In the general absence of a shared glossary of historic, literary, linguistic, and cultural concepts, the public prefers to shower profits on unchallenging art. The less worldly the consumer, the less demanding.
Finally it occurred to me that I could fight simultaneously for an effective education infrastructure and a more challenging artistic environment. In fact, I might be able to do both within each other’s context, writing legislation to inject a worldly glossary into the American curriculum while producing art that seeks to enlighten. I chose to write because an actor is seldom a “producer” of art, while a writer always is. All books inform and transmit values. Of course, too often in modern writing, the information exchange is weak at best and the values transferred merely reflect, and thereby reinforce society’s existing choices. This disturbs me.
Why must it be so? Why can’t the values in art be noble? And why can’t the information and the values be more than incidental? Why can’t the plot be born of them?
Take Ayn Rand. She developed vividly readable stories that sprang from and illuminated her personal philosophy. She believed in the power of the individual? So she wrote about a man who designed buildings to reflect his vision of society; she wrote about a man who created a newer, better steel. Her characters refabricated their world. And through them, so did she. Rand’s views may have been philosophically unbalanced. She never seemed to understand nor care what applying her ideas implied (for example, she literally kills off the entire country to make her point in “Atlas Shrugged”). But her writing was truly successful, in the highest sense. I want to be like Rand.
What message do I passionately wish to market through my stories? While my philosophies will likely evolve for the rest of my life, today I can distill them to a single word: Awareness. Awareness of the self. Awareness and appreciation of the views, values, religions, customs, and cultures of others; awareness of the needs of the planet, of the lives of animals; awareness of history, of responsibility towards the self and the community; awareness of the mind, of its abilities and its weaknesses; awareness of the potential beauty of nature and of art forms.
File me with liberals, Existentialists; Buddhists. And with the Greeks, with their goal of “Arete,” Full development of mind, body, and soul. Awareness of the joy of life itself.
If I die and know that, through my work and through my writing, I have raised the awareness of a handful of people, then I’ll have satisfied my goals and answered my personal demons. If someday someone recommends my work to “Onebook,” I’ll be at peace.