A Writer's Writing Process: An Interview With My Father, Jay Wolpert

I truly believe that most people who should write... and who don't write... don't because they're afraid to find out that they're lousy at it. Not wanting to confront that unpleasant truth in myself, I invented powerful excuses not to write.
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I try to make a point to get to great book signings in order to ask the author questions for my class. I've had the chance to talk to Neil Gaiman about his writing process as well as Linda Sue Park, just to name a couple. I was thinking about whom next to ask, when the obvious dawned on me: my father, Jay Wolpert.

Now, my father hasn't written a book but he does write screenplays as of late. You see, my dad came to writing later in life. He's one of those examples of a person who decided to reinvent himself, and in so doing, became a model of flexibility for everyone around him. You know the whole "you can't teach an old dog new tricks?" Well, my dad proves it's BS. Gosh, he'll hate that I called him old when he reads this. Because the fact is that his heart beats to the tune of a swashbuckling score written by Victor Young. I grew up sword fighting with his Errol Flynn by my side, and my son has since picked up the rapier to fight by his Pop-Pop's side.

Anyway, about this reinvention thing. It's no small feat to morph into another career, to fit into a different box, especially for someone so out of the box as my dad. But we all must do it sometime in our lives for one reason or another, and the key is to do it when you want to, not when it is forced upon you, and that is a lesson my father modeled for me.

Here's a little professional bio in a nutshell before we continue:

  • Winner of the 1969 Jeopardy Tournament of Champions (never play Trivial Pursuit with my dad)

  • The first producer of The Price is Right and many other awesome game shows
  • Switched careers in his early 50s
  • Had sole screenplay credit on 2002's The Count of Monte Cristo
  • Wrote the first script of Pirates of the Carribean:The Curse of the Black Pearl (which makes him, at least in my son's eyes, the inventor of Capt. Jack Sparrow. Dad tries to honorably explain the whole multiple writers thing, but I keep telling him to drop it in lieu of grandson adoration.)
  • Anyway, in honor of Father's Day, I wanted to share some of my dad's responses to my generic questions about the writing process.

    1. What do you do when you face that blank sheet of paper? How do you face down writer's block?

    I'll let you know as soon as I do it, and I'm not being entirely facetious here. The real answer, as it is to many questions about writing, is, "Show Up... every day." I'm going through it now on a spec I just started. I think the story is worthy of telling, but the path into it, at least for now, is obscured. Nonetheless, I know from experience, that if I show up every day... either I will find that path... or it will find me.

    2. When/How did you decide to be a writer?

    I truly believe that most people who should write... and who don't write... don't because they're afraid to find out that they're lousy at it. Not wanting to confront that unpleasant truth in myself, I invented powerful excuses not to write, although every so often in my life, evidence would appear of this itch I could not scratch: like writing scatological songs for my college fraternity, which then morphed into satirical songs for my college fraternity, which finally served as the precursor of the satirical Showcases that I instituted on The Price Is Right when I became that show's first producer in 1972. In any event, one day in 1992, a woman who I had hired, virtually out of school, twenty years before, as my first production assistant on Price, stopped by my table where I was eating alone at Art's Deli in Los Angeles. The first thing she said after "Hello" was, "Why haven't you written?" This woman, who had grown up to be Nancy Myers, an incredibly successful writer-producer-director, along with her partner at the time, writer-director Charles Shyer, mentored me through my first script, giving me the confidence to believe I belonged in this game... and for whatever it's worth, I owe my career particularly to her.

    3. What's your process of writing?

    That's quite a big question, there being many parts to that process... but I'll select a few: First of all, I don't know whether you would call it an outline or not, but I start out with a pretty specific written idea of where I'm going... especially where I'm ending. For me, the caboose drives the train, and while I've been known to change the ending, most of the time it seems to remain essentially the same. On the other hand, when you hear things like the story or the characters start to write themselves... it's true... so you never really know how it's all going to turn out.

    Another part of my process, although I can't say I always live by it, is to begin the writing day revising whatever I originally wrote the previous day... and then I move on, so that whatever I have revised, I do not revisit until I have finished that entire first, rough draft.... Otherwise you run the risk of continuing to revise the same scene day after day and never getting any further.

    A third part of my process, to which I am pretty faithful, is to end the day by quitting before you're stopped... meaning quit for the day, while you still know what you're going to write, say, for the next two pages of script and you're hot to do it. That way, the next morning, you slip behind that desk like you're Chuck Yeager plopping down in the Bell X 1, and you're all "Sound Barrier, here I come"!

    There are other strategies I can tell you about, but you'll have to wait until next Father's Day.

    I'll hold him to that promise.

    I will end this post with what I tell all my students after sharing the responses from the authors I interview: I hope his responses helped you find yourself in your writing. Please open up your journals, and let's begin. Don't worry about the blank page in front of you. We'll bust through it together...

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