Personal Statement: Manifesto
(For my first post, I give you a personal statement that I submitted to MFA programs in dramatic writing. Person, from the Latin persona, meaning ‘a mask, or a character in a play.’ Below, I perform as MFA Applicant, a role I find especially fulfilling.)
“I want to be a screenwriter. I wish there were an equivalent word to playwright for film. A writer of plays is a play + wright, not a play + writer; not a mere scribbler, but a maker, a builder. As I write, I want to fashion films, not just script dialogue; I want to be a carpenter, constructing the framework, laying down the first, fundamental, load-bearing boards. Maybe filmwright is the word.
I revel in words, in the intricacies of woven text, but images—not evoked, not described, but let be, in all their forceful presence—cannot be ignored. Our culture is primarily visual. We live in the Image Age; the Information Age was a text-based myth. Images constitute our popular culture; they determine our politics; they make terrorism possible and war immediate. Visual literacy has become as important as textual literacy. The emergence of photography followed by the ascendancy of film began the shift, and now, in our digital world, with the Internet, TV, iPods, and cell phones, images self-replicate in a way that makes Walter Benjamin’s conception of the “mechanical reproduction” of film seem quaint in comparison. The power of dramatic writing is multiplied immeasurably by this culture of images; it is the form of literature that has evolved most successfully in the face of the new environment.”
The final half of the final sentence of the above paragraph I do not believe and never did. If I didn’t write it, though, the question would inevitably be asked: well, then why are you applying to programs that focus so intensely on writing? Why not a more standard film school? The real answer is far more complicated and contingent than I would want to dwell upon in a personal statement for graduate school. Better the smooth and concise transition than real honesty.
“When I arrived at Harvard, I had plans of becoming a theoretical physicist, but I changed my mind, or my mind changed, and I ended up concentrating in English. In my coursework, I read everything from Beowulf to King Lear to Gravity’s Rainbow through my recently-acquired analytic goggles and simultaneously began exercising my fiction-writing/evaluating muscles (complimentary muscles, somewhat like the bicep/triceps) more vigorously by working with campus magazines and taking writing workshops. I became interested in film as an outgrowth of my involvement with literature. I went outside of the English department and took two years of intensive filmmaking classes and became hopelessly, happily entangled. I spent hundreds of hours in the tiny closets in a basement in Harvard Yard, cutting and splicing, arranging and rearranging: constructing sentences out of pictures: inventing a new grammar for myself.
Fiction writing, whether prose or drama, is empathy amplified. To me, writing is an exploratory act; I think of it less as an attempt at “expressing myself” and more as an opportunity to learn about things that are strange or fundamentally different from me. The ideal is imaginative ecstasy, literally being outside oneself, inhabiting, in the process of creative work, some particular other. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to writing for the screen and stage: self-erasure, or at least the illusion thereof, is much more naturally obtained in theater, in dramatic film, in the television time-slot. Am I some latter-day l’art pour l’art hanger-on? Yes. No. Art for itself, of course, always, but not because it is artificial, not because is it better or higher than the true, but because of its refining nature, its subtle but pervasive moral imperative: at their best, the fictionary arts, both in production and in consumption, lead one to a grounded respect for alterity, a respect I feel is supremely important.”
I go on to discuss the particulars of my candidacy and the reasons for my interest in the program. I’ll leave most of that out.
“The program would provide the space in which to light my writing on fire—burn it into film, put it into motion on stage, encode it in video; in short, let the text melt away and reveal what remains, what withstands the test. I want to focus on basics, isolate and work on them individually: dialogue in theater, plot in TV, image in film, everything in everything. Carpentry. Metalworking. Shop class. Most of all I need to write, write, write.”
Right. So I’ve started a blog, a bit of digital space to prop open with, I hope, virtually volumes of words.