by David Werner, MFA, Kaplan University Faculty
I was in love. Or so I thought. I wanted to ask Patti (not her real name) to a ninth-grade dance but could never muster the courage to pop the question. Growing up in a very small, working class, blue collar manufacturing town had not prepared me for the “worldly” conversation I thought ninth grade young women expected.
I had to find a way to bring the outside world to me; so I confided in Susan (again, not her real name) who worked in the school library. She recommended I read Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. The plan seemed simple. My friend Jim would call Patti on my behalf and I would whisper his side of the conversation to him which he would repeat to Patti. I remember, “A kiss is a secret which takes the lips for the ear,” which seemed quite impressive at the time. Followed by, “All our souls are written in our eyes,” which appeared to close the deal. It worked. Patti went to the dance with Jim.
My librarian friend Susan felt my pain and thought I should broaden my horizons with Don Quixote, Hamlet, Robinson Crusoe, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Maltese Falcon, Swiss Family Robinson, and many others so I would have, at least, something to talk about if I ever got a date.
By my Junior year, I had begun dating Susan; which, or course, she had initiated. One day I found an out of print book in the school’s library entitled The Human Nature of Playwriting (1949) by Samson Raphaelson. I knew Raphaelson’s credits as a play and screenwriter of such films and plays as The Jazz Singer (1925), the first talkie; Accent on Youth, Skylark, Hilda Crane; and such classics as Trouble in Paradise, The Shop around the Corner, Heaven Can Wait, and many others.
“My God,” I thought. “This man wrote for some of the best directors of the time, including Lubitsch, Viertel, Cukor, Hitchcock, Preminger, Minnelli . . .”
He also wrote a very controversial play in 1928 called Young Love, which I later adapted into a screenplay.
I devoured his book and everything became clear. I wanted to be a writer!
When it came time to apply to college, I collected a lot of catalogues and just started to browse the programs and faculty. When I came to the catalogue for Columbia University, a financially unrealistic choice for an application, I ran across his name – Samson Raphaelson. He was teaching there.
So I applied and very much to my surprise I was accepted with a scholarship. Still a teenager, I had high expectations for myself and thought I knew everything I needed to know before moving to New York (of course, teenagers do think they know everything).
My very first class on my very first day was truly a rude awakening. I was surrounded by top faculty and peers from all over the world who came much better prepared than I in terms of literature, art history, science, music, architecture, and just life in general.
I resolved to spend every day in the library just trying to catch up so I would not be completely intimidated. The first step in learning is to realize just how much you do not know.
When it came time to enroll for the second term, I wanted to take Raphaelson’s writing class. No one could just enroll in his course – every prospective student had to audition for him. For some unknown reason at the time, I was one of a dozen selected. In my case, however, he had an additional requirement. He would only admit me if I agreed to take acting classes with the famed acting teacher Sandy Meisner. I told Raph, “But I don’t want to be an actor. I get stage fright in just a classroom of people.”
“But,” he said, “There is little difference between acting and writing. Both actors and writers must be able to expose themselves to the world and stand naked in front of their audience.” He was right, of course. I struggled through and learned the lesson.
By this point in his life, Samson was in his late 80’s or early 90’s, he never knew his exact age because his birth records had been lost, and he was quite ill. We did not have class at the University campus but at his apartment overlooking Central Park West.
You have to imagine twelve twenty-something college students meeting at this elegant apartment with him and his extremely elegant wife; and the two of them were the youngest people in the room. You could also tell they were very, very much in love with each other.
While Dorothy served us tea, he would question us relentlessly about our observations on life, death, love, sex, marriage, and why we write . . . everything you can think of. Of course we all wondered what this had to do with writing but it soon became very clear. I later realized the second step in learning was that human observations cannot be made up or fictionalized.
For some reason, Samson, or Raph as he like to be called by his friends, saw something in me and took me under his wing in a Mentor-and-Apprentice relationship. I would take him for walks in Central Park and we would sit for hours just observing people. “Look at the way that woman his holding her cigarette,” he said. “See how she flicks her ash?” he asked excitedly. Even at 90-something years old, he was discovering something new every day. The third step in learning is you never stop learning.
Raph was not one to tell you the answer to anything. It was a process of self-discovery. He allowed me to discover for myself the key to good writing is to observe human nature around us. This part of writing, as I mentioned before, cannot be made up. Your audience will always know it’s fake and contrived unless it comes from somewhere emotionally authentic.
It wasn’t until several years after his death I continued to think about his question, “Why do we write.” I did not have a satisfactory answer but eventually discovered it when I began teaching writing and directing.
We write, and read, because it’s our job. It is our duty to be informed and articulate citizens for the common good.
Thirty-five years later I returned to that school library and looked to see if The Human Nature of Playwriting was still there. It was. I looked at the library card and I was still the only one to have ever taken the book out.
David Werner teaches and tutors at Kaplan Univesity