An Interview With Celena Cipriaso: Her Advice for TV Writing, Playwriting, & Writing Personal Stories
I first met Celena when we went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts together, studying dramatic writing. Truth be told, we totally bonded over our love of Sweet Valley High books. Once we discovered this, we headed to the Barnes & Noble on Astor Place (which I don’t think exists any more) and read the books again together.
Fast forward to present day, Celena is a TV writer, journalist, and playwright with many accomplishments under her belt (see her bio below!). She is one of the most well-read, prolific writers I know. Her writing advice is super helpful. Enjoy!
1) You’ve written a few episodes of All My Children. Can you tell me what the experience was like and what it taught you about script writing?
All My Children was one of the best gigs I ever had. It taught me everything I know about TV writing. Soaps often get a rep for not being as good as prime time, but people forget that soaps were the breeding ground for the style of shows that would become popular in prime time. They helped introduced to the medium heavy serialization, complex story histories, and risqué story lines. I worked with an amazing and generous group of writers that were always willing to share their knowledge. Once you work for soaps, you can work any tough TV schedule. Soaps produce over 200 episodes a year with the writers constantly plotting, outlining, and scripting.
AMC taught me several important lessons in script writing. The process I currently do now for my own pilots and TV specs isn’t dissimilar from what I learned on soaps. I work hard on creating a detailed outline. I make sure to structure my episodes around good cliffhanger act breaks. I’ve learned how to write quickly and efficiently (we had a week to script on the soap). Most importantly, I’ve learned how to have a long memory for story continuity, which I think is important especially in character-based dramas.
2) You write a lot of semi-autobiographical material. What tips would you give fellow writers who want to tell their own personal story?
I began writing autobiographical material when I started working with the Pan-Asian NYC theatre group Peeling. We not only wrote the material, but would act and direct it as well. A lot of the times, I was still processing the issues I wrote about as I acted it out for an audience. It’s not a process that’s for everyone, but I found my better work came from my own life.
In terms of people who want to write their own stories, I think it’s important to ask yourself if you’re ready to write that story. It took me years to get to a place where I was ready to write my most recent pilot script, Sober City, which takes a look at my own issues with alcohol. If you are ready, I think the best way to really start is to journal out the ideas—this helps to work out personal feelings as well as flesh out what you want to explore in the work. I spent almost 6 years writing about the issues in Sober City in memoir form until I decided I wanted to write it as a TV pilot. Having perspective on your own life helps because it allows you to treat your characters in a fair and truthful way. Helping to fictionalize the story also helps because it allows the writer to emotionally detach from the work a little.
3) A few of your 10-minute plays have been produced. How do you craft a great story in 10 minutes?
A ten-minute play is basically structured a lot like a longer play. In terms of thinking up ideas, I think it helps to think of a small moment in a bigger story that you want to explore. A moment that you’ll be able to realistically portray in the span of 10 minutes. For example, if you want to write about World War II, you wouldn’t be able to do that in a short amount of time. But if you want to write about, say, a soldier’s first meal home with his family and the effects the war has on him, then you have the best of both worlds—a big idea you want to explore within a smaller setting. I recently wrote a ten-minute play on immigration, which is a humongous topic, but I narrowed it down to a scene between two women of different generations stuck in a detention center, which allowed me to explore how immigration impacts people of different ages.
4) What advice would you give to aspiring writers who might be too afraid to actually write?
For many years, I was the writer that was too afraid to write. It took me a long time to figure out the stories I wanted to tell. In order to help get to that place, I think writers should ask themselves what topics scare them the most. These are the topics they probably should be writing about.
I also think it’s also important to allow yourself to write badly. For a long time, I was afraid that every single line I wrote sucked. But that’s because all first stabs at any new idea are horrible. But we kind of have to let that horrible draft out. I think it also helps during the writing process not to think of anyone else but yourself. Assume no one will read your work. Sounds totally pessimistic but it allows a writer to get over that stupid fear of what other people think. Once I started doing this, I started taking a lot more chances with my work.
When I’m having trouble with an idea, what I do is brainstorm by writing all my thoughts and ideas down in a notebook. Sounds old school, but what’s great about this method is that there’s no delete button. Everything you’ve written—good or bad—remains on the page. I think it also lets the mind just work past any “block” I might be having by just going stream of consciousness. If I’m writing stuff that I’m not happy with, I’ll even let myself write, “Damn this idea sucks!” Writing those ideas and feelings out helps me find the story I’m looking for and how to best structure it.
5) You’re an avid reader. What are some of your current favorite books and why?
I’ve been working on a lot of TV and theater stuff so I’ve been mostly binging on TV and plays. I hope it’s cool if I briefly label my favorites in those categories.
My current fave TV shows:
My current fave plays:
- everything from Donald Marguiles
- Julia Cho’s Durango
My fave books:
- anything by Chang Rae Lee (specifically A Gesture Life and Native Speaker) I think he was really one of the first writers that I read that was able to really capture what it was like to be caught between the terms Asian and American.
- Haruki Murakami’s—Dance, Dance, Dance and After Dark. His writing is just unlike anything out there right now – weirdly enigmatic and surreal.
- Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things is one of my favorite depictions of a post-apocalyptic world but written in a beautiful literary style.
- Carl Sagan’s Contact: It’s a really beautiful book that explores science and humanity in really surprising and touching ways.
Celena Cipriaso has written for ABC’s All My Children and has co-written two screenplays with Civilian Studios. Her pilot “Evolved” was a Quarter-Finalist in the Creative World Awards, and her spec of The Walking Dead, “Little Children” was a Semi-Finalist in the Creative World Awards and also in the top 10% of the Austin Film Festival TV competition. As a playwright, her work has been performed in various venues in New York City and throughout the Northeast. The most recent productions of her work were of her short plays “Language Lessons” with Bindlestiff Studios in San Francisco and “Nanay” with A Squared Theatre Workshop in Chicago. She’s also a freelance journalist who has written for CNN, The Root, Slate, Draft, Arts America, Film Buff, Bitch, Intel, and Women on Writing.