Charlie Rubin: Making It to the Road by Finishing the Work

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Charlie Rubin has been a TV writer and producer for two decades. In addition to his credits for “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Seinfeld,” “In Living Color,” “The Jon Stewart Show” and creating the TV writing concentration at Tisch School of the Arts’ Department of Dramatic Writing, he is also the reason I was accepted into the program.

In the interview below, we discuss the craft of writing and ways of managing mental health for young writers.

I’ll transcribe this. You don’t have to worry about dangling modifiers or anything.

I always worry about dangling modifiers. If I’m ever dying, the last thing I’ll be worrying about is dangling modifiers. I want to go out on a complete, lucid sentence.

So you want to talk about how I take care of myself when I sound like this?

[Laughs] Just some things I’ve been curious about. You see so many writers come through these halls. Do you think it’s true that artists or writers are more prone to mental illness or addiction or—

No. I think that’s something artists put out about themselves to inflate their self-worth and to give them the dignity that their work doesn’t always give them. I’m not saying that there aren’t plenty who’ve had mental illnesses, but there’s no glory in it. There’s no romance of it. What is the romance of a 32-year-old poet who kills himself? What is the romance of Sylvia Plath? There is none. But I think sometimes people act as if there is some. Sylvia Plath is her poetry. It isn’t her failing personality.

I don’t think we are, [but] I think we get to be more extreme about it. If you’re not willing to be extreme and take risks and have someone turn around and say, you’re kind of nuts, you’re probably not doing good work. You want to shake people up, but it should not be part and parcel of being allowed to act like you’re special.

Most of the writers you see are within my age bracket. I remember I was graduating and asking you, “What if my partner has depression?”

I remember. Very well, actually.

What are some things you see writers really struggle with?

[Pause] Sometimes people are disturbed by the fact that they see more than they can write. They’re not good enough yet, or they don’t know how to organize their thoughts properly, or how to convey what they feel in a way that is disturbing, original, and different. There’s stuff you learn to get better at as you go on. I think that’s tough.

But what really destabilizes people in an environment like [a school] is people who are cut from the pack and become pariahs. When you collect a group of writers, whether it’s a writer’s group or a class or a bunch of nasty ass young people in Los Angeles believing they know everything there is to know about screenwriting, there just comes a point when some people get cut from the herd. Sometimes it’s because someone gets successful first and that person moves into a different group, but that’s just life.

Renata Adler—critic, writer—somewhere in one of her books, she writes about people who don’t make it to the road. You’re moving towards the road. You see it up ahead with people moving along it, going somewhere, but you can’t reach it. You can almost touch it, but at a certain point you realize, “I’m not going to make it to the road.”

When I read that (I was about 30), I was immediately disturbed by it, because I was afraid. “What if that’s me?” I think we all have that fear, that there is something crucial to life that you can see and touch, but you’re not moving with it. You’re going to just miss it. At a certain point some people stop trying, and they probably stop trying too soon.

I think that’s disturbing in a writing school like this. People see who gets the honors, who gets singled out as the writer of their year.

I saw a play by one of our students in the Fringe Festival a few weeks ago. I had known her my first year [teaching] here. Her story about dramatic writing is not a happy one. A few people just told her, “Don’t change a thing. Everything is great.” And she believed them. So she couldn’t understand why she wasn’t getting anything on and no one was reading her stuff. It cost her about a decade, but she’s bounced back. I think it’s a big issue in a writing school, is how the sheep is sorted from the goats and who’s doing it (I’m still trying to complete that metaphor). “They can tell I’m not going to make it to the road.”

But it’s not true, because as writers, we keep evolving and changing. What makes it hard is it’s a school. Most of the people are in their 20’s and 30’s and they’re still at that place in their head where there are these emblems of taste and confidence and success who are the faculty. They haven’t learned enough yet to reject that need for our acceptance, because we are an imperfect group of humans.

I remember your story about L.A. and figuring out what choices to make as a writer. What helped you through those obstacles or hard time in life?

Other people’s writing. You learn what is fabulous about all the work that’s in the world. You learn in your life that you’ll never get to read a tenth of the things you want to read. You know this, but what you do read help you maintain a thorough, ongoing desire within your life. You can substitute book with an art museum, a good movie etc. These things are ennobling.

In my 20’s, I kind of measured myself against how bad things were. You’re afraid of what’s great even if you can’t recognize that. But at a certain point, the switch got turned and I realized what I really wanted to be doing was to measure myself against what was great. That helped me get through, weirdly enough. How do I feel when I see these things? It’s seeing how you feel stacked up against…Rembrandt. Do you feel you could still keep trying to make it to the road after you’ve walked through the MET? People who learn lessons about themselves as artists learn that they can. There are adjustments you make. I will never paint like Rembrandt.

[Laughs] You seem okay with it though Charlie.

I’ve adjusted. But I think that’s helpful. Other than doing my own work when I’m infuriated with myself, there’s nothing I like more than seeing other people’s work. Instead of being fearful, to [want to] get better, revel in it, love it. If you’re a teacher, helping to fix it and for people to recognize their inconsistencies and brilliance. I think these things help people.They help you as a writer and they help you go on as a person.

To get back to Sylvia Plath, as her well-known story proves, it isn’t your writing that sends you to the oven. Her mistake was not recognizing that the work, rather than being something that makes you despair, in fact is the only thing that works for you. You despair that the work won’t be any good, but in fact it’s the work that makes you not despair, when you actually do it, even if it’s no good.

You’re in this position where you’re a writer, but simultaneously a caretaker of all these writers who are trying to figure their shit out. What insights have you garnered from that?

That Susan [Shapiro] and I should probably have been parents.

[Laughs] I feel like you have sort of oddly parented many people through teaching.

She does a much better job than me. She’s the best teacher I’ve ever seen. At the same time, I hate the narcissism of breeders. People who have children think that no one’s done anything harder than that, and I think that’s true. But at the same time, I recognize that I can be a parent to two dozen people a year as much as I can be. These people don’t have parents here. They need someone who isn’t trying to fuck them over, who isn’t trying to make them feel bad about their work. That’s something I do do right. I like people’s work. I like it when it’s good, when it gets better. There are some people here who are so threatened by other people’s work. It has no dignity at all.

How do you help someone who is struggling with their writing, or they’re just having a hard time for some other reason?

I tell people to finish what they’re doing. Nothing makes you despair like no work. When you actually produce something, you can move on to something else. You can move backwards [to something else], you can move sideways. That’s a lesson I have not always followed. When writers are really depressed, my attitude more often than not is, “What are you working on? Where are you? Okay, so you think it sucks. How close are you to finishing it? Finish it.” It tends to be decent advice.

Hard thing in a school like this is people expect too much too soon. Sometimes their parents push them into stuff like that. Around my second week working here, I was given this note and it said, “Would you get the names of students who have agents for a New York Times article?” They wanted to write about students who have agents. I read this out loud to the class and it got very quiet, and I took it, crumpled it up, and threw it. They laughed hysterically, and the reason they laughed was because they were tired of that environment too. They were tired of it because it was fostered by Dramatic Writing. It was hyper-competitive in those days. Teachers tried to hitch themselves to student stars. Teachers made deals with agencies.

In the last five years, I have been approached by agents and managers two or three times who would like first-look at my students, and they offered me something [for it]. $2,500 in one case, $5,000 in another if they could sit in on my class. I didn’t think that was helpful at Dramatic Writing, pitting the students against each other.

[Laughs] That was a useless answer.

I don’t think so. The reason I wanted to interview you was because of the positive effect you had on me.

But the thing is, is that I’m a sulky sourpuss.

Not in the way you treat other people.

I do believe, [especially] with the TV concentration, that everyone’s work is as important as your own, and I like to integrate that with people early on. I think it’s the nature of working on successful television shows. There are bad apples everywhere, but ultimately if we work on the same show, I’m not competing with you. I’m competing with the universe of this show to make it better every week. You and I should be helping each other, because the show will be good that way.

It’s a good thing to instill on people. Writing feels very solitary sometimes and people can get stuck in that.

Yes we do. I had a student once, kind of a talented guy. He was writing a “Bernie Mac” spec, and one day after class I said, “You’re doing a pretty good job, but you never talk in class. I think it’s a pretty favorable environment. Talk more.”

He said, “I know you want me to do this, but if I have good ideas and I help her, maybe she’ll get successful before I do.” That was very typical [back then]. I was stunned. A few weeks later, when we were looking for someone to carry the class banner, [a professor] proposed him. I said I would not allow this person to represent a school that I am in because I hated that attitude so much.

One reason we’ve bonded is because you have a dark sense of humor.

You think?

And I’ve definitely met others who have some dark stuff going on, or they’re going through dark times. What would you say to someone who’s struggling to keep working and to keep living?

I know what a therapist said to me once. A friend was talking about killing himself all the time and it was starting to shake me up. He said to me, “The next time he brings it up, casually ask him if he’s thought about how he’ll do it.” He said people who really have thought about killing themselves will have some kind of plan that may not have great dimension to it. But when you start hearing specifics, that’s when you should start to worry.

I’ve done that twice at Dramatic Writing. I’ve said to two different students, “When you think like this, do you think about how you would do it?” It’s good to talk it out and suggest going to therapy. I think you have to get someone to discuss things as openly as you can. You have to find a way to do it that’s casual.

My closest friend drowned in Florida and I have two theories about that death. He had peritonitis and he’d almost died several times. The dramatic one was he got stung by a man o’war and that caused him to drown and wash up on the beach. My other thought was that he Virginia Wolfe’d it because he got tired by the fact that every year, he’d almost die once. He just got sick of it all. He used to tell me dreams he had about the end of the world, and it was hard to disguise for me that he actually wanted his world to end.

It’s hard not to think of that when you’re a writer, an artist. You’ll know these people because you’ll be in communities of them. And it’s not just people who don’t find their voice. Sometimes people just get overwhelmingly depressed and all you can do, if you realize it, is to talk them out of it. Allow them to see parts of themselves that are very valuable to you.

What keeps you going?

I think I keep getting better. I know I keep getting smarter but that won’t necessarily make me a better writer. I think I have some fulfilling relationships in my life. As I said to you, I look at all the books on my shelves that I know I’m not going to get to. I always have something that I’m taking notes about, that I want to do. Last night at 2:00 AM I was writing down an idea for [a screenplay I’m working on]. It’s a good thing. It means I haven’t given up on that movie.

There’s always something I want to be doing. Sometimes it’s not teaching you bastards.

[Laughs] I think you’ve earned that.

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