When I was 19, I left the UCLA English program and went to acting school in the Valley. At first, it seemed like a mistake. I went from living in Westwood and going to school to sleeping on a couch in Sherman Oaks and working at McDonalds. But after a few months I landed a commercial for Pizza Hut, and then jobs came with enough frequency that I could support myself from my acting. A couple years later, I got my first big part — on a great show called Freaks and Geeks
Even as acting began to consume my life, I still made time for books. The cast of Freaks and Geeks would make fun of me for reading on set. Even Judd Apatow questioned my reading choices: he gave me Exley's A Fan's Notes after he saw me lugging around a volume of Remembrance of Things Past.
But I wasn't just reading. I had been writing since I was very young. I remember typing a story about an elementary school suicide on my mom's old Apple computer, back when there were no Windows and the typeface was green. It was during my time on Freaks and Geeks that I decided I wanted to learn the secrets of good writing. Judd and Paul Feig, the show's creator, were reluctant to let me observe them write — probably because they thought I just wanted to pad my part. After much insistence, they finally they let me watch them put together a scene — a scene featuring the Geeks and not the Freaks, just in case my motives were to influence the way my role was written (I was a Freak). But my interest was truly to see how the magic happened. It seemed deceptively easy: Judd and Paul got into the head spaces of the characters and then had a conversation: "Neal would say this..." "Right, and then Sam would say this..." Easy. Script writing was easy.
What I didn't understand then was that the conversation they were creating wasn't just structured by the characters, it was also being molded by the arc of the show: the fact that it was being written for network television, that it was a comedy — a grounded comedy not a sitcom comedy — that these two men in their 30s were writing in the voices of young teens, about a time in the '80s when they had been young teens. They were inserting nostalgic references that would trigger reminiscences for people in their generation. And they were doing all of that without thinking about it because they had mastered the requirements of the in genre.
I never wrote for Freaks and Geeks. The show was canceled after a season and I started acting in movies. For years I acted in movies. I did some pretty good ones, and I did some very bad ones. Six years of my life went by. All that time I was reading and writing, but I never showed anyone anything I wrote, and I never talked to anyone about what I read. I read Joyce, and Faulkner, and Nabokov, and Nietzsche, and Sartre, and Beckett, and Tennessee Williams, and O'Neill and tons more, and half of it I didn't understand. Finally, after a trio of bad films came out and I was looking at the impending behemoth of Spider-Man 3, which was about to take up six months of my life, during which I would spend most of my acting time standing in front of a green screen, I knew that I needed to do something more. I had other interests but I had never approached them with the same discipline that I had my acting. I had gone to acting school for eight years, surely I could take a couple writing classes.
I started small: I took a writing class and an 18th-19th century English lit survey though UCLA extension. My first writing teacher was Ian R. Wilson, who taught me some of the most basic lessons, which remain some of the best: write close to the characters if you want the audience to feel with them; write from a distance if you want an objective feeling; be very sure about your dialogue: if you put something between quotations be sure that the story needs it to be said out loud. He taught me about unnecessary filters like "I thought," or "I saw"; why not just say "the car outside pulled into the lot" instead of "I saw the car outside pull into the lot"; or "Cats are great," rather than "'Cats are great,' I thought." I didn't have any subjects that I was dying to write about, but after going to a show of Weegee's crime scene photos at the Getty, I started writing vignettes based on them. Those were my first attempts at serious writing.
After Ian, I had Stephen Cooper, who had written a biography of John Fante, a favorite writer of mine. In Stephen's class I started writing about the people I knew when I was a teenager. At that point I knew that school was the place for me, so I re-enrolled at UCLA. When I graduated, I applied to the MFA program at Brooklyn College, where I studied under Michael Cunningham. Later, I went on to take classes at Columbia's MFA program, too. It was at those two schools that I began reworking these stories I'd written about the people I knew growing up, fictionalizing them, honing and tightening them until they became the stories in Palo Alto.