From Short Stories to Screenplay: A Spotlight on April Ayers Lawson
“I eat my spinach and pray for quality sleep, so that in the limited time I do have for writing, I can push myself and make the most of it.”
April Ayers Lawson, a Greenville, S,C. native, is in her first year of teaching in the English department at Clemson University. Lawson’s teaching career began years ago at Spartanburg Community College, where a short time later, she became not only a teacher, but also a literary writer. After publishing her collection of short stories entitled Virgin and Other Stories, Lawson gained critical acclaim with Virgin being named Best Book of the Year by The Irish Times and Vice and Best Foreign Book of the Year by Qué Leer Magazine, amongst other awards.
Following her significant publication, Lawson began teaching fiction writing at Emory University as a visiting lecturer. She then won the Kenan Visiting Writer Fellowship from The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and taught at UNC before coming to Clemson. I had the opportunity to ask about her career, influences and elusive but fascinating course — screenwriting.
This is your first-year teaching screenwriting at Clemson. What drew you to teach screenplay writing? How is it similar or different to other forms of creative writing?
What I love about screenwriting is that the format forces one to tell a story through image, action and dialogue. This is what I see as both its advantage and disadvantage, as a literary form. Fiction writers often lean a lot on voice and interior dialogue to tell a story. A creative writing teacher for those forms is often reminding beginning students to “show” and “don’t just tell” — to make the writing experiential for the reader. But with screenwriting, it’s pretty much all showing by describing the act in explicit detail. To practice telling a story that way is a great exercise for any type of creative writer.
What does a typical day in your screenwriting class look like?
I focus on film more than TV—there’s just something about a movie, as high art. There’s to me typically a more concentrated presence there. Because the story unravels in a few hours or less, every moment is crucial to the story’s development.
We start out by reading the screenplays for, and watching five films and two television shows of contrasting genres. We discuss the presentation of structure, character development, tension, scene, earned climax, that kind of thing, and the direct application of these to the film.
This is also broken up with short exercises I make up myself to help students learn to write scenes and generate material. The whole second half of the semester is a formal workshop. The class sits in a circle discussing and critiquing each other’s screenplays.
You also teach 20th and 21st Literature. Considering that you teach such a broad range of composition, what themes are you most drawn to in your discipline?
Most broadly, in 20th and 21st Century Literature, I am interested in love and friendship. Specifically, my interests include how we form, sustain, and break relationships, how we nurture and hurt each other, and the connection and disconnections between the way we see ourselves and the way others see us.
In addition to teaching, you are also an author. How does your career as an author influence the way you teach? What are the biggest challenges you face as an author vs. as a professor?
Being a writer, I know a lot about the creative process that is different from what I’d have assumed as a student. Authors are just people. Albeit, kind of insanely determined people who can tolerate huge amounts of rejection, failure, exposure and somehow keep going. They go into a kind of trance-like state when they’re really writing, and in this state, they seem to know more than they do when they’re not in it. They don’t always know why they’re doing what they’re doing as they’re doing it; the best writing often actually surprises the writer.
There’s a lot of failure and trial and error involved in being a writer. This idea can be interesting for students to know — that when the write
r wrote that part of X that floors us, it is possible the writer was just as surprised as we are now, reading it, maybe even more so. That even for the writer, there’s a mysterious element. Though I don’t mean to undermine the idea of the intentionality of it either, because what appears in the final draft involves much intentionality.
As a lecturer, I teach a 4/4, and so my biggest challenge is how to keep doing my writing. I eat my spinach and pray for quality sleep, so that in the limited time I do have for writing, I can push myself and make the most of it.
What are you currently working on in relation to your research and authorship?
I am working on a second book of fiction that involves the aforementioned interest in relationships (forming, sustaining, breaking, etc). with both romance and friendship, and our relationships with ourselves (our bodies, pasts, self-narratives). Form-wise, I’m interested in using some of what I’ve learned from studying screenplays in prose. Screenwriter-Directors like Noah Baumbach, Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig are doing more for me than about 85 percent of contemporary literary writing right now.
The other thing is more writing about sexual abuse and assault and its aftermath, as well as its intersection with purity culture. I started this in fiction a long time ago, and in nonfiction at the beginning of 2018, when because of Me Too, such a thing seemed much more possible to do in nonfiction than it had in the past. I could not have imagined how many people would respond to it — one essay went into multiple publications, in other languages, was cited from in two recent books — and so it’s been a little nerve-wracking to return to.
For more information about screenwriting or other creative writing classes, visit the class catalog found on the English department website: http://www.clemson.edu/caah/departments/english/student/undergraduate-students/Spring-2020-Course-Descriptions.pdf
Written By: Carlyle Griffin