There’s a good chance your favorite TV show or movie has a connection to Carnegie Mellon University’s English Department. From “Grey’s Anatomy” to the hottest sci-fi television hit, creative writing alumni are writing, producing and directing.
Javier Grillo-Marxuach, a 1991 graduate, is co-executive producer of the CW Television Network series “The 100.” The popular show is set in an apocalyptic world in which 100 juvenile delinquents are sent from a spaceship housing humanity’s only survivors in hopes of re-populating the planet.
Elisabeth Finch, a 2000 graduate who majored in creative writing and professional writing and minored in drama, is constantly working in various Hollywood writing roles. Currently, she’s a writer for “Grey’s Anatomy,” ABC’s long-running and critically acclaimed medical drama series.
“By the time I got into a TV writer’s room, it felt so similar to the intense workshops I had at Carnegie Mellon.”
Grillo-Marxuach, a double creative writing and cultural studies major at CMU, was an Emmy Award-winning writer and producer for “Lost” before joining “The 100” team. He credits CMU writing workshops for preparing him for the TV industry.
“The workshop system where people are critiquing your stories was an exceptional way of thickening my skin,” Grillo-Marxuach said. “In the television writing room, you have to learn how to give, receive and use criticism and all of that began for me in the writer’s workshop at CMU.”
Finch’s career has been influenced by a traumatic real-life experience.
Four years ago she was diagnosed with cancer while writing for the CW’s smash hit “The Vampire Diaries,” a supernatural drama whose main characters, brothers Damon and Stefan Salvatore, have been living as vampires for centuries. She continued to write for the show during her chemotherapy treatments, but when her writing contract was coming to an end, she realized she needed a shift from telling vampire stories.
“I don’t know if that would have happened at the exact same time if I wasn’t sick. Now, being at ‘Grey’s,’ a show that deals with doctors, medicine and people having life and near-death experiences, there have been moments where it really has keyed into my own personal experience,” she said.
Writing has always been Finch’s dream. Like Grillo-Marxuach, she was attracted to CMUs Creative Writing and Professional Writing Program by its intense workshops and writing courses.
“By the time I got into a TV writer’s room, it felt so similar to the intense workshops I had at Carnegie Mellon,” she said. “The workshops prepared me in terms of how to be a really tough critic of myself and to look at other’s work critically and thoughtfully.”
A cast of other alumni has high praise for the workshops.
“[The screenwriting workshop] taught us the importance of characters,” said Tak Kai Wu, who writes for the CW show “The Flash,” modeled after the crime-fighting comic book character.
A former writer for NBC’s “Hannibal,” Wu majored in creative and professional writing.
“I started writing character biographies for all the major characters in my scripts and that's something I still do. I love that process because I discover things about my characters that I never even knew,” Wu said
Laura Harkcom, a 1993 alumna, said the workshops taught her the discipline of writing daily. She gets her daily dose of writing as a consultant for Universal Pictures, where she is consulting on scripts for eight movies and a TV show.
Greg Marcks, a 1998 alumnus, was a creative writing major who now directs films. He said he was drawn to the major because he wanted to tell stories, and CMU was one of the few universities to offer a creative writing degree.
Along with screenwriting, students have the opportunity to learn how to write poems, short stories and novels in the creative writing program.
Or, they can follow in the footsteps of pioneering alumnus Ralph Guggenheim, who earned a self-defined bachelor’s degree in 1974 that combined filmmaking with storytelling and a self-defined master’s degree in 1979 in computer graphics and motion picture production. Guggenheim, a major player in the film animation industry, was a lead producer for the Pixar megahit “Toy Story.”
Main photo caption: Javier Grillo-Marxuach, far left, stands with his Emmy award-winning "Lost" team