In the Spotlight: Marva Ann Whitaker
Marva is a world builder. Whether it be her own or a distant far off land she has created in a killer script. Having been a writer and storyteller since she was a child, Marva has formed a deep understanding of screenwriting which is shown in her work. Someone of her skill and talent could easily allow their ego to be out of control. Not Marva. No. She stays humble, but sits with the quiet affirmation that she knows what she is doing and loves every second of it.
This is Marva Ann Whitaker...
The summer between fifth and sixth grade, my dad gave me a copy of Dune by Frank Herbert. I had always been a big reader; I think part of my dad handing it over was a result of my having already read everything remotely age-appropriate in the house, but Dune was a game-changer. Something about it struck me as just so incredibly real. To my mind, storytellers were no longer people who just made stuff up. Storytellers were people who had the ability to tap into other realities that somewhere, somehow truly existed. And they could affect those realities, create them, destroy them, and invite others into them. Writers, I realized, were trans dimensional deities who profited from the basic human to need to connect to these hidden universes. -Meaning that writers, as far as I could tell, were the most powerful people in existence.
I wanted that.
So, starting in junior high, I took every writing course. I went to summer writing camps at the local university. I won essay contests and saw my poetry published in teen magazines. My parents, big movie buffs, also instilled a love of film and television in me, and I was obsessed with shows like the X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Star Trek TNG. When I got to college, I decided to double-major in English literature with a creative writing focus, and physics with a science journalism focus.
As I neared graduation, just assuming I’d go to grad school for creative writing (because what else was I going to do?) – but fearing that I’d just be going through more of the same classes and still failing to discover what it was I felt I was lacking - I noticed a few schools offered master degree programs in screenwriting. This seemed like a good compromise; still basically a creative writing program, but certain to teach me something new. I applied to three programs. USC’s School of Cinematic Arts was the only one that accepted me. And it was like coming home. I fell immediately in love with screenwriting and haven’t looked back since. In the ten years since graduating, I’ve had a few screenplays optioned. I’ve taught screenwriting and creative writing courses at the community college level. And recently, to brush up on my skills, I did a professional program in comedy television writing at UCLA.
Q: How did you stumble upon screenwriting?
I knew it existed as a young person; I remember trying to look it up as a potential career path when my high school counselors were forcing us to look at career paths. But I really had no idea what it was or how people did it even until the point I was going to school for it. I think this all really only happened because I had to decide what grad schools to send my GRE scores to and saw the screenwriting programs while I was looking up creative writing programs.
Q: Who/what inspired you into taking this path?
I mentioned Frank Herbert earlier, but also – so many people and things. I had so many really great teachers growing up who nourished and encouraged my dreams. My parents. Every book and movie. My favorite film of all time, Romancing the Stone, has a novelist as the main character – and I remember one day as a teenager wondering aloud if life as a writer would be exciting enough for me. My dad immediately piped up with some really funny quotes from that movie, and I was like, “Oh yeah. True. OK.”
Q: Who was the first person who believed in you?
I was privileged in that more people believed in me than didn’t. I think most people in my life were cautiously optimistic, always warning me that it would be hard, but still believing I could do it if I stuck with it.
Q: When was the moment you knew you wanted to be a screenwriter?
I was interested in the idea as a young person who watched a lot of film and television, even before I really knew what it meant. But I think when I was sitting in class at grad school, looking at the structure of a screenplay and just seeing it all mapped out – that’s when it was like, “Oh. I can do this.” The structure was a big turn on.
Q: How do you define success for yourself?
That’s a question! I believe that getting up and trying everyday feels like a success.
Q: Give us a typical day in your life
Are you an Early Bird or a Night Owl?
Night Owl. I think my most natural sleeping pattern is to sleep from 2AM to 10AM. -Which I’ve embraced.
Do you have a morning routine or ritual?
I read a bit. I’ve acquired a terrible online manga addiction recently, so I check to see if there are updates, and maybe check the news as well.
Do you have a pre-bed ritual?
Prayers and sometimes read more manga.
Q: What’s been the most important skill you've developed on your path to screenwriting?
That’s hard to say, because this is an industry that sometimes gives the impression that who you know matters more than your actual skill. But I’m really hoping that being different and bold with my choices in character and story will help me stand out in the end.
Q: What’s been the greatest reward in the choices you've made?
As a writer, there’s never been a point where I haven’t felt like me, and comfortably me. I might feel imposter-syndrome when it comes to anything else in life – going on dates, hitting the gym, talking to strangers, buying a salad, negotiating pay, parallel parking – with those sort of things I’m completely, totally out of my element. But writing never feels awkward or wrong or like something I shouldn’t be doing. As a writer, I know who I am and what I’m worth and what I bring to the table. I think it would be difficult, had I chosen an easier path, to say that.
Q: What do you want to learn from a community of your peers?