Screenwriter Terri Miller Talks With Us About Encouraging Imaginitive Storytelling For Kids
If you keep up with scripted dramas at all, chances are you’re familiar with ABC’s hit show Castle. Terri Miller is married to the show’s creator (Andrew Marlowe) and plays no small role as a producer and writer behind the scenes.
Terri entered a screenplay and won the esteemed Nicholl Fellowship in 1992 (the holy grail of screenwriting competitions) and hasn’t stopped writing since. She’s a mom, a doting wife and an extraordinary screenwriter. Oh, and did we mention she’s from the great state of Colorado? We recently caught up with her amidst her busy schedule and she generously took a few moments to answer our questions.
MHM: At what age did you notice your own affinity for storytelling? Who encouraged you in your development as a writer?
TERRI: I started writing for fun when I was about 7 or 8. I showed what I had written to my parents and grandparents and they were tickled. When I discovered I was entertaining people, I became addicted to storytelling. I also loved reading anything and everything. My grandfather, Edward Miller was the President of the Colorado Library Association and when I was a little girl I’d go with him to dedicate the new libraries being built in Denver at the time. I best remember participating in the dedication of the Cherry Creek library. Every time my grandfather came to visit, he brought me a book. I would just blow through them. There were never enough books for me to devour.
MHM: What training did you receive? How did you end up becoming successful in your craft?
TERRI: My work has been a crazy quilt of experiences. There’s a great book, “Composing A Life” by Mary Catherine Bateson that talks about the winding pathways we take to achieve our goals. I would say the way I ended up doing what I’m doing now was a zig-zag of experiences that centered around my love of reading, movies, dreams of Hollywood, a willingness to take risks. I started with an internship at ABC when I was 20 and worked at a literary agency, as a development executive at a couple studios, did some documentary work and then dropped out to have my twins, then re-entered the industry as a writer. I wrote a speculative screenplay and entered it in the ACADEMY OF MOTION PICTURE ARTS AND SCIENCES Nicholl Fellowship and won. That was like a dream come true and it allowed me, as a single mother at the time, to support my kids with my writing. From there, my success ebbed and flowed. My success I believe is a combination of stubborn tenacity, ten thousand hours of experience, (see Outliers) studying my craft and occasional bouts of luck.
Specifically I read as many screenplays and teleplays as I could get my hands on. I took extension courses at UCLA and USC when I could afford them. I wrote a lot of spec-TV and movies. And most importantly, I always wrote/write what I’m passionate about.
MHM: Looking back on your training and what has led you to the point you are now at in your career, would you have done anything differently as far as education and training?
TERRI: Yes! I would enroll in a graduate filmmaking program. My husband went to USC and I audited a few classes there and realized that having a community, the competition and mentors to help me achieve my goals would have made a big difference in my timeline and would have hastened my maturity as a writer.
MHM: As someone who mixes and mingles with wonderfully creative writers on a regular basis, what are some common traits you’ve noticed many writers have in common?
TERRI: Most of my friends are creative people. I think one thing we have in common is that we love to dive into alternate realities and live vicariously through the characters we create. Filmmakers are a smart, challenging, thoughtful and quirky breed who are always learning and questioning. I love that about my friends.
MHM: As a mom, did you encourage your children to write?
TERRI: Of course. They saw me writing all the time, but their talents are completely different. My daughter is an amazing artist, so where my go-to expression of ideas is to write, hers is to draw or sculpt or make a collage. My son loves music and expresses his ideas in completely different ways. I encouraged whatever creative avenues they gravitated towards. It’s delightful how different we all are. I’m amazed by their talents and fascinated by their proclivities. I think what they learned having a parent who is an independent contractor is that you have to take your art very seriously and carve out your boundaries.
MHM: Most parents today dream of their child becoming a great musician or athlete and thus cram the calendar full of related activities. I strongly feel that creativity isn’t always nurtured as it should be – we often miss the signs or see writing as unimportant. Your thoughts?
TERRI: I always dreamed that my kids would be happy and feel supported in whatever they chose to do with their lives. That was/is my priority. My kids went to public school in Santa Monica. Writing was high on the schools’ priority lists. I volunteered there grading students timed writing exercises and I found the level of literacy and skill to be quite high. It’s my experience that educators and parents see writing as a very important aspect of education and development. I know not all public schools have this agenda, but the kids I’ve known who have gone through a creative curriculum have great track records of real world success.
We did a lot of extracurriculars including sports, piano lessons, gymnastics… but I also think kids need to have downtime to find ways to entertain themselves. That’s when little people and big people have a chance to figure out what they really enjoy.
MHM: What are signs parents may notice if their child has a natural gift for storytelling?
TERRI: From my personal experience, it’s easy to see! They love to tell stories. When they have free time, they sit down and write a story, or pick up a camera and start shooting a narrative. I think a lot of kids who love to read, imagine being able to do it themselves. But again, I think there are so many ways to be a storyteller. Music, drawing and painting, filmmaking, photography… Every time my daughter was given an assignment, whether it was in math, science or English, she would turn it into an art project. Anytime anyone asks me to do something, I say, can I write it? The glib answer is, pay attention. Just see they like to do when they’re not being coerced or pushed or programmed.
MHM: What steps do you recommend parents take if they wish to nurture their child’s natural abilities in this field?
TERRI: Provide them with books. Read with them. Be supportive. Read what they write and be generous. Talk about the movies and TV shows and YouTube they watch to help give them a context for what they’re seeing. Whatever their natural abilities are, don’t turn them into chores. In my humble opinion, childhood is a time to explore all the possibilities that might interest them and it’s a parent’s job to make space in their lives so they can pursue those creative avenues.
You can find Terri on Twitter at @TerriEdda.
Hannah Camacho is an educator,writer, mom to three wonderful children ages 4 and younger and proud wife of an Operation Iraqi Freedom Veteran. She is the founder of MyAppinions.com and TheAppNanny.com. When she’s not chasing her three busy little ones, she does freelance work for app developers as a marketing and pr specialist.