Storytelling from all directions

Maria Arena BellMaria Arena Bell has written hundreds of TV episodes. She'll share her expertise in a Wintersession JAMS! seminar on Jan. 18. 

By Truelian Lee '21

Maria Arena Bell estimates that she has written “hundreds” of TV episodes during her career as a writer.

“People will say, ‘come on, now,’ because it just seems impossible to have written that many episodes. But when you write for a series, it's five new shows a week, 52 weeks a year,” she said.

An alumna of Northwestern, Bell said she had set out to Los Angeles spurred by a “lifelong” love of film and TV. She worked at multiple entry-level internships and jobs in the entertainment business before landing a job writing daytime soap operas.

The rest, they say, is history. Bell has won the Emmy Award for Most Outstanding Drama Series, and the Writer’s Guild of American Award for Best Daytime Serial for her work as the head writer on the soap The Young and The Restless.

She will be leading the Wintersession JAMS! seminar “Writing for TV” on Thursday, January 18. We spoke by phone about her thoughts on the workshop and writing for TV. Our conversation, which follows, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Maria Arena Bell
Maria Arena Bell
How can Wintersession seminars such as yours help students grow?
If someone is interested in writing, no matter what their concentration, it's probably unusual to have the opportunity to learn more about writing in a workplace setting. In my seminar, I'll be bringing all the years of practical knowledge I have of being a writer, running a writing team, looking at the production side, and selling television series. I wasn’t really exposed to this when I was studying. I was a fiction writer major as an undergrad and I wasn't really sure what practical applications there were and how I would ever get a job as a writer and survive and live. Also, the thing to note is that one of the greatest commodities you know in any form of writing is fresh ideas and fresh voices and new perspectives. What's so great is that as a student, you could come up with an idea that is possible and even saleable. It's such an open field and it's not an exciting time. Everybody's searching for new and new and exciting ideas.

Who do you think your seminar can benefit?
I really hope that this gives students an opportunity to take something outside their wheelhouse and explore some other interests. I would love to see a science concentrator in my seminar, or someone who just simply enjoys watching television. I would love to see how people respond to the idea of the life of a writer. Sometimes exploring can spark an interest that you might not know you had, and it could really be a life-changing thing.

You’ve mentioned how being able to communicate ideas clearly is important for a writer. Could you please elaborate?
One of the things that you learn as a writer for the medium like television is that it becomes really important to be able to talk about your ideas and your work. And it’s the part of being a writer that can sometimes be frustrating, because sometimes the writer's temperament is that you're better on the page than you are in a room, but you have to force yourself to be good in the room too in order to get your ideas across and write professionally.

What is one of the most important things you’ve learned in your career?
I feel like I've learned pretty much everything inside out, outside and backwards about storytelling. You write such down volume of different stories and different characters, and you learn what storytelling works and what doesn't because you see it right away on the screen. I think soap operas get bad rap as being a cheesy and trite type of storytelling, but it was actually an amazing opportunity for me as a young writer. So now, I feel confident pursuing other forms that I've always wanted to do, like writing a screenplay or writing for primetime.

How has the field of TV drama changed in the past few years?
Soaps work was much more about producing schlocky fast entertainment, but I don't think that’s as prevalent of a perception now. I feel that most people now look at television – people in the entertainment business, that is – as not being all that different from film. There used to be a big discrepancy between being someone who wrote for television versus being someone who would write for films, with the latter being much more prestigious. The field of television writing is more competitive because the stigma is gone. It has made the medium so much more interesting and the quality much better. The fact that it's a very, very tough playing field means that people have to rise to the occasion.