When a highly motivated student parlays a successful capstone project into an independent study with a faculty mentor, the results speak to the dynamic exchange of ideas at the heart of liberal learning.
Since the beginning of the Spring semester, Assistant Professor of English Michelle Woods and Creative Writing major Nicole Chiverton have met once or twice weekly to study scriptwriting, Irish playwrights and favorite television shows. The two share an enthusiasm for the craft of teleplay writing.
Chiverton has taken Woods’s English courses thrice before, most recently completing her senior capstone seminar on Television and Literature. In her seminar, Woods explored the ways in which acclaimed television series like “The Wire,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” allude to literary texts and conventions. These television series reveal the elevated aspirations of television as a culturally literate art form.
In her undergraduate career, Chiverton completed a host of creative writing courses designed to teach the craft of writing, and wrote brief scripts under the direction of playwright and Lecturer Larry Carr. Though she originally focused her energies on playwriting, Chiverton was drawn to television’s creative marriage of dialogue and images. The seminar’s focus on the literary aspects of television gave Chiverton a new creative direction. “That’s what I want to do with my own writing: tie literature into television,” she said.
Chiverton asked Woods for an alternative final assignment. Instead of writing a final essay examining a television episode’s literary allusions, Chiverton wanted to write an original script. Woods agreed.
Drawing from her own experiences living in the economically diverse city of Poughkeepsie, Chiverton developed a television series called “Greener Grasses.” The title embodies the yearnings and aspirations of her young characters, who work in Poughkeepsie’s bar scene, and share a bond unique to night-shift workers. The cast features an affable heroin addict; a wise but stifled barmaid; a privileged Vassar grad and a dynamic lead character named Eva, who is gay, smokes pot, makes crude jokes but yearns for love and acceptance. Chiverton described Eva as “clearly morally ambiguous but not morally bankrupt,” and uses her as a touchstone character, interacting skillfully with all segments of Poughkeepsie society, both high and low.
Chiverton’s script demonstrates a sophisticated knowledge of character and a knack for free-flowing, street smart dialogue. Creative writing Professor Carol Goodman once compared Chiverton’s writing to the work of “The Wire” creator David Simon, which emboldened Chiverton to embrace a more conversational, gritty style.
Chiverton continues to develop “Greener Grasses” in her independent study. Woods allowed Chiverton to write her own syllabus and choose her own course materials, and both find their creative exchange exhilarating. “Professor Woods is guiding me through my choices, but giving me freedom to choose my genre. You can’t really ask for more in a course,” Chiverton said.
This independence has enabled Chiverton to explore her interests in depth and has bolstered her confidence in her ideas as a student and writer. And the independent study is expanding: it will conclude with the production of three to four 30-minute “Greener Grasses” episodes. Chiverton will choose her best work, select actors and film the episode for her creative submission to graduate school programs in screen- and playwriting.
The independent study is the only course Chiverton is taking this semester to finish out her undergraduate degree. The intensive focus on her writing and study with a favorite professor signals a satisfying culmination of her studies at New Paltz. “I couldn’t think of a better way to end my undergraduate career,” Chiverton said.