A Sentimental Education

Writing for a soap opera teaches you to love the impossible.

September/October 2009

Reading time min

A Sentimental Education

Peter Arkle

Here's something people ask when they learn where I work: "Where do you come up with all those crazy stories—from your real life?"

"Where else?" I answer nonchalantly. I've been married seven times, have a secret half-sister/identical twin and learned that a clone of me is running around somewhere in Manhattan with my mind and Dustin Hoffman's face. Hasn't every soap opera writer?

A little more than a year after graduating from Stanford, I started working for Guiding Light. As an intern in the writers' office, I quickly fell in love with everything about the show, the longest-running program in broadcast history. Created in 1937 (airing on NBC radio until it moved to CBS television in 1952) by a strong woman with a grand vision, Guiding Light had captured the hearts of generations of women. I was no different.

Those were my days of sixth-floor walk-up apartments. Dragging my laundry up the flights, I wondered if I must be crazy—or at least deluded—to think I could "make it" in New York. I met Ethan Kurzweil, '01 (now my husband), and soon learned that his Polish grandmother had started watching Guiding Light when she came over from Europe in 1952. She tuned in religiously and credits the show for her mastery of English. (Good job, GL.) Bubbe and I bonded over the show. She always understood when I referenced our supercouples—Manny, for instance (fan-speak for Michelle and Danny), or Garley (for Gus and Harley).

After several years, I became a writer on the show and was thrown headfirst into the world of Springfield, our fictional town. Soap opera creators essentially do the impossible. While a prime-time series produces roughly 20-something hours of television a year, we produce 250. Multiply 60 minutes times the 15,700 episodes we've produced since GL first came on the air . . . and that's more complicated math than I can do. (I was an English major.)

I learned how to write a breakdown—a narrative version of a script. I learned how to make Phillip sound like Phillip and Reva sound like she might just put on her red dress—and declare herself the slut of Springfield. I learned how to rewrite an episode in three hours . . . and I learned that you can't get upset when they cut everything you just slaved over. (A good life lesson, incidentally.)

Most important, I learned what makes a good story. Because, in the end, that's what's made millions of viewers tune in every day: the power of a story well told. It may not have been an MFA or a PhD, but I like to think that I earned a GL degree—advanced training in dramatic writing that, much like those rock-hard abs you get from boot-camp class, you can only get by doing. The Emmy beside my TV is pretty nice, too, though my parents call it a death trap because in the event of an earthquake in my San Francisco apartment, its wings "could kill you."

After 72 years on the air, Guiding Light is ending September 18. Just as it feels like a real loss when a character dies on the show, the end of this era is painful. For me, it's the loss of a job, a farewell to vibrant and talented colleagues—and it'll be the first time in seven years that I won't eat my lunch or brush my teeth with Reva's, or Phillip's, or Garley's voices racing around in my head. (If I do still hear voices, feel free to stage an intervention.) For GL's fans, the loss will be even more significant. Those for whom the show has offered company, friendship, solace will feel the sting—like the one my generation experienced when we finished Book 7 of Harry Potter. If a Hogwarts education lasted 72 years, that is.

Just the other day, I spoke to Bubbe about the end of our favorite show. "I learned English from Guiding Light," she reminded me.

"I know, Bubbe. I know."

"It's okay that it's ending," she answered, comfortingly. "I know English now."

REBECCA HANOVER, '01, is a TV/film writer and one half of Rebethan.

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