Café Shapiro hosts offer advice to aspiring students

February 22, 2021

For the last 20 years, faculty at the University of Michigan have nominated undergraduate writers to showcase their work at a live event in the Shapiro Library.

The event, Café Shapiro, went virtual this year, and the new format included guest hosts, among them U-M alums who have forged successful careers in creative media.

Bridget Bodnar (U-M alum; BA, 2011) is a senior producer of On-Demand at Marketplace, the suite of Emmy-award winning public radio programs and podcasts about business and the economy from American Public Media. 

Michael Farah is chief executive officer of the comedy website and production company Funny or Die, known for creating unique (and sometimes viral) content featuring famous faces, including the Emmy Award winning series "Between Two Ferns."

Joe Farrell is executive vice president of Funny or Die.

Christopher Farah (U-M alum; BA, 1998, MA 2002) is a professional ghost-writer and a consultant at Funny Or Die.

This year's series featured about 40 students reading short stories, poetry, lyrical essays, opinion pieces, creative nonfiction, and screenplays over four nights; see our event listing for full details

Café Shapiro seeks to highlight the power of a humanities degree, so we asked this year’s guest hosts for some advice for students interested in pursuing careers in a creative industry. (Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.)

Any advice for a student looking to build a career in a creative industry?

MF Watch as much stuff as possible! Pay attention to what people are talking about. Read books on Hollywood history. Listen to podcasts to learn how people have gotten their start in Hollywood. There are lots of ways in. 

Finally, create! Make stuff. Even if it's terrible and you never show anyone. Write, shoot, share with trusted friends to get feedback. All of this helps you find your voice and see what people respond to in it.

JF Use your time in school to experience as many creative disciplines as possible. You have no idea where your hidden passions may lie, or where future opportunities may emerge. Folks are often pressed to "pick a lane" soon after graduation, so it's best to have a (somewhat) clear idea of what lane will excite you, even at the entry-level.

What does it take to become successful in the creative industry?

MF It's important to know your audience. Whether you're speaking to a celebrity, a comedian, a lawyer, an intern, an accountant — everyone wants to be seen and heard, but you need to adjust how you communicate and connect with folks to collaborate in the best way possible, regardless of their role or position within the industry.

Also by never giving up, and always moving forward. Just like life. It's not always easy, but it's fun.

JF You have to believe in the strength of your creative convictions but also be able to manage your ego at moments when collaboration is key.  It's a very difficult balance and only gets harder the more successful you become.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

CF Figure out what you're great at and do more of it. For a few years I had this dream of being a screenwriter. I vaguely enjoyed doing it, and I was decent at it, but I was really more in love with the fantasy of what "being a screenwriter" represented than the reality of the career. 

Then I more or less chanced into nonfiction ghost-writing, and everything clicked. I loved interviewing my subjects, I loved capturing their voice in my writing, I loved bringing their stories to life on the page. I got to be a psychologist, an actor, and a writer all at once. Back when I was an undergrad I never would've even thought of pursuing that line of work, but I kept an open mind, and found something that made me happy.

BB Let other people read your work and give you feedback! Learning how to receive feedback in a constructive way is a real skill. I approach my work with an understanding that it's going to be a collaborative process. I'll go through edits with at least two other people, often more. It's important to trust those early listeners, and to find people who have different areas of expertise so you get a wide range of feedback (or, if they all say "this isn't funny" — you really know it's not).  

What are some benefits of a liberal arts education?

CF The education part is great, of course, but almost as important is the opportunity to meet other smart, ambitious, like-minded people. Working in writing, media, entertainment — it's all about relationships and being a part of a community. You start building that community in college, and if you hold onto it you can all help each other out for years after you graduate.

BB When I first started at Michigan someone told me that the education I was about to get was less about the specific classes I was taking and more about learning how to learn. I think they were right. It brought me to my career in journalism and public radio though I never took a journalism class or did anything in broadcast or radio. Side note: if you love your liberal arts education so far, consider journalism. It's a lifetime of learning and getting paid for it. 

JF My undergraduate degree is in the humanities (focused on medieval literature) and I spent over a decade as a New York-based actor. I left performing to attend graduate school at USC's Peter Stark Producing Program. While going from theater to producing has been a transition, I find many common themes in how to be successful, notably the importance of being a strong and supportive collaborator.


by Alan Piñon


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