Thirty Upper St. Clair High School students received a visit from author, screenwriter and director Stephen Chbosky, a 1988 USC graduate and the author of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”
Surveying the room, Chbosky asked for a show of hands of those who participated in the school’s play or musical, along with who considered themselves emerging artists or filmmakers. Seeing a great show of hands, he sighed and smiled.
“Great,” he said. “Basically, you’re my people.”
The students, primarily in theater, creative writing, advanced art and advanced psychology classes, had the opportunity to ask a broad range of questions that included inquiries about character inspiration and development; how long it takes to write a book; the process of writing, editing and rewriting; lessons learned from success and failure; and the influence of his teachers and mentors.
Naming several Upper St. Clair teachers – Paul Fox, Mary Lou Einloth, Robin (Forgerson) Pleta, Joseph DePalma, Kathleen Kirsch and Ed Callahan – Chbosky credited them and his experiences at Upper St. Clair with being impactful to his development.
“The teachers that I had here were extraordinary,” Chbosky said. “This level of education would cost about $45,000 per year in Los Angeles.”
In responding to the question of how do you make a story flow and remain interesting, he encouraged students to learn to write by first being a reader and then offered the following advice.
“Write the first draft with the door closed to get it all out,” Chbosky said. “Then, write the second draft with the door open. Surround yourself with good, smart people and get their feedback.”
He shared his experience of talking through the story of “Imaginary Friend” with Emma Watson – eliciting an audible gasp from the students – who worked with him on “Perks of Being a Wallflower” as well as the screen adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast.” An avid reader and graduate of Brown University with a degree in English literature, she was excited about the story.
“And then I get to the ending and it wasn’t a good reaction,” he said.
He took that opportunity for honest feedback and developed a completely different ending.
Among the wisdom and information Chbosky shared throughout the morning, he encouraged student writers to be patient.
“Develop your voice. Be kind to yourself. It’s really hard to write a great novel at 18,” he said. “Hang in there until you have your moment.”
In reflecting on his own journey, he offered a bit more advice if he was speaking to his younger self.
“My advice to myself would be to write another book. I know you were trained to be a film maker but this is what you’re really good at.”
Pittsburgh was a key stop for Chbosky on this book tour for his newly released young adult suspense novel, “Imaginary Friend.”
“When Steven reached out to us, indicating that he wanted Upper St. Clair High School to be a key place on his book tour in Pittsburgh, we were reminded that the K-12 school environment that we create for students leaves a lifelong impression and must be nurtured with care,” high school Principal Timothy Wagner said.
Events like this provide opportunities for students to imagine what their future might hold.
“Our hope is that students are able to consider their own dreams — as writers, artists, actors or directors — as real, attainable, meaningful and worthy,” Wagner said. “As Steven writes in ‘Perks of Being A Wallflower’ and what we hope our students feel in their time at USCHS: ‘...in that moment, I swear we were infinite.’”