Annie Julia Wyman admits she’s very suggestible. The first big life recommendation she got was to become an academic. The second was to try screenwriting.
In an intimate gathering at Farkas Hall on Thursday, Wyman, Ph.D. ’17, discussed her unorthodox transition from academia to co-creating the hit Netflix show “The Chair,” about the first non-white female head of the English department at the fictional Pembroke College. She also answered audience questions about the ins and outs of making it in Hollywood.
“I was a little queer kid in Texas from a big family, kind of feeling from a very young age like I was a misfit, and turning to books and stories, and to culture high and low, for a sense of self-belonging,” Wyman told moderator Phillip Howze, associate senior lecturer on playwriting in Theater, Dance & Media. “I didn’t know what I was going to be, but I thought I would be important. I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t really know what that meant.”
Wyman followed that interest to Stanford, where she got a bachelor’s degree in poetry and a master’s in English. And then her advisers had a suggestion.
“I’ve been told, and I sometimes self-describe, as having a weak ego. I respond very well to suggestion,” she said. “I got this feedback from my advisers that was: Now you should become a professor. Somebody told me I can do this, that made me feel heroic and presented a version of myself that I want to believe in.”
But, “That vision of myself lasted about three years, and concerns about what I would do with the Ph.D. that I was going to get eventually started to take over.”
About that time a college friend who became a movie producer had a thought. And the idea of returning to storytelling held an appeal, but Wyman didn’t know how to start. So she looked to the creative writing faculty at Harvard as resources and found a kindred spirit in Sam Marks, a senior lecturer on playwriting in English. Marks let Wyman audit an undergraduate course on TV writing.
“The answer to almost all of my insecurities in my life has been education,” Wyman said. “I was lucky enough that the really excellent creative writing faculty here let me sit in the back of their classrooms. I was in classrooms with Harvard undergraduates, and we were all writing coming-of-age stories, because we were all changing. I was changing from one career to another, from one understanding of myself to another.”
That coming-of-age story became the pilot for “The Chair,” which Wyman created with actor and playwright Amanda Peet. The show launched in August 2021, about six years after Wyman started work on it. All the while she wrote and developed other projects as a creator and staff writer. Her recent TV writing work includes “Tokyo Vice” on HBO Max and the forthcoming Hulu show “Immigrant.”
“The industry is a bit of a black box,” Wyman said. “The thing about television development is that it takes a long time, long enough that you have to find other kinds of work being a freelancer and doing journeyman’s work.”
One postdoc asked which skills from Wyman’s graduate school life translated well to her new career.
“I think one of the best or most encouraging answers is that learning to take things apart, learning the relationship, taking apart the whole thing, being able to analyze, reconstruct, and synthesize” a story, said Wyman. “Also having cultural curiosity and openness … is always going to set you in good stead … It’s worth being who you are, and it’s valuable in many different marketplaces.”
Prior to the event, which was sponsored by the English Department and co-presented with TDM, Wyman held a master class with Marks’ writing students in which the group broke down the fundamental elements of a television show and came up with their own series. A College junior who had attended asked Wyman how to get the most out of the revision process.
“My first bit of advice is: Don’t feel alone. Building a community of readers, people who care about you and care about your work, is so, so important,” she said. “And just a half-step further than that is developing the courage to share what you’re doing creatively all the time with people who you suspect may not get your voice. Because that sharpens you and helps you start to make decisions about your audiences. And that’s important for anybody who’s going to be working in TV.”