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Department: English

Epstein English

Robin Epstein ’95

Lead Writer/Game Developer, Super-Ego Games

Love of literature

Before I arrived on campus as a freshman I was certain—absolutely 100%-no-doubt-about-it-sure—that I was destined to have a carrel in that big bike rack on Prospect Avenue, the Woodrow Wilson School. My plan was to be a Woody Woo major, then I’d go to a top law school, get a clerkship, do a stint in local politics, log some time in the U.S. Senate . . . and then, really, who knew what was possible thereafter?

But this grand plan of mine went a bit awry. Arguably horribly awry. And that’s something I thank my lucky stars for every day.

I sensed things were going off-track once I started taking classes and realized my favorites were always the literature courses. They were cool, inspiring, and didn’t even feel like work to me. Okay, that’s a lie. They totally felt like work, and I worked my ass off in them, but weirdly, I enjoyed them anyway. Still, I thought picking English as a major seemed soft; a cop out of sorts, like, “If I’m enjoying this so much, it’s not really good for me.” But thankfully, I had a flash of insight at some point and it was that there was no reason for me not to pursue something I loved. In fact, I was an idiot if I didn’t. Sure, I was concerned that the only thing I’d be qualified to do with a degree in English was to speak English. But secretly I knew grad schools really didn’t object to well-read candidates, so I was fairly confident I would be okay regardless.

I spent senior year researching my thesis on “comic literature,” which basically meant I got to read great and funny books all day. I was also performing in Quipfire!, the improv comedy troupe that a group of friends started my sophomore year. So by graduation, I was certain “comedy” was the direction I wanted to go in, and I moved to New York to try to figure out how to make that happen.

A diverse writing career

I started by doing stand-up at night (and working a boring secretarial job in advertising during the day). I would perform six nights a week, wherever I could get on stage, and logged time in dark, dingy clubs much like I did in the basement of Firestone Library. Since I was writing my own material, I thought it might be good to get an M.F.A. to hone my skills. I chose the Columbia program, and while I was there I got an internship at a film production company that also did TV shows. As it happened, they were shooting a new sitcom in New York the following year.

Because of the instincts I sharpened at Princeton, I immediately asked if I could be a writer on the show. The producers got a good laugh out this—that ain’t how “the business” works—but they told me I could be an assistant, a “writers’ assistant.” And that was my way into the TV industry. I basically worked my way up from there, eventually becoming a writer on several network sitcoms.

After a few years of sitcom writing, though, I found I didn’t like the lifestyle that much. I figured I could do other types of writing to make a living and started doing magazine freelance work. Then a former Princeton roommate, now an editor at Scholastic, contacted me and asked me if I was interested in writing children’s books. I’d never even considered this, but I thought, “Why the hell not?” I’ve now published 12 of them. Thanks to that work and my TV experience, I was then contacted to see if I’d be interested in scripting video games. Same “why the hell not?” thought process, and though I only have two games under my belt now, I’d be thrilled to do many more.

My career continues to evolve (I’ve also written two novels and teach at NYU), and I think having such a solid foundation as an English major allowed that to happen. I studied the master writers when I was at Princeton and took my lumps when I had to write about them; good preparation for the real world. The whole time I was also learning to think critically about everything I was reading and seeing. Those skills have been invaluable because they’ve allowed me to find interesting themes, ideas, and stories in places people who majored in other things might not even know to look. Being an English major encouraged me to be flexible and see beyond the standard track, which I’ve learned is really where the satisfying work and fun begins . . .