This blog was written by Girls Write Now mentee Shea Formanes who learned so much from HBO writers Amy Aniobi, Lila Byock, and Carly Wray in the GWN + HBO Inspiration Room!
I could feel the electricity in the room. Surrounded by people as eager to learn as I was, I listened with my pen and notebook. Suffice to say, I wrote like mad.
In the HBO Inspiration Room, Girls Write Now and HBO co-hosted an event on March 22, 2019. 50-or-so mentors and mentees from Girls Write Now traded questions and stories with screenwriters on telling stories through television.
While there, I realized that these trailblazers at one point didn’t know if they’d ever make it. For panelists like Carly Wray (a producer on Westworld), it took years before she got into a writer’s room as a writer’s assistant. Ironic, right, storytellers not knowing the ends of their own tales? I couldn’t decide if this was comforting or disconcerting. As the night went on, it became clear that uncertainty makes for a better narrative.
When you’re a screenwriter, you’re also a psychologist, negotiator, researcher, and a spy. From Lila Byock (a screenwriter for Manhattan and The Leftovers), I learned that a huge part of writing realistic dialogue is listening to strangers, inventing people, and getting into their mindset. Make these characters true individuals, researching their birthdays, a perfect name (Ms. Byock visited babynamewizard.com often), even learning from people who are actively making the future happen (Ms. Wray talked to MIT researchers about the capacity of artificial intelligence for Westworld). You need those skills to survive in a writer’s room. The key is to practice socio-emotional intelligence. Be the kind of person people want to spent hours in a cramped room with.
During the Q&A session, a GWN mentee asked whether the horror stories of hostile work environments in writers’ rooms were true. All three screenwriters said that their writers’ rooms have been inclusive and open, and that a dog-eat-dog attitude is counterproductive. “It’s not you against me, it’s both of us or none of us,” Amy Aniobi stated. “It’s Darwinian to be jealous.” Lila Byock talked about the importance of making connections with people like you, despite you both vying for the same positions. “Having a network of people at your level is how you rise together,” she said.
After the night was over, I asked Amy Aniobi (the co-executive producer/screenwriter of Insecure) for advice on proofreading scripts for a series I’m creating. She told me that she’d made numerous episodes littered with mistakes only she could see. She still chose to release them, as a reminder that she’s grown as a creator. “Perfect is the enemy of good,” she told me. I held fast to that.
I learned three things:
- Screenwriting is a thankless job. There’s always that possibility you won’t get a big break no matter how hard you work. But when you see an opportunity, go for it at your own pace, even if you’re not ready. In Amy Aniobi’s words, “My timeline is what my timeline is.”
- Be communicative, empathetic, and personable. In a writer’s room, these traits are what’s going to make you stand out as a capable professional.
- Learn to constructively disagree and fight for your ideas. Inspiring conversation is how timeless stories get told.