In 2017, Lena Waithe made history as the first black woman to win an Emmy for outstanding comedy writing. Now Waithe is leading Showtime’s The Chi, which she created and executive produces. The Chi explores the ripple effects of a deadly shooting in a South Side Chicago community a lot like the one Waithe grew up in. I had the chance to hear from Lena, alongside her team and the writers behind The Chi, including: Story Editor, Justin Hillian, Executive Story Editor, Marcus Gardley, and staff writer Cathy Kisakye.
Below is advice for anyone looking to ‘break into writing.’
How does one ‘break into writing?’
Lena: I don’t think you break into writing. I think there are many break throughs that will happen in your life, there isn’t just one. But the best step to becoming a writer is to write. That’s the best way to it. You want to be a writer? Start writing.
Write as much as you can and keep writing. I think when we first start off we’re afraid to do things because they are not perfect, we are afraid our work won’t be good enough. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad, just get your work out there. Done is better than perfect.
Justin: To be honest, when you first start writing it probably is not going to be good, in fact it might be terrible and that’s okay. When I first started writing, it was bad, but I couldn’t worry about that, I needed the draft to be done. You need to get it out there.
Cathy: Even if you’re shy, it’s okay. I was a bit shy to be honest when I first started writing. I’m a shy person, it was hard for me to put my things out there but I had to. As scary as it is, think about it, if you’re not putting your work out there, how will we know that you are a writer?
What inspired you to write or who believed in you?
Some mentioned a teacher, a past mentor, a parent, the one that stuck with me was Justin who mentioned:
Justin: ‘I grew up with a strict mom, I gave up basketball for writing. My mom once told me, “I don’t want to hear your ideas, I want to read them. Don’t tell me about the script you have, I want to read it,” and so that motivated me to write.’
You can have an idea, you can have 10 ideas but if you don’t do them, they’ll never get done. They’ll never be in the world.
How do you get your ideas on TV?
Lena: Before we pitched different networks, I wrote the script in my bedroom, alone. I poured myself into this script. Once it was done, Showtime was at the top of my list. In grad school we’re taught to make a list of where you want it to go, and so that’s what I did.
Don’t just have TV in mind, have the message you’re trying to get across at the top of your head, keep your story at the forefront. Of course I had other titles to my name and I had Master of None under my belt but I wrote this from my room, alone and poured my heart into it. That’s what mattered; it was very personal for me. It is me, it has my mom, my uncle, my family’s blood on it. I needed it to be in the world so I did everything it took to make it happen.
Photo: Matt Dinerstein/Matt Dinerstein/SHOWTIME
Advice to writers?
Marcus: Research, reach out to people. Keep working. They may say no. One of my closest mentors kept denying me. ‘I asked to meet her for coffee, she kept saying no, and so I kept trying, I even attended a show she had and she finally noticed me and agreed to meet for coffee, but even then she denied me again saying, ‘I wasn’t ready.’ That was the best motivation for me, it fueled my desire to prove her wrong.
Cathy: Write. ‘Set deadlines and stick to them. ‘You have to set deadlines, even if you’re on your own, you have to, it’s like running a pilot, you have to write the episode in a week, you have no choice, so treat your life like that, if you have an idea, give yourself a deadline. You have to.
Justin: ‘My wife and I are both writers, we have a writing board in our living room, we give ourselves homework and and deadlines; we see everything we will get done throughout the day and week. Being a writer means having homework for life.’
Should I go to grad school to be a writer or work in TV?
Grad school or no grad school, it does not matter. Some may say it does, but it is up to you, if you feel that it is your path, great, if not, great, there are so many ways to write. Some mentioned meeting mentors in grad school but also mentioned it’s not for everyone. Cathy started as a scripts coordinator which helped her work her way into the writers room. It’s a unique way to get in but it worked for her, we all have different paths of getting here, there isn’t just one way.
Lena: ‘If you’re in LA, everyone here is trying to get the same things you are, be with them. Go out, work with them, collaborate with them. We are all trying to win.
Don’t doubt what you have right now. The Chi came from a very personal place, I am the characters, they are me, my uncle is depicted in this. You can do it; degree or no degree.
Also, make time to write. We all have jobs during the day but you best believe when we go home tonight, we’re going to write. You have to keep writing.
Resources Available for Writers?
Lena: I tell all my mentees about https://www.scriptanatomy.com.
On Writing the Perfect Series:
You can’t be too attached to your ideas, you have to give them room to grow and breath. You are evolving and so is a script. Ideas are meant to be shared. The network may want a character to die in Season 2, and it’s okay, let it happen.
Picking your team and hiring writers:
A lot of hands flew up and wondered, ‘how do I get to write on shows like this?’ There was no one answer as there is no one way. Some get to know about the job through agencies, others find out on their own through mutual relationships, past coworkers.
Lena: I want to know that the people I work with are trustworthy, that I can hang out with them. I met with everyone on my team, I met with them for coffee then invited them to my house; being a writer you’re spending so much time with these people, you see them all the time, we just want to know if we’re going to be able to spend time with you and can you hang?
Other things to keep in mind:
Lena: There is no ‘I made it.’ You just keep waking up, you keep working and you keep going. When in doubt, I get really quiet, ask God for help, I wait for him to tell me what to do next, then go.
Marcus: Writers block does not exist. It doesn’t. It means your body doesn’t want to move, so get up, go get ice cream, go for a run, do yoga, then come back to it.
It will take years, I know you don’t want to hear that, but it will. It took me 15 years of writing, I’m 40 now, I’m not ashamed. It will not happen over night and you have to be okay with that.
Lena: Do not doubt the gift that God has placed in you, we all have a gift. Do not let your fear hinder your creative gift from coming into this world. It would be an injustice not to give the world your creative gift. When I won the Emmy’s people were so shocked, people were surprised when I rose, but I wasn’t, it’s the God in me, it’s the gift he has placed in me.