Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script magazine and a screenwriter, having written the narrative feature adaptation as well as the 10-hr limited series of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, which was honored in the Top 25 Tracking Board Launch Pad Features Competition, CS Expo Finalist, the Second Round of Sundance Episodic Lab, and as a PAGE Awards TV Drama Finalist. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb.
We are what we consume. Whether it’s food, thought, film or words. Do you only eat one type of food? If so, you might need to diversify that diet or you’ll end up six feet under. If you only write limited types of stories, you might also need to broaden what you write in order to be relevant as a writer.
Open your eyes and look at the world and people around you. Really look. Change is everywhere. You can’t escape it. In fact, you shouldn’t try. You should champion it. You know, that old saying of writing the same, but different. Take that “same,” and keep pushing past your comfort zone to write new worlds and your career possibilities will expand too.
Take my life, for example. I grew up in the New York countryside and work from home. Whenever possible, I avoid two-legged creatures. I prefer hunkering down in my PJs, only interrupted by Fat Cat trying to crawl on my keyboard. I’m seven miles from the nearest traffic light – yeah, I said country, didn’t I? The other day I crawled out of my cave to run errands and noticed a marked difference in the landscape of people walking about than when I was a child. In fact, most of the people I passed spoke an assortment of languages; I counted four in just 15 minutes. The movie theatre line bulged with a range and variety of people. It’s important, as writers, we represent not only ourselves but also those other voices in our work, as they aren’t only the characters we create, but also the viewers who will watch our films. A multi-colored, mixed-bag audience… age, gender, race… who wants to find something in our characters they can relate to.
Behind everyone’s skin, sexual orientation, and gender, our genetic makeup is relatively the same. We all have bones, organs and blood, but more importantly, we all have hearts. We have emotions. We know love, hate, fear, paranoia, terror, etc.
We all feel.
Writers have a unique power to help people use those feelings to understand the world around them. To heal.
Eight years ago, I set out to adapt the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Slavery by Another Name (SBAN). I’ve talked about the project ad nauseam, but there’s one aspect of that project I don’t speak of often. That changes today.
My name is Jeanne, and I am white. Yes, I am a white, female writer writing a black story, and I’ve received a lot of backlash because of it. I can’t even count the number of times people said to me, oftentimes with great disdain, “But… you’re white.” It’s the pink elephant in every pitch meeting.
Yes, I am white. I am also a woman. I also don’t live in Alabama, where much of the story takes place. I live in the country up north. I have never been a slave. I have never been in jail. I will only be able to imagine the pain of that life. But that does not mean I can’t relate to the feeling of being trapped. The feeling of having no control over my destiny. The feeling of being hunted. The feeling of unfairness. The feeling of frustration. The feeling of chains around my ankles. The feeling of being lied to. The feeling of being manipulated. The feeling of having my child ripped from my arms. The feeling of injustice. The feeling of watching a horror happen and being helpless to change it.
Am I not allowed to be disgusted by our country’s history and try desperately to shed a light on the origin of prison leasing just because of the color of my skin?
I call bullshit. I won’t apologize for being white, and I certainly won’t apologize for being a white, female writer. No one is putting my writing talent and passion for a story in chains, simply because of my skin color. Now, that would be writer oppression… and prejudice.
Ironic, isn’t it?
So, say you have a story idea that’s outside your everyday world. Should you go for it? That depends on you. How passionate are you? How much risk are you willing to take?
Any writer can take an unfamiliar circumstance and find a way to relate to it. I may not know what it feels like to be a slave, but I’m a writer. I have compassion. I have empathy. I’m smart. I have the ability to research, to interview people, to explore a struggle I will never have to endure in life, but in art, I drown in it, thrive in it, and bring it to the page. I ask for help when I need it from other creatives who understand that world. My point is, if we only write what we know, what we’re comfortable with… yawn. I don’t want to see that kind of movie. I prefer to write things that make me, and my reader, uncomfortable.
We write to make people feel. So do it. Write it. Don’t let someone imply you aren’t capable of telling diverse stories. You are. You just have to do research and broaden your network to find the right people who you trust to give you blunt, appropriate, and honest advice. Write with the door closed. No judgment. Just you and your characters.
Women can write male stories; men can write female stories; women can write action films; one ethnicity can write in another ethnicity’s world; a transgender can write a cisgender; same goes for sexual orientation. There’s one caveat: You must be true to those worlds and characters. No guessing. No clichés. No shortcuts. You must be thorough. You can be responsible to those worlds and break outside your box by getting honest feedback from those with more expertise than you have in the worlds and characters you want to create. Open your mind and heart to another perspective and worldview. That’s all it takes. Communication, hard work, and the balls to open yourself up to criticism. Take it or leave it, but don’t let the threat of criticism and hard work stop you from trying.
Personally, I never allow anyone to tell me what I can and cannot write. Ever.
I was Googling “diverse films” and found a quote by Kimberly Pierce who wrote and directed Boys Don’t Cry:
“I like to go for the reality, I like to go for what’s underneath. And I don’t even judge it. But that isn’t what all Hollywood movies are. That’s an example where my success in ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ brought me this great Hollywood career and all these offers that I really appreciate, but I really have a very particular thing that I like doing. I love real emotion, I love real drama.”
Maybe we need to stop thinking about labels, like “black films,” and “diverse films.” Maybe we need to just think of stories as human stories, our words being the ultimate melting pot of art. Imagine that. Just plain art.
Labels are paralyzing and keep us from exploring art without limitations. I actually had one exec say that despite this being an important story that needs to be told, they already had “ticked the black-film box” enough for their current slate – this was said during the #oscarssowhite controversy, no less. Don’t get me wrong. I was thrilled they were making more black films, but I’m pretty sure the white-film boxes were littered with check marks, and if Meryl Streep walked in, they would have made room for just one more.
You get my point. Human stories. That’s the box they should be ticking.
Before anyone shoots me down in the comment section about films and TV shows needing to make money and that executives hands are often tied, I get it. Oh, I get it. This is a business, first and foremost. But Imagine if we inundated Hollywood with all different types of stories full of a variety of characters, none off limits, not even white. Just compelling characters doing remarkable things, and no script was judged by color or gender. Hell, we wouldn’t even need to choose either in our character descriptions. Those execs would probably be thrilled to not have to argue for one label or another. They could put story first.
I’m confident our society will ultimately end up with colorblind stories one day. Labels will become insignificant. But that takes time and courage. It takes you. The writer. You write the stories society will pay the money to see and read. You. The stories they’ll talk about around the water cooler the next day. What are you going to do to help our world get to this “no label” place?
Can every writer do justice to any story? Hell, no. You may not be able to let go and tackle any subject or be able to take the hits when they come. Because they will come. That’s up to you to decide how far out of your comfort zone you’re willing to go.
I ain’t gonna lie, It wasn’t easy being the pink elephant in the room. But if I listened to those many people who told me I had no right to adapt SBAN, I wouldn’t have sat at offices of top networks and production companies, bringing people to tears as I explained what our 10-hour limited series covered – the gruesome torture of Jon Davis, Green Cottenham, and thousands of blacks across the south. Yes, it’s a period piece, but stepping back into this era answers the question of why the Ferguson and Baltimore riots happened. SBAN uncovers the genesis of hostility between law enforcement and the black community. True historical events that most of them were utterly unaware of, starting with Booker T. Washington being the first black man to dine at the White House per invitation by President Teddy Roosevelt, sparking a violent race war, to J.P. Morgan’s political and personal hatred of Teddy and his Anti-Trust Laws, to how politics and the “Titan” capitalists were addicted to black prison laborers for economic survival. How the economy, politics, and an addiction to slavery halted the progress Reconstruction was making. All woven throughout are the heartbreaking, personal stories of Green and Jon and many other blacks, helpless and hopeless, at the mercy of people who had no mercy. It’s 10 gripping hours that will forever change a person’s view on race relations. Sorry. I’m passionate about it. Can you tell?
So, here I am, the pink elephant, bleeding my passion for the project onto the pitch table. Then, a miracle happened when those emotionally moved executives’ eyes watered and their mouths went agape. They forgot I was a little white girl from New York. They forgot my color as I pitched the story of black men mutilated in coal mines. They no longer cared about my pale skin. They cared about those people on the page. They cared about injustice. They felt something. Rage, horror, sadness, and maybe a little white guilt. That’s okay. They felt. I did my job.
I’m not black, but I’m also no one else in that story. I didn’t live in 1903, am not a politician, or an owner of U.S. Steel. I’m a writer. I research. Research is a huge part of our job. Doing that job well is all we have control over, and we should go that extra step and write what matters – a melting pot of art.
I chose to finally share this aspect of the challenge in adapting SBAN because it’s Black History Month and the next phase of Seed&Spark‘s #100DaysOfDiversity initiative is honoring filmmakers who tell and develop black stories. Only I want you to consider writing all types of diverse stories long after the 100 Days campaign fades from your social media stream.
Don’t be afraid to write what you don’t know. The more we research varied opinions, the more we understand each other. The more we understand, the less freaked out this world will be. No story needs to be off limits as long as you’re willing to try to understand it with honesty, compassion and without judgment.
Writing SBAN forever changed me. The weight of those people’s stories hung on my shoulders, often making it impossible to write without taking breaks to cry. Finding your passion project will do that. I became those prisoners. I spoke for them. I didn’t just dip my toe into an unknown world, I threw myself into it, vulnerable and raw, unprepared for the emotional impact it would have on me and those who read it.
How can that be a bad thing?
Watch this… seriously. Watch it.
Writing stories that highlight humanity are so deeply important. I recently was on the Humanitas site, exploring writing advice from pros and came across the Humanitas New Voice Contest (find the application for New Voices here). It’s not a diversity program, nor do your script submissions need to be on a humanitarian topic (comedy writers have won), but it’s still a great opportunity for all emerging TV writers. Normally, the contest is only open to those writers who have personally been recommended, but this time, they are opening the doors wide to all. Watch this video to learn more about the professional writers honored by Humanitas, beyond the New Voices.
“The purpose of NEW VOICES is to discover, nurture, empower and help launch the careers of talented emerging writers who have a fresh voice and a unique worldview.”
The reason I mention it is maybe a story you write when you’re a professional screenwriter will one day put you on the list of writers honored by Humanitas. Use the #100DaysOfDiversity initiative to push yourself outside of your comfort zone to finally tackle that passion project. Your passion will show in your words. That’s how writers get discovered. I double-dog dare you to try.
You can do powerful things with your words. I urge you to use your unique voice to move people. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or cannot write. Believe me, it’s not easy being that pink elephant, but you need to push your boundaries. Push. Rules are meant to be broken. Break them… and break those chains.
If we aren’t writing stories that matter, what’s the point?
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