By D. Dona Le
In the #HWire blog's "Where Are They Now?" series, we check in with Harvardwood program alums—e.g., from Harvardwood 101, the Writers Program, past Writers Competition winners—to find out what they've been up to and to showcase their accomplishments since participating with Harvardwood!
An alum of the Harvardwood Writers Program and past winner of the annual Harvardwood Most Staffable TV Writers list, Emmylou Diaz A.R.T. '07 is currently a writer on the CW's hit show, Jane the Virgin. The show's S2 mid-season premiere aired just last week on January 25th—an episode penned by Emmy!
Q. What made you decide to pursue a career in TV writing?
A. In many ways, ending up in TV was a happy accident. I never formally studied screenwriting and didn’t set out to do this at all. In fact, I didn’t know that TV writing was a job you could have. I grew up in the theatre as an actress, and that was what I was most focused on as a kid. I was always doing some kind of show, whether it was a school play, or a community musical, or a one-woman extravaganza in the family room downstairs. (There were a lot of those.) I attended Williams College as an undergrad where I was an English and a Theatre double major. Then I studied acting in New York after graduation and finally ended up at Harvard, at the A.R.T. Institute. My time in Cambridge was inspirational, but after I got my MFA and moved to LA, I was really discouraged at the lack of opportunities for an actress like me, a classically trained performer of color. I also HATED auditioning.
So I started writing, mainly as a creative outlet as I tried to figure my life out post-graduate school. But as soon as I started writing, things started to fall into place. I quickly found I loved writing every bit as much as I loved acting, more even, and through doing the Harvardwood Writers Program (HWP), I learned my work actually showed some promise. After HWP, things moved really quickly for me. I was named to the Most Staffable List, then was selected for the NHMC diversity program (sponsored by ABC and NBC), and then I landed my first TV job, as assistant to a showrunner who was producing a comedy pilot at the time. That job led to a writers assistant gig, which in turn led to staffing on a show. It certainly wasn’t what I had envisioned when I moved to LA years ago, but looking back it all kind of makes sense. I come from the theatre world, which is really all about the ensemble, the company. I grew up with a “let’s-make-a-show-together” mentality, spending hours on end in a rehearsal room with people who end up becoming a kind of second family. That’s exactly what you’re doing on the staff of a TV show!
Q. As a Harvardwood Writers Program alum and a past Most Staffable TV Writer, did you find it useful to leverage the Harvardwood network, personally or professionally?
A. So much about this business is about the relationships you cultivate. When I moved to LA I knew nobody in the business. Harvardwood was a real game-changer for me. Since I never studied screenwriting and didn’t know anything about the industry, I had so much to learn. I didn’t know what a spec was, believe it or not. I didn’t know what a meeting was or how to take one. The first meetings I took in town were as a result of the Most Staffable List. And it was in my Harvardwood group and at the panels that I really got a feel for the industry. I still stay in touch with members of my HWP cohort, many of us are now working writers and we make a point of celebrating each other’s successes and looking out for each other. For me, Harvardwood really provided that human element of personal connection that’s so important for launching and sustaining a career in this town.
Q. You are also an alum of the NHMC TV Writers Program. What do you consider to be the greatest benefits (and drawbacks, if any) of these types of diversity programs?
A. Applying to the various diversity programs is something I recommend to all writers starting out, regardless of your background or experience. These programs are fiercely competitive, but if nothing else, it provides a deadline, and by the end of the process you have a new piece of writing to show for it. For those lucky enough to participate in the programs, it’s really about using that as a launching pad to get to the next level, and that’s something you have to do for yourself. No one program is going to do that for you. The diversity programs are just one way into the business, certainly not the only way. The perception of the “diversity hire” on staff can be problematic at times. It’s an imperfect system. But I believe anything that helps a writer break in is a good thing. But again, no one program is the golden ticket. And neither is getting repped or staffed for that matter. The onus is really on us to continue writing regardless, to continue building relationships and putting ourselves out there to get to the next level.
Q. What are your favorite aspects of working in a writers' room, generally as well as in the Jane the Virgin room?
A. If you work in TV, you really need to enjoy being with people! You will be stuck in a room with them all day, every day. I grew up in the theatre, surrounded by a creative community that became my second family, so I was very used it. One of my favorite parts of being in a room is when someone pitches an idea and it sort of ricochets around the room like a pinball…. One person runs with it for a while, then another person adds to it, then another person, then someone else throws her experience into the mix, and by the end of the process you’ve had this really incredible breakthrough, or at least the seed for something really interesting. After that happens everyone kind of looks at each other and takes a breath and smiles, like “Wow.” It’s not always as thrilling as that, but when those moments happen, it’s kind of magical. The room has a mind of its own, and it’s exciting to be a part of.
Q. Can you take us through your writing process (outside of the writers' room), i.e., going from idea to first and then final draft?
A. Some writers are more conceptual, but I most often start from an intuitive place. I’ll begin with a piece of music, or a character, a phrase, or an idea. Then I really delve in and learn all I can about the subject, or the character I’m working with, or the world it takes place in, etc. I think my process is really informed by my theatre background. When I was an undergrad at Williams, I took a class called “Theatre of Images.” It was all about devising original theatre pieces. When working on performance projects for the class we had to create these “image banks” that were part-journal, part-scrapbook, and we’d collect images, thoughts, sensations that inspired us and put them in the image bank. That’s still kind of how I work. I like piecing things together and creating worlds. When you’re working on something original on your own, you are your own mini-writers room, and it’s up to you to generate all the ideas and keep yourself excited about what you are working on. After that initial stage, I dive into the meat of the story: what’s happening, when, why, how? At that point I start to outline, so that when I go to pages I have a good idea of where I’m headed. Of course, once I start writing things can and do change, so I need to be ready for that!
Q. What's your advice to Harvardwood writers who are early on in their careers right now?
A. Just by being involved with Harvardwood it’s already such a great step in the right direction. “Networking” is such a cliche, but this town is really based on relationships, so I suggest focusing on making friends, and seeing how you can help other people out. Continue writing because at this early stage every script you write will be exponentially better than your last one. Just generate a lot of material, follow the things that interest you, and without realizing it you will discover you have a voice and a point of view. And that’s what showrunners, producers and executives are looking for. A unique perspective that you bring to the work that no one else can. And if your point of view isn’t right for a particular project, that’s okay. It just means that there is something better for you down the line. For those writers who want to work in TV, I would say do your best to get as close to the writers room as you can. Showrunner assistant, script coordinator, PA, and of course the writers assistant position are all great places to be. Keep focused on your goals, but remember to have a life! Before I got my first job, I had a mentor tell me, “You are going to be staffed. It might not be next season. It might not be the season after that. But if you keep writing, it’s going to happen.” And I really believe that. If this is what you are meant to do, it will happen. It might not be on your preferred timeline, but it will happen. So my advice in the meantime is to keep writing, stay grounded, and surround yourself with a positive, supportive community.