During the 2021 ScreenCraft Writers Summit, WeScreenplay hosted a panel to ask writers and showrunners about writing with “voice.” Sarah J. Eagen (TV writer and WeScreenplay Brand Manager) moderated a group that included Liz Feldman (creator and executive producer of DEAD TO ME), Mae Martin (comedian, actor and writer of FEEL GOOD), and Travon Free (writer for FULL FRONTAL WITH SAMANTHA BEE, 2021 Oscar-nominated writer/director of TWO DISTANT STRANGERS).
Here are some of the highlights from their incredible conversation:
What is Voice?
You’ll discover your voice by writing a lot. Begin by mimicking the voices of the writers who have affected you. As you gain experience, you’ll also find your own sense of self and your unique voice will shine through. Here’s some insight from the panelists:
Travon: “Oftentimes voice begins with impersonation. We all have idols we look up to. You start out by writing movies like your favorite writers. These are training wheels and once you start to do it more and more, those training wheels fall off and you discover what you like the most. You’ll find a rhythm within yourself that is a combination of things that you’ve learned.”
Sarah: “As a writer starting out, you write a lot of spec scripts, and that’s a great opportunity to mimic a voice while you discover your own. Finding your voice is finding your truth.”
Mae: “Don’t worry about trying to be cool. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. I don’t think there’s a shortcut around trying and failing. It’s how you get to what’s authentic.”
Liz: “It helps to have a sense of where your voice could fit. Develop laser focus into where you can lend yourself.”
How to Discover Your Own Voice
The panelists made it very clear: write the stories that are burning inside of you. Explore your unique life experiences. Follow your passions and your interests. Do it for the love of writing before you ever do it for the money.
Travon: “You have to give yourself the time and permission to actually connect to that part of you that has a story to tell. You have to do the work to uncover who you are. After enough of putting pen to paper, you start to discover who you are and what you sound like. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity — start writing.”
Liz: “I started writing monologues for Ellen before I was hired to write for Ellen. When the opportunity came up to submit to her show, I had already done the work. You have to be a self-starter. You have to have the drive to do the work before someone pays you to do it.”
Mae: “Explore the themes that resonate with you — those are the stories you need to tell and explore. Childhood is a wealth of opportunity because there’s so much to process there.”
Trust Your Gut
The right door will open for you if you’re prepared for it. Do the work and connect with the energy of creativity in order to create opportunities for yourself. It’s okay to walk away from something that doesn’t serve you — more opportunities will arise.
Travon: “You may be given opportunities, great opportunities, but you know in your heart that you’re not the right person for them. That comes from recognition of yourself and identifying what you relate to. The shows and movies you like will lend themselves to what your voice will become. It’s easy for me to walk away from those opportunities because I know there’s nothing there for me.”
Liz: “I had to learn to say ‘no’ to those opportunities. It took getting boxed in for me to realize I wanted out. I was operating from a place of scarcity and fear that another opportunity wouldn’t come along, or I just needed to pay bills, and the work was devoid of my voice. A growing pain of being in this business is learning that just because you can write something doesn’t mean it’s right for you.”
What’s it Like to Greenlight Something Personal?
Everyone starts somewhere. Be ready to learn on the job or be ready to walk away from something that doesn’t serve you. The right job will come along at the right time — if you have done the work to get there.
Liz: “DEAD TO ME came out of a meeting with producers looking for a show with two women. It was the end of the day. They were tired. I was in a dark place in my life and had just lost a family member and I had nothing to lose. It came from a truthful place. Those producers passed but I continued with the idea and I turned it into the version of itself that it wanted to be. It was an exercise in trusting the strength of my vision.”
Travon: “When I sold my first pilot to HBO, I came up with a show that resembled my life — being Black and bisexual made me feel like the only person on the planet. I knew very strongly where I wanted it to go and that was different from the direction it was being pushed. When you sell your first pilot, it’s very exciting, but the network can steer you away from your vision. There was a moment in the process where I realized that I cared more about the show than about getting it on TV. I ended up not doing the show at HBO. I had to choose between the dream and what meant something to me. I was very grateful for the experience but it was a hard thing to do, to turn down that opportunity.”
“When you’re writing from a very authentic place, it can be cathartic — maybe even life-changing — for the viewer. There may be no greater calling for a writer,” concluded Liz. Mae and Travon agreed and encouraged any writer listening to tell the story that you need to tell; most likely, there are people out there who need to hear it.
It can take some time (even before you’re ever paid to write), but through the process of writing you will discover your own voice. It may begin by mimicking your favorite writers and that is totally okay. Through the repetition of writing, your own voice will come through.
Let your voice be heard! Enter the WeScreenplay Diverse Voices Screenwriting Lab before the Final Deadline of April 15th!
Shannon Corbeil is a writer, actor, and filmmaker in Los Angeles with recent appearances on SEAL Team and The Rookie. An Air Force veteran, her articles have been published in Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, and Military.com. She has written and produced hundreds of digital videos with millions of views. You can read more about her on her website or come play on Instagram and Twitter!