A conversation between TV writers Kelechi Urama and Charmaine DeGraté
2/20/2024 • Louise Farr
Black writers reflect on the direction of Black art.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we arranged a virtual meet-up between two female TV writers: Kelechi Urama (Run the World) and Charmaine DeGraté (House of the Dragon, Daisy Jones & the Six), a newer TV writer and a more seasoned TV writer, respectively. Though Urama and DeGraté had never met before, the conversation began with introductions and by the end of the hour, the women had spoken about the importance of strong female showrunners, the power of saying no, and what changes they hope to see in the industry for female writers in leadership. Take a look at their conversation below. (Edited for space and clarity.)
Let’s do some introductions. Charmaine, do you want to begin since you’re here as our seasoned writer, with Kelechi being newer to the Guild and to the profession?
Charmaine DeGraté: My career started with the Austin Film Festival. It was a period piece that did really well there, and it went on and did well at Nichols. From there, I was a participant in the Warner Bros. Television Writers’ Workshop. Halfway through, I got hired on The 100 [developed by Jason Rothenberg]. After The 100, I did Chambers [created by Leah Rachel], a couple of mini rooms, Daisy Jones & The Six [developed by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber], and then Game of Thrones: House of the Dragon [created by George R.R. Martin and Ryan Condal]. And then a couple of things for Netflix and Lucas Films. And I’m consulting on an AppleTV project.
Kelechi Urama: That’s super impressive. I technically joined [the WGAW] like last month. So, I’m new. As far as how I got started, 2013 or 2014 is really when I started to become aware of TV writing as an option for me. I went the contest route and got a lot of rejections at first. [Laughs.] So I kept working at it. I moved out here in 2018, and 2020 is when I started looking for representation. I uploaded some scripts to The Black List site which ended up doing really well there. I got connected with my manager shortly after that.
But really, I ended up getting staffed sort of the traditional way where we saw the trades and I told my manager, “I love that show!” It was Run the World on STARZ [created by Leigh Davenport] which had gotten renewed. [I asked my manager] if he could see if anything was happening with it and then it worked out from there.
So Kelechi, you’re from Maryland and are a first-generation American born to Nigerian immigrants. How does your heritage influence your work or the shows you want to write for?
Urama: I think growing up as a first-generation American, I was definitely like, am I Nigerian like my parents are or am I American like my friends? Television and film, as a kid, were sort of my way into American-ness. I loved stories of young girls like me, young women like me. Anne of Green Gables, Clueless, A Different World, The Cosby Show, Moesha… They felt extremely relatable to me in the sense of, these are young women figuring life out like I was. But also with the different context of being American girls, and what does that look like?
Even as a writer now, I just really love to tell stories about women. I love to tell stories about Black women and girls, and I think the Nigerian-ness comes into play. It’s interesting to think about the ways that my relationships to my parents, to my family, to being Nigerian has kind of evolved from being a kid where I was very much, I’m American. I’m not gonna learn the language or learn how to cook the food. To now as an adult being like, I wish I had appreciated it. [Laughs.]
DeGraté: “Mom, can I get that recipe?”
Urama: Yeah, seriously! I’m in LA constantly like, where can I get some bomb Nigerian food? I get so homesick for it. I think all of my work and the things I’m attracted to are definitely tied to identity, and coming of age, and women.
Charmaine, any thoughts on what Kelechi said there?
DeGraté: I think there are certainly parallels. For me, all of the shows I’ve staffed on from the beginning, whether I was a staff writer or executive producer or a consultant, it really was always, for the most part, female-driven and certainly inclusive. Multi-cultural, multi-racial, that’s something that’s very, very important to me.
Thematically the one thing you can see through my resume is themes of identity, like Kelechi was saying, and also empathy. And empowerment. The stories I’m telling are usually about outsiders, so I can understand completely what you were saying about that. In the world we’re living in now, I appreciate that I can use my voice to reach an audience that may have been forgotten.
I remember right after the 2016 election, I wasn’t sure if I was gonna go back to The 100 or not, but because our demographic was largely LGBTQIA, people of color, and women, I just really felt like that was an important place for me to be. Those were groups that felt particularly vulnerable during that time. I know a lot of us felt this madness, and all I could do was what I know how to do which was story-tell.
In high school and college, I spent half my summers interning on Capitol Hill and then the other half out here, taking screenwriting courses at UCLA. I’ve always been very politically active. I choose projects that are political and move the conversation forward, hopefully, in a positive way, and give a voice to an outsider or an unexplored, underrepresented group. Does that make sense?
Urama: It does! I love that. Even as a viewer, it definitely got to the point where, okay I can’t read the news so I’m just gonna watch television that makes me happy. But it’s so awesome to have a job where you can contribute to that outlet that people are looking for.
DeGraté: And contribute to the conversation. What you just said reminded me of something, and I’m sure you were in the same position. During quarantine, and certainly after George Floyd…I sort of stopped and reassessed why I was telling stories and the kinds of stories I wanted to tell, and [I wanted to] be very intentional about unexplored voices and the outsider but doing it in a way that’s very empowering, and was not triggering. Things that were really elevating the culture, the people.
Most of the projects I’ve done are in the science fiction space which gives us a little bit more leeway to explore things from a distance. That’s one of the reasons I love science fiction. Because you can explore those things without people feeling attacked or bombarded, and hopefully when they walk away from it, they’re thinking about things in a more empathetic way.
Charmaine, have you faced challenges in the writers’ room that you feel are specific to women or to being a woman in the room? You can include being in the science fiction realm as well.
DeGraté: There’s not a lot of us in the science fiction world. I see that changing and I think it’s very exciting. I think genre in general is becoming a much more inclusive place. We’ve seen that over the last few years, and that’s invigorating. When it goes back to choosing jobs with intention, I have intentionally chosen jobs, specifically science fiction jobs, that have put inclusion at the forefront of their storytelling.
To go back to your question about advice I would give to newer writers: I want younger writers to understand, they have the power of no. If a show’s not aligned with your values or the kinds of stories you want to tell—then you need to find one that is. Because those are long days, long nights, and that fourth page one rewrite feels insurmountable if you don’t believe in what you’re doing. And I know that’s hard to remember when you’re just starting out. But understand it needs to be a match for you too.
Even though you might be the only female in the room, or the only person of color in the room, that is certainly not the scope of your expertise. You are there because of your full set of skills and talents. I’ve never been in a room with a woman who was not there because of her talents. I’ve never been in a room with a woman who was not supposed to be there. There are a lot of very talented female science fiction writers who are getting their chance to shine right now, and I find it inspiring.
Urama: When you said you have the power of no, as a newer writer to the industry, that’s incredibly good to hear because saying no is always very intimidating. You feel tricked into feeling like, I only have this one opportunity and if I turn it down or I don’t say yes, it’s never gonna happen for me again. Which is such a lie.
DeGraté: That feeling is very, very real. And can I tell you, I had that feeling at least four times last week. It never goes away.
Urama: I remember my first week in the room and coming into it with all these amazing, talented writers who had so much experience, and for me never having been in a room before… You work so hard to get into these situations and then you get to the situation and it’s like, I don’t truly know if I’m ready! Especially when you’re a woman, or a Black woman, or whatever identifier before that, you start to wonder, do people like me or do people want me just because I tick a box?
DeGraté: Yeah, that’s where I was going. I feel that and I see that in newer writers.
Urama: It messes with you!
DeGraté: It messes with you, and it also takes away from your experience of enjoying those first years in your career. I don’t want that hanging over newer writers’ experiences, because I can tell you that’s just not the case. I’ve never been in a writers’ room as an upper-level looking at a female writer thinking, oh you’re just here because you’re a woman.
I think that’s where mentorship comes in, and mentorship is so important. I have wonderful mentors. Being able to call on them—whether they’re mentors I met in the room or mentors who are more seasoned than me in the business—and just doing check-ins, it’s so important. When I’m in the room I’ll make myself available to newer female writers and writers of color and just say, I’m aware that there are special circumstances that others may not experience, but I’m here if you need me. I have an open-door policy. I know it made such a difference for me when I was starting out.
Urama: And I will say, as far as my actual room experience, it’s honestly been kind of a dream. The show I’m on is about Black women and our showrunner [Rachelle Williams-BenAry] is a Black woman, who’s incredible and super accessible and supportive. Our room is mostly Black, and it’s mostly women on staff.
DeGraté: I love that. I know there have been concerns of, are we here for the picture or to tick a box? I would just encourage women at all levels, when you’re meeting with a showrunner, make sure this is the person who will allow you to embrace the power and support your growth.
Be very clear in the meeting and ask, what is the scope of my responsibilities and duties? It’s so easy to go into an interview thinking that all the power lies on the other side of the desk, not remembering that you’re interviewing them, too. You’re giving them your talents, your bandwidth, your energy. Right now, in the world we’re living in, we’re realizing we do not have an infinite amount of emotional bandwidth. Make sure you’re in an environment that’s empowering and deserving of you.
Kelechi, what surprised you as a woman starting out in TV writing?
Urama: I think I’ve been surprised at just how pleasant it’s been. [Laughter.] I don’t know that my experience has been the typical experience. Starting out, you hear a lot of horror stories, and even now I talk to a lot of writers where their first rooms or their first couple jobs weren’t always a really positive experience. But for me, I would say I’ve been really lucky to have worked with really supportive people.
And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of my professional experience thus far has been working with other women. With Party Over Here, the two execs I worked with were both women, and were both amazing and on top of it and really lovely to work with. On Run the World, it’s a show created by a woman and our showrunner’s a woman. I feel like [having a female showrunner] did foster a very intentionally open space where everybody felt comfortable pitching, even the lower-level writers like me. Our room was pretty small so I’ve been able to pitch and help break story and to really contribute and not feel afraid to speak up, and I think that’s always a fear for a staff writer. I just always felt like my opinions and thoughts were welcome, which was a really great feeling, an empowering feeling to have.
DeGraté: Room culture always starts at the top. I’ve had wonderful, wonderful experiences with fantastic showrunners and exceptional women in the room. From my first day as a staff writer, those women supported my contributions. So, as I got more seasoned and moved up in title, that was the kind of environment I wanted to create for newer writers. A good pitch is a good pitch. I don’t care where it comes from. As an upper-level and as a creator now, I don’t care where a pitch comes from.
I think it starts with females that are upper-level making sure that newer writers or mid-level writers who are coming in experience the entire process, from pitching to scripts to production to post. It’s a priority for me.
For both of you, what do you know now that you wish you had known, or that you would go back and tell yourself as a newer member or newer writer?
DeGraté: The imposter syndrome never goes away. It’s part of being a writer. It’s part of being, I think, a good writer. It keeps you on your toes. But also, don’t let it be this overwhelming presence that doesn’t allow you to experience the fun and the joy of that first year of staffing. I wish that I had celebrated more that first year and not been so focused on the anxiety and the stress of it. I left work every day completely sure I would be fired, in my soul I felt it, in my bones. Most staff writers feel that way.
And it’s also so important: No one will remember your pitch in 30 minutes. Please, every staff writer, every story editor, I want you to just take that stress off of your heart and off of your soul. No one will remember your pitch in 30 minutes. If it’s great, it’ll be on the board. If you bomb, you’re sitting there thinking about it for the rest of the day, thinking about what we’re thinking of you. We’re not. We’ve moved on. Be okay with that and just keep pitching. Pitching is a numbers game. I’ll look at a staff writer or story editor and I’m like, ya’ll are still on that pitch from 45 minutes ago.
Urama: In our minds, we’re like, our showrunners are gonna be at home at 9 p.m. sitting in bed and just like, that pitch from that low-level writer today was terrible.
DeGraté: I did it too! People will continue to do it after both of us… But, what I will also add, is find a mentor in the room. There’s just a powerful sisterhood that’s forming in the industry and I think everyone wants to be a part of it, whether in a formal capacity or not. Our doors are open, our hearts are open, and I would encourage every new female writer to find someone on staff who’s an upper-level and form a friendship and a mentorship. We’re there to support you. We’re not there to intimidate. We want to see you shine. And at 9 p.m., we’re not thinking about your 10 a.m. pitch that didn’t make it to the board.
What I am most impressed by is a newer writer who bombs, and then can continue to pitch right after that. That’s great. I love that.
Also, if you don’t get staffed on that show you had your heart set on, keep going! You never know, it could be a blessing in disguise. There are so many outlets now, and there are so many beautiful projects out there, that you will find your space. And understand also, every time you walk into a meeting, we’re rooting for you. I have never started a staffing meeting and thought, oh my God, this person’s gonna bomb and waste my time. I’m always thinking, please make my week and this process shorter and be awesome. We’re rooting for you!
(This article originally appeared in the March 25, 2022 issue of the WGAW Connect newsletter)