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Eli Attie: Writing the West Wing

We chat with Eli Attie -- a writer of the popular TV show "The West Wing" -- about keeping track of plot twists and trying not to second guess yourself.

In the world of writing, blank pages can be daunting. Behance caught up with Eli Attie to discuss his craft as Supervising Producer and writer for The West Wing. We were especially interested in Eli’s productivity as a writer, how ideas take a life of their own, and what guiding principles help him capture the ideas that have led to scripts, episodes, and ultimately nominations for multiple Emmy Awards and Writers Guild awards.

Eli took quite a jump from the work of professional politics to the entertainment industry (although some may not consider this such a leap). After serving as chief speechwriter for Al Gore from 1997 until Gore’s concession of the 2000 election (and previous stints with President Bill Clinton and Congressman Dick Gephardt), Eli was burned out and ready to change careers.As Eli describes it, “…there was a brand-new hit TV show about (politics). So, having been a political speechwriter, I just got the silly notion of becoming a screenwriter and called up the West Wing offices out of the blue. At the time, I wasn’t even a West Wing viewer, and didn’t know much about how TV shows work or how they hire people. Had I known more, I probably never would have made that call. But they hired me–as a writer in title, but really as a consultant at the beginning–and I just grew into the job and then started writing my own scripts. With a great deal of help from established producers there, like the co-creator John Wells, who spent a lot of time with me on my first few scripts, and another West Wing producer named Kevin Falls, with whom I co-wrote a couple.”

BEHANCE: Many creatives struggle to stay organized and manage their time carefully. What is your approach?

ATTIE: The sad fact is that I don’t always stay organized, and my time isn’t always well-spent in the conventional sense. Of course, the pressure of a script deadline is a great organizing principle; it’s amazing how much you can achieve when you simply have no alternative. But the thing about most creative endeavors is that ideas — and certainly, in a screenwriting sense, things like character and motivation and even the best bits of dialogue — need time to percolate. Sometimes, while you’re playing guitar or going for a long drive, ideas deepen and start to take on a life of their own. So the best advice I can give is probably to allow yourself time to breathe and time to have fun within your creative process.

The best way to learn and to improve is to do it, and then watch lots of movies and plays and better TV shows and analyze them for yourself.

BEHANCE: When you have new ideas for plots or pieces of dialogue, how do you capture them before they disappear?

ATTIE: I mostly scribble little notes to myself; if I’m in the middle of a script I usually keep a file on my computer for stray ideas. If they make any sense at all the following day, then I’m likely to use them.

BEHANCE: The Behance team is very focused on how creative professionals overcome the frustrations in getting ideas off the ground. When starting a new script, what are the greatest frustrations and challenges you face?

ATTIE: Just staring at a blank page, and knowing that at some point, it has to be full of words. It’s hard to say what idea will spark a storyline, or at least give you something to shape your thoughts around. Sometimes you spend days feeling like you’ve got nothing at all. But once you get that first burst of inspiration, that’s when you can apply a bit of craft and build something out of it.

BEHANCE: Most ideas never materialize. There are probably more half-written projects in the drawers and shelves of writers than there are books in the world. How do you stay focused and accountable to your goals in getting new ideas/projects off the ground? How do you make sure great ideas don’t bite the dust?

ATTIE: For me, it’s always been deadlines. Of course, I’ve mostly worked in TV, which is all about deadlines. But even in movies and freelance writing of different kinds, I think it helps to have someone — a producer or collaborator — set some kind of timeline and be at least semi-serious about holding you to it.

The hardest thing for a writer is managing that time when you’re not actually writing, which is when you’re most prone to doubt your own ideas.

BEHANCE: Are there any pieces of conventional wisdom in your field that you have defied along the way?

ATTIE: I don’t know enough of the conventional wisdom to defy it, I’m afraid. I’m not especially proud of this, but I’ve never taken a screenwriting course, and while I did read a couple of books about screenwriting — Syd Field and the usual things — it was before I’d written a line of dialogue in my life and I had no idea what most of them meant. The best way to learn and to improve is to do it, and then watch lots of movies and plays and better TV shows and analyze them for yourself.

BEHANCE: What is the hardest part of your craft?

ATTIE: The hardest thing for a writer, in my experience, is managing that time when you’re not actually writing, which is when you’re most prone to doubt your own ideas, to think that what you committed to paper earlier that day was silly and pointless. It’s hard to tell people to simply have more confidence in their ideas, but if you can’t do that, establish a period of the day in which you write, and then do anything possible to take your mind off of it after that.

More on Eli Attie:
ABC Australia
USA Today
IMDB Database

Comments (2)
  • Vince

    I enjoy working with Eli Attie. Smart, articulate, great at explaining his ideas to the actors. 

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