Godchaux ’81 discusses writing for television

by Kourtney Kawano | 4/5/15 5:25pm

It’s natural not to have life completely figured out by college. For Stephen Godchaux ’81, it took several years as a lawyer before he discovered a genuine interest in writing and producing television shows. Now, with more than a dozen television writing credits to his name and a Writers Guild Award nomination for Best Original Television Movie, Godchaux brings new meaning to the phrase “better late than never.”

How did you get into television writing?

SG: I came to Dartmouth knowing that I was interested in literature. I did some writing for The Dartmouth and a literary magazine called The Campus Magazine, but I graduated thinking I was going to be a lawyer. In fact, I went to law school and became a lawyer. It was still a few years down the road that I decided that I hated being a lawyer. I thought about what I might be good at, and that’s when I stumbled upon television writing.

What was the first job you took once you decided you wanted to quit law?

SG: I wrote a play and applied to the Yale [University] School of Drama as a playwright and, by some miracle, Yale accepted me. I spent three years getting my MFA in playwriting and, when I graduated, I moved to Los Angeles and started writing television scripts. My first job offer, believe it or not, was from “Law & Order” (1990). It had just won an Emmy for Best Drama, and, because I’m a fool, I did not take that job because I thought that I was funny, so I took a job with a little-known comedy on Fox called “Bakersfield, P.D.” (1993). It was a comedy about six cops in Bakersfield, California. Naturally, that show was canceled after [17] episodes.

When did you begin to work as a producer for shows?

SG: I continued writing on half-hours for about ten years. The working hours on half-hours are notoriously long and it depends on your boss, but you’re up all night in a writers’ room rewriting a script and after a certain point, I decided to switch over to hour-long shows. I wrote a spec script for “The West Wing” (1999) and that script landed me a couple of job offers and then, I got lucky and a guy who was running a show called “Dead Like Me” (2003) on Showtime got fired and I was hired to come in and help run and produce that show so that was my first big producing job as the head writer.

What are your favorite aspects of writing for television shows?

SG: I just heard this great line from “Mad Men” (2007) where Don Draper says to the character Peggy, “we’re creative — the least important, most important thing there is.” And sometimes you wonder whether writing scripts for television is an important thing to do with your life. But I find it’s deeply satisfying to create characters and create drama and comedy that are about something. For example, “Dead Like Me” is about an 18-year-old woman who is trying to figure out what her life is now that she’s dead. As crazy as it is now to write a television show and receive instantaneous reactions, even then in the early 2000s, I could tell that this is a show that affected people and got them thinking about how they’re living their lives, so it’s satisfying to know that you can have some kind of impact on people’s lives even though it’s just a short television show.

Do you have a routine when you’re writing or a specific place you go to work?

SG: I just sold a show to USA [Network]. It’s actually set at a fictitious university. It’s called “College.” I just handed in the second draft for that, and my routine has been to write at a place I have in Santa Monica, [California], where my desk faces west toward the ocean. I wake up at the same hour every day, and I approach it as if I were going to a job. I get up and sit at that desk and I don’t leave it until I’ve had a productive day. I try to keep regular hours. A lot of writers say they’re writing. A lot of writers when they’re taking walks, having lunch or talking to other people, they sort of convince themselves that they’re working hard. But the fact is that for me, you’re not really writing unless you’re writing. You’re actually writing. Writers tend to be a notoriously lazy group. You have to incur the kind of discipline to make sure you’re not throwing your time away. I wake up every morning and try to work hard every day. I don’t listen to music. I do my best not to go on the internet. I do my best not to get distracted.

How much time per week do you spend writing?

SG: I probably spend five to six hours a day, Monday to Friday. I don’t write that often on the weekends unless I’m on a deadline. For television writing, you have to get the script in on time. Someone described television as a compromise between art and running out of time.

Do you normally go into these writing sessions with an idea that you’ve previously thought of?

SG: I do keep a pen and pad on my night table and as things wind down the night before, I do try to keep distractions at a low level. When I wake up I try not to look at email. I know that the first thing I want to do is try to get to the flow of writing.

Have any of your episodes been based on real-life experiences?

SG: I try to steal from everything I can. I try to be a brilliant thief about other people’s lives and what I read and I’ll try to make it my own. There’s a famous line from Truman Capote where he defends writing about his friends and he says, “Well if they didn’t want me to write about it, they shouldn’t have done it.” I feel that’s sort of how I feel about writing. Sometimes you have to make a choice between writing about other people’s lives including your friends and your family or not. I often choose to write about it. I kind of change things and change names to protect the not so innocent. I’ve certainly stolen from everyone’s lives if they’re interesting, and I certainly steal from my own.

Besides “College,” do you have any other upcoming projects?

SG: I’m writing the film adaptation of a famous novel called “The Moviegoer” by Walker Percy. It won the National Book Award for fiction in 1962 and I’m writing the film for a movie producer who wants the rights to that. It’s a beautiful novel set in my hometown of New Orleans. A lot of people have tried to adapt this book and failed and I’m hoping that I can crack it.

And is there anything you do in your free time?

SG: I try to play tennis as often as I can to keep myself from going crazy. I think it’s important that things don’t fall apart sitting at the computer all day. Writing, especially when you’re not on a writing staff, is solitary stuff, so I try to make sure that I don’t isolate myself and continue to live my life so that I have experiences from which I can write. A lot of writers hole themselves off and turn into recluses, and it’s not a particularly healthy lifestyle, so I make sure I remain engaged and hang out with my friends and laugh and do things that keep the engine alive.

What advice would you give to students who are interested in a career in television writing or producing?

SG: At the end of the day, your biggest weapon as a writer is your mind. Just do what you can at school to equip yourself with the kind of mind that’s going to turn you into a fond writer, meaning analytically someone who writes well. Work on the craft of writing while you’re in college. God knows to read a lot of good writing. It’s not just any writing, but expose yourself to all the terrific writers who are out there. And when you feel like you have something to say, actually write.

A lot of young people come out here thinking that they’re just going to waltz their way into a job, and in some instances that will work because this is a business where friends do hire friends. They love young people on writing staffs. They want to hear that 20-something voice, that shift in cool iconic. But the fact is, if you can’t write, if you don’t know how to structure a story, then they’re probably not going to last very long.

If students are seriously interested in a career in television writing, they should write a great script. They should have an arsenal of scripts at the ready so that when someone does consider them, they can hand out a script that tells a great story, that’s well-written. It’s always going to be your best calling card — a terrific script. Some people can charm their way into a job, but if it’s not on the page, then you’re less likely to get hired.

This interview has been edited and condensed.