Join TV writer and author of the memoir The Officer’s Daughter, Elle Johnson, as she shares her reflection on the process of turning a family tragedy into a heart-wrenching story of love, violence, coming of age, secrets, justice and forgiveness.
“I just felt like I had stories I wanted to tell, and one of the stories I really wanted to tell was the story of my cousin Karen. Because it was something that was living inside of me and I was still carrying it. Deep down, I felt like this was something that I wanted to learn how to put out into the world at some point.”ELLE JOHNSON
What’s in Store
- Discover how to process and investigate shame through writing
- Learn what stories are meaningful for you to tell
Prompt #1: Shame
Write about your most embarrassing or shameful moment.
Prompt #2: Reflection
You won’t have to share your most embarrassing or shameful moment with us. If you tailored your response because you thought you would have to share aloud, reflect on that. Now write what that moment was actually like or reflect on that writing experience and how it was a transformative experience for you.
Prompt #3: Sensory Details
Think about the sensory details in your most embarrassing or shameful moment. What did the event feel like? What did you hear? What other sensory details do you remember?
Q&A with Elle Johnson
- Could you elaborate on how exactly you come to writing about your family knowing that maybe your other family members won’t be cool with it? Because when you share about your personal life, it seems like you’re also airing out dirty laundry for other people.
- Yeah. I mean, it was tough. It took me five years to write this and once I had a first draft, I sent it immediately to my mother and my sister. And I will say my sister has never spoken to me about it, will not talk about it. And my mother and I have had an ongoing discussion about her discomfort with this, her begging me not to try to publish it. Her being very upset with it was difficult because I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve been in such a stalemate with someone where it’s like, I totally understand your point of view, but I also feel like I’m going to publish it. It’s my story, and I should be able to tell my story.
What it’s done for me, in terms of other things that I write, you kind of develop the boundaries for what can you talk about and what you won’t talk about. And I really felt like with this story, this story is my story and involves other people. But I really tried not to go into detail about other people’s lives or feelings except as they influenced me. I know there are some people who will say, well, if you didn’t want to be written about, then you should have acted better, and I don’t subscribe to that. I think that’s a little harsh. But I do feel like we have a right to tell our own stories. And if anything good has come out of this in terms of just my mother’s reaction, it’s definitely opened the dialogue between us about these things.
It goes back to shame and secrets and I think that for her, a lot of it is the shame of not having processed her own feelings about what happened. And I think that’s a lot of it. People feel like they have a process, their own shame. Whereas I or you, the writer, you’ve gone through this tremendous process where all you’ve done is think about this and how it affects you and what it means and what it means to you and other people and the people who are involved maybe haven’t done the same process, and will view it differently because they don’t want to look at it. So it’s all very revealing in terms of where people are emotionally with whatever the situation that you’re writing about is. But it’s definitely tricky with family members because, you know, you have a right to tell your story and sometimes they may be a part of it.
- What is the biggest difference between writing for TV versus your book and other prose?
- Well, the biggest difference is the book is the end product. Whereas in television you are writing as a collaborator, your work has to be interpreted by actors and directors, it gets edited. It’s such a collaborative thing versus, you know, the book is the end product and you are responsible for making people feel it versus handing that over to an actor who has to give a performance. So I would say that that’s really one of the biggest differences.
- Do you have a daily writing practice for anything that really helps you get out of a writing funk?
- I definitely believe you should write every day. It’s like exercising or working a muscle. If you don’t do it every day, it’s like being an athlete, you’re going to lose it. So I think it’s good to write every day. And one of the things I do is, I try to make it something that’s doable. I’m talking about when I’m not doing my day job of writing TV, but writing prose, because I try to keep working on other projects. I write for 15 minutes. I know I can do 15 minutes a day. I know people who are like, oh, I try to write for 2 hours. Like, you’re never going to write for 2 hours. Life happens. Don’t do that to yourself. 15 minutes. And then you’ll probably end up writing more, but make it something that’s manageable.
Sometimes I’ll sit in front of my computer, and if I’m only writing a paragraph I’m like, that’s a good day, because as long as I’m doing it every day, by the end of a certain period of time, I will have finished the work. So I just do it and keep it manageable.
Something else I also do is daily pages. If you write freehand in a notebook about what it is that you’re writing about, just let the thoughts come. Don’t try to edit it, don’t try to write it. You know, just get those thoughts down on paper so that you have something that you can work from and keep going back to.
- Did your publisher ask you to get a release from your mother because of the information about her?
- No. Because all of the information in there is true. It’s not like I’ve said anything that’s not true or, you know— it’s all true. So that’s the only thing they asked me if it was you know, if I would attest to the fact that everything was real. And yes, it is. So they didn’t get a release or anything like that. Although I do know that that could be a problem for some people.
- Were there times when you experienced writer’s block and how did you move past that?
- Well, with a memoir, I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s writer’s block, it’s more kind of confusion over, you know, what do I tell? They always say that the difference between memoir and fiction is with memoir, it’s about chipping away at what’s there. You know, scaling it back because you have a full story. It’s just a matter of taking a particular event in your life and whittling it down and finding those other incidents that will bolster it or help tell the story better.
I never felt like I had writer’s block because I had the whole story to tell. I did feel at times confused as to the best way to tell it. And you know, honestly, you just have to write yourself out of it. You just have to keep writing. I did so many drafts and so many chapters that will never see the light of day, but that’s just the process. You write a lot of stuff that’s never going to be included, and you have to be okay with that and not feel like it’s wasted. It’s never wasted. As long as you’re writing, you’re learning craft and getting better and understanding how to edit yourself, so it’s never wasted. But it’s time-consuming and you just have to be willing to get in there and write chapters of things that you might not use any of this, but you’ve got to see where it goes. I have to write it before I know that.
This event was originally recorded on November 12th, 2021.
Originally from Hollis in Queens, NY Elle’s writing is heavily influenced by growing up in a law enforcement family. Her debut memoir, THE OFFICER’S DAUGHTER, tells the story of her 16-year-old cousin’s murder and is about a terrible tragedy, the toll this trauma event takes on her family, and the power—and ultimately the freedom—of forgiveness. Drawing on her true crime experience, Elle has worked for more than 20 years as a TV writer, Executive Producer and Showrunner in Los Angeles. Her credits include police procedurals LAW & ORDER, CSI: MIAMI, and THE GLADES. She has also written for a number of character-driven series, such as Lifetime’s critically acclaimed civil rights drama ANY DAY NOW, CBS’s GHOST WHISPERER, TNT’s SAVING GRACE, MTV’s FINDING CARTER, and Freeform’s groundbreaking series THE FOSTERS. In 2021 Elle won an NAACP Image award as co-showrunner and executive producer on Netflix’s limited series SELF MADE: INSPIRED BY THE LIFE OF MADAM CJ WALKER starring Octavia Spencer, who was nominated for an Emmy for her performance in the lead role. Elle is also a writer and Executive Producer on the Amazon original series BOSCH, based on the Michael Connelly detective novels. Photo Credit: Amina Touray
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