The Writers Room is a series that highlights women writers in television and film, who are making waves and creating projects that are built on inclusivity and visibility.
Growing up, Thembi Ford loved telling stories, but the Harvard University graduate didn’t think it could turn into a career.
“I kinda always knew I was really a writer, but the kind of student I was in school lent itself to more of a straightforward path and I didn’t pursue it,” she tells ESSENCE.
After graduating with a degree in economics, Ford began working in corporate America, first as a sales rep for Procter & Gamble, using her wit to “get more Swiffers on shelves,” and later for an international test preparatory company, creating standardized tests. Both positions left her wanting to do something else.
“I started writing at that point just to feel the juices flow, because it’s a good feeling,” Ford says. “The more I wrote, the more I felt like this could go some place.”
After earning a fellowship to pursue a Masters of Arts in Journalism at the University of Southern California, and blogging about pop culture on the side, Ford decided to try her hand at writing for the screen. Even though she had no experience and “no idea what she was doing,” Ford wrote a pilot and showed it to a friend who was already an established writer in the business.
The bold move ended up opening doors for Ford. While she freelanced on the side, she began earning TV jobs, like penning scripts for the BET Awards and editing for other writers. Earlier this year, Girls Trip co-writer Tracy Oliver got a hold of Ford’s pilot and offered her a staff writing gig on BET’s upcoming adaptation of First Wives Club.
“So now I’m really a writer, I guess,” Ford says.
ESSENCE caught up with Ford to talk about what it’s like landing her first real TV writing job, adapting a classic film for the small screen, and how other Black women can follow in her footsteps.
ESSENCE: What gave you the confidence to write a pilot after your master’s program? Thembi Ford: I had no idea what I was doing. I still tell myself I have no idea what I’m doing because I’m still not the person who can reel off a script very quickly. It’s still a very difficult process for me. [At the time], I still hadn’t learned about structure. Everything I knew about TV was from watching too much of it.
I was like, you know what? I’ve watched enough TV to write something. So I just wrote a character that was me, but not me. And put some things together that I always said and wrote them down. I got a trial copy of Final Draft[, a professional screenwriting software,] and the parts that were technical parts were trash because it was wrong, but as I showed it to people they helped me with it.
Someone I worked for always said, “When you write something, as soon as you show it to someone else it’s not yours anymore.” And that’s true. Once I let it be out there and let people see it and got positive feedback, I’m like, OK, maybe I can do this. Having that confidence is just a matter of asking, what’s the worst that can happen?
The First Wives Club is your first writers’ room. How did your expectations match up to the reality of the room?
It was so much cooler than expected. When I’d done the BET Awards that was a writers’ room, too, but it was very different work — and it was all men. This is very difficult, but it feels good. It’s fun work and you’re in there all day with these people.
Because First Wives Club was such a good environment — it was all women and one man, and very diverse — it was mostly “Black Girl Time” every day. And the white people who were there knew they were dealing with Black characters, so they were very aware.
It was super inclusive and wasn’t a place where people would sh-t on your ideas, which was by Tracy’s design. She was like, ‘I want this to be a place where you feel good [about] making pitches and don’t feel like someone’s going to shoot you down.’ By laying that groundwork, that’s how it was.
I didn’t realize, though, that in the writer’s room we decide what’s going to happen and the writer of that episode doesn’t control it. That was my biggest takeaway that I didn’t know about from all the TV I watched. The showrunner has to agree that we’re going to go [in] this direction with the show. It’s not the person who wrote the episode necessarily. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned.
I know you can’t talk about show specifics, but since it’s your first TV writing job, did you feel nervous about adapting an iconic film for the small screen?
It’s still very scary. Gearing up for the premiere, I’m already getting butterflies just thinking about it.
As a lowly staff writer, I have way less control over the broad strokes that preserve the legacy of the film, which I loved. After I read the pilot, I knew it was going to be funny. As we went through and crafted the characters more, [the TV show] became its own thing. It’s more inspired by the movie, because if you think about how different the times are and to have it be Black women, it’s so different from the movie, but also much like it. It’s definitely not a wasted opportunity, by any means.
This is actually the second First Wives Club adaptation for television; the previous one didn’t work out. But I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be really funny.
Unlike some of the others writers I’ve interviewed for this series, you’ve had an unconventional path to writing for TV. Can you talk about the different ways people can get into the business, because it can feel very intimidating.
It’s very intimidating. My senior year of college, a TV writer came in to talk about being a TV writer and I left with the idea that it would be so cool, but there is no simple path to being a TV writer.
The only path is to write, and wait, and hope, and work at it. And I was raised that you go to this school, and then that type of school to get certified to do this job.
Everything I did I was so excited to get it when I got it, until the reality set in. Now we’re on hiatus and we don’t know if this show is going to come back or not, or if I’ll be asked back or not. So in the meantime I have to look for other opportunities and it’s really daunting.
Because the nature of trying to make it in Hollywood, it seems like you have to fully commit to make it happen. It’s hard to have a day job while you break into the business, so how do you do that and still make ends meet financially?
It’s a very lucrative field, so I just live beneath the means of what I was bringing in when I was bringing it in.
And if something happens, I’ll be working at Trader Joe’s or walking dogs, which is pretty much the reality of creative work, because people don’t always want to pay you for it.
What’s your best advice for Black women who want to break into screenwriting?
It’s cliché, but my best advice would be to tell your story because nobody else can do it and it’s important. One of my good friends, who’s a novelist once told me, ‘You have to believe what you have to say is important, or else you can’t do it.’ It’s really easy not to do it because no one cares if you don’t do it, but someone will care if you do.
When we started talking you said, ‘I’m a writer, I guess.’ How did you know your voice was valuable and worthy of being heard?
I didn’t know. But I realize now for sure that it’s important. I’m not always sure if my ideas are good, but I know my approach is important and what I have to say is important.
I know there are people who are way less interesting, with way less to say, who are sitting on piles of money from the stuff that they write. You could be some lump of a white woman and talk about what you’re going through and people will eat it up, and it’s not always like that for Black women — and that’s by design.
But the more we all do the work, the more we can all benefit from it. And I think there’s enough room for everybody.