Emmy and Golden Globe winning writer, showrunner and producer, Jesse Alexander, has worked on some of the most iconic shows in television including Alias, Lost, Heroes and American Gods. He’s a longstanding member here at theOffice and his excitement and respect for the craft of writing has always inspired me. I cornered him in the breakroom one day to discuss a bit of what he’s learned over the last twenty years in the business.
Okay, Jesse, let’s start at the beginning. Baby Jesse. What is it that made you want to be a writer?
You know, I was lucky enough to grow up when media wasn’t everywhere and always in your face. I was an only child and my parents did their own shit and I had a lot of time to myself and I just read a ton of books. I was always reading. And then I started coming up with my own stories. I was into movies and TV, of course, and then just kind of realized that people actually wrote that stuff too. This is an embarrassing overshare, but when I was a little kid, at the end of these Stephen Cannell shows, when that tag of him typing on a typewriter would appear, I would yell out, Thank you, Stephen Cannell!
Oh Baby Jesse, I love you.
I was so into it. I just thought it was rad. A friend of my dad was working at ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] back in the late 70s, and I got to see them doing stop motion animation on the walkers for “The Empire Strikes Back” and that was another one of those pivotal moments of oh, people are making these things.
And with writing, I could do it all on my own. It wasn’t for anyone else. When I was in high school, authors were cool. P.J. O’Rourke, John Hughes, “National Lampoon”. If I had a crazy weekend with some friends, I would come home and write the Hunter Thompson version of the weekend or I’d copy Bret Easton Ellis or someone like that.
So it seems like you were primed to appreciate the process of writing pretty early on. You were using it to work through your experiences.
Yeah. I wasn’t doing it to get something. I remember I got to speak about this at a Microsoft symposium with all these super smart Silicon Valley people and they were like, what’s the “win-state” for you? How do you know if you’ve won? And I was like, uh, I get to keep doing it? When writers complain and say “I hate the writing part”… that is the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard.
I think a lot of people in this business are just slogging it out to get to the finish line. The process isn’t fun at all, maybe because they’re always worried about what other people are going to think. They’re doing it for other people.
I think I kind of got lucky in that my mom was both super supportive and incredibly critical. She’d tell me I was awesome and also shred everything I generated. I’ve never been too bummed if anyone criticized me about my work. I’m just gonna crank out what I’m gonna crank out. It doesn’t mean I won’t take notes, but I don’t take anything too personally. It’s like the samurai going into battle. You know you’re already dead, so you just have to enjoy the process and take strength in your skill set.
And when would you say you really learned how to write?
(laughs) I honestly still don’t know if I know how to write. It’s something I’m always chasing. My shelf is covered with every writing book. I’ve certainly learned more about what’s important in terms of finding ways to create characters that people can connect with who are relatable and relevant and are going through something and facing conflict. But I still honestly don’t think I know what I’m doing, essentially.
I have ADD and was late diagnosed when my kid was having challenges and he was getting diagnosed for it and I was like, wait a second, the lack of working memory and so much of it suddenly made sense. So I did this weird thing over a hiatus between television shows where I memorized everything that I knew about writing and created this mnemonic for it that I could write out by hand every day. All these fundamental lessons I’ve learned from books and people I’ve worked with like “track the character emotionally” or “make it cinematic” or “the power of the time cut”. I needed to be able to revisit what I knew about writing because I wasn’t necessarily holding it in my head.
That’s fascinating. And kind of insane.
But it sounds like it gave you more confidence in your work.
It did, yes. Waking up to this ADD diagnosis, I just kind of took a step back to look at myself in a fresh way and take a little bit of control over who I wanted to be in terms of my writing.
So you were an only child writing by yourself and yet you have forged this incredible career in television, a distinctly collaborative medium. Plus you write here at theOffice. Is it safe to say that you now value working with others, having someone across the table.
100%. It’s why theOffice has been so great for me when I’m not in a room. Part of being a professional writer is doing it every day and it really helps to have a place to go where you can make it a job and where you see other people around you who are taking it as seriously and treating it like a job. There’s something about working on anything in a space with like-minded people doing the same thing that just kind of locks you in on it.
I had been doing features and assignments and stuff like that for ten years and it was so solitary. So I got into TV in 2001 and it was a place where the writer could have power. You were on such an insane schedule of twenty two episodes a year and they needed somebody to lay those railroad tracks so the train didn’t crash. And it was amazing, an amazing experience.
Now a lot of that has really changed with the lower orders for TV, you know, and it’s just very different, so now the writers don’t have the power they used to. Television is a much more director/producer-driven medium now than I think a lot of people would like to admit.
There’s also a lack of mentoring or developmental structure for young writers to enter the craft and learn in terms of both their ability to tell stories and their ability to produce episodes. The chance for people to learn on the job has been diminished a little bit just based on the shifts in the way content and shows are made, the way shows are written with smaller rooms and then maybe a couple of writers taking everything downstream. There just isn’t as much opportunity. We used to have a room with ten people in it for the whole year with all different levels of experience and everybody could learn from each other and that doesn’t really exist anymore. Certainly not all together in a room all day. Hopefully there are going to be some new ways for people to share what they know and to learn from each other, but I don’t know what that’s gonna look like.
I know you’ve been writing video games, recently. How does that compare?
It’s very different. I love it. I’ve always played games. And I always love learning new things and being in a new environment and having to change. And it’s nice to be able to bring value to a new space. Coming from my world in TV and going into that world, they look at me differently, you know. I have different experiences and ways of looking at things that are exciting for people in the gaming space, just as I’m excited by what they’re doing. So there’s a creative energy there that’s fun.
I also think games have a reach that TV doesn’t anymore. I work on a game called “Valorant” that’s one of the most popular games in the world with an incredibly diverse player base and has one of the highest numbers of women participating in that game. Representation and positivity in the characters in the game and the gameplay is an incredible force for good on a global scale. It brings people together and gives them kind of a common reference point and a common experience in the way that TV shows used to do but don’t really do anymore.
Is there any advice that you would give yourself when you were first starting out?
Oh man… certainly I was more of a force of nature in my early years because I was so fucking ADD’d out and… I’m not gonna say manic but… I was excited about what I was doing. And as I mentioned earlier, I was doing it for the love of doing it. And back in the day, TV was the thing that came between the commercials – and it’s going to be that again, just to give you the vision of the future – but it helped the people I was working for to have someone like me who wasn’t afraid to say, This is awesome. Are you crazy? We’re doing this! We HAVE to do this. But still I definitely burned up a lot of, you know, political capital, because the guy who cares about it that much and is willing to put himself out there is very often, you know, not the guy people want to hire. The people at an executive level, they don’t want the guy who’s going to challenge them, they don’t want to risk being wrong.
So I definitely stuck my neck out on things and it helped all those things creatively. They would not be the same shows if I hadn’t been a part of it, and yet, I definitely would have told myself, to just, like, chill out a little bit. (laughs)
But also, you know, that was the thing that allowed me to just crank out material and get things done.
Yeah, and it sounds like that’s an essential part of your curious nature. In the same way that you’re excited by working in the video game space. It’s like you need something new, you need to be challenged in some way.
Absolutely, I just need to keep learning. I don’t want to go stale. That’s why It’s hard for me to watch any TV now because it’s all so familiar. After doing it for so long you can almost hear the lines that are about to come out of the person’s mouth. It’s so nice when you see a great voice who’s also an amazing storyteller, whether it’s something new like “Beef” or something like season two of “Fleabag“. I mean that’s the greatest show I have ever seen in my life.
I could not even believe what I was watching. After that it was like, how can anyone ever make anything again?!
Okay, final question. Any advice for someone just starting out.
Just crank stuff out. Crank out as much as possible. Do not just focus on one thing and get locked into redoing it a billion times. Keep generating material. That’s certainly how I got better and learned and gained the skills. You just have to make lots of stuff and put it out in the world. And keep doing it over and over and over again. And also, this is not a good way to make a living. You should not do this with the expectation that you will make a living doing this. You should do it because it is the thing you have to do, because it is the thing that you do anyway.
Well, I think I speak for TV lovers everywhere when I say: Thank you, Jesse Alexander!
Jesse has more scribe tips over on his site and below is that mad genius mnemonic he scribbles out whenever he needs to remind himself how to write.
2 thoughts on “Thank you, Jesse Alexander!”
What a great read and interview – and love that you included Jesse’s mnemonics!
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Glad you enjoyed it, Barbara!