In certain fields, there are a few people who are, indisputably, the masters. Serena Williams rules over tennis; Meryl Streep leads American acting; Gordon Ramsay and Anthony Bourdain preside over cooking. And in the world of TV writing, it's Shonda Rhimes who commands the platform. The mind behind Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, among so much else, is a massive force in pop culture, and it's no surprise that she was chosen to lead MasterClass' new Writing for Television seminar. The 30-lesson class features Rhimes sharing all there is to know about scripting must-see TV — and it includes the best piece of advice the showrunner says she has to give for those who want to follow in her footsteps.
"You can’t tell anybody that you want to be a writer, or you’re trying to be a writer," Rhimes says, speaking via phone in early April. "If you’re writing every day, then you’re a writer. You may not be a working writer, but you are a writer. And if you’re not writing every day, and you tell me that writing is your passion and is who you are and who you want to be, you have to examine why you’re not writing every day... maybe you just like the idea."
In other words: don't just sit around and dream — get sh*t done. It's a message that Rhimes has frequently pushed, most memorably in her 2014 Dartmouth College commencement speech, and in the MasterClass lessons, which became available earlier this month, she explains in detail that in order to be a writer, you must, well, write. All the time. Every day. No matter what.
That drive and self-motivation has helped propel Rhimes to the top of her field; few people in television — or any platform, for that matter — are as prolific as the showrunner, who not only created Grey's, Scandal, and Private Practice, but acts as an executive producer on How to Get Away With Murder, The Catch, and the upcoming Still Star-Crossed; wrote a bestselling memoir, Year of Yes; and has several other projects in the works. Yet while her work ethic may be innate, her TV writing and leadership skills, Rhimes explains in the MasterClass, didn't come automatically.
"I think almost everything in that class is about the things that I wished I knew when I started, and just learned on the job," she tells me, explaining that since Grey's was her first small-screen gig, it acted as her primer in all things TV. "[From] how to be a leader to how to run a writers room to how to deal with a TV network, how to assert your power, how to even know that you have it... Everything that I’ve ever learned, I’ve learned while writing TV. It wasn’t as if I had an education ahead of time."
And so for Rhimes, getting the opportunity to "present a lot of knowledge to people for very little" through MasterClass was too good to pass up, she says. "If you don’t have a chance to go to film school, or you don’t have a chance to come to Hollywood right away, or you’re trying to figure out what you want to do, or you’re interested but don’t know how to take that next big step, this is the way to do it," the showrunner explains. "[Students] can feel like they got a real education, because they will have gotten one."
And not just on screenwriting. In the 30 lessons, Rhimes teaches viewers how to plan out plots and develop narratives, yes, but she also shares her thoughts on some of the topics she frequently gets asked about — such as the apparently mind-blowing fact that her shows feature smart, strong, complicated women.
"I will never cease to be surprised that now, in 2017... that that is still a question that is being asked with a great amount of energy and frequency," the super-producer tells me. "It's very surprising to me, and sad, honestly. We haven’t seen that much progress."
Through her several shows currently and formerly on air, the producer has singlehandedly changed the ratio of women on-screen, as well as the amount of people of color featured on television. Rhimes has been vocal about her dislike for the word "diversity," preferring to say that she's working, instead, to "normalize" the TV landscape by populating her shows with non-white actors, as well as those of all genders and sexual identities. And while she's the first to admit that television still has "a long way to go" when it comes to representation, Rhimes says she's noted positive changes in recent years as shows featuring people of color like Scandal and black-ish have found success.
"Having stories about many different kinds of people, and having shows with many different kinds of people in them, that became a thing that everyone was willing to do," the showrunner explains. "I also think that as the executive ranks of these places become more filled with women and more filled with people of color — I see it happening all around me whenever I look at these places, from the lower ranks all the way up to the higher ranks — that also changes the way things are done and the way things are looked at."
And while there will always be critics who argue that diversity doesn't sell, or white men who don't understand the struggles women and minorities face in Hollywood, Rhimes doesn't care; she's too busy making her must-see shows to worry about other people's opinions.
"I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what men, what other people, have to say about these topics. That doesn’t actually affect me, and it doesn’t affect how much work there is still to be done that I need to be doing," she says. "So I don’t really spend a lot of time listening to people who don’t understand what’s happening... that’s not really productive time for me."
Intentional or not, it's another piece of must-hear advice from Rhimes, and one everyone, not just writers, can take to heart: focus not on the naysayers, but on the work you could be doing to make the world look like you know it should.