Marissa Jo Cerar: Insights From a Newly Minted TV Staff Writer

Readers of my blog first became familiar with Marissa Jo Cerar in January 2013, after her spec screenplayConversion was named to 2012’s The Black List. Following her placement, Marissa was generous enough to do an interview with me, sharing with my readers the insights, experiences and lessons that had brought her to that moment in her career.

A month and a half later, I met Marissa for dinner when I had the good fortune to unexpectedly walk in on a pivotal and powerful moment in this promising writer’s career: Five minutes before I arrived, Marissa got the call that changed everything: She had been offered a staff writing position on a TV show with a guaranteed multi-episode pickup. Two months into life in the writer’s room, Marissa generously took the time to answer questions for my readers about this new evolution in her professional life.

How did you come to be a staffed writer on a TV show?
My TV agents at ICM were amazing in getting me this gig.  I wrote my first spec pilot last summer, and as soon as my agents heard about a new show that had a lot of similarities and connections to my own family they jumped on it, got me read and set up meetings.  I then met network executives, producers, and creators who responded to my material, and I did my best to convince them I could do the job even though I’d never been staffed before.  It all happened very fast, and I couldn’t have been staffed on a better show.  It’s been wonderful because the showrunners and writing staff are such talented people who, as a major bonus, are also kind, supportive and hilarious.

What are the expectations on a writer staffed for the first time on a TV show?
This varies, and every staff writer you ask will give you a different answer.  I was very nervous before I started.  I didn’t know what to expect.  I asked a handful of TV writer friends for advice.  Everyone had different bits of guidance.  I’d heard horror stories about being a first time staffer, so I was terrified to start as the lowest gal on the totem pole in the room.  As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about because everyone on our show wants each writer to succeed.  Thankfully, I’m surrounded by good people.

From my novice point of view, as a staff writer your voice should never be the loudest in the room.  You have to read the room and figure out when you should and should not pitch ideas or support or negate someone else’s.  There’s an art to working in a writer’s room, and I am still learning.  Some say staff writers should speak once a day.  We have a small staff and everyone is expected to contribute.  Every room and every show is different, I’m told.  But we have a lot of fun working together – our room is a safe place.

A lot of writers work hard towards this moment, but not everyone gets there. What advice would you have to give to those pursuing this path?
Work hard.  Be nice.  When taking meetings avoid talking exclusively about yourself.  It can be easy to go from meeting to meeting, blabbering about yourself and your work over and over and over again, while forgetting there’s another human sitting across from you.  You should really take the time to learn about the people you’re meeting as well.  I have met some of the loveliest folks on meetings; even if I didn’t get a job I made a connection.

Make others feel comfortable.  The job consists of spending many hours in a room with people, pitching ideas, supporting others’ ideas, debating, and telling personal stories.  Be cool.

Read pilots.  Watch TV.  I am, by no stretch of the imagination, an expert (duh!!!), I can only speak from my experience: when writing a spec pilot, don’t worry about it getting made.  Write something that showcases your voice.  Many say you can’t write about religion, but the last script I wrote about religion, CONVERSION, got on The Black List and is under option with a director attached.  A dark pilot script about televangelism got me my first staffing job on a family drama.  Just write what you truly believe will showcase your talents best and make you stand out among the hundreds of samples people have to read when staffing.

Surround yourself with a team of reps that know you.  You’re more than your material.  I’m fortunate that I have agents and managers who know about my life, my unique background, my interests, and they make sure the right people read my material and meet me.

Looking back on your career until now, what are some of the things you would do differently if you could go back and redo them? 

I would worry less about what I thought people wanted me to write – or what people told me I should be writing – and spend more time writing material I really believed in.  The more I love an idea, the better my material is, and if it never sells or never gets me a job, at least I’m proud of it.

How does life change for you now that you are a staffed writer?
Well, I can’t stay up late or fly to Illinois four times a year to see my parents!  I have a real job now, and I love it.  This morning I turned in my outline for my first episode!  I get to spend my days (and evenings) with fascinating writer