How I went from being a novelist to a writer on Priyanka Chopra’s Quantico

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Virginia Woolf was right: a writer needs an airy room of her own to create and dream. Alas, this room can also become an emotional crawl space in which to hide.

As a writer I have been alone with my stories for a long time. Sometimes it was terrifying because I was starting to wonder if I was going to be alone with these stories forever. However, recently the room started to get comfortable and womb-like.

I was working on a sprawling novel, I had an agent but was going into that illusory place that many writers start creeping towards: the place where you convince yourself that it’s ok if no one ever reads your work because you’re writing for the sake of writing. This is a place fraught with complacency and the peril of creative necrosis.

CUT TO BREAKTHROUGH

I lived in this room, with this novel, for ten years and then one day I got a message from my friend, the actress Purva Bedi, telling me that there was a new TV show, a major one, with a South Asian female protagonist, megastar Priyanka Chopra, and the producers were looking for a South Asian American female writer to round out the writing team.

I saw the message and for a moment, my heart surged with the possibilities. And then I remembered, oh right: I suck and have no experience writing for TV, let alone for a major American network. Purva asked if she should give the Executive Producer Jake Coburn my name. I said, sure, why not? I did not think I had a rat’s chance in hell.


Some claim that when you are about to die, your life flashes before your eyes. Well, when your life is about to change forever, and you are a self-loathing sort, i.e., a writer, every fear, every insecurity, every critic who ever told you you will never make it, suddenly shows up en masse and demands an audience.


It was such a specific category they were seeking to fill. I am not impressive on paper – well, as impressive as other South Asian American female writers who have published or been in the public eye. No fellowships or grants. So, I reclined back into my comfort zone and promptly forgot about the show.

Then one day, Purva texts me: get ready. Jake is going to call you. Some claim that when you are about to die, your life flashes before your eyes. Well, when your life is about to change forever, and you are a self-loathing sort, i.e., a writer, every fear, every insecurity, every critic who ever told you you will never make it, suddenly shows up en masse and demands an audience.

Jake called just as I was unpacking a conversation I had an eon ago, with my sophomore English teacher Mr Hilldebrand, who told me my writing was “maudlin and middling in quality”. I shoved the hirsute Hilldebrand back into my trauma vault and spoke to Jake. The conversation went well and I was hired soon after that.

CUT TO: INT. QUANTICO WRITER’S ROOM – MORNING.

Our hapless (but intermittently attractive) heroine walks into the offices of a major network TV show. She is directed into the room where she will work with other writers, who are younger and much more experienced than her.

With a group of ‘younger, more experienced writers’, Sharbari began helping write the lines for Priyanka’s American TV debut

They greet her warmly. She smiles, but inside she feels a terror she has never known. She knows they know she has no idea what the hell she is doing. She tells herself; don’t make sudden movements. Learn and listen. This is a new room and she is not in charge. She is no longer in her comfort zone; she is no longer safe. The walls of this room are covered in seeds of stories and ideas that don’t belong to her. Our heroine is scared and excited. Will she survive in this space?

CUT TO: SEVEN MONTH LATER…

I’m still here. I’m still in the writer’s room of the hit TV show Quantico. Priyanka Chopra, my fellow desi, is owning it. And I am writing for her. I have had to shut down my novelist’s brain and learn to pitch ideas to a committee of smart, talented writers and learn to think in network TV story arcs, in episodes, and to re-imagine story structure.

There is no space for languid character reveals. I have had to learn how to formulate ideas fast and articulate them quickly and succinctly; to use my skills to bring to life someone else’s vision, the show creator Josh Safran’s, while finding something of my own in the process.

I am still struggling with pitching to the room. This is an alien concept to a solitary novelist. I’m not great at it – yet. Sometimes my voice is drowned out and sometimes I get a word in, and those moments are exhilarating. Rejection of my ideas is immediate, as is acceptance. There is a hierarchy. Yet we are a unit too, we all live with these characters and stories. We disagree and we laugh – a lot. And, for the time being, I am no longer alone.

Sharbari Zohra Ahmed is a writer of fiction and plays and TV, all the while living in Connecticut, US, with her son.




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