THE EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY OF AWARD-WINNING SCREENWRITER TONI ANN JOHNSON
1. Tell me about your journey to your success
It’s been a LONG, ever evolving, circuitous process. If there’s a destination — a place where I finally say, this is success — I may not have arrived yet. However, I’ve certainly had periods of success in my varous artistic endeavors. I began as an actress in New York City. After graduating from the drama program at Tisch School of the Arts, I eventually reached a point wherein I’d co-written a play off Broadway, produced by The Negro Ensemble Company, and was also acting in that play, while at the same time doing a recurring role on an ABC soap called LOVING. That was in the early 90s. I would not have called that period of my career hugely successful, but in hindsight, I was making a living doing something I enjoyed and I was, for the most part, proud of what I was doing.
My next “success” came after I moved to Los Angeles with a play I’d written for myself to star in. I was struggling trying to find acting roles, when I decided to set the pursuit of acting aside to focus solely on getting my play produced. Within two years, I had production of the play mounted by the Fountainhead Theatre Company. Diahann Carol’s daughter Susan Kay produced it along with Steven Adams, who also directed. Simultaneously, I received a fellowship to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab with the same play and I was signed by a big literary agent, Dave Wirtschafter.
Wirtschafter arranged a performance of my play for a large group of movie producers and studio executives. Della Reese performed in it with me, and this event launched my screenwriting career. That was in the spring of 1994. After that event I had back to back screenwriting assignments through 2003. During that period I had three TV movies and a pilot produced, as well as another production of my play, which was done by The New York Stage and Film Company at Vassar College. It starred Nicole Ari Parker in the role I wrote for myself. Looking back, this was a successful time. I was working constantly and living in a beautiful place near Beverly Hills. I was well paid, and my projects moved forward into production. I also won two Humanitas Prizes and the Christopher Award during this time. And I met with famous and interesting people, including Dustin Hoffman, Murray Schisgal (writer of Tootsie). Whitney Houston, Robert Redford, Vanessa L. Williams and others.
The pilot I wrote was based on the movie Save the Last Dance. I was a participating writer on the feature as well, but I was the middle writer (in between Duane Adler and Cheryl Edwards), and though I wrote six drafts of that script, I did not ultimately receive screen credit. I was, however, hired again by the producers (Cort/Madden) to write the pilot and to create the show. The pilot was produced (as opposed to being a “presentation,” which is common but isn’t a full production). Getting a pilot made is very exciting. AND, it’s equally as disappointing if that pilot does not make it onto the air. Ours did not get on the air, but it was quite a thrilling ride nonetheless.
After the pilot didn’t get picked up, I realized I was burned out. And I also realized I hadn’t written anything original in so long that I was losing my own voice. I was a working “writer for hire,” which means I was executing other people’s ideas, rather than writing my own stories. In addition to that, I was invariably writing about people of color and doing so in situations where people of color were not the ones controlling the fate of the material. “Ruby Bridges” was an exception. I had Euzhan Palcy as a director and Leah Keith as one of the executives, and I believe having these two brilliant Black women on the team made a huge difference in how well the film turned out. In my opinion, Ruby Bridges captured Black people’s full range of humanity. I found this not to be the case on other projects I worked on. When there were no people of color involved in the development of content about people of color, typically the perspectives of those in charge was mainly influenced by other films and TV shows, which were inherently lacking in authenticity. When my superiors were actually people of color, the perspective aligned with mine. It came from real life which, in my opinion, led to more nuanced, and interesting work than a perspective drawn from movies made by the dominant culture for a mainstream audience.
After the pilot, I bowed out of screenwriting and the Hollywood life I’d been living. I bought a small, inexpensive, fixer upper house in a working class Black neighborhood and sequestered myself in that house. I lived on savings from my screenwriting days, and wrote a first novel. It took me three years. I was able to get a renowned book agent, Marie Brown, to represent the book but it did not sell. I was crushed. I realized I needed to learn the craft of fiction. So I applied to an MFA in Creative Writing program. I was waitlisted. Again, I was crushed. This was a dark period and I was frustrated and depressed. It felt like nothing I did yielded a positive outcome. I didn’t give up. I wrote a different writing sample for the program. I requested an interview with the chair of the department, and I expressed my desire to be admitted. I reapplied and finally got accepted.
While I was waiting to see if I’d get into that program, I was invited to pitch myself as a writer for a dance movie. I got the job and the assignment started during my first semester of graduate school. Because it was a low-residency program, I was able to do both.
The film turned out to be Step Up 2: The Streets. It premiered in February of 2008 and I graduated with my MFA in Creative Writing in December of 2008.
The movie did well financially and the massive residual checks allowed me to stay home and write without having to have a job for about ten years. During that time, I rewrote my novel. I was unable to get an agent to represent the revised book, but I submitted it myself to small presses and I sold it to one in 2013. It came out mid-2014, and I then submitted it to the NAACP Image Awards and received a nomination for Outstanding Literary Work by a Debut Author. For me, that nomination was validation that my fiction had potential. While it wasn’t the most lucrative time, it felt like the biggest success I’d had. If success is measured in money, then Step Up 2: The Streets was my biggest success — it was an international hit, and I receive a percentage of that success. But it wasn’t “my” story, and I don’t measure success in money alone. I measure it in how I feel about the work, and also in how it’s received. The Image Award nomination for my novel felt like a big success to me, because it was for my own work and because it’s a significant literary award. And because it put me in the company of the best, most lauded writers in the literary world. I was sitting at a table with Jericho Brown, Gregory Pardlo, and Claudia Rankine!
I did not win the Image Award, but the nomination meant the world to me.
After that I began focusing on a collection of short stories that I’d begun in graduate school. These stories (which became the book that won the Flannery O’Connor Award) are linked, and all of them are related to my (Black) family’s experience living in an all white, upstate New York town.
I wrote and submitted these stories for more than a decade. I received hundreds of rejections and several acceptances. My book agent loved the stories and helped me turn them into a book. At first, she saw the collection as a novel, not a story collection. Unfortunately, we did not sell the version of it that went out as a novel. This was devastating because we developed the book over a period of five years. To put in all that effort and yield nothing was deeply depressing. The editorial feedback was that there was too much going on (one editor called it unwieldy), and also that the book didn’t have the shape of a novel; it wasn’t building toward a particular climax and/or pay off. This was not a surprise to me because I didn’t conceive it as a novel. I always saw it as a story collection.
Fortunately, I had won Accents Publishing’s novella contest in 2020 and my novella Homegoing was released by the press in May of 2021. This publication helped mitigate my disappointment about the “novel” not selling. Homegoing had actually been one of the stories (the last one) in the long collection.
I thoroughly enjoyed the release of Homegoing. I love reading from my work and I was able to do this during Zoom events in April and May of this year and it kept my spirits up as I thought about what to do with the longer book of stories.
In early May of 2021, I took the long book apart, removed about half of the stories in the collection, and I went back to my original vision of a short story collection. This is what I submitted to the Flannery O’Connor Award and that turned out to be successful. So that’s where I am now, and I’m exceedingly grateful for this amazing honor. There’s been a lot of disappointment and rejections and having experienced many lows makes this win especially gratifying. I appreciate it more than I can adequately express. I am so thankful! And to have the endorsement of Roxane Gay is even beyond the best hopes I had for this project. She is guiding light in the literary world and I feel incredibly fortunate to have had her eyes on my work. I actually screamed and lost my voice when I received the news.
2. What advice would you give to young women and girls who want to follow in your footsteps as a screenwriter and novelist?
The first thing I would advise is that if there’s anything else you think you’d be fulfilled and happy doing, do that other thing if you can. Pursuing a career as a screenwriter and/or as a novelist comes with no guarantee of success. I wouldn’t discourage anyone who truly wants to write, but you might have to be willing to write without any payoff for a long time. So if you don’t have the grit to suffer failure and rejections, possibly for many years, do something else.
If you MUST write and if you’d be writing even if you knew there might never be success, then proceed. Find a way to take care of your financial responsibilities while you’re pursuing your work and career. That might mean being supported by someone, working a job that allows you time to write, or reducing your overhead so that you don’t require a lot of money before you begin to make a living at it.
If you’re wondering whether to choose screenwriting or fiction and you want to make a lot of money, write for TV if you can. It’s possible to make good money screenwriting, but the jobs are in television at the moment, and there are lots of ways to break into TV. See the TV Writer’s programs.
I prefer writing fiction because I can control what I’m writing, but I have never made a lot of money writing fiction. I hope to one day! And I hope, if you’re reading this, you will be able to make a good living writing fiction if that’s your desire. I was only able to take the time to write fiction because I’d previously made money as a screenwriter. And when that money ran low, I worked as an adjunct professor teaching screenwriting. It IS possible to make money writing fiction and perhaps you will. Just understand that writing books is not as lucrative as writing assignments in film. And a TV writing career can be especially lucrative. If it’s money you want, go into TV.
I would also recommend that you get all the training (either dramatic writing or literary writing or both) that you’re able to. If you can, do a professional writing program. If you can’t do that, take individual classes. Now that people are teaching via Zoom, you have infinite options to study writing. Read as many screenplays and/or novels as you can. Read craft books. If your focus is screenwriting, read scripts and watch the movies based on those scripts and learn how a script is constructed. If your focus is novels, read all the time. At least two novels a week. And if you enjoy audiobooks, listen to them as often as possible. You can learn a lot about voice, dialogue, and the rhythm of prose if you listen to tons of books. You can learn this by reading, too, but I recommend a combination of both reading and listening.
Write A LOT! I don’t think everyone must write daily, but if you can write daily, do it. If you can’t, find a schedule and stick to it. Learn to say no to things that keep you from writing. Design a life in service to your writing. Don’t live a life that fits writing it where you can. In my opinion, if you want to succeed as a writer you must approach it as a job even before it becomes your job. This means it has to be a priority and a regular practice.
I belong to a writing Zoom group that meets five days a week from 11 AM to 3 PM. We sign in and hold each other accountable for what we’re doing that day and we check in hourly to report our progress. When I’m writing, I’m in that Zoom room every day. This regular schedule allowed me to finish a revision of a new novel in three months. When I’m not working on something, I don’t show up every day. After finishing a big project sometimes I need a break to catch up on things I wasn’t able to do while I was writing. But I do try to get back to the point of working every day and I recommend that schedule for anyone who’s trying to build a writing career.
Find a writing community and engage with other writers who are at your level or who are farther along. I can’t say I really had this as a screenwriter, but I am aware of groups of screenwriters who are very supportive of one another and who not only encourage each other in their work, but also help each other find jobs. Network and find a group of supportive colleagues.
My literary community in LA is astonishingly wonderful. They are brilliant and generous and we help and support each other. I know SO very many talented, smart, kind, fun people who are successful and who share information and opportunities with the rest of the community. These people also celebrate the other members when good things happen. I don’t know what I did to have the good fortune of making the writing friends I have made, but they are the very best people I’ve ever known and I adore and appreciate them. It’s so fun to go to literary events in Los Angeles (or on Zoom) and support my friends, because I see throngs of people I truly enjoy no matter where I show up.
Find your people. It helps so much. When you’re down, some of these people will lead you to new things. And you’ll do the same for them. You will lift up others and you’ll be lifted when you need it. Practice being happy for your friends even when things aren’t going well for you because success is energetic. Try to steer clear of jealousy and resentment and enjoy celebrating others. The more you celebrate and live in the energy of joy, the better you will attract it for yourself and be surrounded by people who will also be happy for you when you’re blessed. There IS enough for everyone. There are many different ways to be blessed in this business and another person’s success never means your failure. In fact, another person’s success is simply exposing you to possibilities. This can be a difficult mindset if you come from a competitive background or from a place of lack or one where you had to prove your worth in accomplishments. Retrain yourself to relax and enjoy the success around you as you continue to work toward manifesting your own.
And finally, don’t let rejections shake your confidence. Keep working at improving your craft. Submit widely, not just to a few places. Submit to twenty places at a time. If those are all rejections, submit to twenty more.
I learned this via a fabulous organization called WOMEN WHO SUBMIT. If you’re a woman, look into joining. There are chapters all over the country. The organization is devoted to sharing information and helping women to submit more and more often.
Read, write, get feedback, practice and revise, and don’t stop if someone gives you a harsh critique or if your piece gets rejected. You must develop to a point wherein you begin to trust in yourself as an artist. No one may like what you’re doing but if you believe in it, it may be that you haven’t found the right readers yet. Keep writing and developing your unique voice and style and be excited about what you’re doing. Get to a point where you know that you’re on the right track. This can take years. It’s okay. There is no rush. And you can be publishing along the way. But keep at it until you’re confident that you’re writing what you really want to write in the way you want to do it.
Learn when to take a note and when not to. Don’t be blown around by various opinions. Take the notes that are in alignment with what you want to do. Write to improve, and to become the writer YOU want to be, not the writer someone TELLS you to be.
What’s something you’d like to leave people with that may help them as writers?
When I was teaching screenwriting at USC I made it a point to study other mentors, sometimes from different disciplines. For example, I studied the artist Charles White, who was a renowned Los Angeles-based painter and art instructor. I learned that he would ask his students three questions:
1. Where do you come from?
2. Why are you creating the work you’re creating?
3. How do you know who you are?
I think these questions apply as well to writers as they do to visual artists. I did not learn them until fairly recently, but I wish I’d had these questions to guide me as I was starting out. I believe they’ll be helpful to young and emerging artists. It took me decades to learn that I was always writing about where I come from, even when I was not conscious that I was doing so. And it also took me decades to understand why I wrote about what I wrote about and to notice that I do so repeatedly. And only recently did I learn that I discover who I am via what I write. It’s obvious to me now, but I didn’t look at it that way and I wish I had begun to notice all of this much sooner, which is why I try to share it with young writers whenever I can.
Toni Ann Johnson is the winner of the 2021 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her linked short story collection Light Skin Gone to Waste will be published by the University of Georgia Press in the fall of 2022. Johnson’s novel, Remedy for a Broken Angel was released in 2014 and nominated for a 2015 NAACP iImage award for Outstanding Literary Work by a Debut Author.
A novella, Homegoing , won Accents Publishing’s inaugural novella contest and was released in May of 2021. Her short stories have appeared in The Coachella Review, Hunger Mountain, Callaloo Journal, and many other publications. Johnson is also an award-winning screenwriter of the television films Ruby Bridges for ABC and Crown Heights for showtime. She received a fellowship to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and she has taught screenwriting to undergraduates and graduate students at The University of Southern California.