My first writing job: ‘Orange Is the New Black’
Lauren Morelli is a staff writer on “Orange Is the New Black,” which you can watch here.
It all happened so fast.
Neither the dog nor the diarrhea was mine. Roger belonged to the family that I worked for and the diarrhea belonged to Roger. I’d retrieved him from the vet in East Hollywood and realized too late that his stomach was upset from the anesthetic. All of the car washes had long since closed for the day, so I drove home with my windows open, dry-heaving and sobbing all the way back to my crappy one-bedroom in a neighborhood so undistinguished that I resorted to saying the name of the closest mall when people asked where I lived.
Being a personal assistant was my latest clumsy stab at adulthood, one that came after a lot of other meandering: a degree in modern dance, an assistant gig at a ballet school, a short stint at a dance talent agency in the Valley where I was asked to change my first name because there was already another Lauren working there. Someone with a little less desperation and a little more direction might have noticed the red flag. For six months, Elle Morelli spent eight hours a day calling krumpers. “Hello, this is Elle. May I please speak with, um, Baby Killa? Hi, Baby Killa. You have a 3 pm audition tomorrow for the Ne-Yo video. Bring your best swag!”
This should be the part where I start writing because I realize I have to pursue my dreams and then you, by proxy, are inspired to do the same. Nope. I quit being Elle and talking to babies, and went for the glamorous crown jewel of assistant jobs: Personal Assistant to a High-Level Executive at an Important Studio.
It was the sort of job that my dad could brag about, the sort that I could convince myself might lead somewhere better despite the sharp twinge of embarrassment I felt when people asked about it. “I bet you have some crazy stories,” they’d say. I did always have stories: of trips on private planes, or the time I accidentally sent a gift basket to a dead uncle. But mostly I had diarrhea in my backseat.
So, at 25, my therapist suggested I take a class to help me meet friends. I’d moved to LA a year before, leaving my college social circle back in New York. Oh you were expecting some grand wisdom? Nope, I was just lonely.
I signed up for a short story writing class and once I started, I found it hard to stop. It made sense to me in a way that dancing, assisting and krumping never had. Words and sentences seemed to come effortlessly, while dancing and assisting always required a constant stream of “if onlys”: I was skinner, more flexible, more OCD, more content. Believing that I could write professionally, however, came slower—like a toddler learning to walk on newly-discovered legs.
“Were you interfered with as a child?”
It was January, 2013, and I’d disappeared from work for a few hours to interview for Jenji Kohan’s new show, “Orange Is the New Black,” based on a memoir of the same title. I read it twice in preparation for my meeting (the title of this essay isn’t “The Coolest Girl In the World,” okay, guys?) My brain short-circuited for a second while it processed that Jenji was asking me if I’d been molested. I wasn’t, but something about the way she asked implied a genuine, nonjudgmental interest in my life, and suddenly it felt safe, even desirable, to be flawed. I found myself offering up all the secrets I had, the experiences that had led me to sit across from her that day. It’s one of the million things that makes Jenji so fucking good at what she does—she embraces the narrative of your life like it’s a precious jewel—something to display proudly and marvel at, rather than hide and feel ashamed about.
I couldn’t blame her for assuming I had a traumatic past. She’d read a particularly dark, weird pilot I’d written that featured something my agent often refers to as a “rape dance.” It’s perhaps not surprising that this was my first staffing meeting, despite having landed said agent a year prior. Shockingly, there weren’t a lot of people that responded to what Jenji called “oddly sexual.” But, she took a chance on me. In Jenji and the other writers on the show, I found an acceptance that had alluded me since I made the unfortunate decision in fourth grade to wear a shirt embroidered with my initials and one of my vintage top hats to school (yes, one of).
Six months after starting work on the show, I flew to New York to oversee production on my first episode of television. If you think you’ve had really good sex, you should try watching someone say words you wrote on camera. On one of our last days of shooting, I stood in front of the monitors watching 75 women stand in a circle, dancing and yelling while two women humped each other. Taylor Schilling, who plays Piper on the show, had hung around to watch the chaos. She leaned over to me during a take and said, “When have you ever seen this many women on screen together?” In that moment I realized we were doing something really special.
The “Orange” writing staff is currently comprised of five women and two men, much to the chagrin of the latter whenever the topic of vaginas come up, which is approximately 62 times a day. Outside the cozy bubble of our room, only 30.5% of television writers are women. I don’t have any other statistics to share with you, as that was the only one easily available via Google. What I can tell you is that throughout every step of creating this show, I’m constantly struck by how many women I’m surrounded by—not just in the room, but beyond it: the cast, the crew, the people in charge on every level. It’s in stark contrast to the executive floor at the Important Studio, where without exception, every executive was male and 99% of the assistants were female. It was easy, maybe even necessary, to start questioning how low my glass ceiling was, and wonder if I’d already bumped up against it as I scurried around buying groceries and paying bills.
I’m not an expert on anything, really. I can’t tell you how our show will affect the landscape of television or how it advances the importance of diverse female narratives. I know casting the show was thrilling. The array of skin color and the range of bodies were unlike anything I’d seen on television before. Even on the frustrating days, when a script was due and I was convinced I was a talentless hack, I consoled myself by trusting that it felt important to be telling stories about women who are largely ignored in the mainstream media. In my more assured moments, I knew that we were attempting to give a voice to the miles that fall in between black and white, gay and straight, good and bad. That is: giving a voice to most humans.
Mostly, working on “Orange” for the last year has allowed me to discover something closer to my “authentic” self (I mentioned I’m in weekly therapy, right?). I cut off my hair, replaced some of my eager earnestness with a little more sarcasm, and now often get made fun of for being the gayest girl in the writers’ room, despite there being an actual lesbian on staff. But that’s to be expected, because why wouldn’t you want to be a lesbian after watching a season of “Orange”?
I’m in New York as I write this, prepping for the second season of production. Didn’t I just say that with an impressive amount of authority and casualness? Like I don’t geek out every day about getting paid to do something that I would do for free? Of course, it’s a different beast now that the show’s been released, now that we have fans and public awareness and something to live up to. It’s a little daunting, mostly exhilarating, and definitely a long way from krumping and diarrhea.