An Interview with Winner of the $50K Writing Contract, Sarah Mokh

Winner of the $50K Writing Contract, Sarah Mokh

When one of our producer partners told us they are looking for the next fresh voice in screenwriting to write a pilot for an exciting new TV series, and that this voice has to be a BIPOC female, AND they offer a writing contract worth $50,000, we knew the response would be tremendous. And it certainly was. But among the hundreds of talented candidates that applied, one stood out. In the words of our client “She’s so talented, it’s only a matter of time that she became a star writer. We weren’t hiring her, we were asking her to make us part of her journey!”. We sat down with the winner of this incredible opportunity, to hear about her journey, in her own words:

Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, education, experience?

I was born in Lebanon and grew up in Michigan in a really big Arab-Muslim community. I was always into books and thought I would study English in college, but when I started at Harvard I got a bit swept up in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department. I took a class called “Al-Ghazali: Theologian and Mystic” in my first semester and it was game over. But I still did a secondary (as in, a minor) in English and took a lot of Creative Writing classes. Now I’m doing my PhD at NYU in Islamic Studies, which sounds different from being a creative. But what’s drawn me to studying the Muslim past is the question of how people made sense of and created meaning in the world around them, which is what draws me to storytelling. So, my academic work informs my creative work, definitely.

What kind of stories do you enjoy writing?

Storytelling is about what you pay attention to. People can have similar experiences but come to different conclusions or tell different stories about those experiences. I’m interested in sort of how people make sense of the experiences they have and how our beliefs about how the world works affect the ways we behave and decisions we make. I like telling stories about people who are confused or indecisive, stories about family bonds and trauma, stories about faith and how it changes, stories about the relationship between our choices and our destinies.

What parts of your experience inform and influence your writing?

You know, obviously being Muslim, being an immigrant, whatever, these things are really important, but I think all storytellers are interested in universal questions, the undercurrent that makes things interesting to all of us. Why do people do the things they do? How do we make decisions? What are the things that motivate us? Why are we drawn to the things and people we’re drawn to? I’m always interested in interrogating these things in my own life and the lives of people around me. When I look at other people, I always think, how did they end up there? What percent was fate or destiny or factors outside of their control, and how much of it was their own agency and decisions? Where am I gonna end up? Am I doing the right things?

What does success in this industry look like to you? Where do you see yourself in the medium and long term?

I’m just trying to enjoy and have gratitude for the things I’m working on now and the opportunities I have and not think too much about what comes next.

Any particular writers that you admire or have influenced your style?

I don’t know, I read pretty broadly. People who are writing now, I’m a fan of Jamil Jan Kochai. I have always been a reader and lover of classics. Dostoevsky is, of course, just a master. I love Jane Austen, maybe that’s cliché. But the scathing social critique and how sharply she hits the nail on the head with every character interaction. I like the honesty of writers like Iris Murdoch and Joan Didion, and think Donna Tartt has a really special talent of capturing the emotional truth of an experience on the page. Salinger. I read a lot of Muslim scholarship, medieval and modern, devotional literature, law and theology and other things for my classes. The Qur’an and the Bible, the stories and just meditations on human nature… There’s so much to learn and think about there. With TV, I’m really obsessed with the writing of a couple of shows right now: Severance, Succession. I read a lot of screenplays, pilots and features. Obviously, there are a lot of pilot and feature scripts available online I think all aspiring screenwriters should read and study. I’m not sure I’m answering the question. Basically, I read and watch broadly.

How did you hear about the writer opportunity with AB Media group?

I saw the Open Screenplay call for applicants to write a pilot and series bible for a new series and sent in a sample script. Someone from the team reached out to let me know they loved my script and my resume was strong and encouraged me to send in a letter of interest, which I did.

What attracted you to this particular opportunity?

The project was about things that, exoterically, are different from things I have experienced. But when I talked to the producer, I realized there were several points of contact through which I could connect with the protagonist and other characters, emotionally. We had some shared experiences and ideas about the world. I felt more and more like I could do something special with the project and that we had a shared vision for the arc of the main character.

How did you find the application and hiring process?

Once I realized I wanted to do it, I think that passion came through in the various interviews and steps of the hiring process. Things fell into place. I think if things are meant to be, they will feel easy, of course after all the necessary effort.

What do you think the future looks like for diverse writers trying to break into the industry? Do you feel the industry is becoming more inclusive?

I mean I think there are definitely efforts to hire writers who are from diverse backgrounds. But I’m more interested in diversity of ideas… Like, sure, we have characters now who look different and are from different places. But in a lot of ways, we uphold some of the stereotypes and ideas that have been perpetuated for a long time. It’s rare to see characters who have faith, for example, being complex or nuanced. They’re usually depicted as more simple-minded. So, I think it’s important to tackle diversity on multiple planes, which is starting to happen.

What do you think of the work Open Screenplay is doing to help emerging & diverse writers?

I think it’s awesome, of course. I think the opportunity to get to produce shorts and work with production companies – it’s really great and something not a lot of screenwriting platforms and competitions do. So the fact that Open Screenplay is actually investing in and fostering the talent of the people who use it—it’s rare.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

This is advice to myself. Read a lot. Write a lot. Don’t take yourself too seriously.


Read more of writing contests winner’s journey with Open Screenplay:

Time Hoppers TV Pilot Contest 1st Prize Winner Shahryar Rizvi

TV Pilot Open Topic Contest 1st Prize Winner Gary Brennan – “The Convent”

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