Why We Write

December 26, 2007

Why We Write – Number 3: Howard Gordon

  Number 3

Today’s piece is written by Howard Gordon, Executive Producer of “24”.


I remember being in a writers’ room a few years ago, and someone – a brilliant and famous writer whose name I’ll keep to myself for now – rhapsodized about the exquisite ecstasy of the writing process.  “Don’t you love it when you get lost inside the story, and the characters start speaking for themselves, and you look up and realize eight hours have passed?”  I nodded dumbly, and smiled.  Because I had no idea what the fuck he was talking about.

I’ve never had that experience.   Never.  Me, I’m a grinder.  And a second-guesser.  Since I can remember, I have suffered from some undiagnosed combination of OCD and ADD which causes me to spend hours on a preposition.  Which is a long-winded way to describe this simple truth:  I hate writing.  I really do.  Even writing this short essay is excruciating.   Every word weighs on me like a millstone.  Every.  Single.  Word.

What makes the process even more excruciating is that I am my own worst critic.  No one has more contempt for my work than me.  So studio and network notes are usually a cakewalk.  Whatever they dish out, chances are I’ve already dished out for myself and come back for seconds.   

So why do I write?   Because as much as I hate writing, I love having written.  All the pain suddenly falls away when the dialogue turns from a bunch of words under a character name into the living voices of real people, and the plot becomes more than just a series of events, but a story worth telling.   However we get there, if we’re lucky, eventually we get there.  Word by word.  Line by line. 

I write because it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.  Not a day goes by that I don’t appreciate what a privilege it is to be a member of this profession.  I suppose in some way, being a writer is the buy-in that allows me to enjoy the company and respect of my fellow writers.  To count so many professional writers as friends and colleagues is one of my proudest accomplishments.   I may not enjoy the creative process as much as my unnamed colleague, but I’d wager my WGA pension that I get every bit as much pleasure from my final draft – which only makes me want to belly up to the laptop and do it all over again.  


WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers during the strike, and perhaps beyond.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.



  1. Mr. Gordon, you are my new best friend. Nothing creeps me out worse than hearing writers go on about how their characters told them “That’s not what I eat for breakfast. I like ham and eggs. And, by the way, you don’t know this, but when I was just a little character, I suffered horrible traumas that make me speak with an unidentifiable accent, even though I grew up in Poughkeepsie.” *shudder* I’m a slogger, too. I know my characters never “take over” because I personally and deliberately push every word agonizingly out through the skin of my fingertips onto the keyboard.

    Comment by Laura Goodin — December 26, 2007 @ 3:10 am | Reply

  2. Outstanding.

    I love this series!! Thank you!

    Comment by Bon — December 26, 2007 @ 1:04 pm | Reply

  3. Thank God you said this. I was beginning to think I was somehow abnormal, skulking around my apartment at all hours with a stomach ache, dreading the process. I wondered if every other writer relishes finding the words and doesn’t sometimes feel like they’ve bled the whole thing out. But you’re right — the payoff is so great that it dulls the grind, as you call it. I suppose it’s like child birth, painful but with such a great dividend that you feel you’re not foolish if you try it again.

    Comment by Lisa Angelo — December 27, 2007 @ 10:21 am | Reply

  4. “Don’t you love it when you get lost inside the story, and the characters start speaking for themselves, and you look up and realize eight hours have passed?”

    This is so true when writing becomes our breath in itself. Sometimes we want to write because we want to continue living. Something we can’t live without it.

    Comment by Bohol Bol-anon — December 28, 2007 @ 8:13 am | Reply

  5. …maybe there is room here for a poet..the problem for me is not in the writing…it’s in the editing…which is a labor much like giving birth to a baby…it is not uncommon for the first draft of a poem to be written in 15 or 20 minutes and then for the editing process to take as many as 5-6 hours…Thanks for the post.

    Comment by 1poet4man — December 28, 2007 @ 4:08 pm | Reply

  6. You know, Howard…I’m beginning to think I misjudged you. For years I’ve just known you as that guy who wrote all the really weird episodes of The X-Files and 24. (I still remember Gillian Anderson calling you “a dead man” during the filming of ‘Dod Kalm’.)

    But this makes complete and total sense to me as a writer. As a self described manic perfectionist, I never seem to be satisfied with anything I do. It took me five years to finish one script, because I got the idea in 2001, kept destroying it, and finally in 2006 put my foot down and said I was going to do it. And I am glad that I’m not the only person who’s like that. As somebody else said, thank God it’s not just me. I feel a lot better about myself, and that’s not me trying to be funny.

    I want to just say that 24 is my favorite show on TV today, and it’s one of the reasons that I write. It sets a standard of excellence that thrills me as a viewer, but also pushes me to be a better writer. I want to be able to do something that good. If you were to ask me what my dream job is, it would be to write for 24. And maybe if I’m lucky enough I can run into you in some hallway and thank you for writing this in person. Until then, just keep up the excellent work. You’re changing my life a little bit hour by hour.

    Comment by Brittany — January 8, 2008 @ 12:03 pm | Reply

  7. Mr. Gordon. I now know that Fox ownes Dow Jones. You and your writing dilemma were featured on the front page of the WSJ today. As an ardent fan may I humbly suggest that you swatch the film Robin and Mariam with Sean Connery and Audry Hepburn. She asks Robin why he followed the orders to slaughter muslims in the Holy Land and he replys “he was my king”. Relevant to 24. Next if Jack is going to Washington I suggest reading a few essays by Robert D. Kaplan who writes in Atlantic about the ethos of America’s current warriors. Superb reporting, and much of what Kaplan writes about the motivation of our “Imperial Grunts” describes Jack perfectly.

    Last comment: all of us who have been volunteer soldiers have a deep love for their country and face many of the moral dilemmas you write about. Today’s conflict is very different from most of the world’s past conflicts in that we are not sending 18 year olds who think they are bullet proof into battle. We are sending 30 and 40 year olds with children and spouses into harm’s way for ever increasing periods. Were Jack to find the need to redeem some past deeds what better way than a “mission impossible” format for rescue of troops and others held hostage while offering plausable deniability to the President.

    I’ll be there for season 7,8,9 etc..


    Jeff Cutler

    Comment by Jeff Cutler — February 3, 2008 @ 2:26 pm | Reply

  8. hey daddy, you are such a good writer!!
    who knew, eh?
    well the movie is coming out soon, so we’ll be watching that together.
    My dreams to become a writer are still their, and you just made them stronger.
    Love you,

    Comment by Arlo — October 29, 2008 @ 5:31 pm | Reply

  9. Mr. Gordon,

    It was a pleasure meeting you the other night at Club XIV for Fox’s “24” premier party. Having the network recognize me for my work with children with HIV and AIDS was a humbling honor and the entire evening was fantastic.

    I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation and greatly appreciated your comments about my work. Like you said, we all need to work together and give instead of take.

    I also enjoyed meeting and speaking with Mr. Southerland at Hotel Palomar. The entire cast were very personable and accommodating.

    Thanks again.

    Dab Garner

    Comment by Dab Garner — January 7, 2009 @ 11:57 pm | Reply

  10. Mr. Gordon, Season 7 of 24 left me breathless. In fact, 24 is the only tv show my husband and i watch together, since our preferences most often diverge. This show is not only compelling, it has moral imperative, intelligent writing and good actors who can convince me that spending an hour on this show every Monday evening is the most important way to spend my time. I’m buying stock from your advertisers. Keep more seasons coming. You’ve created an appetite.

    Comment by katy — May 19, 2009 @ 8:54 pm | Reply

  11. Reading through these, I am suprised how many of these writers, people who supposedly can express themselves through the written word, use “fuck” to get a point across.

    Especially ironic (I guess) is the writer involved in “Hannah Montana.” Or maybe that just demonstrates how Disney is actually Satan.

    Comment by chris — August 25, 2010 @ 1:50 am | Reply

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