Scriptwriting wasn’t exactly what Emily Sutherland had in mind for her life, but God had other plans.
A number of years, and many blessings, down the road of her personal journey—she has written scripts for more than two dozen volumes in the award-winning Gaither Homecoming series.
Many writers know they want to write from a young age, how about you? How did you prepare for your writing journey?
As far back as I can remember, I loved writing; I cherished the idea of writing for a living. But I was studying people like Emily Dickenson who were stricken with illness and poverty because their writing didn’t yield enough income. In my youthful ignorance, I thought if I pursued a writing career, I was resigning myself to poverty and loneliness! And I was cool with that!
I eventually decided on a business degree, but still, I gravitated to writing and I wrote all the time in my free time. (And by “all the time” I really mean ALL the time.) I surrounded myself with writers who mentored me and challenged me, and I read some wonderful resources about the craft of writing. I literally devoured any book that would help me hone my craft or would encourage creativity.
During and after earning my bachelor’s degree in business, I realized for the first time that becoming a professional writer was a very real possibility for me. By that time, I was working at a company that was founded by writers and where writing and creativity were highly valued. So becoming a full-time writer was a natural progression. As I got better, I was given more writing assignments…and the more writing I did, the better I became. (I still have a ton to learn, don’t get me wrong.)
What led to your position at Gaither?
Honestly, sometimes I still can’t believe I’m here after 13 years! My sister was working for Gloria when an opening came up in the company that fit my skills. Someone in leadership who liked my sister’s work ethic happened to ask her if she had a sister just like her. Well…she did! After the interview process (and I must interject here that I interviewed terribly, which was very unlike me) I was hired as an executive assistant. I stated during my interview that my passion was in writing, but it was my other management and organizational skills that got me in the door. Within a couple weeks, I was writing commercials and marketing copy, but those weren’t my main tasks for several years.
In 2000, I was moved to a new position, where I was in charge of writing all the web content for the company’s website, Gaither.com. That job eventually morphed into all kinds of other additional writing, including magazine articles, product packaging, souvenir books…and eventually, video scripting for the Homecoming series. I still can’t believe they let me do this stuff for my job. What a great gig!
What are your day-to-day responsibilities as a scriptwriter? What process do you go through from research to final script?
It probably seems strange to talk about “scripting” because Bill is such a natural communicator. He doesn’t need THAT much help. But to introduce a program and tie segments together smoothly, it takes a concentrated effort to word those transitions and intros very intentionally for the sake of time. Mr. Gaither knows exactly what needs to happen to make a program unfold, so we’ve developed a really great system so I can help him come up with the most concise and simple way to word what he wants to say in language that’s natural for him.
As many Homecoming DVDs as we release every year, you might be shocked at how little time is devoted to scriptwriting in comparison to all the other writing I do. A Homecoming video will air on television and on the web, and will be viewed by countless people all over the world… but my actual writing time for the copy Bill Gaither uses to narrate a 90-minute show might be anywhere from two hours to five or six hours per release, depending on how much research needs to be done.
Most of the time, research time is minimal because I’ve been here long enough to know a good deal of the history behind our artists and songs…and of course, Mr. Gaither is a walking music encyclopedia. So when we have a new taping coming up, he and I will usually have a conversation and I’ll find out if there are any specific points or directions he wants the narration to take. Sometimes he has very specific ideas and sometimes it’s pretty open-ended. Sometimes he gets ideas during editing, and in those cases our director, Doug Stuckey, will take notes during editing to get me started.
Also, just to dispel any myths. I don’t usually work under idealistic conditions with candles lit and inspiring music in the background. I’m writing between phone calls, re-writing when I get it wrong, writing with background noise and in-between phone calls, and sometimes at the drop of a hat last minute changes come up. More perspiration than inspiration on a normal day.
Please tell us about your most recent project, and/or what project you’ll be working on next.
The next project we will be working on was filmed in Alaska! That was a beautiful taping. Looking forward to it! The DVDs release in early 2011.
Is there one show in the Homecoming series—or another memorable moment during your career—that stands out for you?
The Alaskan taping that we’re getting ready to work on is one of the many incredible highlights (though there have been many). During that taping, I was accompanied by my mom, whose life dream was to go to Alaska just once. We had a wonderful week together, she helped out with the taping (she helped iron things for the artists as they were getting ready) and we saw lots of whales! I think she enjoyed seeing what I do, but mostly we enjoyed the time together. That was a trip we’ll both always cherish.
Has God ever provided an unexpected “detour” in your life that turned out to be positive?
All the time! One of the first really obvious “detours” was when I was a young woman about to leave home for college. The bottom fell out of my plans. It was suddenly abundantly clear that the college I had chosen was not the right option for me. So at the last minute, I decided to attend a local community college until I could work up another plan. During that fall, I became friends with Scott Sutherland, to whom I’ve now been married for more than 20 years. It was—and still is—abundantly clear that we were meant to find each other at that time. I finished college eventually—I believe that is very important—but my husband and I still firmly believe everything happened just as it was supposed to.
How does your faith play into your writing?
It is paramount. My faith and the life philosophy that flows out of what I believe about God plays into everything I write. And it continues to grow over time. As I delve deeper into understanding the heart of Christ, my writing grows more meaningful. Skills alone are helpful. But using those skills for a deeper purpose is what drives me to keep enriching my spiritual life. The writing can’t help but get better when I feed my spirit.
You’re a wife and mother. How do you juggle family and career?
I have the privilege of working at home much of the time. That’s huge! So I can start laundry while thinking through how to word something. Or I can check emails on my Blackberry while waiting for my kids to finish their music lessons. My kids and husband also accompany me on many events and concerts. Having their support and involvement truly makes it easy to balance my work and personal life.
I’d like to also add that my husband joyfully and enthusiastically picks up whatever responsibility necessary if I am on a deadline, or need to travel for work, or get a sudden “drop everything and do this” assignment. Those things don’t happen every day, but they happen often enough that I know I couldn’t do this job without a husband who is completely supportive and never resentful.
I tend to be a perfectionist, so there are times when it’s hard to let a project go. I keep thinking, “I can do that better,” or… “I still want to make more changes….” But the pace of the job and our home life is actually good for me because I really can’t spend too much time obsessing. We’re moving on! I’m learning to get it right the first time and keep projects moving. That is helping me in every area of life.
What advice would you give young writers who are looking for their first break in scriptwriting?
Surround yourself with people and resources that nurture your interests and passions. Sign up for classes, volunteer at conferences, join writing groups with people who do the kind of writing you want to do. Twitter is also a great way to learn from people who are established in the world of scriptwriting, or any other kind of writing. Nurture your interests with intention.
HOWEVER, that said, be open to all kinds of opportunities. If I had been looking for a scriptwriting job, I wouldn’t have accepted the position I was originally hired to do. Scriptwriting wasn’t even on my radar then! I just knew that this company was established by creative people, and I wanted to work in a creative environment…and the rest has grown out of that shared interest in great writing and faith-based artistry.
I’ve done everything here from driving artists around tapings in golf carts, to fixing buttons and ironing their clothes, to running for their inhalers moments before they went on-stage. Seeing your name in the credits in no way means that getting there looked glamorous or felt big-time. It’s about dedicating yourself to a cause and doing whatever you have to do to support the people and ideas you believe in. At least that’s how it works here.
Is there a “dream” project—a television show, a movie, a book—you hope to write someday?
Oh goodness, yes! I have ideas for all those things. But the way my life has played out, I don’t spend a lot of time dreaming about future projects. I focus on what’s before me today first. That’s always plenty to take in!
I live and work in this moment, knowing that every experience will help prepare me for the next thing. I’m not nearly as good at planning out my future as God has been at figuring things out for me. I would’ve done things differently. And would’ve totally messed everything up!
That said, I do think there is a lot of value in reading and writing things that lend themselves to our interests and hopes for the future. It’s a good idea to spend a few minutes every day thinking, writing, reading and praying about the next idea or project on the horizon. But the best thing I’ve been able to do for my career is devote myself fully to what’s on my plate today. The rest has shaken out well, so far.
A few fun questions…
When the words aren’t flowing—or when you want to celebrate if they are—what is your favorite comfort food and why?
Sweet tea. Definitely.
When kicking back with a good book, what genre do you usually read?
I try to read classics, because I want to feed my mind with work that has stood the test of time. I also read books about writing! Love those.
This website features writers as well as musicians, so I like to mix it up a bit. Do you have musical, as well as literary, talent?
My sister and I were quite the singing duo as kids. Long story. But I still sing on my church’s worship team and have written quite a few songs—mostly lyrics with musical help from friends.
I love music deeply, and making music is a fun outlet for me, but it’s not my “Ace card.” Being surrounded by so much musical talent, I realize that I am a little spec of sand in a huge beach of much more talented singers, songwriters and musicians. I’m honored to be surrounded by such talent and grateful that I’m able to support the music of other singers without having to be the face and voice that is out there on the big stage or on the TV screen.
What kind of music do you listen to when you’re relaxing with the radio or an mp3 player? Does music help you write?
Music can help me write. It gets the creative thoughts flowing for sure. I love all sorts of genres! Some of my favorite artists right now are Sarah Groves, Brandi Carlile, Jon McLaughlin, Allison Krauss, Sting, Journey. I enjoy great worship music, too…and classical music! Instrumental music is nice when I’m hitting “word overload” and need something to settle my over-stimulated mind.
If you were a song, what kind of song would you be?
I’d be Jesus Loves Me! Nothing fancy. Simple and true.
Are you a major or a minor chord?
Minor. Dissonance is mandatory in the art of living. It’s what sets us apart from a boring, predictable existence.
In the story that is your life, are you the strong, female lead; the girl next door; the mysterious woman behind dark glasses; the super heroine; or the little girl trying to walk in high heels?
Yes! All of those things! Except maybe the mysterious woman behind dark glasses. I’m not that dramatic. But I think I am a mosaic with pieces of a strong woman, a child’s heart, a completely human “girl next door” kind of neighbor with weeds in my flower garden, a growing soul trying to fit into my big-girl-shoes, and someone who wants to make a difference in a super heroine kind-of way. That probably sounds schizophrenic! But the woman I was yesterday, the person I am today, and the person I am growing to become in the future are constantly reminding me that as soon as I think I fit into one box…the box stops fitting. And that’s a good thing, I hope.
Please tell us about your pets, if any.
I’ve got a 70 pound black lab named Maggie, and a 5 pound blond Chihuahua named Paco (who is sitting on my lap right this second). They are complete opposites. And they bring more laughs, more affection and more warmth than I could ever have imagined from two dogs. If you’re a dog lover, you KNOW…they are like babies! (And they think we’re great! That feels good when you’re having a bad day, doesn’t it?!)
Thanks, Emily! It’s a pleasure to have you at DivineDetour!
Thank you, Kathy! What an honor. Thanks for all the great questions. You really made me think about how blessed I am. Blessings on this great website…what a fun idea.
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You can follow Emily’s blog at http://emilysutherland.wordpress.com/.
For information about current Gaither video projects, logon to www.gaither.com.