It’s easy to stand in awe of the 20th season of Law and Order SVU, Dick Wolf’s soon-to-be longest running show of the Law and Order franchise. Or put more accurately, it’s easy to binge-watch the enduring saga of “an elite squad of detectives known as the Special Victims Unit.”
If they make it past 21 years the show will break and surpass the tie held by the flagship Law and Order which currently shares the longest running TV series title with Gunsmoke. All while unpacking and changing the social norms that used to define and color “sexually based offenses.”
Rewriting American rape culture by writing a show that exposes our deepest fears and inspires our greatest hopes for justice is no small undertaking. The cultural impact of this show cannot be overstated. But neither can the importance of process.
In looking at Dick Wolf’s staggering body of work and reading interviews with him, three factors unmistakably coalesce:
1.) A passion for excellence
3.) The inevitability of failure
If your ambition is to someday create a body of work as massive as Wolf’s you have to collaborate with the best people in your industry. You have to keep striving when some of your endeavors bottom out. It’s ok to be disappointed when they do. But you can’t be devastated. And you have to keep pouring the same intensity of devotion and creativity and perfectionism into each subsequent endeavor even knowing that some, even a majority, of your work will continue to fail. Success is a numbers game.
Not one to rest on the laurels of successful numbers, Wolf keeps reaching. “As we move into the future, it’s going to become more and more unique.” Dick Wolf quotes are hard to come by as he hasn’t done many interviews for someone who’s been an industry standout for more than 30 years. But he has told reporter Lacey Rose that his programs are more like Mercedes sedans than Ferraris. “They’re not flashy … but they run for hundreds of thousands of miles.” His pragmatism is rooted in quality. “That’s what they’re designed to do.”
If I’m counting correctly, his filmography is comprised of 49 endeavors — tv series, films and docuseries. Miami Vice, Hill Street Blues and Law and Order have stood the test of time, and his Chicago shows are chugging along behind them. But these shows only represent about 10% of his total body of work.
Make no mistake. Quantity is no substitute for quality. If Dick Wolf is any metric for success you must excel at quality and quantity. Whether it’s MMA fighting, writing or CEO-ing you have to do your best — and a lot of it.
“A-level work is not a hope, it’s an expectation,” Wolf said in a 2017 interview with Stacey Lambe for ETonline. He credits the longevity of the show to the quality of the script. “That has never changed… it’s always the writing.”
Wolf has said that he does not miss script writing, that the process of writing is something he never enjoyed. But he never underestimated its foundational essence. “I’ve never been a person who actually enjoys the writing process. It’s a means to an end. I’ve never made a dime in my life that wasn’t based on writing, but it is not my favorite activity.”
He is not alone. Most of us who self-identify as writers have had to learn to love the process. “It’s a very solitary process and, in all honesty, somewhat disappointing.” Wolf said in 2015.
The I don’t like to write. But I love to have written quote is of uncertain provenance. But ongoing iterations of this sentiment ring painfully true for writers and those who make their living based on writing. The only solution? Keep writing.
And if you’re anything like Dick Wolf, keep imagining and reimagining. “Anybody who tells you what the business is going to be like in five years is either drunk or crazy because nobody knows.” Wolf told The Hollywood Reporter.
It seems in the absence of a crystal ball, successful creators make their own crystal ball. You don’t have to be an executive producer with three decades of successful television on your CV to be a great writer. But it doesn’t hurt to think like one.