“Write the tale that scares you, that makes you feel uncertain, that isn’t comfortable. I dare you. – do not be afraid to disappear. From us, from the world, and in the silence see what comes to you.”
Michaela Coel’s Emmy winning speech.
Michaela Coel has been a first throughout her life. She was one of the only black pupils at her primary school, she was the first black female student enrolled in Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 5 years, and now she has become the first black female to win the Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for her Limited Series ‘I May Destroy You’.
It is this bravery, this passionate and at times isolated bravery, that has made her admire moments of quiet. In her moments of isolation, she at first felt angry and alone, as she told the Guardian in her 2005 interview – it appears she has grown from this anger into a sense of embracing these solitary moments.
On the 20th of September Coel was thrust from her serene space of isolation and avoidance of social media into focus. The Ghanaian-British actress, screenwriter, director, producer, and singer won her first Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special.
Coel gave one of the night’s shortest speeches, but perhaps the most ground-breaking. In her remarks, Coel did something unusual: She spoke to us, her audience, fellow female writers and storytellers. She reached beyond the stars around her, into our minds and hearts. “Write the tale that scares you, that makes you feel uncertain, that isn’t comfortable,” she said. “I dare you … Visibility these days seems to somehow equate to success. Do not be afraid to disappear—from it, from us—for a while, and see what comes to you in the silence.” She reminded us of the value of quiet success. Something Coel knows all too well.
It is not only this advice we can learn from, but her determination in securing her rights to her work, in a field so many freelancing females are exploited in. Coel began pitching I May Destroy You in 2017. She was incredibly offered $1 million upfront from Netflix. For many this would appear like a dream come true, however, she turned down the offer when she learnt she wouldn’t retain any of the copyright on the series. Coel even tried to bargain with Netflix before turning down the deal outright. Coel tried asking for “a senior-level development executive at Netflix” for just 5% of the rights to her series. However, even that was too much.
In an industry where women are routinely exploited and devalued, it’s hard not to see Coel’s experience as emblematic of broader issues. For freelancers, the gender pay gap is wider and may prove harder to close than if they were employed. In the UK, an investigation by Tide in 2021 showed that freelancing females tended to charge less than their male counterparts, and therefore earned on average 19.5% less than men.
While any gap is too big, it has been shrinking slowly over time and clear progress is being made. Yet, it is crucial to see moments like these: female writers fighting for their rights and creative control, to remind fellow struggling freelancers not to settle. To fight for our right to be paid, to be paid on time, and to be allowed control over our work.
So fellow writers, find your voice in the still. Be comfortable in the quiet, in the complete and unapologetic nature of focusing on yourself. Of disappearing, and rebirthing a new. You owe no one presence, and sometimes the most beautiful things can be found in times of silence.