NU to TV: ‘Grey’s’ writer discusses her path onto hit drama

Natalie Tapaskar

Breaking into Hollywood as an aspiring writer is a difficult feat – especially after going to medical school.

Dr. Zoanne Clack, medical advisor and screenwriter for the ABC hit “Grey’s Anatomy” spoke to NU students Sunday night in the McCormick Auditorium in Norris University Center about her transition from the medical field to the television industry.

“I was a smart kid with good grades,” Clack said. “So I was supposed to become a doctor.”

Clack, Communication ’90, arrived at NU as a pre-medical student, only to discover that her passion lay in radio, television and film.

Eventually graduating with a communication studies major and neuroscience minor, Clack realized that her interests were extremely varied.

“I always wanted to be a writer, but there was a certain desire that led me to medicine as well,” she said.

Eventually, she found herself at Emory University doing a residency in emergency medicine.

“I needed something new,” Clack said. “I had a medical degree, residency and a backup, and yet I was still crying on the way to work every day.”

On a whim she relocated to Los Angeles to pursue her writing and acting interests.

“Los Angeles had an influx of creativity at the time,” Clack said. “It made me think about what I really wanted to do with my life.”

She discovered that her greatest joy lay in television, enrolling in screen writing classes and spending her free time sending out letters to major networks.

After rejection from NBC’s long-running medical drama “E.R.,” Clack understood that the phrase, “We’ll keep you in mind,” was Hollywood jargon for “We’ll see you never.”

Her perseverance paid off when she was offered staff writer positions for two developing medical dramas, FOX’s “House” and ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.”

“I chose “Grey’s Anatomy” because it was about residents,” Clack said. “And I knew about residents because I had spent the majority of my medical career doing residencies.”

At the time, ABC broadcast the hits “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives.” The network took a chance by airing the “Grey’s” pilot episode, only to be surprised when ratings skyrocketed by the fourth – and projected final – episode.

“By the fourth episode, we all knew that we were here to stay,” Clack said.

Clack has been writing for “Grey’s Anatomy” for four seasons and hopes to continue to see the show through for several more seasons.

“You know, I love the knowledge of medicine, and I use it every day at my job, but it was the bureaucracy of the field that weighed me down,” Clack said.

Since November, she has been on strike with the Writers Guild of America. Clack acknowledged the lack of job security in the television industry. “You could be in or out at the drop of a hat,” she said.

Several NU pre-medical and communications students attended the speech, including Communication junior Kate Schultz.

“I’ve been toying with the idea of going out to L.A.,” Schultz said. “Hearing someone’s success story is a step in the right direction.”

Al Kassam, a Loyola freshman, braved the harsh weather to attend the speech.

“I was interested in what she had to say about the gap between the medical and film industries,” Kassam said, “Also I’m a huge ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ fan.”

Clack addressed her fans’ eager anticipation of new “Grey’s” episodes at the end of the speech.

“Even though we go back to work on Wednesday, you guys won’t see anything for two to three months, because that much effort goes into making each episode,” she said.

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