Aaron Sorkin tells all: writing, managing criticism and why he loves what he does

Krista Carson Elhai speaks with Aaron Sorkin
Legendary writer and director Aaron Sorkin was invited to speak on Nov. 7 as part of the Scripps Presents speaker series. (Sarah Ziff • The Student Life)

“It was one of those Friday nights in a big city … First time in my life I wrote, and it was fun and I liked it,” Emmy-winning writer-director-producer Aaron Sorkin proclaimed to a starstruck audience. “I stayed up all night. I feel like that night hasn’t ended.”

On Nov. 7 at Scripps College’s Garrison Theater, Sorkin spoke with Claremont High School theater educator Krista Carson Elhai as part of the ongoing speaker series “Scripps Presents.” Sorkin shared wisdom and his struggles during his ascent in the entertainment industry. Sorkin’s dynamic writing style translated into his candid tone; he seemed as if he were talking to an intimate group of friends.

Elhai began the conversation focusing on Sorkin’s love for theater. Sorkin discussed how his love for performance art began at an early age.

“I was lucky,” Sorkin said. “I grew up first in and then near New York City, and my parents took me to see plays starting from a very young age. And for some reason, oftentimes they took me to see plays that I was too young to understand [like] ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.’ And so, lots of times I wouldn’t understand what’s happening up there, but I love the sound of dialogue. It sounded like music to me, and I want[ed] to imitate that.”

Later, Sorkin discussed how his writing process differs between the stage and the screen, recounting his struggles adapting his play “A Few Good Men” into a film. Speaking further on original works versus adaptations, much of the conversation was spent on his theatrical version of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Sorkin wrestled with the character dynamics of the original source material, ultimately making Atticus the protagonist in his play rather than Scout.

“At some point, you have to fall out of love with source material and you have to make it your own,” Sorkin said.

Adapting “To Kill a Mockingbird” was an incredibly daunting task for Sorkin; he was unsure of how he could add anything substantial to the revered source material.

“It’s like getting into a contest with Tom Brady where points are awarded based on passing efficiency and handsomeness,” he told the ensorcelled audience.

“I was fascinated because I know him as this kind of bulldog when it comes to television and movies, but I’ve never encountered him in the first place. And then hearing him talk on stage I found him really personable, genuinely funny.”

Sorkin spoke of his endless overlapping projects with verve, seeming to thrive on his extreme workload.

“I actually sold two shows at the same time … ‘The West Wing’ and ‘Sports Night.’ I actually can’t remember how I got into that. But I couldn’t believe that this was really happening, that both of these shows have gone on the air,” he said. “And so for the second season [of] ‘Sports Night,’ I was writing both shows. At the same time I would write ‘The West Wing’ Monday through Friday… I [would] start ‘Sports Night’ [Friday] night through Sunday night.”

Sorkin was disarmingly candid, recounting his struggles in the writing industry. With self-effacing whimsy, he reflected on lessons he learned from career controversies. After critics claimed he projected his own socio-political agenda onto his characters in the TV show “The Newsroom,” he claimed that he never put out a good episode of the show because he was writing to please the critics.

Attendee Clarisa Wolff Urzua PZ ’25 expressed her surprise at Sorkin’s submission to critics.

“I was just so shocked because I think I admire him so much as a screenwriter,” Wolff Urzua said. “I was just so shocked to see that he felt something so simple and also stupid as writing to conform to what critics wanted to see. [It] made so much sense because honestly, the show did get a lot worse after that initial season.”

Another attendee, Ruthie Zolla PZ ’25, expressed her admiration for Sorkin’s legend and how it felt to see him in person.

“I was fascinated because I know him as this kind of bulldog when it comes to television and movies, but I’ve never encountered him in the first place,” Zolla said. “And then hearing him talk on stage I found him really personable, genuinely funny.”

Zolla was particularly inspired by Sorkin’s focus on politics in his work, and the kind of impact it makes on audiences.

“I think that we as young people need to keep watching movies and TV in order to [be] active members of this society,” Zolla said. “I think that movies and TV are some of the most important forms of socio-political discourse that we as Americans have today.”

Wolff Urzua expressed her fascination with Sorkin’s indelible legacy in the entertainment industry.

“[He created] words that people are going to remember for the rest of their lives and to live on forever.”

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