There’s nothing like feeling existentially lost as you’re cresting your 20’s. Your career is at a standstill, you’re far, far away from Lalaland, and living in Munich during lockdown. We’ve been quarantining for 10 months, and like many, I feel like a significant chunk of my life has gone by in 2020 and I still don’t have that shiny, elusive job.
So I brought in the experts. Four writers (who, for privacy’s sake, must remain nameless) sat me down with me over distanced coffee or zoom and gave me their take on ways I can freshen up my mind, spirit, and scripts.
What makes them experts? “ONE” wrote and ran a huge NBC drama and now works as a screenwriter in both the UK and the US. “TWO” is a brilliant writer who sold a drama and runs a venerable TV writing class. “THREE” wrote a highly anticipated biopic for Fox Searchlight. Finally, “FOUR” is a working writer who has sold several movies and just sold a show…in thisclimate.
As am up and coming drama writer? I hit the jackpot. Here’s what I took away from these fabulous mentors this week:
Re-fill the well
Trying to make something without inspiration is like trying to paddle a boat without oars. Of course you’ll sit down sometimes and creativity will be a struggle. But that initial idea should excite you so much that it moves you to action. That initial energy is something you can always come back to when you’re burnt out — re-watch the show or re-read the book that inspired you to write to begin with.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I told myself, output is what’s most important. I wrote a shitty pilot that no one will ever read and writing it felt like pulling teeth. I thought I’d fallen out of love with writing. Then I spun out of control, thinking that I’d lost my purpose…myself… (panic!)
A little while later, I followed what I was interested in and co-wrote a comedy — which I “don’t do”. It wasn’t what I “should have been writing” or in my “branding”. But I found the topic moving and brilliant. I found it not just important, but urgent. I wrote it with my best friend, which brought us closer and helped us both feel creatively fulfilled. I needed to be filled with real emotion, genuine human connection, and collaboration! Not branding. Not output. The output came when it did, after months of brainstorming.
More recently, when I was catching up with TWO, I told her I was in a rut. She told me to refill the well: Nothing is really happening in our industry right now. Use this time to be the best writer you can be, to read, to get re-inspired.
I took her advice to heart. I binged shows, read, researched, and journaled. New goal? I only take another step forward when I was ready.
End every meeting with “how can I help you?”
FOUR told me he does this, and it is the single most transformative practice in his writing career. He said, people help people who have helped them. It’s true! So I tested it out.
I’ve received some amazing help in my career thus far. I’m always looking for ways to pay it forward. I ended some email conversations with offers to help out. No one took me up on it, but I felt like I was offering more to the professional relationship, which made me feel good. All in all, it’s a good way to make your connections feel valued. And that’s always a positive thing.
Don’t let the fear of failure keep you from listening to feedback
When you’re getting script notes, feedback, or general advice, instead of jumping ahead to panicked thinking (I’m flawed? Okay, let’s fix that right away…), really sit in the comments.
FOUR was offering some industry advice and mentioned that I seem to jump to action instead of really hearing his thoughts and grasping them.Advice can be difficult to understand — and this is a learning process after-all.
Not to mention, once you get advice, it’s probably best to meditate on it and ensure it’s the right form of action for you. It’s actually a confidence thing. Stand your ground, but listen with an open mind. Then, in a separate time, assess whether that feedback works for you.
Research is power
A huge proponent for research and reading, TWO is as careful as they come, checking her math and testing each step before she takes it. This industry is cutthroat and information is power, especially when pitching.
She recommends watching everything in the general vicinity of your show. Reading everything too. Finding articles, resources, and interviewing everyone you know about the topic. She has a method for writing TV…a plan of action. Research is a huge pillar of that process.
Research is a distraction
Not all the time, but research truly can slow you down. Not that the goal is to be fast, but to be writing. THREE told me (and he writes historical stuff!) that he gets the broad strokes and starts outlining. I asked him how he finds the balance between the “true” and what the “sellable.”
He said, focus on the dramatic tension. The storytelling. You’ll get the facts from Wikipedia, but facts don’t tell the full story. Every historical event has emotional weight. When you build a compelling story, it gets even closer to the truth because we now care about these people.
THREE finds research can often be an excuse for facing the content straight on. It’s something that, in its full depth, can come later.
Write what you like
I mulled over new script ideas with ONE, feeling slightly directionless. There are a lot of genres I’m interested in writing, but I often receive the advice to write in genres such as young adult vs. historical fiction, strictly from a marketplace standpoint.
But ONE told me that he spent the entire beginning of his career writing what everyone else told him to. Though this actually led to brief commercial success, he also warned me that he never got out of that genre. It ended up being the worst thing for his career because he felt unable to pivot.
Ten years later, he’s not finally broken out, but he feels he lost a lot of time. I’ve heard this time and time again — brilliant comedy writers get their first gig in horror and they never leave. Drama writers do comedy animation. There’s nothing wrong with any genre, but if your heart isn’t in it, it's difficult to work those twelve hour writers’ room days.
TWO also reminded me that especially in quarantine, it’s important to write what makes you feel alive. Don’t chase the marketplace — that’s what everyone does. If you write exactly what you want to, in theory, it will be specific and wildly unique. Which, in my opinion, is what makes a show sellable.
Get rid of the internet on your computer
THREE told me he took his computer to the apple store to have them disable his ability to connect to internet. I laughed so hard at this and was impressed by the ballsy move. It’s what he needed to do!
I wish I had the hutzpah to do it, but I also know how much I need the internet to research, not to mention the ability to get everything else done (bills, Alice Bloom marketing, email, etc.).
Or…is that an excuse?
Whichever way you cut it, we spend a remarkable amount of time on the internet. Emails pop through while we’re in a good creative flow. I’d recommend at least turning off the internet while you’re writing. Definitely turning off your phone… (your crazy Aunt can wait!)
Find a safe space
I was joking with ONE about our frustrating housemate and he told me he was thinking of moving to a new country just to find peace, quiet and writing time. I could relate. Two months ago, we did the same, leaving our noisy and expensive LA apartment and moving to Europe where we could live for a fraction of the cost.
But even in Rome, Turin, and Munich, our experience has been far from tranquil. We’re in the throes of lockdowns, family stress, relocation paperwork, and isolation.
I knew this going in and luckily, approached with a plan of action. We set up separate work spaces, found a quiet place to stay, and filled the apartment with little comforts (okay…we bought a nespresso machine. Not exactly little — but definitely comforting.)
Prioritize this right now. God knows, we need some safety these days.
Story comes from emotion, not plot
If you’ve worked with me or have received coverage from me, you know this is my soapbox. Though TWO is the structure queen, everything she writes is rooted in emotional stakes. That’s what makes her work brilliant.
ONE and I had a long discussion about some of our favorite TV — from Friday Night Lights to Succession. What a character does isn’t what makes them interesting. WHY a character does what they do is what makes them interesting. We study actions and objectives in classical theatre. Objectives are connected to the emotions of a character — who they love, what they think they need, what they would die for… without this tension in TV, we’re just watching a bullet list of things that happen. To me, it’s kinda boring!
Do things that aern’t about writing
TWO is huge on this. She told me she has been baking banana bread in the lockdown. I truly couldn’t agree more. I’ve attended several seminars through the WGA and a through-line is always…do other shit.
There’s a reason they hire lawyers as writers on law shows. Or stand-ups on comedies. Another writer friend used to sell drugs and told me he gets hired all the time because of that. Drugs are an incredibly prevalent topic in TV and film! Showrunners want authenticity on their staff.
Karen Kilgariff is a working writer…and co-hosts one of the most famous comedy podcasts out there (and my favorite podcast), My Favorite Murder. She’s hired as a writer like crazy and in my opinion, it’s because she’s fun, hilarious, and interested. Interested people are interesting.
Fuck what productivity looks like for other people
I was venting to FOUR about my boyfriend’s ability to wake up and immediately sit down to work. FOUR laughed and told me to get over it. Comparison is the thief of joy! Okay, he didn’t say that, Eleanor Roosevelt did. It’s still brilliant advice.
Focus on yourself, stay in your lane, and let other people do what they’re going to do and think what they’re going to think. It’s not your responsibility to “keep up” with anyone else or even bat an eyelash at them. I know this is hard while in quarantine.
Strategies I’ve used? 1. Be in separate rooms if possible. 2. Wear noise cancelling headphones. 3. Shut down any “productivity comparison”. 4. Share what you’re proud of, not what you haven’t finished. 5. Write weekly to-do lists instead of daily, and 6. Love yourself…you only get one chance to!