Lessons Learned About Leveling Up

Lessons Learned About Leveling UpPhoto by Cláudio Luiz Castro on Unsplash

“Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true!” — Aesop. Also, Drake.

When it comes to breaking into TV and film, most emerging writers focus on things like getting an agent or manager, staffing on their first TV show, or selling their screenplay. But no one ever asks what to do when these dreams actually come true. I know I didn’t. Probably because most of the time breaking into TV writing felt impossible. Like trying to be an astronaut. Or a ninja. Or an astronaut-ninja.

Even with stedy progress in my career, I was ninety percent sure I’d end up working back at the Apple Store teaching people how to organize their photos for the rest of my life. But in 2016, it did happen for me. I staffed on my first TV show. The room was a fantastic experience but in the months following that first gig, I struggled to find my footing. I had caught the tiger by the tail but I didn’t know what the fuck to do with it. I wasn’t prepared mentally to take that next step, to Level Up.

After years of crippling self-doubt, agonizing self-examination, and a few more TV shows, I finally feel like I’ve figured out a few things with this business of show. Trials by fire are great and all but in hindsight much of my floundering and self-flagellation was avoidable. So, dear Reader, here are the five things I wish someone had told me to do after my TV writing dreams came true.

Tell yourself every day that you belong

Getting to the next level in your career is exciting. And intimidating. You feel prepared and unprepared at the same time. You’ve put in your dues, you have the skills. But now that you’re playing with the Big Kids and you suddenly realize you don’t know as much as you thought you did.

Imposter syndrome sets in. Clearly, they’ve made a mistake. It’s so obvious, right? I’ll save them the embarassement from making this huge mistake in hring me and just show myself to the door. But this is a lie. Powerhouse showrunner Shonda Rhimes summed it up best with this simple yet powerful mantra: “You belong in every room you enter.”

You need to tell that to yourself every day. In the morning after you wake up, at lunch when you’re freaking out that all your pitches bombed in the room, and at night before you go to bed and try not to think about all those pitches that bombed in the room. Because no mistake has been made. You belong.

Know what you bring to the table

When you book your first big gig, chances aren’t you won’t be the most experienced person in the room. So don’t try to be.

With my first show, I really wanted to impress. I wanted to prove that I belonged. I brought my best ideas to the room but learned quickly the most important thing I had to offer was my ability to build up and play with other’s ideas.

Having a positive mindset and being ready to roll was more important than single-handedley cracking the story of every episode. Being easier on myself meant I was more relaxed and playful. I could just focus on helping the more experienced writers break stories while learning from them at the same time.

It is tempting to try and stretch yourself to impress. To be fair, some people can do this. They’re all wildly successful and I’m very jealous. However, I think you are better served by focusing on what you can control: attitude, mindset, and what you specifically bring to the table.

Find your weird

As a staff writer, you’re on the lowest rung of the TV writing ladder. It is a tricky gig because you need to contort yourself and your sensibility somewhat to write in the voice of the showrunner. But you also need to stay true to who you are.

I’ve struggled before to figure out what a showrunner wanted out of me. I tried to write to their tastes, to mixed results, and as a result, often felt inadequate and terrible.

The truth is you need to lean into what makes you unique. Use your weird. Because that’s why you’re in that room. Everyone brings something special to a show that the showrunner can hopefully wield for maximum TV goodness.

But sometimes it’s just not a good fit. It doesn’t mean you’re a sucky writer and will never get hired again. Trust me: that is a sad and pointless road I’ve been down too many times. Instead do you. That’s what matters.

Monkey see, monkey do

A staff writer’s most underrated tool is their ability to listen and watch. Note how the showrunner and upper-level writers go about their business. When they speak and when they stay quiet. How they talk about story. How they talk about other shows. The joke pitches that make the room explode (and the one’s that end in silence).

Writers stay in this this business one simple reason: they keep getting hired. Who gets hired? Talented, skilled professionals who bring value and are easy to work with. Also, nephews of famous people. Don’t get me wrong, TV rooms have jerks aplenty but they tend to glom on to each other. They are, in my experience, somewhat avoidable.

You don’t have to be staffed on a show to learn from other writers. If you don’t already, follow TV writers on Twitter. Many post about their careers, their struggles, and offer mountains of writing tips for free. Favorites of mine include Monica Beletsky, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, and Gennifer Hutchison.

You will be fired

This is the thing I wish I had known the most: if you work in TV and film, at some point, you will be fired. Not brought back. Weren’t a great fit. And that’s just the gig. Writers, in the estimation of pretty much everyone, are very replaceable. It sucks. It’s not fair. It is what it is.

What you can control is how you receive that rejection and how you bounce back. Try not to take it personally. It’s so, so hard to but it’s not helpful. It might be a personality thing or sensibility difference or whatever. You can’t control it, so don’t try. You will make yourself crazy.

Instead, refocus on your work. Focus on the ideas that you love and the people that love you. Write something that you want to write. Remind yourself why you’re great and why you love doing this. That work will find you the next gig, which chances are will be a better fit.

In the end

A writing career is exciting in its unpredictablity. Even with unimaginable success, it is easy to get lost and down and sidetracked. When you feel this way, remember that you belong in every room you enter. You were hired because of your talent, skill and value. A great writer recognized that in you so take solace in that fact.

Be yourself because that’s why you’re there. Learn how to grow into a professional by paying attention to the people who have forged the path ahead of you. There’s a reason they keep getting hired. And accept that at some point you will not be a great fit. It happens to everyone. Well, not everyone. Some jerks keep working. But most everyone.

This is a subjective business. Some people will think you’re a genius. Others will think you’re the second coming of Carrot Top. Possibly someone’s nephew. Possibly Carrot Top’s nephew.

But you know who you are and how you got there. Trust in that.

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