Bouncing off Rock Bottom
Nine jobs. That’s how many jobs I left, lost, or was fired from, before I started writing. I was as much a victim of the American program as any other boomer. The righteous path to success was clear: college, grad school (if smart and lucky); good job, work hard, make money, viola, success and respect. Sweet. It was all so orderly. So obvious. I once had an Italian friend exclaim greatly perplexed, “You Americans stand in line so well.” We certainly do. We like parameters and distinct courses of action. I knew what was required, what was valued—I simply couldn’t get there. My software didn’t work with this culture’s hard drive.
So, while my impressively brilliant sister, only one year older, worked her way through college, then secured her MBA and ventured purposely into the real world, I attended six different colleges before noticing I’d collected a psych degree somewhere along the way and could graduate if I cared to.
My lifestyle was unruly, relatively dangerous, and blindly nomadic. Still, I knew (because the program told me) that I needed to get that good job, a regular person’s job, and make money. This was how one got respect, and I was desperate for respect. Nine jobs later, hello bottom. The not-so-great ad firm where I had landed a job went under. And there I was jobless—again.
Living on unemployment in a basement in New York City with rats running along the acoustic ceiling tiles over my head every night, I faced the failure I was. While my beautiful professional sister slipped into her pumps and went out to stare down the world of men, I got high in the basement and did the Times crossword puzzle. Needless to belabor, I was certainly off the program.
One particular day, I had a painfully long wait for my check in the unemployment line. There is a profound emotional cost to standing in that line; it is a feeling of fundamental worthlessness that cannot be described but must be felt. I would wear a big hat (yes, that’s why we wear them) and then try to shower the humiliation off me when I got home. When I crawled between the sheets so lonely that particular night, I admitted to myself what I had known my entire life: I was a writer. Writer was not one of the acceptable American programs. No one encourages anyone to be a writer. I can remember saying all the way back to my preteen years, “I’m a writer,” and hearing, “Okay, but what are you going to do?”
That night in the dark, in my mid-twenties, I recall thinking, I have no money, no husband, no kids, no job, and no prospects. I was exhausted and adrift. I needed to try something drastic.
I packed up, got on a plane, and moved in with my parents in California. I was mortified, but a small bedroom in their apartment was much more emotionally healthy than the sticky stench of the unemployment line. My entire life felt like a Hallmark sympathy card. “Sorry your life didn’t work out, better luck next time.” So, I wrote. Writing was a relief. Until then, I had never given myself permission to do it full time. Consequently, there were so many stories, words, characters, and worlds locked up inside of me. I turned out pages every day, all day, and sometimes a good part of the night. I was calm. I was happy inside my imagination.
I needed to make a living, to support myself, and the money for writers in America was in film and TV. I turned my attention that way. I spent time online studying successful screenplays and reading The Hollywood Reporter. It was clear that my very first move should be to purchase the software program for the formatting. (Formatting is very strict in television because shows have specific run times.) The industry standard was called Final Draft. This program would at least make me appear professional. It wasn’t hard to learn, which was a gift. Next, it seemed I needed to turn out spec scripts—completed screenplays that might capture someone’s attention should I be able to rope anyone into reading. I wasn’t sure how to do that, but everyday I was at peace losing myself in the writing.
I began to generate screenplays. Without a single writing class, without an agent, without much realistic hope of being read, I simply wrote. I was surprised when I put my head down to sleep each night to feel okay about the next day. I tried not to think about my future or my unfortunate living situation. I wrote. I took solace and energy from the writing. I couldn’t believe how much genuine reinforcement I got from finishing the perfect scene, or from fleshing out a character I loved or hated. For the first time in my life, I was not looking outside of myself for validation. I wasn’t troubled by anyone else’s opinion about who I was, or what I did. I was completely relaxed, alone, in a room, writing. I felt settled and confident.
I strategized ways to get in the door and get read. I decided to apply to a temporary help agency in Los Angeles that supplied the studios, networks and agencies with part-time clerical workers on short notice if someone called in sick. At that point, I was a terrible typist, couldn’t spell (still can’t), but I was willing and completely available at a moment’s notice. I never said, “no.” Gradually, I met people in the industry and I convinced a few to read my work. For a short period of time, I got a gig as an extra on a movie set. It was a mind-numbing ten hours everyday, which was perfect for me. I got six weeks of daily work, which meant I showed up, opened my computer and wrote in a corner until it was my turn to walk down the street exactly as I had walked down the street the day before. The very famous producer noticed me sitting on the ground alone, day after day concentrating on my laptop and he struck up a conversation. Then, he agreed to read and while he didn’t buy anything, he gave me encouragement. As a new writer, that’s worth more than money.
It has been over 25 years since then. My first paid writing job was on a half hour sitcom, which led to a staff position, and after that a series of freelance TV movies. I made an excellent living as a screenwriter, which was as surprising to me as to anyone else.
Along the way, I met my husband on a blind date. (I never would have found him on my own. I had an ignominious dating history I liked to call “eclectic.”) We had three children together. I never stopped writing. When they were very little I brought in a babysitter to help watch them for some hours during the day so that I could work. Even so, my son’s first complete sentence was, “Mommy, turn off computer.” And I did. I always did. I never wanted them to feel like they came second, like they came after anything else, because they didn’t. This was possible because I was freelancing when my children came along. I was able to schedule my time anyway I wanted. I balanced. I was a fully involved (some might say overly involved) mom. I cared acutely about everything having to do with their days, their nights, their friends, their schoolwork, their sports, their victories and their defeats. I felt it all with them.
There was no denying that I needed the success and fulfillment of an active writing life. I absolutely needed both. It was a benefit that I married a man who understood that my writing was not a hobby, or even a job (although it was that too) but a fundamental inexorable part of who I was, of who I am.
Being available to participate fully in my kids’ lives and also write was mostly a matter of logistics. When my twins started kindergarten I rejoiced and I cried. All mothers know that heartbreaking moment of detachment when they let go of your hand and walk away. We all sit in the car and cry. However, I was a mother who got a gift along with the heartbreak: a predetermined number of hours every day to write while they were busy learning. Sure, I may have been that woman with her hair on fire doing the grocery shopping at ten o’clock at night, but it was doable. As they grew, I never missed anything. I was at every school conference, every sporting event, every dance show, and every excruciating musical performance. It’s not to say it was easy, but the benefits of being able to control your time cannot be overstated. Writing is a solitary endeavor and I needed to rely on and coordinate with only myself, so it was possible to find the line between parenting and working that led to fulfillment. I scheduled all my studio and network meetings during the school day. Unless something drastic happened with a particular writing project I worked six hours straight a day, which is more work than a lot of people get done in a traditional job. There were no lunches, no commutes, no distractions, no dramas or chats in the office hallway. It was pure time. The key was control. I could be both a full-time writer and a full-time mom. All I needed was caffeine and determination. It was exhausting, and occasionally frustrating, and always worth it.
Now, I write when I want. More importantly I write what I want. I no longer judge my success based on whether my work makes money and that’s such a relief. I’ve been a success in the American program in that I’ve been well paid and that’s the rock bottom metric. Interestingly, though, crushing that program was what happened to me when I walked away from it, threw up my hands in surrender, and gave it up to be the writer I knew I was. It is a shame that what should’ve been my first move was my last resort, but culture, society and expectations play heavily in all our lives. Perhaps if the American program had been more forgiving about creative paths then my journey to writing might not have been so tortuous.
A few years ago, I moved away from TV and film, finished two books, wrote three plays, and now I’ve started a book of essays. Like most writers, we are all always happiest about what we’re doing next. Sometimes, I speak at writers’ conferences. A few times I’ve said yes to teaching (and regretted it). Nevertheless, I still feel like I’ve not done my best yet. I keep pressing. And for reasons I’m not at all clear about, I still shy away from telling people I’m a writer. I feel like they don’t believe it. I still feel like I don’t believe it.
I told my children as they grew that life is best with both success and fulfillment. The sweet spot is where they meet. I am still a practical woman and I understand that freedom, choice, health, and independence are all economic realities of the American program. I am not a creative who believes that money doesn’t matter. Of course, it matters; ask anyone who has ever stood in the unemployment line. Still, it’s not a bad idea to peek outside the box of preferred professions to see what feels like you—to see if you’re out there. I encouraged my children to find what they were truly good at, and then figure out how to make money doing it, and not the other way around. It was important for my kids to understand that they had a greater shot at that sweet spot if they committed to what mattered to them. And if by chance they weren’t financially successful, then at least they would be fulfilled, because everyday they would be doing something they loved. Oh, and also, I made sure they knew that Mom and Dad would always have a bedroom for them and they absolutely could go home again.
Recently, I was spending time with my glass-ceiling-busting CEO sister. I learned that she was perplexed. She said, “I don’t really get how it works. No spreadsheets, or data, or marketing plan, nothing. So, you pull up a blank page and then (she paused) . . . what?” I realized that she was as baffled about what I did as I was about what she did. I explained. “Well, Sis, I pull up the blank page, and then, I just make things up.” She smiled and shook her head, mystified.
1 reply on “Bouncing off Rock Bottom”
Wonderfully thought provoking especially in these times. Love it and thank you for writing!