Teresa & Writing: When to Give Up

There's a big difference between being lit up inside by an idea, and being lit up inside by an emotional or intellectual connection.

Teresa & Writing: When to Give Up
Me and a sign I made for my bedroom when I was about 10 years old. Photo circa 2011.

JANUARY UPDATES

IRL...

I made the conscious decision back in June to hold off on pursuing additional production work. I was burnt out, and I wanted to focus on my writing. I loosely planned on riding out unemployment through the summer, hoping that one of my many general meetings would come through with something resembling employment. That hasn't yet happened - so since September, I've had a part-time gig teaching 2nd grade religious education at my synagogue's Hebrew school two days a week. It's one of the most challenging (but ultimately fulfilling - I love working with kids) jobs I've ever had! As it's part-time, I've also been collecting unemployment, and I'm absolutely looking for other work. If you know anyone in TV who needs a writer's assistant/PA, a talented staff writer, or an APOC who can start in March, hit me up!

WAITING ON...

I had a general meeting with a company that works with writers over a long-term IP. Meaning, they work on developing a book with a writer, for example, with the intention of then adapting that book as a film or series. After a great meeting with their head of YA, I was asked to submit a sample YA chapter to suss out my YA voice. If they like it, there's the possibility of me moving forward to write a book for them! I sent my sample back in November, and still haven't heard back. shrug emoji

RECENT BUMMER...

I applied for a showrunner's assistant position on a show on which I'd love to work. My manager submit me, the SVP of Scripted Programming for the network recommended me, and the interview with the showrunner itself went really well, and we seemed to vibe personally as well as professionally. I didn't get the job. This one stung, because all signs pointed to "YES," making the "no" harder to swallow. Ah, well.

UPCOMING...

  • I have a general meeting tomorrow with a production company exec I met at my management company's holiday party who read and liked my most recent original pilot, Project Blanca. Wish me luck!
  • I'm having surgery next week. It's not something to be worried about--but it is kind of a big deal and will require 2 weeks of recovery time. Not going to talk about it here (yet), but I may write something longer about it in the paid newsletter. Would appreciate any good wishes/prayers/healing vibes you've got to throw my way next week, Friday!
Overhead image of feminine-looking hands typing on a laptop on a wooden table at a coffee shop. An open notebook sits to the left of the laptop with a pen and a folded pair of glasses on it, and a cup of coffee is just out of frame.

Teresa & Writing: When to Give Up

Recently, I'd been working on my first feature film script. At the end of last year, I figured it out, outlined it, put it on cards, and spent the last few months writing. I got about halfway through when it started to not feel right.

This has happened with other scripts, too. Often, it's part of the process. When you spend a lot of time with an idea--even if it's an idea you are genuinely jazzed about--it can become terrible/boring to you, because you've been with it so long, you've lost perspective. Most of the time, this isn't indicative of a lack of quality. Or, if it is, that feeling points you in the direction of a solution if you sit with it long enough.

But this was different. There was no technical problem with the script. I'd outlined it pretty thoroughly, and everything was still sound. I liked the characters as they were developing on the page. The script was fine. Still, I had a nagging feeling that something was off. Normally I can find it in myself to push through and keep writing, but this experience had become a huge slog. I described it to my wife by saying, "I feel like there's a big hole in it somewhere, but I can't find it and plug it up." I even gave myself and my manager a deadline for when I'd get her a draft to look at, just to see if I could finish it. Nothing came.

Meanwhile, other ideas were starting to take hold. Ideas that jazzed me up. Ideas in which I had more of a stake. And that's when it hit me...

I started writing this feature script in response to something brought up on the Scriptnotes podcast, funnily enough. They had several conversations about how there are few (if any) films where femme protagonists get the same kind of large-scale moral/ethical quandaries or redemption arcs to deal with as their masc counterparts. As soon as I heard that, I thought, "I wanna write one of those!" I already had a loose concept for something floating around in the back of my head that seemed like it could be the set-up for this challenge, so I figured it out.

But usually, when ideas come, there's something about them that I either connect to personally, or really want to say. Project Blanca is one of the best things I've ever written, because it comes from a very personal place (family history) and says something important to me about the world (none of us are free until we're all free). The engine that kept me going, even when I hit that inevitable "this is terrible/boring" phase, was connecting deeply to the story on a personal level.

I realized this feature script wasn't working, because I'd basically just given myself a writing exercise. This would've been fine if the story I came up with was one in which I found a deep personal connection, or could express something I really needed to say. Neither was true.

If you were to ask, I couldn't tell you why that script (as it is now) needs to exist. I couldn't tell you what I was trying to say, or how I was expressing a part of myself through these characters. It had become like pulling teeth, because while the story had an engine, I didn't.

So, if I were to give any advice to newer writers out there, it'd be that there's a big difference between being lit up inside by an idea, and being lit up inside by an emotional or intellectual connection.

You're not always going to get to write the story/genre you want to write as a professional. You will often be a hired gun bringing other people's stories to life (how I wish for these first-world problems!), and it may feel more like writing to a writing prompt than being wholly creative. Even if you're writing your own original spec scripts, you might hit a wall where you realize that you've given yourself a prompt rather than started a story you needed to tell.

What's truly exciting, though, is finding the part of the story that's purely you. You don't have to write from personal experience all the time, but that doesn't mean the story can't be personal. Either it's something you relate to from your own life, or it's a question you wrestle with in IRL that you now want to tackle in script form. It doesn't have to be an earth-shattering thing, just meaningful to you.

And if your script doesn't have that, and it's become a slog, it's okay to put it down and move onto something else. Make it a point to spend your energy on sharing yourself through your stories rather than stopping at "a cool idea." It's that personal connection that makes work stronger.

Hitting a wall with a script (or a story in any medium)? Asking yourself these questions might help:

  1. Where am I in this script? Do I relate to one character in particular? Am I sprinkled amongst all the characters? What parts are sprinkled where, and which characters with which parts of me do I find that I'm giving the most attention?
  2. Why do I have to tell this story? Why do I have to tell it now?
  3. What thought/message/idea/question do I want to convey with this story? Scripts need a central theme/argument in order to work, but is the one conveyed in this script genuinely important to me? Or am I writing it just because "it should exist" or "this is something everyone's talking about right now?"
  4. What do I want people to come away with after reading/watching this? What do I want them to think about? How do I want them to feel? And why is it important to me that they think/feel these things?

This might sound pretty basic, but I've been writing professionally for over a decade, and I still needed the reminder.

Just because you might need to churn something out for a paycheck doesn't mean that you can't or shouldn't find a way to put your entire self into it. Just because you're writing something you consider "popcorn entertainment" doesn't mean you shouldn't also have "something to say." The difference between a terrible "popcorn flick" and compelling one is a specific POV. Again, it doesn't have to be intense social commentary or whatever, just meaningful to you.

And if you can't find a way in that's meaningful to you, forcing yourself to write it anyway just to finish something is not going to produce great work, and might even affect your timeliness with delivery (which might then affect future job opportunities). We all take jobs "for the money." You're not going to love every single thing you get to work on, and at a certain point you have to push through to make a deadline--but if it's something that you can't find a personal way into at all, it might be better to turn down that job and hold out for the next project you do for the paycheck.

And certainly, if you're a writer early in their career, like me, you should absolutely only be writing the scripts that are personally meaningful to you in some way. You're never going to have as much freedom to do it as you have right now, and the scripts you connect with personally are the most likely to start getting you professional attention.

Image of a person wearing fuzzy slippers watching TV. In focus in the foreground is a person's legs up on a table in the fuzzy slippers. Out-of-focus behind that is a home entertainment system with a TV that is on, but the screen is just white light.

FILLING MY CUP

Just finished -- KILLING EVE. While I watched the first two seasons while the show was still airing, Season 3 was...weird (not in a good way), which made watching a slog, and I found myself going weeks between episodes, finishing up last week. The series finale was hugely unsatisfying. Sandra Oh, Jodie Comer, and Fiona Shaw deserved better. Seasons 1-3 of Killing Eve are on Hulu. The first 2 are great.

Caught up on -- FOR ALL MANKIND. Unlike Killing Eve, nothing about this show feels like a slog. It is a smart, compelling sci-fi/alternate history series with rich, complicated characters. It's also an interesting look at American history, showing us all the places where hypocrisy lives, and that advances in scientific innovation don't necessarily indicate progressive thought in other areas. For All Mankind is on Apple TV+, and Season 4 should arrive later this year.

Currently enjoying --

TV: The Last of Us and Succession, both on HBO. You know how much TLOU means to me, so I won't get into that. I know I'm late to the party on Succession, but it is truly great, surprisingly hilarious, and proves you don't need your characters to be "likeable" to create a successful show. I'm currently at the beginning of Season 3 after having binged the first two seasons over the past week. I'm a sucker for watching attractive, rich, white people fight anyway, so that's some of of the appeal (also, being unable to decide whether I have a bigger crush on Jeremy Strong or Sarah Snook. drool emoji). But the main reason this show works so well is that, despite it being a story about billionaires, it's also about family and the legacy of abuse. If you remove the money, everything these characters do still feels really familiar if you have experience with dysfunctional family dynamics. The Roys might have a global playing field and more expensive toys with which to hurt each other, but I've seen the same dynamics play out among people who are broke as hell. Succession shows us what they mean when they say money doesn't buy happiness.

BOOKS: Dune, by Frank Herbert. This has been a slog (I started reading it last year), but not because it's been entirely unenjoyable. Herbert's writing is a lot less stilted and terrible than that of other sci-fi writers of his day, and he's created a truly interesting world in which to tell a story about the danger of a charismatic leader. Part of the problem is that my wife is a huge fan of the series and has made me watch every filmed adaptation first. She'd been "bugging me" to read the book, so I finally did, but I rarely re-read things, and having seen so many versions of the first book, I felt like I'd already read this story several times. Many of the things that were not in the adaptations are also things that I don't enjoy in the novels (every time a Harkonnen section comes up, I roll my eyes and brace myself), so they're kinda rough-going. But then there are the elements not in the adaptations that I wish were, and they're the parts that make me want to see how the novel turns out. I'm 130 pages from the end. Here's hoping I can tell you I'm done next month!

5 SONGS ON REPEAT:

  1. 'DIP' -- Connor Price, feat. KAZUO
  2. 'Now I'm In It' -- HAIM
  3. 'we like watching birds' -- Brian David Gilbert w/Karen Han
  4. 'Fancy Like' -- Walker Hayes feat. Kesha
  5. 'Venom' (music from the motion picture) -- Eminem

See you next month!