The early phases of my television writing career went pretty much exactly like they were supposed to. I was a success. But then that success quickly evaporated…
After toiling for years as an assistant on various television shows, one day, I got into a prestigious studio writing program. “OK,” I thought, “This is it! I’ve made it.”
I went through the program with a bunch of talented people, and at the end of it, I got staffed on a show that I was proud to be a part of, and it turned out to be a great place to work. I co-wrote an episode with the show runner and got to be on set while it filmed (hashtag LA). I signed with a big agency, and it seemed like I couldn’t have asked for a better start to my career as a big shot TV writer.
But then, something very Hollywood happened: The show got cancelled before my episode even aired. And just like that, my well-paved career path simply evaporated.
I didn’t get a single show runner meeting during the following network staffing season. I got a few meetings on cable shows, but I didn’t land any of the jobs. A few months without a writing gig turned into a year, and my unemployment benefits and savings ran out.
I needed money. Bad. And aside from my one staff writing gig and various freelance writing jobs, I didn’t have much work experience behind me. And so after putting in six years as an assistant in order land a job that would ensure I would no longer have to be somebody’s assistant, I contacted a temp agency to take pretty much anything they could give me.
It sucked. I cried. A lot. I felt terrible pretty much the whole time. But I hung on for three years, and eventually, the writing opportunities started slowly coming back.
It’s not always easy to keep the bigger picture in mind when you’re suffering what seems like an endless series of professional setbacks, but it’s not impossible, either, so long as you can keep perspective.
Here’s how I survived my three-year slump, and my advice for how you can do the same:
Do what you have to in order to pay the bills
Going back to assistant work was especially tough after having had a taste of my dream job. It was really hard to go back to sitting outside of executive’s offices, answering phones, placing lunch orders, and scheduling meetings.
But if all that meant I could stay in LA and take meetings for writing jobs, and keep networking, I was ready to do it. So I did, and I tried not to think about it too hard.
Stay cognizant of the green-eyed monster
While I was out of work, it felt like I was the only person on the planet who couldn’t land a writing job. Friends who had been assistants while I was in the writing program went on to land their first writing jobs. And then their second and third. Their shows didn’t get cancelled. They got promoted.
I was happy for my friends, but it was hard to not be envious of the apparent ease with which their careers appeared to be progressing, while mine felt hopelessly stalled. I had to keep reminding myself that a career is a marathon not a sprint.
Let yourself cry. A lot.
It’s cathartic. My go-to was Grey’s Anatomy, which, thankfully, runs fairly often in syndication. I’d watch the doctors get their hearts broken or endure the deaths of their patients and just let the tears flow. Pretty effective.
Keep doing what you love
There’s only one thing a writer can control: writing. Working on new scripts and creating characters and worlds to play in was a big part of what got me through the years I wasn’t being paid to write.
It helped remind me on a regular basis that I’m actually good at this. Feeling a sense of accomplishment because I’d produced a new script was a natural high, and at the same time, I was expanding my portfolio.
Share your insights on the industry
Whether it was taking the time to talk to someone aspiring to get into television writing or reading a friend’s script to give notes—helping someone else out invariably made me feel better, and that I was continuing to put my knowledge and experience to good use.
Find other outlets for your creative energy
I had very little control over whether I could land meetings for writing jobs, but what I could control was coming up with my own television projects and then pitching them to producers and studios.
Pitching my own ideas is probably something I wouldn’t have thought to do until I was a mid-or upper-level writer, but because I wasn’t finding work in other ways, I thought, what do I have to lose? It turned out to be a confidence booster in ways I never expected.
Stick with it
I’d been working for several months at a freelance marketing job that I quite enjoyed when I got the call to meet on the second season of a half-hour digital horror show. Within a week, I had an offer and was back in a writers’ room. It felt like a miracle, and also the most natural thing in the world.
There’s an old trope in Hollywood, about people giving up right before their big break. The tricky thing is that perseverance rarely feels noble or productive while you’re in the thick of it—and especially when the “thick of it” lasts for years at a time.
But that sense of knowing what you want (if not when it will happen,) is sometimes the only thing you can cling to—and it’ll surprise you, how much you can survive when that’s the case.