By the time I turned 30, I had written seventeen episodes of an iconic television show (Lizzie McGuire), been nominated for two Emmys, had an Agent, a Manager, and a size 6 body that I could cram into all sorts of fun outfits.
By the time I turned 35, I was near-broke, hadn’t had a writing job in 18 months and was working the front desk of the spinning gym that I had formerly been a customer at.
Drugs? one of the clients asked me.
Had I been inhaling too much of the shoe disinfectant? Excuse me?
Someone told me you used to be a TV writer. And now you work here. Was it cocaine?
I handed her a towel and smiled. Nope, I told her, I never earned cocaine money.
She waited, hoping that I would spill my secret to my failure. Con artist boyfriend? Affair with the married boss? Pyramid scheme?
Have a nice day, I told her, and helped the next client in line.
The years 2006-2009 were a vast wasteland of work. There was a manager who gave me the overall note rewrite it for Ashton Kutcher. There was the agent who got offended at an abortion joke in a script and stop returning phone calls. My bosses who had previously hired me were out of work themselves. There was the Writers’ Strike. A perfect shitstorm.
Still, I was lucky. I had just married betheboy. I had insurance. We had a cheap place to live, even if it was in a moldering, mouse-infested apartment under our landlady who was a hoarder.
But I was no longer a professional TV writer.
Total Number of Writers Reporting Earnings in 2009: 4522
Total Number of TV Writers Reporting Earnings in 2009: 3166
(Source: WGA 2014 Financial Report)
I scoured the Internet for writing jobs. Entertainment Careers, eLance, Craigslist. I submitted bids, took writing tests. I scored a ghostwriting gig which had me churning out a book in eight weeks. I wrote a comic book for a Nigerian billionaire who took eight weeks to pay me $200 because he was waiting for investors. I wrote press releases for a bipolar business owner on a drug binge - he did have cocaine money, though always had an excuse why he couldn’t pay me.
I felt like a failure. I probably looked like a failure. Let’s just say I was a failure. But with every new humiliation I thought: at least you’re writing.
I continued to blog. I got a Twitter account. I got on Tumblr. I heard that a network executive thought I was “girl funny” but couldn’t write for boys. In retaliation, I wrote a spec script called Max & Trevor about two teen dorks who just want to touch a boob. I didn’t have representation. I emailed it to the last few people I knew, who patted me on the head and said nice job. I knew it was a long shot, so I tucked it away and went back to spraying rented spinning shoes. You’d think that people who earned enough money to pay $20 a spinning class would cough up $100 to purchase their own pair of spin shoes, but you’d be wrong. Instead for two dollars they’d rent shoes, which were like bowling shoes that someone had run a marathon in.
My old Lizzie McGuire boss called me up and asked me if I was still doing that Internet thing? During my years on Lizzie I had been blogging, and was always being dragged into meetings regarding Lizzie’s digital presence. Yes, I am I told him. I may have something for you, he responded.
The project was called Valemont, and he wanted me to write all of the online material, as well as an ARG. I nodded. I could totally do that.
When I went home, I googled what an ARG was.
I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew that I had about eight to twelve weeks to figure it out, quick. I worked 12 hours a day. When the project went live, I worked 15 to 18 hours a day.
My boss sent my work to an agent he knew. He passed. My boss’ assistant said she knew a manager who was looking for new clients. I got a meeting. The manager worked for herself. There was no fancy office, no plush carpets and walls of thick glass, no assistant whose heels clicked over the marble as she offered you a bottle of water.
She had read Max & Trevor, a script I never expected anyone to see. She wanted to represent me. I said yes.
Valemont won awards for the online component. I was asked to speak at conferences at MIT, in New York, in Sweden.
I was still unemployed.
I worked on a couple of more online projects. While I had the contacts, my manager made me a deal that was much better than the one I would have made on my own.
I continued to write.
I got a meeting at a production company who had was waiting to hear about a show pickup at Nickelodeon. The show got picked up. The exec told us it was a long shot. The EP was hiring most of the people he knew from other projects.
I got a meeting.
The EP told me he read five pages of my script, then put it down, knowing that he had already decided to meet me. When he was done going through the slush pile, he told me I went back to your script because I wanted to see how it would end.
I got the job on How to Rock.
How to Rock ended and then I got a consulting job on House of Anubis.
I got an email -- a producer friend of mine was reading my Twitter and thought I was funny -- was I interested in appearing on the Brit List on BBC?
I developed with Disney Animation and Cartoon Network. I pitched shows to Amazon, to Dreamworks Animation, to Disney Channel, to Nickelodeon. I had a project optioned at Hasbro. I worked at Mattel on Monster High and DC Superhero Girls. A producer brought me a book that I adapted into a screenplay pitch that has a production company on board. I developed a movie with my old Lizzie McGuire EP and Disney Interactive. I punched up friend’s pilots. I have a super-secret project that is about to be pitched that may have everyone flipping their collective lid.
But none of these things could end up happening. Because life.
There is an arbitrary line in the sand that we give ourselves:
By [age] I will have figured out [giant, important thing.]
By 26 I will have figured out my career.
By 32 I will have figured out my love life.
By 41 I will have figured out my health.
This is a mathematical equation that is near-impossible to solve. Because all of the big stuff: work, love, health, involves hard work, yes, but it also needs a little bit of luck* to make it through.
Total Number of Writers Reporting Earnings in 2014: 4899
Total Number of TV Writers Reporting Earnings in 2014: 3888
(Source: WGA 2014 Financial Report)
This is far from a cautionary tale. Partly because my tale is far from over and partly because there wasn’t really anything that I could have done to pull out of the nosedive that my career took in the mid-2000s. It was a Rube Goldbergian series of unfortunate events that landed me in a dark cubby spraying rented spin shoes for the 1%.
William Goldman famously said about the entertainment industry that nobody knows anything. They still don’t. The only thing you can do is do the work. Write like nobody’s watching. Because chances are they aren’t.
Until they are.
Anyone who says they’ve got it all figured out is just trying to make you feel bad. And there are enough people in the world who want to make you feel like shit. Don’t help them.
*It bears noting that a heaping spoonful of privilege -- that I, as a cis white woman have -- also helps a ton.
A review of my professional work can be found here.
Last night, Will & I watched Aziz Ansari's new Netflix special Live at Madison Square Garden and he talked about what it was it was like to be the child of immigrant parents. At the end, he brought his parents onstage and they watched as the crowd gave their son a standing ovation.
My mother was born in a refugee camp in Germany on the other side of World War 2. Her parents and her sister and her grandmother had left Russia on foot, but made a slight detour into a concentration camp thanks to the Nazis. It's part of the reason why I'm convinced I never went to summer camp. We don't do well at camp.
There are stories they used to tell when my grandparents were still alive, about being taken out in the middle of the night and stripped naked and hosed down. They would huddle around the children to try to protect them from the freezing water.
The camp was liberated, but with nowhere to go they soon became refugee camps. My grandfather used to collect bits of parachute silk and bring them to my grandmother to make clothes, which he would barter for extra food (and alcohol.) My grandmother gave birth to a pair of twin boys who did not make it, as it turns out that refugee camps aren't the ideal place to give birth. My mother was born a little while later. She was too stubborn to die.
My grandfather taught her to recite poetry and dance, and while he would collect and sell the silk, my mother would accompany him like an organ grinder's monkey. People were always willing to throw in a little extra milk or bread (or alcohol) for the show.
My grandparents ended up like a lot of other people's grandparents, in Florida by the way of Chicago. My baba would sit at her kitchen table which was littered with smoked fish (heads still on) and pierogi and kasha for breakfast as she'd watch her favorite show, Sanford and Son. She never spoke much English, but she laughed along anyway.
I spent summers there, my thighs sticking to the plastic-covered sofa, wondering what it was like to go from watching you people die to watching Fred Sanford grabbing his chest and declaring "you hear that Elizabeth? I'm comin' to join you, honey!"
My mother doesn't have an official birth certificate. It turns out that along with substandard medical care, refugee camps aren't great when it comes to record-keeping, either. But she does has her UNICEF cup and plate, which still sits in the cupboard of my childhood home in Glen Ellyn. They're the only things I've asked for when time marches us to our inevitable fate.
While other kids were brought up with the boogeyman, I was reminded that the Nazis could come get you in the middle of the night. One of my friends complained that the hallways of her NYC fifth-floor walkup smelled like cabbage. To me that smells like home.
My writing career has had innumerable starts and stops in the past 18 months. Projects that have seemed inevitable have disintegrated before my eyes, while others have dropped in my lap like a gift from the gods. I haven't played Madison Square Garden, but I've had some success. And on the days where it seems impossible I remind myself that my baba saw my name on TV. Right next to Sanford & Son.
Daisy J Dog gets give pills every morning (3 anti-dementia pills, 1 Cushing's med, and a chewable antibiotic that she refuses to chew so I have to split it in two.)
We start with salami. Wrap delicious, delicious pork around a pill. She gets one down that way, then wises up. She spits out all salami. She won't even look at it. She runs away if I say the word "pig."
We move to cheese. To ground beef. To peanut butter. To peanut butter with honey. She is on a full-borne hunger strike. I finally put the pills in her mouth and rub her throat so she'll swallow. She slumps onto the ground in passive resistance mode and hides pills in the corner of her cheeks. We get everything down but the antibiotic. An antibiotic that she will be on long-term, because of an infection in her spine.
Ninety minutes have elapsed and I am at an impasse with a 15-year-old dog who is giving me serious "FUCK OFF AND DIE." She will not look at me. She will not listen to me. She will not come near me.
I head into the kitchen, ignoring her. I get out a slab of grassfed steak that was meant to be dinner for me and betheboy tonight, one of the rare red-meat for dinner nights.
I cook it on the stove, and Daisy sniffs the air. She's curious.
I take the steak off the pan still bloody. I slice if in half and make a slit in the meat. I place half the pill in there. The other half of the meat I place back on the pan with a sprinkle of mozzarella cheese.
As it cooks, the cheese weeps over the side of the meat, and Daisy is really interested now. She's waiting at the edge of the kitchen, ears at attention, mouth slightly open, her cloudy eyes darting back and forth as I work.
I pull the meat off the pan and place it on top of the meat pill pocket. The oozing cheese cements the pieces together. I let it cool and place the treat - essentially a grilled cheese with grassfed steak instead of bread - in her bowl.
Daisy gobbles it down.
Two hours have elapsed since we first began. Tomorrow we will begin anew. But Daisy will eventually figure out the ruse, and my culinary adventures will once again be put to the test.