For fifteen years, I worked as a writer in Hollywood. Not a successful one at all. But I wrote continuously and got paid occasionally. I was slow. It took me weeks to outline and develop the plot points and structure before I typed a single word of the actual script. Then I’d quickly write a first draft, which I’d describe as “farting out a first draft” as a sort of acknowledgment and apology. The only way to get through that first draft was to continually reminded myself that it didn’t have to be good. It just had to exist, so the real writing could begin. The rewriting.
I loved the rewriting phase of the process the most. That was when the characters came to life and the prose found a voice, too. Everything leading up to the rewriting was an awkward and painful means to an end.
When I wasn’t writing in my sweatpants at home, I was pitching ideas to studios, networks, production companies, and agents. Even though these interactions were happening in real life and not on a page, they were still highly orchestrated and choreographed. The executives’ days were scheduled in segments so I could guess how long it would take. I was offered water, either cold or room temperature. The people I was pitching to were all in their office chairs; I was led to mine.
I’d get so nervous before pitches that my entire digestive system would just clock out. It was best that I not eat at all. The people I was pitching to were – on the whole – young, fit, attractive, and well-dressed. This was terrifying enough. But on top of that they expected me to prove that I could make them a lot of money. Execs are friendly to writers for this reason, making small talk for about 1 to 2 minutes as everyone turns off their smartphone and gets settled into their seats.
So on the elevator ride, I’d repeat to myself statements that were true but also calmed my nerves.
They have money they want to give to a writer.
They’ve already read something of mine that made them think I’m good.
They invited me here to tell them my idea.
Yet each time I was escorted by an assistant into a conference room, I felt like a lamb walking into a den of foxes. To protect myself, I prepared and memorized every word of my pitch, then practiced and polished it until I could perform it as though speaking off the cuff.
Sometimes on weekends, I went to improv comedy shows – at The Groundlings or Upright Citizens Brigade. Often, a friend was performing. But sitting in the theater and waiting for the lights to go down, I’d feel so nervous that I’d want to run away before the show started. I knew this made no sense. All that was expected of me was to sit in the dark for the next few hours. Yet I still felt nauseated, imagining what it would be like to be a performer with no script to work from. I imagined freezing up there on stage and having no words at all.
Now I’ve harnessed that empathy into a new career as an associate marriage and family therapist. My clients (I presume?) expect me to say something helpful during our sessions but there’s no way I can prepare. I can’t control the content of the session by dictating what we discuss. I have to wait and find out what the client wants to talk about. I’ve been in training for four years and I still sometimes struggle with a tiny flash of panic as I realize a client is coming in a few minutes and I have no idea what to say.
When I’m not at work, I’m home with my daughter, A. She’s sunk deep into a new developmental phase, in which she has a vivid imagination and talks constantly. Sometimes it’s to herself, sometimes it’s to animals or plants. A patch of dirt in our landscaping is her boat and the roly-polies are her family. The little pebbles in our neighbor’s rock garden are her friends. She narrates our lives and I struggle to keep up by relying mostly on the “yes and” technique of improv. When I don’t fully understand what she’s said, I pull from a repertoire of noncommittal phrases that show that I’m listening and I care:
Ah! Okay, tell me more…
Oh! That’s amazing! I had no idea.
When it’s obvious to A that I don’t know what she’s talking about, she gets pissed. She’ll say, “Not uh huh!”
I flubbed my line.