I froze up in the writers’ room

Went to L.A. but something went wrong. Maybe I wasn't meant to be there?

Topics: Since You Asked, Writers and Writing, Writers, Writing, Movies, Television, Los Angeles,

I froze up in the writers' room (Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Hi Cary,

I went to Los Angeles to become a writer. I’d written three features before I’d arrived, but they were the bushiest of the bush league. A couple years in, I got lucky and got a job in TV and therefore switched gears to working on TV spec scripts. I wrote six or seven of those, each still quite bush league, and I started getting jobs as a writer’s assistant. Knowing I could be called upon to offer material in those meetings (you’re always being tested for writerly aptitude), I got nervous and scared, and pretty soon, I was getting more and more bound up, to the point where I could see nothing but crap in my writing and couldn’t relax enough to be a reliable contributor in the writers’ room. It was like trying to get an erection in public — the harder I tried to relax, the further from relaxation I got. Miserable yet curious about my predicament, I realized that “going to L.A.” perhaps had been a coping mechanism for running away from how crappy I felt about myself. My (now ex-) wife wasn’t helping when she told me if I couldn’t write (or wouldn’t, by this point), that our moving to L.A. had been a waste of her life. So I found myself swimming in a vat of santorum composed of doubt, resentment, fear and, most important, self-loathing. I’ve been doing Zen for a few years, which has forced me to see that my “ambition” may have been merely the foreground distraction of a much deeper, uncertain and unfriendly psychological background. I’ve had to leave L.A. because of the relentlessly poor job market and took with me two things: the clothes on my back and the aforementioned santorum. A therapist and support groups are probably in order, but your thoughts would be most welcomed.

Thanks,

Tight-n-Tighter

Dear Tight-n-Tighter,

What you will discover, I believe, after long meditation on your past, is that the drive to write is the drive to discover your true self.

The drive to go to L.A. and become famous is something else. The drive for praise and money is something else. So it is not surprising that when you tried to rope this creative impulse into service it balked. It did not want to sit around a writers’ table and be zippy.

So it didn’t.



Good for it. Good for you. The you that wants to write doesn’t care about the writers’ room. This you will slowly come to accept as you practice the art of Zen meditation, I believe. And as you slowly discover and come to accept this fact, your self-hatred will lessen and you will shed layers of protection and people will begin to see who you are underneath. They will like you. They won’t turn away from you.

Lots of other things will happen. As you continue to meditate on this you will notice the differences between the voice that is trying to impress at the writers’ table and the voice that comes through you like a cold clear river.

This voice of the cold clear river will come infrequently at first since you have been so dismissive, but if you hold still and listen it will visit more often. It might not be the voice you expect or the voice you think you want. But it will be the voice of who you are.

Sometimes we are at war with who we are. Sometimes we have taken sides against ourselves. We have sided with our so-called protectors, for instance; we have sided with family against our true selves. We have hidden our true selves because they get us in trouble, because they invite ridicule, because they are not viewed as cool by the kids we think are cool.

Writing to discover the true self means encountering just how incredibly uncool we are.

Layer after layer of coolness you will shed. You will eventually be the least cool man in the universe. But you will know who you are.

Your writing might not make you money. Maybe you will work at another job to support your writing. That is noble and fine. Most writing jobs do not call you to explore your deepest self. Far from it. They ask for the opposite. So it can be good to not have a writing job, but to write for the purpose of encountering the true self and developing excellence in craft.

There are a few exceptions. Me, at the age of 47 I sort of lucked out with a writing job that actually requires me to keep searching for my authentic self as I write. But this is just weird luck and it comes after hard lessons. I discovered in the 1990s that writing for a living in the wrong way can make the writing voice seize up. So it’s not surprising what happened to you in the writers’ room. I really believe it was your authentic voice saying, “No way. I’m not whoring myself.”

So keep searching and be honest about your deepest yearnings and write from there, and accept your shortcomings and write from there, and let yourself laugh at yourself and write from there, and sleep well and write from there.

Write from your true self. Study the craft. Study its history. Study the medium. Study the language. Keep writing. Enjoy your life.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>