Hey there readers, it’s Amy. Before you read this post, I just want to let you know that my outlook on the current state of the industry has changed, and I can’t in good conscience continue to advocate for the assistant path for writers. It’s part COVID, part an inherent sense of classism in the industry. For more, read my new blog post here about my advice for new grads and why I think writers shouldn’t go the assistant path anymore. I’m keeping these posts up just in case you disagree with me and still want to go this path, but I just wanted to be fully transparent and give you the best advice I know how.
I’ve been writing a lot recently about creatives in the industry and posting images of aesthetically pleasing and meticulously organized writing spaces (aka: my therapy) so this blog post is continuing the trend.
At holiday parties this past month, I’ve been meeting other writers who are holding down jobs in the industry, from showrunner’s assistants to writer’s PA’s to researchers. The first question I ask pretty much all of them is how do you do it? How do you be good enough at your day job and somehow retain the energy and time to write outside of our 11+ hour days?
Some are honest: they aren’t able to make it work a lot of the time. Understandably, we’re all human and it’s tough.
However, we work in an industry that doesn’t care about our busy schedules — everyone is busy all of the time, and that’s not an excuse. If we don’t write, if we don’t commit that great idea to the page and then rewrite it until its brilliant, then others will just surpass us and we’ll never be able to escape the assistant life. As one writer who had been staffed on several shows told me, you have to grind and hustle to get your writing to where it needs to be: you can’t escape it, so might as well put in the mind-numbing hard work now.
With that in mind, here are some strategies I’ve put together that seem to work pretty well for myself and other writers out there.
1. Understand “Surviving” vs. “Thriving”
I’ve written in the past about Maslow’s hierarchy and how to feed your inspiration bank so that what you write is more creative and compelling.
Along these same lines, I think there are two modes us assistants and busy humans face in our lives: we’re either surviving, or thriving.
When I started at my agency job, I was just trying to survive. I had to get good at my day job, learn the systems, and find ways to work smarter, not harder. Survival mode is when you figure out how to excel at the basics, get your ducks in a row, be a real human, and practice self-care. You’re checking all the boxes of Maslow’s basic needs hierarchy, making sure you have a roof over your head, meal-prepping like a pro, and finding ways to just be good at life.
After I got good at my job and learned how “adulting” worked after graduation, I was able to thrive. I learned how to wake up early and convince myself to write, how to make time to find inspiration and seek out those experiences that would inform my writing.
It’s also important to know when to switch back to “survival” mode. When I started getting a cold, I thought I could just power through it and keep waking up at ungodly hours of the morning to write. That was not the case — I quickly grew more sick and ended up having to take time off work. I had to switch back to the basics, and set aside my writing as I got better.
This is how to find that elusive balance: knowing when you’re able to sprint and hustle, and knowing when you need a night off to watch some Netflix or go out with friends.
2. Hone your routine to become more productive
Because our time is so limited, we have to make the most out of our writing time. So figure out what works for you: understand your writing process, and find ways to enrich it. Use ritual and routine to let your brain know that you’re switching into a creative space.
I always start with freewriting, where I write down the problems I’m having with the script and some thoughts about the characters or what I think I’m going to write about. I usually hit on an idea five or ten minutes into my freewriting that kickstarts my actual writing. Just the practice of writing helps me get into the creative mindset.
Another method I use for longer writing sessions is to do interval writing sprints. I use the iphone app 30/30 when I’m feeling distracted to keep me focused. Because your brain operates better with short breaks, it helps you divide your time between writing, and inspiration seeking. On tough days, I commit myself to write for thirty minutes, then take an inspiration break to make a pinterest moodboard for my script, then another 30 minutes of writing or revising. By structuring your time, you’re more likely to stay focused on what’s at hand. Once you hit your stride, you may no longer need to use intervals, but it’s a good way to break through a writing block.
Waking up in the morning can be a challenge, so find small ways to motivate yourself to get out of bed. Put your phone/alarm clock across the room, fill up your coffee maker the night before so caffeine is only one button-push away, and put a tall glass of cold water with a little bit of lemon juice to drink first thing after you wake up so you’ll begin to feel awake and refreshed. If you’re really struggling, write yourself a list of reasons why you’re excited to wake up and get writing that morning. Keep that list next to your bed and read it when you’re contemplating falling back asleep.
3. Set goals, deadlines, join a writer’s group
Once you’re able to thrive at your day job and have settled into a routine, it’s time to kick things into gear and set some goals and deadlines.
If you blow past deadlines without hitting your goals, chances are that you need to find a writer’s group to help hold you accountable. Come for the accountability, stay for the networking and community.
A word on setting goals: don’t beat yourself up about not accomplishing them as quickly as you’d like. As long as you’re making progress, that’s what matters. During my first six months of being an assistant, I was in the middle of a breakup, apartment hunting and then moving, and was fresh out of college so just basics like learning how to cook real food (not ramen) and pay bills. I beat myself up about not writing as much as I wanted to, but I eventually was able to settle on a new idea and go through a few iterations of the outline and write 20 pages. In the next two weeks, I’m planning on finishing the last forty pages and a rewrite. A pilot in six months isn’t bad, and just goes to show that slow progress is still progress.
4. Writing comes before networking
As assistants (especially at agencies) there’s a particular pressure put on us to do drinks several nights a week, go to mixers, and keep a robust list of contacts.
For writers, no amount of networking can make up for a bad script. Writing is always the priority, and when you’re making progress, then you can get out there and start meeting people. Just know that “I’m too busy networking” is never an excuse for not writing.
We work in an industry that is exhausting, competitive, and often unfair. A lot of our career trajectory is out of our control. The one thing we can control, however, is how hard we work. So set aside those excuses, that “tomorrow” train of thought, and practice your art every day.