I’ve written a lot on my blog about traditional entrypoints for the industry, from surviving being an agency assistant to networking authentically to the difference between support staff positions in the writers’ room.
Now, I’m modifying my advice, in part because I don’t think the assistant route is a viable one for writers anymore.
Also, COVID has changed the industry forever, and we’re about to go through a great contraction and a burst of the TV bubble, not to mention all those movie theaters that will have to close.
The industry is changing, and so we as writers need to change our approach as well.
So, here’s my fresh and updated 2020 advice for new grads, homecooked from my experience.
Writers Shouldn’t Be Assistants
I know I’m setting myself up to get skewered on the Internet with this, but I don’t think writers should be assistants or climb the assistant ladder. Even though that’s what I did, I don’t think the path is viable anymore, especially considering the new world we’re in.
Let me explain:
“But new writers need to pay their dues.” Right now, assistant wages aren’t livable in LA (even in COVID-world of lower rents.) By saying that writers need to work these jobs to get the privilege to write for film and TV, you’re perpetuating classism and cutting out everybody who doesn’t have the means to take these low-paying jobs.
This also directly contradicts the “best scripts rise to the top” adage everybody is so fond of saying.
“How else are writers going to learn how to act in a room?” By being in a room and being a staff writer. In the early days of TV, writers would just get hired to staff without being assistants first. Let’s not infantilize smart, educated writers who are ready to staff and have been for a long time by making them just get coffee for writers who were never assistants in the first place but landed on staff. Anyways, a good showrunner will be a mentor for rising writers. And bad showrunners? You don’t want to work with them, anyways.
“How are writers going to learn how production works?” Again, on the job. This isn’t rocket science, and staff writers are being asked to repeat their staff writer year anyways on other shows without getting a bump to story editor, so there’s plenty of time to learn.
“It’s competitive out there, there’s just too many qualified candidates.” Sure. I buy this completely, because it’s true. But let’s just say this and be honest instead of pretending Writers’ Assistant and Showrunners’ Assistant roles are actual rungs on the ladder when, in many rooms, they’re just admin jobs and that’s it.
My biggest problem is when established writers just shrug and say, “you’re doing all the right things,” to assistants without taking a moment to realize the industry has vastly changed since they made their way up the ladder, and it’s been broken behind them and they’re not reaching back to help the next generation of writers up.
(Note: this is not all upper-level/established writers, but it is a trend: in part because of lack of understanding of what it’s like to be a rising writer in the industry in the past ten years, and in part because of lack of caring to understand.)
Be honest with your support staff if you’re not going to promote them — and for the love of god, don’t tell people that the assistant route is the only way that works.
Graduating in the Time of COVID
I’m not going to lie: it’s a really fucking scary time. We’re seeing a lot of collapsing and odd rebuilding in the industry: massive layoffs, the continuation of the ATA/WGA fight, agents leaving to become managers so they can double dip in both producing fees + their management commissions — it’s bad, guys.
But there’s also some good, here. I know that if you just graduated this year, you might be feeling really defeated. You might be living with your parents again, jobless and all of the momentum you were building just evaporated before your eyes as you graduated into an unfathomable world that can feel like it just turned its back on you.
It’s hard right now. And I deeply wish it wasn’t this way and that you got to graduate and get to work in your dream job and that you could ride the high of leaving the hallowed halls of your university and be in the real world.
It’s deeply unfair that you’re in this situation, and I feel you. I can only begin to imagine the magnitude of your emotional roller coaster, as I have gone through all sorts of ups and downs myself and I am lucky to have a bedrock of a career to stand on. Which is why I want to try and be helpful if I can.
First, remember that this is a moment in time, and it too shall pass.
Secondly, be kind to yourself and know that you’re entering the industry on challenge mode. This will make you grittier, and when you come out the other side you’ll be stronger for it. Stay connected to any support systems you’ve built and do your best to stay sane and grounded.
Thirdly, know that even though everything feels like it’s in freefall, there are things you can control, like what you write and how you spend your time.
Which brings us to…
Writing in the Time of COVID
I’m going to back up a little bit and talk about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which I think is important to think about now.
When our basic needs — food, shelter, security — are not cared for, our writing deeply suffers. While I think that experiencing adversity is important for our writing, I also know that running on survival mode is a quick way to burnout and not be able to truly write something that
So first, find your bedrock. What’s your foundation? What can you build your house upon that will help keep a roof over your head and ease a little of your basic needs?
As I’ve mentioned many times here, freelance writing was a godsend for me, and I wrote a whole book on how I got started. (And I also have blog posts here that dig into my experience freelancing, check out my “popular” page for a full list.)
I know that finding a solid foundation might be impossible, especially if you’re feeling the weight of the world on top of student loans or other financial or emotional struggles. I don’t mean to downplay any of this, as these are problems I wish we had better safety nets to help anyone who was struggling — but that’s for another blog.
But I do want you to know that even if you don’t emerge from quarantine with dozens of scripts, that’s okay. You need to tend to your immediate needs, and find stability of some sort.
I hear a lot of people saying they “wrote their way out” of tough situations. I think this is dangerous: it perpetuates writing as a lottery ticket rather than a lifelong journey. Don’t put thousands on your credit cards just to finish that novel. Not everyone is going to be saved from the brink of poverty by a bestselling book or script sale.
Instead of gambling in that way, get smart and strategic. For me, building a slow-and-steady career is more attractive than burning bright or not being thoughtful in designing your life.
And don’t get me wrong: I’ve taken a lot of risks. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. But I’ve also prioritized writing over other aspects of my personal growth and I regret it.
You know why? Because writing won’t save you. You have to save you. Dig in and do the work of growing as a human. Educate yourself, tend to unresolved trauma with a therapist, figure out your finances the best you can, learn how to freelance, get involved in politics, and become well-rounded. That way, you can take on the world with confidence and poise and knowledge and nothing will shake you.
They don’t teach you that in film school because film school sells you a dream of graduating right into your dream job. For some, that happens. For most of us, it can take a lifetime. Get your head in the long haul lane and build a sustainable life.
Last year, I took some time to travel on my own, I got my yoga certificate and started teaching classes, and I went to Europe for the first time by myself. I founded my company Kingdom of Pavement and put on open mic nights for musicians and poets in LA not really knowing what it would turn into, and I found a beautiful community that I still collaborate with in Kingdom of Pavement’s scripted podcasts and upcoming art projects.
None of that stuff was industry related, but it was actually more important than “industry” stuff. (This is saying a lot, as I wrote my first episode of TV last year also, but that somehow feels like the least important part.)
What I’m trying to say is finding ways to pursue all your passions and keep on learning is more important than industry validation.
Ironically, the thing that felt most unrelated in my life this year — writing and producing my scripted podcast, The Last Station — was actually what got me the most traction in the industry.
Owning Your Stories (aka IP) and Finding Proof of Audience
I say all of this to lead up to my biggest piece of advice: all us writers should be writing and creating our own IP — whether that’s scripted podcasts, bite-sized scripted content for social media, writing novels, immersive zoom theater experiences — and then finding our own audience.
Instead of toiling away at assistant jobs, we should understand as Mark Duplass said in his excellent talk, The Cavalry is Not Coming, and we need to be our own cavalry. We need to own our own stories and find our own audiences so we can have leverage and not be owned by an industry determined to keep us in minimum wage assistant jobs for a decade of our life.
So band together with other creatives and let’s make some cool shit and reinvent the future of entertainment.
How? I don’t know. As is my motto for this weird time: let’s figure it out.
Last Words on Life, Hollywood, and the World
I don’t pretend to know everything. If you want to go the assistant route and be in a zoom room, go for it. I’m giving you this advice based on what my peer group is experiencing and off of my own observations and philosophy.
I’m also someone who feels very comfortable creating my own infrastructure outside of existing systems and reinventing what I feel like is broken, and so my advice falls into that worldview.
What I do know is that this system was built by oppressive forces — anyone can see that — and those forces are going to keep operating the way they were intended to operate unless we change something drastic, or, more likely — we build something new.
It’s scary to be a builder, to go against the grain, to carve a new path and question all of the traditional advice that I find now to be wrong and toxic (i.e. “find representation, they’ll help you,” “work your way up as an assistant,” “write scripts, not your own IP, after all the good scripts make their way to the top.”)
Overall, I want you to tap into your intuition and follow it. Learn and be open to unexpected surprises. 2020 might not have been what you expected, but there’s still a great deal to be done and to be learned.
Thanks for reading and keep your heads up, new grads. Life is still your oyster, some pearls are hiding deeper than you could imagine but are worth the effort of prying open a shell.