I’ve been on my Natasha Bedingfield, staring at the blank page before me for the past… IDK, couple months? I’m thankful that no one canceled their subscription while I took a hiatus to finish turning in the first draft of my screenplay. I have other news to share with you all (hopefully very soon), but until then, let’s get back to the “Unwritten” energy that’s been cursing me as of late.
I’m not a person who tends to experience writer’s block. When I’m “blocked,” I find time to focus on something else. It was the greatest attribute I had in my arsenal in graduate school*, where you’re working on multiple projects at once and letting one rest while you attend to another was heaven sent for my brain. But then again, that’s never helped me with actual DEADLINES. I’ve been a deadline oriented writer since high school, the first time I learned I could whip up a paper with little to no effort and still get an A. Mind you, this was only for English and related subjects, even twice the time allotted when it comes to math or science would still earn me a barely passable grade. It’s why I stuck with the job I stuck with.
But as I stared down a deadline, coming out of a pandemic where I’d managed to experience one of the most fruitful years of my career since moving to LA, I finally felt like I was back in graduate school, approaching my thesis paper deadline and praying that some deus ex machina would occur in my favor. I’ve had that thesis on my mind lately. It was a play titled Double Feature, and later changed to Gay for Pay when I drastically rewrote it and then produced it in 2013. The act of God I hoped for every time I was on deadline was instead a rude reminder of where I found myself ten years ago when I first moved to Los Angeles.
This week I celebrated my 10th anniversary of moving to Los Angeles. Well... celebrated is a strong word. I did cook a dinner for my friend Rae Sanni as a send-off to New York after three years in LA, which happened to coincide with my own LA anniversary (I didn’t realize this until two days later). There’s a beautiful symmetry in me sending a friend off to New York the same day that I arrived from that city (technically, I guess. I had a brief two week layover in Milwaukee to visit my family before I actually made the plunge), and it has had me thinking about where I was ten years ago.
A decade ago, I’d made the decision to move to LA immediately after grad school because I wanted to not only “strike while the iron was hot”, but also my ego wouldn’t have allowed me to rest in New York and look for a job to pay the bills until I made real plans to move. Not that my career started off immediately when I got here anyway. I still ended up doing a lot of nothing except service industry jobs for four years, with intermittent bouts of depression and body dysmorphia (which that I may have finally conquered but probably only because I lost weight during the pandemic while most people did not.)
One day, I had a meeting with an agent who had called my school looking for talent during my final semester. For some reason, I thought he would represent me and jumpstart my career that very summer. That did not happen. We had one meeting and never spoke again (that person is now at my current agency and technically on my “team,” but people change jobs too much in LA for me to ascribe any meaning to that).
The script he’d read was Double Feature, a play that I wrote and rewrote and rewrote and nearly didn’t finish and spent most of the week leading up to my thesis still trying to figure out how to end. My professor at the time was a playwright named David Grimm and I will ascribe meaning to this, because last week I interviewed Julianna Marguiles on Keep It and the playwright she lauded as launching her “serious” career as an actress in college was none other than David (a fantastic professor with a vaudeville mustache, who encouraged me to make my shit less boring, more gay, and also pinpointed that everything I write is about my father). As I thought about the last few months leading up to that thesis play reading ten years prior, it all eerily mirrored the self-doubt and crippling anxiety I experienced trying to finish this current screenplay draft.
I’ve come to realize that in both situations, my brain only freezes when it’s something I actually really care about. I’d written dozens of other things in grad school that I didn’t particularly love (in retrospect, they’re fine!!), but I finished with two thesis projects that I did love — a television pilot and a comedic play. The pilot came out easily (and despite my protests, my manager sometimes uses it to get me jobs. I guess I should be happy that I can get work off a sample I wrote when I was), but the play became a Sisyphean task. I’d put so much into the idea of this single moment proving my “worth” as a playwright that I couldn’t even finish it until I absolutely had to. I had the very cliche moment of standing outside the theatre at the onset of the reading, not wanting to watch, until I heard people laughing at it, then realized that it didn’t suck after all and all the voices in my head were actually self-sabotage. I’d been attempting to make myself fail before I could potentially fail in front of my classmates, my parents, and everyone else in the audience.
The same thing happened ten years later, when I built up writing my first film as the defining moment of my career. That anything I could possibly write would reveal me as a fraud. None of that happened, and the script actually turned out great. I’m now in the rewriting phase, which, as you might have heard before, is much easier than writing. As Phoebe Waller-Bridge (and countless others) once said: “you can’t rewrite nothing.” She also said, “Write as if you aren’t afraid… act as if someone just said there’s no reason to be afraid.” And that’s true. Often, the only person who scares me is myself (my other biggest fear is abandonment, but that usually has something to do with me as well, except in the case of my father, but let’s not get into that today!) In the years since I moved to LA, I have to become better at not being afraid of disappointing myself.
I didn’t intend my return to Frank to be a writing advice column and I’m not sure it helped anyone else but me, but oh well! Oh, and while we’re at it: fuck Natasha Bedingfield. I have tried countless times to open up my dirty window and let the sun illuminate the words I couldn’t find, and that shit doesn’t work. You know what does? ADD medication and bourbon.
*I didn’t even say Tisch this time. Oh well, there’s always next time.