Are You Making the Wrong Resolution for Your Writing Career?
We writers tend to have pretty straightforward New Year’s resolutions:
This year, I will finally finish my screenplay/pilot/book/memoirs/holidays cards.
This year, I will actually send out into the world said screenplay/pilot/book/memoirs/holiday cards.
This year, I will get an agent.
This year, I will make a sale.
This year, I will become famous.
This year, Emma Stone and I will become BFFs and sip rose petal tea while swapping similar stories about how crazy it is when Ryan Gosling lifts us above his head. Because naturally, by year’s end, I will have had that experience under my belt, too.
OK, the last one might just be me.
But here’s the dilly, fellow sorcerer of the pen. I don’t wish any of those things for you.
Wait; that’s not true. I wish all of those things for you – tenfold. May Emma Stone bless them into existence. What I mean is, dear scribe tribe, that I don’t wish for these wishes to be your New Year’s resolutions. If I had my druthers, each of you would wish for little more than Permission, with a capital P – for the strength, fortitude and confidence to grant yourself permission, however that may land in your own personal life and goals.
Permission is a mighty powerful thing. It allows you to chase dreams. More importantly, it allows you to chase a dream in your own way, following your own path and pursuing it by your own rules. And, perhaps most importantly, it allows those dreams to grow and alter – to be the dynamic life-forms that dreams have always been by giving them permission to grow with you rather than remain a stagnant fixture while the world around them grows and evolves. Permission puts all the power back in your powerful hands – the very powerful hands that wield your mighty pen and pound on your aching keyboard.
I moved to Los Angeles a decade ago. Like many a Hollywood tale, mine started with no connections, no alumni association, no job prospects and no idea about what I was getting into. What I did have were three finished teleplays, $86, a friend with a couch and the dream of writing and developing television. I also had permission – given to me by me – to pursue these things proudly. But I hadn’t given it to myself immediately.
After graduating, I worked at what was perhaps the coolest post-collegiate job ever. I wrote dirty bumper stickers and keychains for a living. My 9-5 was a collection of penis and pot jokes – excellent training for the punch-up work I later got in LA. However, after 5, I would go to my favorite Philadelphia coffee shop, sit in the exact same seat – my back firmly against a wall – and fire up the ol’ computer to work on my teleplays. I never wanted anyone to see what I was doing. Embarrassment. Shame. Self-doubt. Who was I to sit in a Pennsylvania coffee shop and type? I had not gone to film school. I had no formal training.
Typing was slow going. I looked over my shoulder anytime someone walked by to go to the bathroom. I would shut my computer every time I stood up to get a refill, every time I needed a break to simply think. There always was that fear of being judged, of being mocked, of being seen as ridiculous.
My first day in Los Angeles was life-changing. Under the shadow of the Hollywood sign, I walked from my friend’s apartment to the Bourgeois Pig, a local coffee shop, and there, amid the midday buzz, were a million open laptops, each with a screenplay in plain view. No one hiding. No one ashamed. This was what collective permission looked like. This town, these people. They were my people. I took a seat in the middle of the room, ordered the most obnoxious coffee on the menu and proceeded to type in full view. All the people in that place had given themselves permission to chase a dream – to do so boldly and unashamedly. It was transformative. But it shouldn’t have been. The power of permission had been in me all along; I just hadn’t been listening.
My 20s were spent absorbing Los Angeles. I made amazing friends. Worked steadily. Fell in love. Honed my craft. Got married. Talked story. Had babies. And, luckily and humbly, achieved the goal. And somewhere in between those 18-hour days on set and the parties and the clickety-clack of the keyboard, my dream began to morph – as dreams always do if you give them the permission.
Dreams, I have found, don’t really belong to us. We don’t control them. Rather, they are magical beings meant to inspire and direct us. I kept mine on a tight leash, forcing it to behave – or at least attempting to. I had accomplished the LA dream. I was living it! What more could I want? How dare I want more? But the dream pulled back, tugging harder and harder, showing me something sparkly in the distance, something else I desired. And at last, I took off the leash and allowed her to speak openly. My dream had morphed. She no longer resided in Los Angeles.
I still wanted the work. Desperately. I loved what I was doing. But though writing is a love, it isn’t the only love. There was the wild – something that I missed terribly. At age 20, I had been an adventure tour guide in the Australian Outback. A sense of wild adventure and connectedness to nature was deeply lacking in my daily drive through the concrete jungle to sets and back. I also missed story coaching. And of course, there were also the little loves – the beings I had brought into this world and was now ignoring in pursuit of the shadow of an old dream, the discarded skin of something that once was. How torn I felt. The dream to write was still so real, but she had packed her bags and left me alone in LA. And though I’m always up for a new adventure, I couldn’t stomach the thought of returning to the life of shame-filled writing sessions in suburban coffee shops. I hadn’t pushed down the lid of my laptop when I needed a refill of my mochafrappayaya in years, and damn it, it felt good.
But here’s the truth: None of this heartache was real.
The collective permission of Los Angeles is lovely, but it isn’t necessary, nor is it the only way. Because, if I am remembering that first day at the Bourgeois Pig truthfully, there were still a few writers in that café lowering laptop lids and looking around with shifting, suspicious and shameful eyes – the writers who had not given their dream the full permission to encompass them. In that place, that day, I had. But I could have given myself that permission anywhere.
Writers are told again and again that they have to be in Los Angeles. And most certainly, there is something to be gained by being there. But everyone I know who had success in LA got his or her start by winning a contest, having a friend give him or her a hand or blindly submitting to a project, production company or agent. And these avenues can be accessed in every corner of the world, in a Philadelphia coffee shop or in the mountains of the Azores or on an elephant’s back in Namibia. (I hear their trunks get a great Wi-Fi signal.)
What I’m trying to say is that if I had been bold enough to open my laptop proudly in my Philadelphia coffee shop, I might have discovered that there was another aspiring writer in there. We could have helped each other, become besties. Who knows? She might even have dated Ryan Gosling back in junior high and been waaaay cooler than Emma Stone. I mean, doubtful, but you never know. A community of writers is everywhere. You! Writing! Can be done anywhere. Give yourself that this year. Give yourself the permission to be a writer fully and completely and unashamedly in whatever way you want to be, wherever you want to be.
And if your dream in its truest form is to move to Los Angeles, then by all means! It’s a wonderful town, chock-full of talented and amazing people. Just know that it’s not the only path. You have permission to follow your dream any way you want. Cobble it together to be anything you like. If juggling is your jam, be the juggling screenwriter. It’s cool.
There’s no set path to success in any creative endeavor, so you might as well forge your own trail.
As for me, I gave my dream permission to change. Five months ago, I left Los Angeles, bought a chunk of land on a lake in Georgia – with a forest and trails – and opened up a writers retreat. I began teaching classes and breaking story around the campfire. I’ve continued to get work, writing scripts for production companies in both Los Angeles and Atlanta. And when I sit at my local coffee shop, I leave the laptop wide-open – something I should have always done. Because there is no shame in living your dream in your own way. You just have to give yourself permission to do so.
This is your life. This is your year. Make it the best.
Happy new year, writers.