Or, how I learned to keep trying
Quite, quiet, quilt – not quite there – quit, yes, that’s it. This anxiety – finding the right word, making sure it’s right, and spelled and appropriate etc. etc. – is a continuous part of my existence and makes me believe that I will never be a Writer. Yes, Writer, not writer. The capitalization in line with Barthes author v. Author (god v. God I believe the comparison is). But I’m already getting off track and I’m three sentences in – Christ. Well, guess I should just put it out there – should I quit writing?
It’s a question that I imagine loads of people grapple with – in my position, that is. That position being a middle ground between “qualifications” to be a Writer (degrees and otherwise) but having made no progress to be financially recognized as being able to write. Maybe I’m just working my way through the authorial timeline, and I’m comfortably somewhere around modernist (art being qualified within a capitalist system) and postmodernist (myself as my art…or the identity of self…in a capitalist system), something I’ve been reading way too much about lately in the Cambridge Handbook of Literary Authorship (Sean Latham’s and Hans Berten’s chapters respectively). But back to the question at hand – should I quit writing?
I once read somewhere that someone should quit writing once they ran out of ideas. But in the instances I really thought about quitting, a lack of ideas had nothing to do with it.
I was really lucky coming out of my Bachelor’s degree. I did a degree in practical filmmaking and found myself straight into a job at a production company. I say luck because they happened to be hiring, and even luckier that I went from the job I was hired to do straight into an even more creative role – assistant script editor. I was ecstatic. New TV show, working with writers in a writers’ room, chuffed beyond belief.
Still, that environment really sucked the creative energy out of me. I wasn’t writing much at all – didn’t have the time to. Between a new relationship, sharing a double bedroom with another adult male, and running the seven miles from White City to Shoreditch to save on funds didn’t leave much room for writing. And yet every day I went into work and got to sit down and break stories for five days a week and seven hours a day (roughly). Just being around all of that creative energy drove me in my free time to at least revise some old scripts.
In hindsight, trying to get my script to fit into the format of the series we were working on perhaps led to its downfall, but I wanted to write. And I wanted to write on the show that I’d been working on for the past seven months, so I took a chance and asked my boss to read the script.
Reader, it did not go well.
Though I was given a generous amount of time to receive feedback (an hour and from across time-zones), the thing that stuck in my head was that it felt like I had not understood the basics of screenwriting. I was crushed – I had just worked on this one-hour thirteen-episode TV series – but it was evident that I had missed the mark. A lot went into that script. It was a passion project, and had some positive feedback from people before that reading, but there were obviously some things that just didn’t fall the way I would have hoped for them to. I haven’t looked at the script since.
I didn’t look at any script for a while after that. My contract with the company was up, and even though the series I worked on was going into a second season, I would not be.
Would they have kept me on if I didn’t put my script forward? Maybe. I sometimes think they would have. I was often asked what I wanted to do by people in the company, and perhaps too quickly I responded with Writer. Really didn’t know how to play the game – and I haven’t learned much since then either, if I’m being honest.
But time passed, and unemployment made me think about what I really wanted. The job hunt encompassed everything, and even though I found sporadic hits of work here and there, the writing had dried up. Not for a lack of ideas, but a lack of will to see them through. My efforts during this time resulted in a sub-par feature script. It was a decent film, locked-room revenge western, and it got me an interview for a screenwriting Master’s at The Big One (NFTS that is), but the panel saw the movie as a “video game” rather than a film. This comment confuses me to this day.
It was during a visit back home that I decided to give it one last shot – a script to answer the questions and feedback that I was given by my boss. A chance to show myself, or anyone, that I was capable. The script was written in about a month but it was a month. It just felt good to write again. Sure, it was a mad time-hop-caper where the protagonists are stealing people from the past to bring them to the broken future in an attempt to fix it (I see you Amazon’s TOMORROW WAR…) but it was fun. And that sense of fun brought writing back to me while everything else changed.
Out of money, out of options, I got a job in Los Angeles through a family connection (just how middle class can he be?!). It was a big change. I was in a long-distance relationship, away from friends, and in a new job that demanded everything from you while rewarding you with a trip up and down the 405 – if you know, you know. But I was in America, land of opportunity – come on! Boot straps up and get going! So, I started to get up early to run, shower, and eat before six so that I could at least get an hour or more of writing in each day while maintaining some semblance of fitness. Why? Don’t know – seemed like the thing to do. Healthy mind, healthy body and all that.
I managed this manic schedule for maybe about a week before I came into work one day and my boss just said I looked terrible. I got some short stories done, polished up some scripts, and even started putting together a nugget of a novel. However, through all of that, I never got over the anxiety of that first rejection. LA, for me, was a slew of rejections. Not just on my work, but it felt personal, like I had done something wrong just in the very act of conceiving those written words. No matter how many times writing gurus tell you not to take it personally, of course you do – especially when the rejections are middling: “it’s a good script, but it’s not right for us”. In retrospect, having been on the other side (as a development person), this language is often used for someone who is a good script writer, but you just don’t see the potential in them as a Writer. So, even though the script is good, no recommendations for you – no agent, no manager, no producer connections who it could be for. You’re average so you get nothing.
In all of this time, work became problematic too. I was being mediocre in my screenwriting, and apparently failing brilliantly at “content” writing. As far as work was concerned, I wasn’t worthy to write a social media post.
My relationship at the time was also straining. And it was in this instance that I thought – none of this is worth it. There’s no point to any of the writing I’m doing when it’s just making me feel terrible and keeping me apart from the things that really matter to me. My relationship and a roof over my head. Was this all just a silly dream? Why did I, more than anyone else, feel like I would make it when others hadn’t? And why on Earth did I think I could just waltz into LA, with my scripts and my television experience and think it would be easy for me? I still don’t have the answer to any of these questions, but they took me to a really dark place. Nothing has been harder in my life than to tell someone close to me that I thought about hurting myself. And it sounds silly, now, doesn’t it? That you would cause yourself bodily harm over these things. Over words. But as I try to think about it now, I don’t think it was about the writing. The writing was just a thing that gave that feeling form. It was a mold that the real stuff seemed to just fall into. But whether intentionally or not, it’s difficult – so difficult – not to tie yourself to your work. With your art (ew, gross, that word).
So, what could I do? I was in a hole, spiraling ever downward – shovel in hand – to arrive at some rock bottom that never seemed to arrive.
God, this all sounds so self-aggrandizing. I didn’t turn to drugs, I didn’t become an alcoholic, I didn’t try to self-destruct every close relationship I had, but I did isolate myself. I did push a lot of people away (though they waited patiently for me to ask them back, which was nice), but in the grand scheme of things, I was just hurting, and I still don’t possess the tools to understand how or why. And I obviously didn’t have them at the time, so on the verge of quitting everything, I didn’t quit writing. After all the conversations and possibilities and difficulties it was presenting, or seeming to present, I still didn’t give it up. And instead leaned into it. Something that I had spent so long fearing, and feeling bad about, and instead I just wrote on it. I roll my eyes when I think about this brief time but I really wrote myself out of that emotional rut. I was just taking my feelings and putting it on the page each and every day. It was a strange way to work. No narrative goals, just a desire to express a singular emotion that had been defining me for months.
It was a long process. And now, I wonder if I’ve got it all out of my system. Yes, obviously I haven’t – I see that now.
I got a new job as a script editor back in the UK, and even though at first it was only for a weeks’ worth of work, it was something I knew. Something I felt I couldn’t pass up. So, I took a week off work (I told them the reason – honesty is a policy I often try to employ – and they were NOT happy about it, reader), and I found myself in sunny Brighton, spending a week working on a new TV show. I don’t know if anyone in that writers’ room knew how much being there meant to me. Just to feel needed, to feel valued – it was everything to me.
After that stint, we learned that the show wanted me for the script development process too. Which meant months of work (yay!) and that I could leave LA. At the time, I was also accepted onto the University of Warwick’s Creative Writing MA (double yay!), so it really felt like things were looking up. Mostly, I should say, but at least I got two years of solid income, two script editor jobs and a Master’s degree. Just some solid years of doing some solid work while picking up the broken pieces of myself and my relationship (neither, one could argue, are fully re-assembled).
Then, the world came to a halt. Poof. But that pause became an unlikely opportunity. I was on furlough, and for the first time in my life since my Master’s, I felt I could just write. And did I write. A new TV pilot (which industry people liked, it was better than good – I’ll have that), an award-winning play, edited my debut novel, and even accepted onto a PhD for creative critical writing. It was the most productive six months I‘d had in my six-year my writing “career”. But even with all that momentum, I still couldn’t make the big jump to really define myself as author, screenwriter, playwright – a Writer. Rejection, rejection, rejection – wait, am I a Rejecter?
I felt proud of myself that I was actually sending work to agents, to readers, but it all came back as “no”. And in the midst of a pandemic, while self-funding a PhD, to continue doing all of this on my savings and someone else’s dollar just seemed wrong. So, I found myself confronted with the question again, why am I still doing this? At this point, it felt like being irresponsible. We had moved into my future in-law’s and suddenly, the beautiful one-bedroom flat in London with the garden and driveway was compressed into a cozy double-bedroom. And what was I doing to get us out of that bedroom? Just getting rejected. Spending all my time focused on trying to do the thing that, perhaps, if I gave up, would allow me to have some semblance of a normal life.
But here I am, out of the double-bedroom but still in a position where I would consider myself, humbly, a financial burden. Still, what remains is a burning desire to quit. To give up, and to move on. Yet when I think of my life outside of the writing, I don’t know, something just feels empty. I keep thinking about what I had heard, that one should give up if they run out of ideas, but I don’t think that’s really the full picture. Because really, I don’t think it has anything to do with ideas. I think it has to do with the love of finding the stories in the little things. It has to do with the passion and joy one gets from developing an idea. And if I never lost that, which I don’t think I did, then why did I get so close to quitting?
To that, I think it’s because I have never really written for something to be read. Or, at least to clarify further, I have been desperately afraid of being read. Because what is a storyteller with no one to tell a story to? Quitting writing, or at least giving up on it, before being read, is like giving up on any ambition before actually trying it. It’s like wanting to be a pro-athlete without actually competing. You can train and train and train but until you actually compete, you can’t take the next step. Sorry for the sports analogy, it’s the America in me (and the apology is the British).
It’s with this mindset that I hope will be the start of an endeavor – to write and be read. Obvious, I know, but crucial nonetheless. If you are reading this, then you will be a part of this process. I want this to be a weekly challenge for me to write differently, for me to write about different things, and for me to write freely. Because right now I think it’s what I need to move forward.
In writing this, it’s all felt a bit selfish, if I’m being honest. The whole notion of me writing, and me asking to be read. To open up has always felt like a selfish act, even more so now that I’ve committed it to writing. But in doing so, I hope that it can serve as some sort of shared middling, some shared experience in which we can attempt to flourish in our mediocrity. So, if you didn’t mind my ramblings, I hope you’ll stick around for more. More thoughts, notations, musings – just about what comes into my head really. Are they personal essays? Maybe, but hopefully not all. I don’t really know but my desire is that through being read, and through writing, something will come out on the other side.
So welcome, embrace the chaos, and let’s see where this takes us.