It’s why credits matter so much. Credits don’t mean experience – you could have a 3 mile long IMDB page, but if all your credits are shit no one’s ever heard of, doesn’t matter. If you’ve got one good credit on something that’s in the canon – that’s better. Because that’s status and status beats experience.
It’s why women have such a hard time in this town. Because in our culture women inherently have less status than men. And in a town where status is everything – where people hire you because on a gut level they think you’re cool and want to hang out with you – people who came into the world with less status, like women and minorities and those with disabilities, are always going to be picked last for the team.
Writers rooms on TV shows are full of struggles over status – and rightly so, because everyone knows, consciously or not, that that’s the root of what they’re being evaluated on. The following can be applied to how people act in the room, in life — or how you write characters, to show them engaging in these power struggles.
How You Raise Your Status:
Give permission to do things — or withhold it.
Evaluate others’ work.
Keep others at arms’ length while appearing to summon them closer.
Talk frankly about things others find upsetting.
Look with with your eyes down at people.
Speak authoritatively, with or without the expertise to do so.
Make decisions for groups.
Speak cryptically, in code or inside jokes.
Surround yourself with an entourage of any kind.
How Others Lower Your Status:
Correct you, especially in front of others.
Prove how you are wrong.
Tell you what to do.
Give you unsolicited advice.
Approve or disapprove of something about you or something you do.
Pick a fight with you.
Refuse to engage you — act as if they don’t hear you or aren’t concerned enough about you to notice.
Ignore what you’re saying and change the subject.
One-up you. Always top you with something better, or worse, or more absurd, or more dramatic in their own lives.
Win. Beat you at something.
Talk sarcastically to you.
Disregard your opinion.
Announce something great about themselves in your presence.
Make you wait.
Never wait for you.
Taunt you. Tease you.
Violate your boundaries.
Beat you up in front of your friends or rivals.
Make you back down.
I’m not saying I endorse any of this. I’m just an observer, making sense of what I witness. And using it to inform my characters, and you.
As an artist, I threaten the status quo. I test boundaries. I push limits.
Now, that isn’t to say I don’t get along with people or don’t follow directions or don’t take notes. I do. I believe in storytelling as a collaboration, and TV as one of the most collaborative media there is. And I believe in creating stories that are true to the show you’re making, and true to the network you’re on.
But collaborating and staying true to the show’s voice are no excuses for staying in the middle. Or being boring. Not threatening the status quo because that’s safe. You can plod along turning in recycled ideas and you’ll probably never get fired for it — because what are they going to point to? How reliable you were? How you always turned in material that you knew for sure would make it on the air, and that 68% of your audience would kinda like because it wouldn’t upset them and they’d kinda never even notice it go by?
Instead you can become an artist. And you can turn in material that may push the edge of what the show may do — and make the show bigger, and deeper, and bolder, and funnier, and more interesting, and more lasting. You’ll still turn in stuff or pitch stuff that you know is safe — because that’s part of your job, to repeat — but part of your job too is to get dangerous.
I met M at our “Welcome to the Writers Guild!” meeting earlier this year. I don’t know if he would mark it earlier, but I would put it at the conversation in the parking garage that night that I felt like I understood him and him me – I felt connected to him, which for me is very rare.
M and I are both TV writers. Because we want to keep our skills tight, we started a new scene-writing exercise, just the two of us. Every day we’re creating a scene assignment for each other, to be completed in less than 30 minutes, no online research. It’s just as much fun to make the assignments as it is to write the scenes – because in my mind, they don’t exist in a vacuum. The assignments, the scenes, communicate with each other and with our lives outside the project, creating a story with a life of its own.
So because I’ve got scenes on the brain, I’m going to share my cheat sheet with you. This is what I bust out when I find myself staring into space for 20 minutes – a file I have on my computer called “Drama Questions.” It’s a list of questions cobbled together from a variety of sources — David Mamet, John August, others I can’t remember. I gathered them from all over into one Break In Case Of Emergency File.
Here They Are:
Who wants what?
What happens if they don’t get it?
What is the hero’s problem that starts the scene?
In the end, how are the characters thwarted or turned in another direction?
What are we left wondering?
What’s the silent movie version?
How does the scene advance the story?
How does the scene reveal character?
How does the scene expand on an idea? What theme does it explore?
How does the scene build an image? What does this image mean?
What’s funny in this scene?
What’s the most surprising thing that could happen in this scene?
Where could this scene take place?
What’s the worst that would happen if this scene were omitted?
Who absolutely needs to be in this scene?
Where could this scene possibly take place?
What’s the next thing this character would realistically do?
What’s the most interesting thing this character could do?
Where do I want the story to go next?
Where do I want the story to end up eventually?
Does this scene stand up on its own merit, or is it just setting stuff up for later?
What are the later repercussions of this scene? How could I maximize them?
I want to be clear that I didn’t write these questions. But this is pretty basic drama stuff, and I don’t want to keep it from you just because I can’t source it properly. If I’m really stuck, I actually write out the answers for the scene I’m working on. Or I just read them over to give myself a kick start. Most of the time I don’t need them – but sometimes I do. And that’s what they’re there for, like a map or a wooden stretcher to stretch a canvas painting over.
If you go through and answer all these questions for the scene you’re in, guarantee it’ll get better. And as for what to do next, the next scene is a conversation with the scene you’re in – the way M and my scenes and assignments speak to each other, asking and answering questions.
When my friend P heard that I wrote a post called Poverty, she tried to argue me out of it.
“You didn’t really grow up in poverty,” she said. “You may have felt that way — but no one who knows you now would say, oh yeah, she grew up in terrible poverty. People in India, that’s poverty. What you’re describing is the way you felt. Shame. The feeling that you couldn’t show people the way you lived.”
There is truth to what she said — and I think I spoke to that in the last post when I talked about poverty of the heart.
Then she said — “Now you need to write a post about how rich you are.”
This was a few weeks ago now, and the reason I haven’t posted since then is because I went into my writing jail to finish my pilot. But I also wondered if I was resisting because it’s hard for me to identify with being rich — so much of my identity is about being poor.
I got the pilot done. And it was really really hard. Migraines every single day. (I have a migraine right now.) Eating over-the-counter painkillers like food. Not enough money. But I finally got it done, turned it in to my agents, only to find out the next day that NBC is developing a show on the same exact subject.
I got upset and posted my feelings on Twitter (as some of you know). Now I feel self-conscious about that — like I showed you guys the wizard behind the curtain.
But you know what? I am fucking emotional. That is the most valuable quality I have to offer as a writer. When I show you guys that, I am showing you what I do, how this machine operates. My expertise is my ability to tap this molten river of feeling that surges beneath my surface at all times. I used to resist that, afraid people would think I’m crazy. Now I fucking embrace it. I am crazy. That’s what makes me good.
I am rich in feeling.
I am rich in ideas.
I am rich in anger. Anger is good when it’s on the side of justice and it inspires you to make things better. Anger is a storyteller’s friend.
I am rich in compassion — both that I feel for others and that which is felt for me.
I am rich in opportunities.
I am rich in friendship. Yesterday was an upsetting day for me. And so many people reached out to me to help me — both people I know and people I don’t.
I am rich in love. My parents love me. My friends love me. The world loves me. I love myself.
Yesterday I was busy feeling upset and afraid because this pilot that I had worked so hard on and thought had a good chance of selling suddenly seemed to have been pre-empted. I felt sick and so disappointed, because I really believe in my piece — believe in its artistry and think it deserves a chance to live. And then this girl I follow on twitter posted that she had $-0.18 in her account and that she wouldn’t admit that to anyone in real life but that she would post that on there for some reason. Instantly I messaged her and told her to let me know if she needed to borrow money. Why? Because I am fucking rich. Not that I have enough money myself, but all day long I had had all these people — both on twitter and in real life — supporting me and telling me my career was going to be okay. And because I am rich in opportunities and ideas and compassion and friendship. And anger. Because no artist should have to have $-0.18 in her account — I don’t want her to feel like that’s okay for herself. I want her to know that even though I don’t particularly have enough — I want her to know that someone cares about what she’s doing, that it’s important. I was doing it for myself.
When I was still back home in Georgia writing my novel at my parents house, miserable and depressed and lonely and broke, I had made friends on the internet with this successful screenwriter here in L.A. I had told him that I didn’t have enough money — to pay my health insurance or student loan or something — and without even asking me he looked up my address online and sent me $300 cash. I was embarrassed, but grateful — and now I know why he did that. He did that for himself, and for artists — to tell himself and the world that artists are important, and that what I was doing was important, and that what he was doing was important.
Within six months of him sending me that money, I had moved to L.A. and paid him back. He tried not to accept it, but I would have felt weird not paying him back. I didn’t know then that I was going to become a screenwriter, but with $300 cash, that guy turned me into one. When I offered to lend money to that girl on twitter (whom I’ve never met), I wouldn’t have wanted her to pay it back. But I would have wanted her to keep going. She didn’t accept, but she did post about it on her blog, which I’m glad for. I want her and everyone to know that artists are important. And there are a lot of people out there who want to help you.
Maybe some day she’ll write a story like this. That guy turned me from a novelist to a screenwriter, like a pimp turning a girl out. Maybe without knowing it, I just turned her out.
It’s the opposite of how my dad makes me feel. I am rich in spirit, not poor.
He abandoned us — and then he went and bought a mercedes and a big sailboat —
My mother and my sister and I didn’t have enough — my mother worked hard, all the time. She was always stressed, miserable. She hated her job as a secretary. She was always working and yet we didn’t have enough — the lights were always getting cut off, or the phone, or the credit cards were maxed —
There was never enough. We were always catching up.
And then there was our father mocking us, the way we lived — making little digs at our poverty —
We would go spend the weekend with him on his yacht — and he was so stingy at heart, he wouldn’t feed us. Or when I would complain that I was hungry, he would make comments about how I was too fat and needed to lose weight — I was just like my mother —
My father suffered from poverty of the heart — he starved and starved his children —
He was aloof and had a distant model girlfriend (then wife) and cared more about money than he did about us — he made that clear. He would go on and on about how much he resented paying our mother — when it was obvious to anyone observing that we were struggling to get by and he was living like a millionaire. His parents (our grandparents) didn’t want to have anything to do with us because they saw us as leeches taking their son’s money.
I grew up as working-class poor with my mother and my sister, and the message was clear — men have money, get money, deserve money. Women don’t.
Now I work in the arts — in publishing and in Hollywood, where I see that pattern repeat itself — men get and women don’t. I wonder if I see it because it’s in my head and I’m destined to see it everywhere, or because the world I grew up in is the world we live in. I’m making a generalization, and I believe there are a lot of exceptions. I believe I’m going to be an exception, and I’m on my way. But I do think it’s taken me longer, and it’s been harder, than if I had been a man.
But maybe it would have been different if I hadn’t grown up in poverty, if I hadn’t grown up with the message that I deserved to barely get by, that I deserved the least, the minimum.
I think we find our level, our comfort zone, and mine has been poverty —
I’ve been poor all this time, when I went to an Ivy League school and I’m such a great writer and I’m sharp and bright and warm and I’ve got so much going for me —
I think my poverty starts in my heart —
I starved to a point beyond which I can’t recover from.
Until I was 11, my sister and I visited our father every other weekend. Then he vanished. We got a call three months later from him — he was sailing his boat around the world. I couldn’t speak, I was crying so hard. Until that call, I didn’t even know if he was alive. I didn’t tell any of my friends what had happened, I was so ashamed.
He stopped paying our mother, so if we were struggling before, now we were fucked. Money became terrifying, at the age of 11.
Now my father is very rich. Sloughing us off was very good for his bottom line. He owns airplanes and boats and a Ferrari and a gaudy Versace mansion on the water in South Florida. He fucks his 29-year-old maid/fiancee and still pays her to clean the house.
He tries to talk about the amount of money we’re going to inherit, and I’m like — fuck you. From the bottom of my heart, fuck you.
This entire process of trying to make it as a writer, first as a novelist then as a T.V. writer — has been nothing but difficult — and every time I thought it couldn’t get more difficult it did —
Putting aside the fact that he could have helped me the entire time and never ever did — he hurt me in this. He criticized me the entire way through for trying it, criticized me for how long it was taking to make it, when I was working soul-sucking day jobs —
And I have this sense that how he hurt me the most was by raising me trapped in the dark cold box of poverty. By molding my head within those limits, he set an upper-limit for the most I could ever make or have — so that I would never stray too far, never feel independent, never get powerful.
My mother was a secretary and my father was rich. And when I was struggling to finish my first novel, I wound up having to get a job as a receptionist to support myself while I finished it. That was painful, because the reason I went to Princeton was so I would never wind up like my mother. It was just going to be for six months until I sold the book — and then the book never sold, and I would up staying there for two long, painful years. With my father criticizing and deriding my choices the entire time.
Now I want to let go of poverty — tell myself it’s okay for me to make money, that it’s not siding with my father against my mother, it’s not turning my back on women. It’s good for me to make money, because then I can help other people like me (or unlike me). The way I grew up has no bearing on the way I want to live now, and I want to feel safe and comfortable and secure, and most of all, powerful now. Making money now isn’t turning my back on working people — instead, it’s empowering me so I can give working people a voice.
Whenever I get stuck working on a script (which is often), I remind myself of the only two things that matter:
Screenwriting is that simple.
You can find a way to make any story beat more visual. If you’re stuck, ask yourself — what’s the silent movie version? (that’s Mamet’s advice) — how can I see what I want to say here.
And every story beat should be emotional. That means it matters to the characters, on a gut level. And we should empathize enough with the characters that it matters to us. So if you’re stuck, ask yourself — what matters here? why? how can it matter more, and more, and more …. Emotion can be fear or anger or love or contempt or pride or despair or — whatever matters to them and to you and to us.
Then repeat these steps a bunch of times, and you’ve got a script.
In this episode of the Bushcast, I recount the time (a few weeks ago) I spent 26 hours at the ER at LAC/USC hospital.
It was amazing how quickly I switched over to prison mentality. It was almost immediate. Helped by a cop threatening to send me to jail on my way there.
It was also amazing how long it took me to tell this story — I cut the video down from 30 minutes to 15. Yeah. I know. I still cut some funny stuff, including me doing a Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s style impression of the Chinese man who processed my paperwork.
So sorry it’s taken me so long to put up the next episode — I actually recorded this a while ago, and it’s just taken me a while to edit it. I’ve been busy, which is good, but it just means I’m not quite as on top of everything as I’d like to be.
Thanks for watching guys. And — I want you to know you mean a lot to me. Whenever I hear from y’all, I’m really bolstered and touched. X Julie
It deserves to die. The publishing industry is racist, sexist, and it heavily favors white male authors over others, especially in literary fiction, which produces the next generation of American literature. If women and non-whites can’t get published and can’t get reviewed and can’t get on prize lists, we will not be able to contribute. For that reason alone it deserves to die.
Meanwhile, the rise of internet technology has brought authors closer to our audiences and given us the chance to give ourselves careers. No longer can an elite group of racist, sexist anachronisms shut the door to the rest of us. Any of us can make literature. The gatekeepers that kept so many of us out are failing because prejudice always fails — how can a business that limits the chances of large groups of people possibly succeed? Greatness always surges through.
I’ve been working on a new novel project that I’m very excited about and that will involve interaction and participation with readers. I’m not ready to publicize the project yet. However, Seth Godin’s announcement that he’s leaving traditional publishing behind is huge, and since I’ve already decided to do the same I decided I should say so. With a huge bestselling author like Godin going, the world will follow. I have no sympathy for big publishing. They had their chance, and thousands of young novelists like me had their careers thwarted or redirected because of their incompetence. I am very happy to have the T.V. and screenwriting career I have today, which I wouldn’t have had were it not for the inadequacy of the publishing industry. But now the way I feel about it is — they don’t fucking get to publish my novels. I will publish them myself. Because I’m better at marketing myself than they are. I’d rather sell ebooks than print — because that’s what I would rather buy.
I just spent an hour searching the internet for statistics about the racism and sexism in the publishing industry. Couldn’t find any — I know I’ve read some before, so if anyone can send some, please do. However, anyone working in this business knows about it already. Here are a few pieces I did come across:
Literature Gender Gap. Majority of readers are women but 30% or less of books published by literary houses are by women: http://su.pr/2Ag3sO
And these statistics excerpted from an article by T. K. Kenyon (see link below): Percentage of book reviews for male authors vs. female authors for 2006 in major review publications: 56%:44% Percentage of book reviews for male authors vs. female authors for Jan-June 2007 in major review publications: 63%:37% Percentage of book reviews for male authors vs. female authors for at the New York Times Review of Books (very influential): 72%:28% Ratio of male book reviewers to female reviewers at the New York Times Review of Books: 2:1 Percentage of articles written by men to those written by women in the five “thought leader” magazines: 3:1 Percentage of male book buyers to female: 45%:55% Women constitute only 17 percent of opinion writers at The New York Times, 10 percent at The Washington Post, 28 percent at U.S. News & World Report, 23 percent at Newsweek and 13 percent at Time. Overall, only 24 percent of nationally syndicated columnists are women. From: http://www.bloggernews.net/112350
One of my creative writing professors in college — Joyce Carol Oates — used to draw lines through words, sentences and entire paragraphs of our stories and write above the rejected pieces: “cliche”.
This was very painful.
We wanted nothing more than to please her — we admired her.
I admired her. I wanted her to like me and approve of me and say I was a good writer.
So when she wrote “cliche” on my stories, I found it upsetting.
She told us “a cliche is anything you’ve ever heard before.”
This definition seemed too harsh, too limiting to us. We protested. Wouldn’t there come a point where you were just writing stuff you hadn’t heard before, to avoid cliche?
Indeed, she told us a reviewer once wrote of her that she writes as if to avoid cliche. Still, we had no excuse to lapse into lazy habits.
Joyce was brisk, fresh, controlled, and she expected the same of us.
I often walked home from her class stirred up. I was either elated because she had praised my work, told me I was a good writer, or despondent because she had marked it all through, dismissed it.
But the power of seeing her strike through those words with her pen — that awful little word cliche that made me feel like I was lazy, average, common — that feeling stayed with me.
Now I’m on high alert for it. I wince when I find it in my own work. Other people have told me I’m too harsh in pointing it out everywhere. But that’s how we get better —
Because it’s an easy test. If I or you or anyone has ever heard or read or seen it before, it’s a cliche. And it doesn’t have to be painful — getting better is liberating. It might tweak your ego a little in the moment, but that’s good. Notching your ego and making your art better makes you bigger, not smaller.
For the longest time, I called him Daddy — like a Southerner, like a child. Not consciously.
I didn’t speak to him for almost a year — until two weeks ago —
I was at home rehearsing my essay for the NPR show State of the Reunion. The producers were coming over to record the piece. I’ve never done radio before, so I was nervous. I’ve been busy, so I didn’t have a lot of time to write it — between anxiety over how to perform it and anxiety over what I had written (are these jokes as sharp as they could be, do they make me seem like a bitch, is it too revealing, could the whole thing be tighter, funnier, more cohesive ….) I was feeling nervous. But also excited — NPR! That’s pretty fucking cool.
Then I got a text from my real dad (I call him my real dad to distinguish him from my stepdad, who was there for me growing up and whom I adore) — whining about how he didn’t know what he did but didn’t I think I had made my point —
Then the NPR producers arrived.
I had to record my essay — which I was already nervous about — with this aching, anxious knot in my stomach in the shape of my father.
The recording went ok — not perfect, but it was fine. I spent the rest of the day dreading the confrontation I knew had to happen. I couldn’t let him just keep interrupting my life like that — it’s like he has a radar for when I’m starting to break free of him, so he can swoop in and suck me back into the tar that is his emotional mess.
I called him. Everything in me didn’t want to. Everything in me has resisted writing this post since this happened almost two weeks ago — but I don’t feel like it would be fair to this blog to write about deciding not to speak to him last year and then not write about speaking to him again. It would feel dishonest.
He was at a restaurant. I told him if this was a bad time, we could talk later. He said no, now that he’s gotten me he wanted to do it then. He stepped outside.
He started — he went off on how he didn’t know what he did but didn’t I think it was wrong to go so long without speaking to your own father, hadn’t I made my point, what point was I trying to make anyway? Hadn’t he been punished enough? That kind of thing. I let him talk.
Then I talked:
Your not loving me — your abandoning me over and over and over again — your compulsive selfishness — has left me unable to connect with anyone.
I said this between sobs — I was crying so hard I almost vomited —
I struggle — hard — with depression — because of you, because of what you did —
I can’t have relationships. I try and fail — I can barely even have friendships — this started with you —
I can’t afford to have you in my life. The last time we talked, I was calling to tell you I was going to withdraw my 401k, which was my only security in the world — and I really didn’t want to do that. And it was only $9,000 — $6,000 after taxes. I was hoping you would say “don’t do that. I’ll give you the money” which you could have easily done. Instead you gave me this awful speech about you didn’t know why I thought I would ever succeed as a writer — how long would it take before I gave up — how long have I been out here and when would I wake up and realize it wasn’t going to happen and come home — what was it going to take to make me wake up to the wrongness of my choices —
That was already a low, terrible moment for me — and you took it as the chance to kick me while I was down — and while you’ve done that before, in other areas of my life, it was the fact that it was about my career, the most important thing to me, that finally made me realize that I couldn’t afford to let you do that to me anymore. The biggest part of what I do is maintaining the emotional energy and momentum and courage to keep moving forward no matter what, and I cannot afford to have my own father planting doubt in my head —
But the worst part is — you already succeeded. You planted the doubt about who I am, as a person. When I was a child. You changed who I am, as a human being. I can’t separate who I am out from what you did. You warped what I became. I’ve tried, hard — and I continue trying, because I have a lot of hope and faith — but I keep running into the road block that is you.
I went on. But that was the gist of what I said.
He responded — you are 100% right and I am 100% wrong. I was very bitter and very selfish, and you suffered for it. I regret what I did. It’s not that I didn’t love you — I didn’t love you the right way.
He said more, but that was the gist of what he said. You might think that sounds like progress. But my father is a person who says whatever he thinks the other person wants to hear, and he never means any of it. He loves drama, which is why I think he loved to hear me violently sobbing and having this huge confrontation — it satisfied that craving in him. Unable to feel real emotions, he thinks these dramatic upsets means he’s interacting emotionally. He mirrors the people he’s with — so he basically just mirrored back to me what I was saying, in a very dramatic and insincere way. I have enough experience dealing with this man to know not to believe any of it.
I told him I wasn’t sure I could let him back into my life. But that one thing I was sure of — he was absolutely not allowed to criticize me ever again.
He asked if I was prepared to make the same promise — if I was prepared not to criticize him anymore. Caught off guard, I agreed —
Now that I’ve had time to think about it, I realize how absurd this is. Routinely in our interactions, he’s pointed out that he has forgiven me, so I should forgive him. I have done nothing to injure him — he has nothing to forgive me for. He injured me, greatly. For someone to commit evil and then to say that you can’t criticize him for it is just so twisted. I’m not going to hold that promise.
Eventually he said he needed to go back to his dinner but he felt a lot better about having talked to me — he just wanted to hear my voice. I hung up leaving things ambiguous about whether we would talk again.
Then I cried, a lot.
I had plans to see Inception with my friend S that night. I cried during Inception, during the father moments.
At the bar at the Arclight, I told S what had happened. I told her “he said ‘it’s not that I didn’t love you — I didn’t love you the right way.'” And I started sobbing — surrounded by strangers at the Arclight bar. S asked the bartender for napkins, and the woman looked embarrassed for me and said she didn’t have any.
S was kind and supported me. I went home and cried more, cried these last two weeks. Cried every time I’ve tried to write this post.
A few days ago I got a letter from my dad saying that he would stay out of my life and that I could solve all my problems if I accepted Jesus as my savior. He never used to be a religious man — until he took up with his 29-year-old Brazilian evangelist maid, who’s now his fiancee. My dad is impressionable, influenced by the people he’s surrounded by, whether they be crooks or evangelists.
Even if my dad does stay out of my life, which is doubtful, he’s in it at the cellular level. I’m having a very difficult time separating who I am from him and how I feel about myself because of him. I don’t know that I’ll ever be free of him. But I’m trying. Hard.