Hunter S. Thompson, from Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the 80’s.
Hollywood careers can lead to isolation, especially writing, which is essentially a lonely job, staring at a computer screen, crafting scenes, a story, and dialogue that doesn’t entirely suck.
Staring at a computer screen all day, facing the blank page, writers can easily become frustrated, resentful, and even depressed.
Add to all that, being on a writing staff where you are constantly challenged to be your best. You have to come up with great ideas, and dialogue, and story ideas, and jokes on the spot. It’s a lot of pressure, especially on your first staff job.
Then their are crazies running the room. Some showrunners will keep you in that room around the clock, all night long, until breakfast. Some will assign you to go off and write a scene, right now, and come back in an hour.
Some showrunners will “steal,” or “co-opt” your story or writing credits, claiming they had significant input in forming your ideas. Sometimes they want their name on every episode in case it wins an Emmy.
In many writers rooms the staff will write an entire script from scratch in a day or two. This means everybody breaks the story together, and writes every line in the room, with the showrunner deciding who’s lines go in and who’s lines are left out. You feel pretty crummy when your input is minimized or ignored.
Normally in the world of the half-hour TV comedy a writer gets two weeks to write a first draft of a script. On “Dilbert,” the TV series that satirized “cubicle life”, we would have story meetings on Friday nights. Once a story had been broken, the writer was sent off to write the sixty page script and turn it in over the weekend.
Two days!? Panic set in. After 48 hours of writing, judgment was passed on the script by the producers. If the producers hated it, you had to deal with the rejection and worry about your job, too. If you’re lucky, and they liked it, you got a shot at doing the next rewrite. Add job insecurity and rejection to the list.
I won’t deny all these stressors had an impact on me. At various times, I was depressed, anxious, fearful, frustrated, and just about lost even caring about writing at all.
On one show, the writers were treated so badly, when the producers finally told the writing staff we were cancelled, I said “Thank God,” out loud. Not my finest hour.
How do you cope with all these issues while you’re trying to write? Let’s take isolation. Isolation can be dealt with in various ways. If you’re on a staff show, you can set smaller writing goals, and when you’ve accomplished them, go to lunch with the other writers. At least you’ll feel like you’re part of a group.
If you have a spouse, and/or children, make a point of visiting them when you can reward yourself with a break. There’s no substitute for actually talking to another human being. If there’s a Starbucks you can visit, talk with other patrons, or at least enjoy time away from the computer.
You could also try a massage, acupressure, or working out at the gym can get you into a social space. The exercise will also pump up dopamine, serotonin, and other “feel good,” brain chemicals.
On one show, the producer went into a long rant about how (suddenly) nobody on staff could write. This was after being praised for writing the last six scripts. This type of rejection can be paralyzing.
You might want to use thought- redirecting methods from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to cope with rejection. And call your agent.
Don’t over-react to the criticism. Take notes on exactly what you’re told when your script is judged. Some people “catastrophize,” when hearing a small point, say the “ending fell flat.” That doesn’t mean you’re whole script sucked. Relish what your producers didn’t criticize. Besides, you’re under contract, so they have to pay you.
Managing stress is all about taking charge; of your thoughts, emotions, schedule, and the way you cope. Start by identifying the sources of your stress. Try to characterize what’s going on (you could use a “stress journal,” here). What caused the stress, what did it feel like, how did you react and how did you feel better?
You’ll want to stick with the healthy ways to reduce stress; include regular exercise, eating healthy, sleeping well, mindfulness meditation, relaxation methods, and using CBT to challenge stressful thoughts.
Stay away from too much caffeine, smoking and drugs if you can. I fell into every trap, including drinking, self-medication, eating poorly, hating what I was doing, and flicking pencils up into the ceiling.
Adapting your attitude may also be necessary in productive time management. Eliminate words like “never,” “always,” “should,” and “must,” from your vocabulary, which are signs of self-defeating thought. Accept the things you can’t change. Decide to “pick your battles.”
Obviously, between isolation, deadlines, rejection, anxiety and depression, some problems are much worse than others. Coping with these problems will generally involve re-thinking your lifestyle, and finding ways to cope with stress in new and healthy ways. If you need help, call a therapist, hopefully one who who’s lived through it all, and specializes in helping writers.
If you have experienced any of the stressors involved in writing on staff, or writing in general, contact me for a free consult to discuss what you need to do to free up your creativity and reduce stress, just click here.
Image credit: Writer’s Block – Andrew Smith 2012 CC By 2.0
Image credit: gotta love it – dtp 2011 CC By 2.0