“The TV industry is uglier than most things. It is perceived as a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.”
Hunter S. Thompson, from Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the 80’s.
When you’re on a writing staff you’re 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.
The dynamics of a writer’s room revolves around the showrunner.
They make all the final creative decisions. All the writers in the room are invited to pitch their story ideas, fixes, and lines of dialogue. The showrunner gets to decide.
There’s usually a “star of the room,” who wins the most points, or gets the most jokes in the script. There’s usually a frustrated writer who rarely gets anything in. They feel rejected. However, since all the writers are under contract, they still come in every day. They may just doodle or stare at the clock. Those writers can get kind of depressed.
There are sometimes 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 as a group. Of course, the showrunner has final say.
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. So, your job security, and confidence are on the line every time you pitch.
I won’t deny all these stressors had an impact on me.
At various times, on various shows, I felt 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. At some point it’s just you and the keyboard. 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.
As a psychotherapist, I deal with a lot of writers.
A common method therapists teach to keep the negative and self-critical thoughts is thought-stopping and redirecting. This method comes from a branch of psychology called Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Don’t let your mind dwell on negative thoughts all the time. Stop them.
Don’t just react to the negative stuff – respond to it. Challenge it. Get up and get a cup of coffee, or surf the net. Do something different. Think something different. In CBT they call it “thought-stopping and redirecting.”
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 your 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.
This means 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. It’s a stressful job.
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, don’t be afraid to call a therapist. Believe me, there are a lot of writers in therapy.