By the time I turned 30, I had written seventeen episodes of an iconic television show (Lizzie McGuire), been nominated for two Emmys, had an Agent, a Manager, and a size 6 body that I could cram into all sorts of fun outfits.
By the time I turned 35, I was near-broke, hadn’t had a writing job in 18 months and was working the front desk of the spinning gym that I had formerly been a customer at.
Drugs? one of the clients asked me.
Had I been inhaling too much of the shoe disinfectant? Excuse me?
Someone told me you used to be a TV writer. And now you work here. Was it cocaine?
I handed her a towel and smiled. Nope, I told her, I never earned cocaine money.
She waited, hoping that I would spill my secret to my failure. Con artist boyfriend? Affair with the married boss? Pyramid scheme?
Have a nice day, I told her, and helped the next client in line.
The years 2006-2009 were a vast wasteland of work. There was a manager who gave me the overall note rewrite it for Ashton Kutcher. There was the agent who got offended at an abortion joke in a script and stop returning phone calls. My bosses who had previously hired me were out of work themselves. There was the Writers’ Strike. A perfect shitstorm.
Still, I was lucky. I had just married betheboy. I had insurance. We had a cheap place to live, even if it was in a moldering, mouse-infested apartment under our landlady who was a hoarder.
But I was no longer a professional TV writer.
Total Number of Writers Reporting Earnings in 2009: 4522
Total Number of TV Writers Reporting Earnings in 2009: 3166
(Source: WGA 2014 Financial Report)
I scoured the Internet for writing jobs. Entertainment Careers, eLance, Craigslist. I submitted bids, took writing tests. I scored a ghostwriting gig which had me churning out a book in eight weeks. I wrote a comic book for a Nigerian billionaire who took eight weeks to pay me $200 because he was waiting for investors. I wrote press releases for a bipolar business owner on a drug binge - he did have cocaine money, though always had an excuse why he couldn’t pay me.
I felt like a failure. I probably looked like a failure. Let’s just say I was a failure. But with every new humiliation I thought: at least you’re writing.
I continued to blog. I got a Twitter account. I got on Tumblr. I heard that a network executive thought I was “girl funny” but couldn’t write for boys. In retaliation, I wrote a spec script called Max & Trevor about two teen dorks who just want to touch a boob. I didn’t have representation. I emailed it to the last few people I knew, who patted me on the head and said nice job. I knew it was a long shot, so I tucked it away and went back to spraying rented spinning shoes. You’d think that people who earned enough money to pay $20 a spinning class would cough up $100 to purchase their own pair of spin shoes, but you’d be wrong. Instead for two dollars they’d rent shoes, which were like bowling shoes that someone had run a marathon in.
My old Lizzie McGuire boss called me up and asked me if I was still doing that Internet thing? During my years on Lizzie I had been blogging, and was always being dragged into meetings regarding Lizzie’s digital presence. Yes, I am I told him. I may have something for you, he responded.
The project was called Valemont, and he wanted me to write all of the online material, as well as an ARG. I nodded. I could totally do that.
When I went home, I googled what an ARG was.
I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew that I had about eight to twelve weeks to figure it out, quick. I worked 12 hours a day. When the project went live, I worked 15 to 18 hours a day.
My boss sent my work to an agent he knew. He passed. My boss’ assistant said she knew a manager who was looking for new clients. I got a meeting. The manager worked for herself. There was no fancy office, no plush carpets and walls of thick glass, no assistant whose heels clicked over the marble as she offered you a bottle of water.
She had read Max & Trevor, a script I never expected anyone to see. She wanted to represent me. I said yes.
Valemont won awards for the online component. I was asked to speak at conferences at MIT, in New York, in Sweden.
I was still unemployed.
I worked on a couple of more online projects. While I had the contacts, my manager made me a deal that was much better than the one I would have made on my own.
I continued to write.
I got a meeting at a production company who had was waiting to hear about a show pickup at Nickelodeon. The show got picked up. The exec told us it was a long shot. The EP was hiring most of the people he knew from other projects.
I got a meeting.
The EP told me he read five pages of my script, then put it down, knowing that he had already decided to meet me. When he was done going through the slush pile, he told me I went back to your script because I wanted to see how it would end.
I got the job on How to Rock.
How to Rock ended and then I got a consulting job on House of Anubis.
I got an email -- a producer friend of mine was reading my Twitter and thought I was funny -- was I interested in appearing on the Brit List on BBC?
I developed with Disney Animation and Cartoon Network. I pitched shows to Amazon, to Dreamworks Animation, to Disney Channel, to Nickelodeon. I had a project optioned at Hasbro. I worked at Mattel on Monster High and DC Superhero Girls. A producer brought me a book that I adapted into a screenplay pitch that has a production company on board. I developed a movie with my old Lizzie McGuire EP and Disney Interactive. I punched up friend’s pilots. I have a super-secret project that is about to be pitched that may have everyone flipping their collective lid.
But none of these things could end up happening. Because life.
There is an arbitrary line in the sand that we give ourselves:
By [age] I will have figured out [giant, important thing.]
By 26 I will have figured out my career.
By 32 I will have figured out my love life.
By 41 I will have figured out my health.
This is a mathematical equation that is near-impossible to solve. Because all of the big stuff: work, love, health, involves hard work, yes, but it also needs a little bit of luck* to make it through.
Total Number of Writers Reporting Earnings in 2014: 4899
Total Number of TV Writers Reporting Earnings in 2014: 3888
(Source: WGA 2014 Financial Report)
This is far from a cautionary tale. Partly because my tale is far from over and partly because there wasn’t really anything that I could have done to pull out of the nosedive that my career took in the mid-2000s. It was a Rube Goldbergian series of unfortunate events that landed me in a dark cubby spraying rented spin shoes for the 1%.
William Goldman famously said about the entertainment industry that nobody knows anything. They still don’t. The only thing you can do is do the work. Write like nobody’s watching. Because chances are they aren’t.
Until they are.
Anyone who says they’ve got it all figured out is just trying to make you feel bad. And there are enough people in the world who want to make you feel like shit. Don’t help them.
*It bears noting that a heaping spoonful of privilege -- that I, as a cis white woman have -- also helps a ton.
A review of my professional work can be found here.
When a good part of your career involves making total strangers think you're funny, it's super shitty when people don't attribute. (h/t noirbettie)
Everyone SAYS they want a fairytale wedding but when I show up and curse their firstborn suddenly I'm the jerk.— Nina Bargiel (@slackmistress)April 27, 2012
My bedtime routine is like a game of Clue:
-It was Nina, at 9:30pm, in bed, on her phone, with The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Sometimes it varies (Rhoda! Taxi! A Mets game in extra innings!) but 9:30 is a hard-and-fast rule. Daisy J. Dog went through a period (of three years) where sleeping at night was more of a suggestion than a promise. Between allergies and sundowner syndrome and just plain being an asshole (her or me, you choose), the earlier we got to bed, the more chance there was of getting some unbroken sleep.
We've tried Melatonin (does nothing), Xanax (she's relaxed while she runs around), Benadryl (makes her insane), and doggy dementia meds which are supposed to straighten everything out (they do make her more alert during the day but nighttime was still problematic. And by problematic I mean jumping off the bed every hour, doing a loop around the room, chewing her butt for ten minutes and then demanding to be let up on the bed.)
This has all changed in the last week with the addition of a new anti-itch drug called Apoquel. Apoquel is a drug made of magical fairy pony poop dust and it does what no other drug has been able to do before: if helps her sleep for six hours in a row at a designated sleeping time and I will now hold up a shantytown of kittens to make sure that this magic is in our arsenal for the rest of our lives.
Last night, at about 11:30pm, it was as if an alarm went off. Jump off the bed, a loop around, a butt scoot, and then a demand to get back on. Over and over and over it went, as if we were in some Rube-Goldberg Device powered by 14-year old pit bulls and two sleep-deprived adults. After about an hour, I gave her half a Xanax and it magically worked, powering her down until 7am this morning.
I've been trucking along on various projects and yesterday I received some - well, heartbreaking seems like overkill, but some incredibly disappointing news, one of those things where the stars aligned perfectly and all signs pointed to yes and oh my god you would be perfect you were born to this-- and then, nothing. It happens. (It happens a lot.) Sometimes its soul-crushing (a lot of the time) and sometimes it makes you angry (the other lot of the time) and always that voice is ticking like a time bomb over your head while you make all of the calculations of how you're going to get through it you try to override it with the other voice (you're a writer, you have many of these) with the mantra that you are going to get through it because you are going to write your way through it because that is what writers do.
And you catch your dog, finally, and haul her up onto the bed and remind her not to be anxious because you're here and Will is here and the only thing she needs to worry about is getting some sleep.
Which magically, she does.
(With a little help from our friend Xanax.)
People always ask me how to get a job writing for television.
People only ask me this question when I am not currently writing for television.
People are weird.
Almost everyone's path is different. I went from finding a dog on the streets of Santa Barbara (where I was staying with relatives) to volunteering at the animal shelter where I brought the dog to living with rescue's founders at their house and getting a job with their daughter's agent and then being their daughter's assistant and then getting my first writing job when their daughter had a show on the air.
So my advice? Rescue dogs.
When you get that first gig, it feels like you're finally being called out of the crowd to walk beyond the velvet rope. What they don't tell you is that your career is a series of velvet ropes. Because it's not about your first job. It's about the job after that, and the one after that. Your scramble up the mountain and you slide back down. Again and again and again. I choose to look on the bright side: periods of unemployment mean I no longer have to wear pants on a daily basis.
That doesn't mean that I don't look for freelance work between gigs. They usually involve copywriting or editing or proofreading, although one job site had 328 Television Writer Jobs, with the below being the number one match:
Maybe I should keep looking.
I open this window, this compose window on a daily basis and I stare at it. I'm used to being confronted by the blank page/blank screen/blank brain but here there's pressure. I have to say something profound and deep and literary but shareable and relatable and SEOizble and viral and not really that last one but blogs are about commodity and monetization and branding or something like that because I don't attend blogging conferences and I'm not a part of blogging networks because I am like Groucho Marx that way.
If I had a kid when I started blogging (1997) it would be GETTING READY TO GO TO COLLEGE.
In 2000 I took multiple meetings about my blog, where people talked about my life as a series and me as a character and what was the throughline and tapes (tapes!) were sent to me with actresses who were blonde and pretty and I met with Executive Producers but no one really knew what the series was and no one really knew what blogging was and I was chugging along at my TV career but the idea of this being a thing sort of fizzled out.
Which is okay. What they don't tell you about Hollywood is that a lot of things fizzle out. You work on a script that everyone's hot on and then they're not. You work on a show that everyone loves until they don't. You work in virtual anonymity and then one day your script wins a contest and Steven Spielberg is producing your pilot which is going straight to series (this guy is the boyfriend of a high school classmate of mine, and it's my favorite Cinderella story this year.)
The promise is that it could always turn around. Good or bad, up or down, it's a seesaw of untold fortunes. You get used to it in that shitty your pants doesn't ever become comfortable but it becomes familiar.
I write shorter stuff on Tumblr, and jokes on Twitter, and dog photos on Instagram and here I wonder if I have any desire to write anything that requires slamming two thoughts together because that seems like work and if it's work shouldn't it, y'know, be work?
But lately I've felt like it's time to dust off the compose new post page and hope back into the fray. Sometimes they'll be short and sometimes they'll be long and sometimes they'll be whining and sometimes they'll link somewhere else because you are not the boss of me unless you are and then that's weird because I haven't been paid.
I started writing for three people on a "personal website" in 1997 and hundreds of thousands of people on the TV screen. I figure right now, my audience is there, somewhere in the middle.
And if not?
"Rejection/ is just an erection/ with an R and a J/ stowing away!" - why I'll never write for Sesame Street— Nina Bargiel (@slackmistress) April 11, 2014
1. Denial — This script is perfection. It’s like a perfect cake, where each layer has the right ratio of frosting to layer, and none of that fruit bullshit to sneak up and surprise you. DELICIOUS SCRIPT CAKE.
2. Anger — WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT IT NEEDS A PAGE ONE REWRITE? ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? DID EVEN READ IT? DID YOU NOT SEE THE PART ABOUT THE FROSTING AND THE LACK OF SURPRISE FRUIT?
3. Bargaining — Okay, listen. How about, like, just a tweak? I’ll punch up the jokes, maybe re-arrange a scene or two. The cake is just a little dented. Instead of making a cake from scratch, we’ll just frost over the script holes.
4. Depression — Why did I think I could do this? I can’t do this. I CAN’T CALL MYSELF A WRITER I CAN’T EVEN BAKE A SHITTY SCRIPT CAKE.
5. Acceptance — Okay, so we throw that cake out, and we make a new one. I just gotta look at the recipe, make sure that I’m adding the right ingredients. That practice cake served me well. Now I’m gonna make a new one.
I should let you all know that I'm unemployed now, which in writing terms is known as "available," "in development" or "drunk." #hireme!— Nina Bargiel (@slackmistress) January 2, 2013
When someone says they want to be a writer, what they mean is "I want to sit on my ass daydreaming and then someone shows up and offers me a million dollars to write my screenplay/memoir/one-man show."
At least that's what I mean.
The cruel truth to writing is that you have two modes: writing and panic. Sometimes you go through both at the same time. What no one tells you about writing is that no matter how long you do it, this doesn't go away. Unless you're Woody Allen, but I'm not completely confident that he's human.
Of course, we don't like to think of it this way. Our favorite writers sit at the keyboard, stringing together letters to form words to turn into books or movies for us to fangirl over. The writers we don't like don't do any work and are handed blind pilot deals and screenplays and memoirs and it's so unfair because they're not really funny and I made that joke on Twitter three days ago and no one starred it and it's all a popularity contest.
But it's work. It's all work. The writers you love work just as hard as the writers you hate. Every single one of them is sitting at the keyboard, wondering what to say. Every single one of them faces a blank page. Every single one of them success or not, panics about what's next.
Because every time you finish, every time you put the final touches on the screenplay/novel/memoir, every time it's done, you have to start over. With the blank page. Again.
I wrapped my last show (season 3, Consultant, House of Anubis) and here I sit, facing the blank page. I have stuff in development (real development, pinky swear) but now's the point where the regular paycheck has gone away and the panic sets in and I take a deep breath and sit down at the computer and start something new. Again.
I'm running the Awesome 80's 10k this weekend, because when I have the choice between running an easier race (the 5k) and a tougher one (the 10k) I always pick the tougher one because clearly I hate myself.
Me: Will you make me an 80's playlist for the 80's race?
Will: Sure, but my 80's music and your 80's music are totally different. It's not going to be Duran Duran and whatever.
Me: Do you really want to hurt me?
Me: Do you really want to make me cry?
Will: I hate you.
(He's making me the playlist.)
(It's probably because I'm a member of the Illuminati.)
(I'm a Consultant on House of Anubis.)
Thanks for all of your kind words regarding How to Rock's cancellation yesterday. I'm sure there are exciting things around the corner. I just hope this block isn't too long.
Want to make me feel better? There's 40 days until I run the Race for the Rescues (which is the day before I turn 40.) I'm trying to raise $4,000. You can donate here!