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.
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.
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.
A few months ago, I called someone out on Twitter for making a shitty fat joke. Not that there's such a thing as a good fat joke. Shitty fat jokes are shitty. (Even Sarah Silverman agrees with me.) Have I ever made one? I'm sure I have. But I'm also sure that someone called me on my shitty fat joke, and guess what? I don't make shitty fat jokes anymore.*
Some people would call me an asshole for calling anyone out on anything. Those people are probably right. But the way we're going to make this universe better for anyone is for each of us to call everyone on their shit. We're gonna learn, people. We're gonna grow. We're going to become better bastards of human beings if it kills us. (Spoiler alert: we're gonna die anyway.)
People do same thing for me, too. While I am aware of the white-privilege bubble that I currently bounce along in, being aware and having diarrhea spurt from my mouth aren't mutually exclusive. (And please don't give me the free speech talk. You have the right to say what you want. Everyone else has the right to call you out for being an asshole.)
I've been called out for an shitty joke. Sometimes they're right. And it smarts. And then I get smarter. That's not why they call it smarting, though. Or maybe it is? Language is weird.
Sometimes they're wrong. That's the beauty of the universe, too, is that you don't have to take anyone's word on anything. There are sitting members of Congress who still think our President was born in Kenya. Someone might call me out for using the word "asshole." You can catch more flies with honey, they tell me. But who the hell wants a wad of sticky flies? Asshole.
While my crabby exterior might suggest otherwise, I don't think making a shitty joke makes you a shitty person. The quickest joke is the easy joke which can often make it a shitty joke. Whenever I tread into shitty territory, I ask myself "who's the butt?" Because asking "who's the butt?" is fun to ask but also because figuring out who you're making fun of is the key to figuring out whether it's a shitty joke. Which is why I mostly make fun of Bigfoot now.
Let's write better jokes. And be better people. Or just pick one.
I'd like to think that the person I was an asshole to about their fat joke thinks of me when they're about to make another one, but they've blocked me on all the social networks. They're probably a murderer anyway.**
*I'm not positive I ever made shitty fat jokes, but I'm sure I made shitty [insert something that doesn't deserve a shitty joke] jokes before. So choose your own adventure on this one.
**They're not a murderer.*** They are a perfectly nice human being who made a shitty joke.
***But this statement won't hold up in court if they're thinking of murdering anyone.****
****Don't murder people.
I'm working on a pilot.
I should clarify: I'm working on a spec pilot.
Working on a spec pilot means you have an idea for a TV show and you write a script of that idea and while you have an idea of where it could "fit" (you should ideally always have an idea of where it fits, even if it's sort of a well-it's-a-high-school-girls-MTV-but-could-be-ABCFamily-ized-or-oldified-to-Lifetime-but-maybe-it-could-also-live-online) but you don't have a buyer. You have an idea and a possible home but the chance of you actually ending up in that home is that sliver of light between slim and none.
Speccing a pilot is the most freeing (total! creative! control!) and a waste of time (no! one! will! buy! this!) but it gives executives and producers and idea of your "voice" and it gives you the opportunity to flex those writing muscles that easily atrophy when you're writing for other people's characters week after week. (Note: I love writing for other people's characters. Hire me!)
I'm not a Chuck Wendig. (Imagine Warren Ellis, but cuddly.) The dude is a fucking machine. (A writing machine, not actually, you know, a fucking machine--Jesus, this is what happens when I sit down to write something longer than a Tweet. Chuck, I blame you.)
Yes, that's mostly an excuse to not write. But the writing for me is the easy part. I hate it, but writing for me is simply turning off my brain and getting out of the way. No, the thing that takes the time is the jigsaw puzzle. How do these characters fit together? How does this story fit together? And how will this story continue, week after week?
Because even though the chance of your pilot being purchased/optioned by anyone is less likely than a unicorn crapping sparkles in your front yard, you still need to write something that lends itself to continuing. To characters that you want to spend week after week with. To situations that aren't contrived but still are familiar enough to circle of comfort zone of the everyday viewer. If a Producer or Executive - who reads thousands of scripts in their lifetime wants to not only continue reading your script, but wants to know what happens next? That's what gets you the meeting, the job, the script option. (Which- having personally experienced - is awesome.)
For me, a pilot starts when I have two people having a conversation in my head. It's always two people. In the writing, it may branch out to more, but it's always two people taking about something dumb. I take those dumb conversations and make notes of them on my iPhone. In TextEdit. Snippets of dialogue grows like mold and out poops a situation.
There, buried under the poop, is are the nuggets of the story. Sometimes it's right on top so you don't have to dig too far and the pieces fit together perfectly. But sometimes you gotta dive in and get your hands dirty, and you try so hard to make all of those little shitnuggets fit that they disintegrate in your hands. Which means you were looking in the wrong pile of shit, so exhausted and filthy, you start over.
Now you get to take your characters, those assholes you started with, the ones who are taking up space in your brain where you're supposed to remember birthdays (thank you, Facebook) and Raising Arizona quotes ("This here's the TV. Two hours a day maximum, either educational or football, so as you don't ruin your appreciation of the finer things.") and you drop them in your story like a couple of Sea Monkeys, and it's up to you to make sure they survive.
Right now I'm digging through the shit. Hopefully there'll be something good in there.
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!
The cat is out of the bag. (Aside: don't keep cats in bags! That's mean to cats!)
Hey, HTR Fans.
David Israel here. How to Rock’s showrunner and Executive Producer.
There have been rumors swirling around about the future of How To Rock so I thought it time to set the record straight. Nickelodeon has decided, unfortunately, not to give How To Rock a second season. I know this news will be very disappointing for many of you. Believe me, it’s disappointing for me, too.
Why isn’t the show coming back? There’s no one simple answer. NIckelodeon is going through a transition right now. You already know that iCarly and Victorious are not coming back. Nickelodeon has many new shows in production and development that they believe will better suit their audience. While I don’t love their decision, I have no choice other than to accept it. The Nickelodeon executives who’ve worked on the development and production of How to Rock have been incredibly supportive of the show this past year. They’re good people who want nothing more than to make the best shows for their audience. I know it wasn’t an easy decision for them — they truly do like the show — and I’m grateful for the time and energy they’ve put in to make How To Rock as good as it is. Or was.
There is good news. We made 26 episodes. You’ve only seen 17 of them. Meaning — quick, do the math — there are NINE new episodes still to come and Nick will be showing all of them. Seasons of British shows are often 6 episodes. So if you think British right now, you still have a season and half of new How To Rocks. Smashing.
The next episode that will air is “How To Rock a Singing Telegram” on September 22nd. In it, Gravity 5 raises money for the school by performing singing telegrams in several different musical styles (including one like Big Time Rush, which is awesome). At the heart of the episode is a touching story about friendship. I know you’ll all like it. On September 29th, you’ll see “How To Rock a Yearbook” where Gravity 5 tries to get their own yearbook page, just like the Perfs have. The Perfs, of course, are two steps ahead. You’ll also learn why Zander is so secretive about last year’s yearbook from his old school — and why Stevie and Kevin will stop at nothing to uncover the secret.
There are 3 new episodes in October, including “How To Rock a High School Sensation” with special guest star Romeo Miller and “How To Rock a Camping Trip” in which you’ll be shocked which of the gang takes charge after Zander eats some bad berries. The acoustic campfire version of “Only You Can Be You” will melt you.
Our season — and series — will conclude on December 8th with “How To Rock Christmas.” Tremendous episode. Festive, funny, touching… and Kevin and Nelson are dresses as elves.
My biggest regret about How To Rock not getting a 2nd season is that I won’t be going to work everyday with the truly remarkable people who made the show happen. You know the cast and they are all incredibly talented and gracious people. Cymphonique, Samantha, Halston, Lulu, Max, Chris, Noah, Kirk, Jacob and our many guest stars brought the show to life by truly committing themselves to their characters. (Though I’m not sure Chris and Noah were ever really acting — they are that ridiculous.) I will miss our run-throughs and rehearsals and their pre-show rituals that I was fairly close to figuring out. (“Bunny bunny bunny bunny…”) All of them will continue to shine on screens and stages for years to come and I hope they look back at their How To Rock days with pride.
Behind the cast were a team of writers, producers, directors, production staff and a tireless, phenomenal crew who poured their collective hearts and souls into the show to make sure it looked good, sounded good and felt like a show worthy of being on Nickelodeon or any other channel. We never settled for average, always strived for excellence, and I think we hit far more home runs than we struck out. (Sam and Halston, that is a baseball reference. Can explain it to u more privately.)
Thank you, cast and crew, for your hard work and passion. This past year has been the best professional experience of my life. I hope it was as fun and rewarding for you as it was for me.
And then there are you fans. Wow are you people devoted. Especially you Shippers. As this was my first Nickelodeon show, I have never experienced fandom like I’ve seen on How To Rock. I’ve been overwhelmed (and slightly terrified) by your passion for the show and detailed observations of moments that occurred in various episodes. I am truly sorry that the How To Rock storylines won’t be continuing for multiple seasons because I know you would have been following — and complaining — every step of the way. You have no idea how gratifying it is — Chris and Noah, now would be a good time to google “gratifying” — to have the characters you helped create and develop strike such a chord with so many people. I’ve loved reading your comments about the show on Twitter (even those from the fearsome Zevie Nation) and look forward to seeing what you have to say about the final nine episodes. (Except those from the fearsome Zevie Nation).
I did read some comments about Nickelodeon after the Victorious news came out. I know how difficult it can be when some of your favorite shows go away. And I get the frustration. Try to keep in mind that the people at Nick really are trying to serve their audience the best they possibly can. Be open to the new shows that will be coming on in the next several months. They may surprise you.
Thank you, How To Rock Family, for going on this journey with me. I have loved every minute of it (almost) and could not be more proud of this season. Rather than focusing on what we didn’t get to do, let’s focus on all we’ve done. Life’s too short to worry, don’t you know it’s true. Only you can be you, only I can be me.
A lot of you have been with me since I started blogging back in 1997. You saw when I got my first job on Lizzie McGuire, and when that job ended. You saw when things were great and when things slowed down and when finally, things looked bleak.
In writing, second acts are the hardest, and in life, it's the same way. What you do after you do the thing that you did?
David Israel - aka "Izzy" - gave me my second act. It was a pleasure and privilege to work for him, someone who was committed to the work and committed to being a decent human being. The tone of a show starts at the top and trickles down. It was a blast to come into work every day, and that started with Izzy, and ended with every single member of the cast and crew, not to mention Nickelodeon and Alloy, who produced the show.
I am so incredibly grateful to have been a part of this team. There are too many people to name, but to Cymphonique, Max, Sam, Noah, Lulu, Halston, and Chris, thanks for always making our words funnier than they were on the page. I leave you with this tweet, which I made after my first episode, "How to Rock a Messy Bet" taped:
Dear talented young actors who I work with: you are more awesome than a basket full of puppies wearing bow ties. Hearts.— Nina Bargiel (@slackmistress) October 19, 2011
aka the slackmistress