One of the first questions my literary manager asked me before I ever had my first meeting with a network executive was if I knew how to mine my own story. In all candor, I thought the question was redundant and to some degree superfluous. I perceived my writing as a function of that question simply because of the way I tackled my craft. My story ideas always originated from the prism of my experiences, my imagination and how I absorbed the world around me– of course I mine my own stories when I write. It didn’t occur to me in that her question was much more profound and much more nuanced than I realized.
On the heels of my manager’s query, I felt that I had that notion handled, even when I partnered with a creative executive, who decided she wanted to write a pilot. She had an idea for a television show, we had a conversation, a day later we were trading pages and after about a week and a half we had a finished pilot. I sent that pilot to my manager and without ever saying we were becoming a writing team; we had our first network meeting. They kept coming, one right after the other.
In those meetings I would talk briefly about my biography, and then move onto why I felt the best writing was happening in television. I would discuss what programs I watched and why a particular show resonated with me creatively and lastly I would share why I wanted to become a staff writer. My writing partner echoed many of the same sentiments. We had our patter and rhythm down and had a number of really good meetings. On two occasions we were nearly staffed, but in the end it didn’t come to fruition. After a very short while, my “unofficial” writing partner decided she wanted to go back to work on the development side and I had to decide what to write next.
I met with my manager and we went over my game plan. She suggested a few writing programs and the timing seemed right. I submitted to a program and felt confident about my sample. I made it to the semi-finals. I had a telephone interview and thought I hit all the points I should have hit and when the conversation ended, I felt good about it, but internally I had this nagging question hanging around my story. I started to wonder if I had really mined who I was as a person. Not just what I wanted to become, but the journey that actually led me to having this overwhelming desire to write for television.
The story I had been telling, all of it true, was that I went to film school at USC, absorbed all that I could about film and television and really set about learning my craft as a writer/storyteller. I talked about my favorite directors, my favorite writers and what I found compelling about the craft. I talked about semiotics, deconstructionism and why I love television. Somewhere in all of that information, I forgot to tell my story. I forgot to share how I come from a family writers and how for years I swore that I would never become a writer or follow in the family trade. I forgot to discuss the existential crisis I suffered at the thought of working as a psychiatrist for the rest of my life, and how that reality lead me to switch majors and switch schools. Most importantly, I forgot to mention how finding my way as a writer, on my own terms, enabled me to find my creative voice. Needless to say, I didn’t get into that particular writing program. I was devastated and I thought my dream career of becoming a television writer might not ever materialize. There was a profound truth that I came away with at that moment of great disappointment. I realized my story was not just an assembly of words or an intellectual construct. My story, my experiences and my journey not only inform my writing, but it is my reservoir and the connective tissue I cull to pull more stories from within me. The question then became how deep was I willing to dig into my own reservoir? In asking that question, I turned to a familiar quote from James Baldwin, “All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.”
Understanding that art is a confession crystalized that question my manager asked me before that very first meeting I had with a network executive. I realized mining my story in a room with other television writers is a big part of my job.
This past year has been nothing short of a watershed for me professionally. I applied again to a writing program, in particular the CBS Writers Mentoring Program. I was accepted and I had the chance to work with two adept, extremely knowledgeable mentors, who work as executives in development and current programming at CBS. My mentors know what makes good television and we always talk about ways for me to mine my own story.
Just as the writing program started, I received an offer for my first staffing job and in the end, I had the chance to co-write the penultimate episode on American Gothic. As Baldwin articulated having the willingness to “vomit the anguish up,” keeps me pushing myself creatively and keeps me mindful of my desired objective. Now, when I pitch an idea or write a script, I always ask how much of myself have I mined to tell the whole story?