Legitimacy Pending: The Traffic Is Not As Bad As They Say It Is – Breaking Into TV Writing

A couple years ago, I was at a Laundromat in my New York neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen, putting my clean clothes directly into my luggage when this big dude in his sixties, waiting for his drier, asked where I was going. I said I was moving to Los Angeles. He asked why, and I really wanted to tell him I had received some sort of botany fellowship or that I was being stationed there for military duty, but instead I admitted I was moving to L.A. because I was just another writer trying to break into TV.

Traffic at dusk, Los Angeles, California, USAThen he told me he was an actor and asked what my favorite show was, and when I said maybe Deadwood, he told me there was an AA meeting in a certain L.A. neighborhood that I had to check out — that David Milch and a bunch of other showrunners went there all the time.

I told him I’d have to quit drinking first — and I’m no quitter.

I feel the need now to write some sort of disclaimer. In this column, my writing partner Sarah and I are going to explore the process of “breaking into” TV. We’ll be doing that from the trenches, the no-man’s land between being newcomers to the industry and being professional writers.

I was interested in writing about this weird, liminal time I currently find myself in because when I graduated from college with my BFA and a couple of spec scripts, I thought it was all about getting “discovered” – being plucked from obscurity and handed a staff job and WGA membership. That does happen to some people, but for me – and for a lot of other writers I know – it’s been more of a series of smaller mountains to climb, stutter-stepping through various levels of legitimacy while writing like a badass at all hours of the day and night.

The biggest lesson I learned so far? Los Angeles is not the city I thought it was. I had lived in New York since college, working different day jobs while writing my own scripts at night. Sarah had already made the move to L.A., and we were working with a great manager and agent, so I’d been flying to L.A. a couple times a year, but I still put off the move because my life was rooted in NYC, and I felt like I needed a legitimate reason (to be staffed on a show, to sell a script) to make the plunge.

Since I’d lived in California as a kid, I thought it was all shopping malls, surfers, traffic, and shallow industry types. I thought it would drain my passion and make me cynical and bitter. Instead, when I finally convinced my fiancé it was time to quit our jobs and move west, I found it was a unique city pulsing with creative energy, incredibly passionate industry types, and traffic that wasn’t actually that bad, provided I wasn’t trying to get home from Santa Monica during rush hour.

In some ways, moving to L.A. was starting over. Since my fiancé had to stay in New York for a couple months to tie up his job, I was looking for an apartment, job, and car all at once – a trifecta of things to worry about. But I wore my toughest leather jacket to haggle at the used car dealership and then my most respectable trench-coat to meet landlords and potential bosses, and pretty soon, we were settled in, eating a lot of kale, drinking craft beers and hiking Runyon Canyon like everyone else.

And while I still miss my New York friends and family very much, my only regret after two years in California in was that I hadn’t moved to sooner – that I had waited for an outside force to tell me I was ready. The move was the push I needed to both be taken seriously and to take myself seriously. There’s something about walking into a coffee shop on Melrose and seeing every single laptop opened to Final Draft that lights a fire under your ass.

So yeah, there’s lots of competition, but whether you’re looking for a day job to get your foot in the door somewhere, an agent or manager to bring you to the next level, or a staff job on a show, the odds just seem to be in your favor in L.A. — there are more companies, more agencies, more writers’ rooms, more producers looking for someone to adapt a novel they just read, and more incredible screen and TV writers who are willing to sit down with you and give you advice. And it’s so much easier meeting folks for coffee or dropping by an office to talk through an idea instead of getting on a plane or trying to pitch a pilot via a shotty conference call connection. Our first paid writing assignment actually came from Sarah’s day job, and within six months of moving to California, we were on the phone with a sea lion trainer trying to figure out how to rewrite scenes for a family film that was about to start shooting in Australia.

My current impression of Los Angeles is that it’s a city with a rich history I’m just beginning to understand. It’s full of dreamers, geniuses, con-men, and everything in-between. Everyone you meet has some connection to the film industry, from the friends you barbecue with to the guy who tries to squeegee your windows at stoplights. That can be exhausting, or you can embrace it.

Oh, and I haven’t tried to stalk David Milch at his AA meetings yet, but I did get to see him interview Oliver Sacks a couple months ago, which was amazing. And afterwards, I probably had a nice, strong drink.

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