What made you want to be a TV writer? Was there a defining moment? Was it an awakening? Did you always know?
Let’s start at the beginning. I know a lot of you are new to my blog, and since this is a the new home of my blog, I think it’s as good a time as any to talk about why I write, why I blog and answer the meme of ‘why TV’ while I’m at it.
Everyone has their story of when they started writing. One of the things I was really good at as a kid was living inside my head. There were days I walked around my high school, imagining I was *really* Sam Beckett of “Quantum Leap” inhabiting my body, trying to put right some problem so I could ‘leap out’. Or there were the days I lived out my own little plays in my head of building a time machine to jump between parallel worlds, and the machine I built allowed me to travel into the Star Trek universe. I actually wrote that story down. I researched a timeline. I wrote in my friends, gave my story complications, actual plot.
Before that I wrote an earnest tale about a young girl charged with the task of getting her brothers and sisters to safety in a post-apocalyptic landscape…by driving a Yugo cross country. That one won me an award in junior high. My best friend growing up and I wrote all sorts of strange stories for ourselves, including partially improvisational plays we staged in her basement, all of them based ever so loosely on British costume dramas and mystery stories we’d seen on PBS. (I fear that some of them live on video and could someday be used as blackmail against me. So be it). All of this and I still didn’t realize I wanted to be a writer. I just thought I was really out of touch with the world and maybe even had a propensity for fan fiction.
Flash forward many years, circa 1998. I was living in Florida, on my own, no family, no friends in close proximity. I started blogging before blogging was “cool”. I kept an online journal, and I found myself talking about TV and writing a lot. Meanwhile I secretly envied my sister as she chose a path of pursuing her dreams of working in the entertainment industry. True, I was technically working in the industry…but in the most remote way possible. She was going at it head on, and I knew she would succeed where I had never even tried.
One night over Teppan dining a work friend asked me that question: “If you could go anywhere, do anything right now, what would you do? Money is no object.” I thought about it for about a second, and the answer surprised me. “I want to write movies.”
The thought had never been verbalized so strongly, and it never felt more right than when I had said it. And yet, it sounded so ridiculous. I was 24 years old, working as a PC support technician, sitting in Orlando, Florida, and I wanted to write movies.
But my friend said the most perfect thing in response: “Well why don’t you do that?”
And I didn’t really have a good answer as to why not. I mean, of all of the things I could have chosen to say in answering the most open-ended question one gets — “What would you do?” I picked something that took a) no money (not really, not like say, traveling the world) b) no immediate need to move and c) could be done while still keeping my day job. Making a career of it, training, moving, all of that wasn’t needed. All it really takes to start each time we sit down to write is imagination and determination.
In 2001 when the Twin Towers fell, my world seemed so closed in and small. I felt small. In the three years since my bold proclamation that I wanted to write movies, I had written fifteen horrible pages of a screenplay, no idea what I was doing, other than I had gotten one book (Syd Field’s) and tried to teach myself how to use a macro someone had developed for Microsoft Word. And yet, right when the world seemed the smallest to me as if it would choke off what little life I felt I had, it opened wide. My sister was disaffected with her life in Chicago, and after much soul searching and heartache that year, in 2002 we both resolved to move to Los Angeles and start doing what we wanted to do with our lives…make movies.
I still wasn’t thinking about television, even though it should have been obvious to me that I had passion for it. I loved films, but I LOVED TV. I knew what show was on when and on what channel all the time. I kept grids of programming, long before having a DVR so I knew when to tape shows and what to watch live. I would mark up the Entertainment Weekly Fall TV preview with notes about this new show or that, carefully weighing decisions on what I would invest time in watching. I still ended up watching just about everything, good or bad.
But I had my mind on writing films, since that seemed possible from my home in Florida, where TV obviously did not. In July 2002 I visited Los Angeles to help my sister find a place for us to live. I was trying to get a job transfer but had no idea if I’d get one or not. She had just spent a couple of months staying on a friend’s couch looking for an assistant job and landed one. And yet, I felt so alive , actually doing things.
I had started subscribing to Creative Screenwriting that year, intent to learn all I could before moving to L.A. and it was that year they announced that they would sponsor a screenwriting expo. As soon as I saw the announcement, I emailed that work friend and said “I want to go to this.” It was being held in early November, and I knew that if I was going to have a shot at getting my relocation approved, I’d need a plan.
So it was with some saved vacation and a very large bag, I packed up and went to Los Angeles to go to the screenwriting expo. I had no idea when I’d return to Florida. It could be when the expo was over, but I had a nebulous idea to pitch to my bosses that I could be useful working in California for the weeks between my vacation and Thanksgiving.
And they bought it.
And that’s when the groundwork was laid. The position I wanted was posted within a couple of weeks of my “visit” and I pushed to get interviewed. Thanksgiving came and went and I was still in Los Angeles, still working remotely. I prepared for the idea that I might not get my transfer and would have to submit my resignation. I was ready for it, even if I had no idea what I’d do if that happened.
Fortune smiled upon me, and the week of Christmas I got the word — the job was mine, and the company would relocate me in January. Right after the holidays I flew back to Florida to pack up my stuff and moved West.
The following year I started down my own path, pursuing my own dreams by enrolling in the UCLA Professional Screenwriting Program. Based on the UCLA MFA in Screenwriting, I felt it was the best way for me to jump start my training, jump in and learn, learn, learn. So I did that for a year, writing two scripts for the program, and then felt directionless once more. I was frustrated that I wasn’t able to improve my abilities very rapidly. Everything I read and heard was that you need to write a few scripts to not only figure out how to do it properly, but to really find your own voice. If I was going to keep writing features (and I was not a speedy writer by any count), it was going to take a long time to get in the game, and I felt that time was not on my side. I had just turned 30 and I felt the first real pressure that my age may count against me in this career aspiration.
So I thought about how I could get more scripts written more quickly…shorter scripts…television! I started taking UCLA Extension classes for TV Writing and my new path emerged. I still intend to write a feature or two, but I have never looked back from the decision to write TV. Once I started cranking out specs, my writing started to improve more quickly, and I realized I really liked writing for TV, for most of the reasons others have already stated.
While I was contemplating how to answer this a strange little thought occurred to me that I had never pondered before. Most of those stories, those improv plays and the prose were written very episodically. I wrote to entertain my friends, and I’d write a “chapter” during study hall, and I always had a cliffhanger to keep them guessing until the next chapter, so I guess I was already trained for act breaks without even knowing it. I also really loved naming my chapters which now is like naming episodes. I suppose if I wasn’t writing TV I’d try my hand at movie serials…well, if anyone still made them.
So, that’s ‘why TV’. It wasn’t a thunderbolt, but like most things, something that crept up on me and then felt completely right when I did it. I can say that the moment I knew for certain that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life was when I went to pitch my pilot for the first time. I didn’t care whether they’d want to buy it in the room or not, I was just so happy to be living the dream, and that feeling was one I didn’t want to lose ever.
And I still feel that way – living the dream. I may not have ‘made it’ yet, but I know I will and I’m already doing the things I only imagined. Not a bad way to live.
This post was written by Shawna Benson on August 29, 2008