It was meant to be a celebration.
We’d split a bottle of wine, and then another glass, which was what I needed in order to say what I was really feeling.
“Honestly, I’m afraid to get my hopes up,” I said, avoiding eye contact. “I’ve been doing this for so long and there have been these other close calls. I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
My friend grabbed my hand. “Magda, look at me,” she said. “This is it. This is your moment.” It was a dramatic declaration, and we both welled up a little, partly because we were slightly drunk, and partly because it really did seem that this time it wasn’t a drill.
WME had just sent out my novel on wide submission. I’d had a call with the book-to-film department that morning about potential adaptations. A couple of weeks later, my agent said we were waiting on offers from two editors. It really did seem like it was my moment—I was closer than I’d ever been to breaking through.
Reader, you probably already know . . .
It was not my moment.
It was not my moment two years earlier, when I scored my first TV writing job, on a show I created but was never produced after Sony International pulled the plug just before production started in Europe.
It was also not my moment two years before that, when a different novel I wrote also went out on wide submission and made its way up the chain to multiple editorial boards, but didn’t come back with any offers.
I’d wanted to believe my friend—I needed to believe my friend—because I’d been in L.A. for over 10 years and it’s hard to survive on close calls, both financially and emotionally. But finances are relatively straightforward. I wasn’t an idiot so I hadn’t quit my day job and would continue working my various freelance gigs, the ones that sometimes allowed me the freedom to arrange my paid work around my writing, though most of that was still done on weekends. By this point, the youthful naiveté of counting on a book or TV deal that would allow me to support myself solely as a writer—or take financial risks thinking there would be a windfall sometime soon—had been quashed years earlier by reality.
Emotionally, though. Emotionally, a string of near misses can feel worse than a string of failures. You’ve let yourself imagine how it would feel to succeed, and after a few of these close calls, the fantasy has been through the rock tumbler of your mind enough times that the sharp edges of realism have been sanded down. All you see is the gloss and shine. You’ve also made the mistake of wrapping your self-worth up in your career—and who can blame you with all of those 30 under 30 lists and the way that your friends keep succeeding around you. You thought that you were moving forward, but it turns out that your life is exactly the same as it was the day, the week, the month (oof—the year) before.
I licked my wounds after each of these failures, and after the sting faded, there was a question I needed to answer: do I still want to do this? Early on, the yes was easy and emphatic. I would show them! Onto the next! As the years passed, I had to dig deeper for that "yes," and I had to think harder about what I wanted and why. Did I still want to do this knowing that the book or script I wrote might mean months or even years of work with zero payoff? That no one beyond my small circle of trusted readers would ever see the thing? That when I talked to my mom and she asked whatever happened with such-and-such project I would have to say “nothing” and die a little inside when she gently replied, “Well, maybe it will be the next one?"
There’s this mangled Bukowski quote jaded professionals like to trot out, suggesting that if there’s anything besides writing you can do, that’s what you should do. Beyond being condescending—as if people can’t be good at more than one thing, as if anyone really has the authority to tell someone what to do with their life—this feels less like it’s about artistic heartbreak than it is about recognizing you are a certain kind of person.
A stubborn or, more charitably, a persistent person, because you need that over the course of endless rewrites and notes. You will also be a tireless person, with a work ethic that’s maybe a little troubling in the way it skews your priorities, but it’s hard to avoid because the mountain you’re climbing is high and there’s that pesky day job. Clear-eyed and realistic, yes, but with a secret suspicion that the rules don’t apply to you, though you’re smart enough not to say such a thing out loud.
But also, you are gobsmackingly, feverishly, and always freshly in love with story.
It’s impossible not to sound pretentious when talking about “story” or “craft,” just like it’s impossible to sit on a couch, watching TV or a movie with a person who talks about them, because it’s all they see.
Whether I’m trying to or not, my mind is always slotting people and places and strange details into place like a puzzle—jigsaw, Rubik’s, Jenga, pick your simile, they all work. The strategy of putting together a story is a game I’ve never gotten bored of, and that’s ultimately why I find myself back to work, without really meaning to.
Does this work as scaffolding? Could this be connective tissue? This detail, this tiny little jewel of a thing, is it the load-bearing keystone?
And when the answers are yes, yes, yes, the dopamine floods my brain and washes away the previous traumas.
So I peck out that email to a friend with an idea, asking:
“Is this a thing?”
And I promise myself that this time—no, really—this time, I won’t get too invested in the ending of the story.
*Feature Image: Cristina Bernazzani (Adobe)