Have you ever heard the story about the young girl who left her small southern town and moved to the big city to pursue her dreams? Whether it was sparked by heartbreak or hell-bent ambition, it’s a familiar storyline. I’d like to tell you a different version of that story. A more honest version. My version.
It wasn’t the beat sheet, checklist, linear experience I anticipated. But I’d like to think it was more. It didn’t end with an Oscar or that big-break, center-stage moment. In fact, it hasn’t ended at all.
When I decided to pursue screenwriting and make the move to Los Angeles, it felt like I was a baby bird being kicked out of the nest. This was it. If I flew, I’d know this path was meant for me. If I fell, I’d finally be able to put an end to all of the story ideas that went off like sparklers in my brain keeping me up at night. I was ready for whichever fate had planned.
After college, I worked at a local content channel. My job consisted of being a production Swiss army knife: news anchor, writer, producer, cinematographer, editor, talk show host—there wasn’t a hat I didn’t wear. And if there was, I begged to try it on. A little less than a year into that position, I realized I wanted to shift more towards the narrative side of things. I wanted to make someone’s favorite TV show or favorite movie. Truly, I wanted to do both, a million times over.
When I set my eyes on that summit, I was very aware of the mountain that stood ahead of me. I knew that making this change would mean working my way up from scratch, and if I was going to do that, I wanted to do it with the big dogs. So, I decided it was time to move to Los Angeles.
I had lived in New Zealand for a few months after I graduated college. Conquering that solo move, building a life from scratch, and having one of the greatest adventures of my life made the idea of moving to Los Angeles seem less daunting.
I didn’t realize it was an audacious idea until I was faced with peoples’ reactions. The most popular being: wide eyes and a subtle shoulder grab followed by “a young girl like you moving to a city like that, what does your father think?” I fought against my immediate instinct to remind them my father’s opinion was rather difficult to reach considering he’s dead and has been for a few years now. I’d fantasize about what their reaction would be as they mentally tucked their tail in between their legs and scurried back to their own business. Instead, I’d just smile politely and continue planning.
I did my research and added up the expenses it would cost to live in Los Angeles for three months: one bedroom apartment at market price, groceries, gas, all of life’s bills and a healthy contingency. I wrote that number down on a sticky note, and put it on my bedroom mirror. I cut my expenses as much as possible to save that amount of money. It was a time filled with a lot of supper rice (soup that you pour a cup of rice into—to make it more filling).
Once I hit my number, I put in my two weeks, and I applied for every entry-level job in L.A., but no luck. I decided to make the trip anyway. I had saved my money to do it, so if that meant I drove across the country and burnt out in three months, I was okay with that.
I had a yard sale to sell all of my belongings that wouldn’t fit in my car, and I started the drive from North Carolina to California in the middle of Hurricane Irma. If you’re wondering if the fact that my trip happened to line up with a hurricane barreling through North Carolina (a rarity) was a sign, probably. But was it a deterrent? Not in the slightest. I figured if I was going to pack up my life and leave everything behind to climb this mountain, I better be able to make it through a hurricane first.
My first stop was Memphis, TN, where I planned to stay with family. I put all of my faith in Google Maps to get me there. All of my faith. Looking back, it reminds me of that scene in "The Office" where the GPS tells Michael Scott to drive into the lake, and he does. In the same situation, I certainly wouldn’t have driven into a lake. But I likely would’ve parked in front of it and asked what city I was in.
I ended up on a dirt road in the middle of a field in Tennessee. My GPS said I was 30 minutes away from my family’s home but I’d lost sight of civilization miles ago. Ever the optimist, I continued down the dirt path in torrential downpour when my phone lost signal. No service and nothing in sight but a field and a small farmhouse far in the distance. With all the rain from the storm, my car got stuck in the mud. The blood rushed from my face, my heart beat so fast I put my hand over it thinking my chest may need some extra support. I zoomed out on my GPS and saw a road with a number label about a mile ahead. I looked over at the farmhouse, and figured if it was my last resort, I could probably thicken up my southern accent, knock on their door, and hope they wouldn’t greet me with a twelve gauge.
Luckily, I was able to pile up some mud and get enough traction to make it out of the sticking point. I found that road with a number label, it was gravel, a step in the right direction. Then, I found pavement, and I’ve never felt a rush of relief so strong in my life. I gave my car a well-deserved pep talk, and the rest of my eight-day road trip was much smoother sailing.
I would stop at truck stops, grab a bite to eat and watch the news while truckers filtered in and out of the room, looking at me like I was an alien. I got accustomed to my new, short-lived, trucker lifestyle and made a few friends along the way. Truth is, I didn’t really feel like an alien until I made it to L.A.
I arrived in East Hollywood and moved into the hostel I would call home. Ironically, most of my greatest adventures seemed to involve sleeping in a bunk bed as a full grown adult. It was a hostel specifically filled with people who had moved to L.A. from all over the world to pursue their dream. From singers, songwriters, producers, writers, actors, you name it! In the few months that I lived there, I must’ve had hundreds of roommates. Some of which are still my closest friends to this day. Some of which I’ve lost touch with. All of which I’m rooting hard for.
Shortly after moving in, I was asked to manage a branch of the hostel. Which meant: free rent! That greatly decreased my expenses and meant my L.A. experiment could last longer. I agreed and upgraded from my bunk bed to my own room—or well, closet.
Eventually I got a job as a PA on set, then as an Executive Assistant on the studio side. I worked both part-time because it gave me a chance to learn from a lot of different crews and executives. It was like an industry boot camp, and I loved every second of it.
My pursuit of screenwriting was, and still is, a winding road.
I was able to land some meetings, push some scripts up the ladder, work on productions I loved, all of the things I hoped for when I moved out.
I had “sure things” never pan out.
I had people I barely knew go to bat for me.
I had contracts signed with subsequent payments that never came.
I had two-hour commutes.
I had the pleasure of working with people both on the crew and executive side that I greatly admire and have learned a ton from.
I had many, many people comment on how green they knew I was from my sweet and soft-hearted nature, delighting in the day I had lived in the city long enough to become jaded. I don’t think I ever met jaded, but I certainly became very close with exhaustion. Living and working on empty, I learned the hard way how important it is to fill up your tank. I also learned that somehow there’s always more than you think in reserve. A comforting thought for anyone who’s ever had a gas light glow on a highway west of Nebraska.
Ultimately, I felt like I beat down every door in the city. Half of the time people answered, we had a great talk; they had big compliments, ideas and promises, yet we just stood there, smiling at each other. I’d lay awake at night wondering what was just over their shoulder, out of sight, always feeling like I was one step away, but never quite figuring out what that one step was.
To paraphrase Julius Caesar, “I came, I saw, and turns out there’s a lot to see, so I stuck around.”
There were many moments during my road trip that really stuck with me. Often when I was filling up my tank, strangers would pass by and look at me with a prolonged stare, like they were painting a picture of who they imagined me to be in their head. I started to wonder what those pictures looked like. In a time in my life where I experienced many big changes, I felt like I’ve already painted a few different pictures for myself.
I thought about all of the people who I considered family that would’ve remained strangers if it weren’t for mere chance encounters. I realized that this life I was given could be lived a thousand different ways.
That’s when my definition of success changed.
It wasn’t this outcome-based, goal-achieved, ideal finish line it had been up until that point. It was quite simply, knowing I could live a thousand different lives a thousand different ways, but in all of those infinite possibilities, this is still the one I’d choose.
There is nothing in this world that lights me up more than telling a story that entertains, informs, inspires, makes someone feel less alone or helps them make sense of their world.
There is no greater sound than someone’s genuine, stomach-tightening, head-thrown-back laugh. No sweeter sight than watching life flood back into someone’s eyes because you’ve awakened something in their soul they never knew was turned off. The day something else makes me feel as alive as telling stories, I’d like to think I’ll drive across the country in a hurricane to chase it just as audaciously.
I’m not one to give advice. The more life I live, the less advice I give. Since I’m still in my 20s, this may be my official retirement. But all I know is, if you love something enough to sleep in a closet, chase after it with your whole heart.
The finish line doesn’t matter when you’re in the race for the joy of running.
*Feature Photo: Katie Cronin