Single-Year Itch: 365 Days in Writing Exile

Single-Year Itch: 365 Days in Writing Exile

Did you know that you can’t be a real writer unless you write every day? It’s true. The supply-demand quotient for writers is steep, and the odds are forever against you. You gotta hustle, champ. Every minute spent not writing is a job lost to your competitors, who are most definitely writing every single second of every day. While you’re sleeping, writers on the other side of the world are—you guessed it—writing. If you don’t hit your daily word count, the communists win.

Now that we all understand the stakes, it’s a good time to let you know that I haven’t written anything in a year. An entire damn year. Really. Alright, full disclosure: I’ve penned a few articles and the errant terrible poem, but as far as scripts go, I haven’t typed “FADE IN” since I won the Austin Film Festival in 2020.

By traditional writer logic, I should be dead.

Children, I have returned from the future to tell you that it all turns out OK. They haven’t revoked my Oxford comma merit badge, men in suits didn’t come in the night to take away my Script Pipeline branded mug, Skynet hasn’t become self-aware, and I don’t think I started a series of events that will ultimately lead to the apocalypse.

I am still a writer.

In fact, I am drafting this article in an idyllic little cabin I rented to celebrate my year of script celibacy.

If you’re ever in Washington State, I highly recommend this joint.

While we’re on the subject of strong personal choices, you haven’t lived until you’ve used real paper in a hot tub in the middle of a historic bomb cyclone because the power keeps surging, and you’d rather fry yourself in a vat of human stew than fry your laptop.

So, what’s it like being a writer who doesn’t write? This probably isn’t what you want to hear, but it’s kind of … great. I felt guilty for a little while, but that faded almost immediately. I’ve taken up cooking again, gone on bad dates, taught my kid to ride a bike. I caught up on my reading queue and took up a pretty hardcore fitness routine. I still have my neurosis to keep me warm.

I like to stay busy, but I’m not filling my time with “busy work,” I’m filling it with activities that fulfill me.

Look, we all fantasize about it, right? But what might compel someone to close Final Draft and never look back? For me, it was a taste of success. When I said I won AFF, I wasn’t jumping on an opportunity to humblebrag. I mentioned this because winning a prestigious amateur pilot script competition did jack for my career. No trade announcements, no phone calls, no meetings … nothing but a couple of courtesy read requests from someone’s intern at Three-Letter Agency, Inc. My trophy was delivered unceremoniously in a plain cardboard box a few weeks later.

I’m not naïve. I know winning a script competition isn’t a golden ticket. I work on both sides of the fence, and my expectations were plenty realistic. But nothing takes the wind out of you like finally summiting a major peak in your career just to find more mountains. It was the kind of harsh I didn’t need at that particular point in the Coronial era.

I’m also a single mom. Given the hours-to-pay ratio for lower rung TV writers, I wouldn’t have been able to afford the opportunity had one come my way. At a time when I should have been celebrating, I was being crushed under the heel of reality.

I had to take a step back and reassess my approach to this whole writing thing.

I decided to focus on the things I could control rather than treating my career like a blind gamble, because the house always wins. I chose to make my movies instead of hoping someone else would. And if you can have a viable product to show your proof of concept beyond the script, do it.

Making movies isn’t as cheap as writing, and like most normal people, I didn’t have a pile of free cash lying around. I had to get creative. I started the L.A. Shorts Collective—a group of fifty indie filmmakers based in L.A.—and we’ve been pooling resources to crew up on short films together and accumulate credits. It’s worked an entirely different part of my brain and right now it’s giving me a sense of momentum that writing wasn’t.

I also started going on weekly coffee dates with writers I met through social media. Through that, I met a group of folks who have a common guilty pleasure in watching ghost hunting shows. We started livetweeting our favorite episodes just for fun, and those connections led to a shopping agreement.

Guess how much effort I put into that. No, don’t guess. Even I find it upsetting.

It was also important to drop the notion that writing is a race, against myself or anyone else. I used to eat up all those hyperbolic “if you’re not writing, you’re losing” slogans until I found out the hard way that access has more value than discipline in this industry. Relentless writing does not equate to movement.

Yes, you should write enough to work at a professional level, but the amount of time that takes is different for everyone. The difference between spending two hours a week and forty is negligible when you aren’t being paid to meet a deadline. I have a friend who can crank out pristine first drafts in about two weeks (the bastard). I, on the other hand, am a painfully slow, meticulous writer who redrafts a billion times as I go. He’s a freelancer who has long stints of free time. I have a day job, a side hustle, and a child to keep alive. My timeline to a first draft takes about three months. So what? Put our projects side by side in front of a producer, they won’t care how long it took to get there—they care that they have two marketable scripts.

All that being said, I am making my glorious return to the craft. Cue the marching band.

OK, but that has to be painful, right? It’s been so long, all the ideas have dried up along with my eggs? My confidence is shot? I probably get carpal tunnel just looking at a keyboard?

I know it sounds impossible, but I haven’t forgotten how to write. Not even a little bit. As it turns out, not pressuring myself to be productive has actually been very healthy for productivity. Who knew?!

I’m trusting my subconscious to do more of the work these days. If I have an idea that excites me, I’ll watch similar films for inspiration, I’ll create lookbooks, I’ll try to talk to my characters in the bathtub. And I don’t deny myself the urge to write. If I have an epiphany, I jot it down for later, but I won’t force butt-in-the-chair to meet some sort of arbitrary daily quota.

I haven’t stopped engaging with the competition either. I read more than 200 scripts this year. I’m well aware what’s out there, what’s trendy, and what to avoid. That’s some Sun Tzu shit.

It’s so easy to get swept up in creating life in our heads that we forget to live. We’re afraid we’ll get rusty if we stop, or we’ll fall behind, or we’ll like it so much, we’ll never write again. After 2021, we may not even quite be sure what real life looks like anymore.

Give yourself some grace. We’re still in a creatively stunting pandemic. It’s tempting to maintain normalcy by keeping a regular writing routine, but nothing about this is normal. I promise you will not regret closing your laptop and taking a trip with your family. You won’t miss the hours having dinner with friends or lying under the stars. (There are so many stars out here, y’all.)

After a year away, getting back into the habit of writing is hard, but it’s been no more difficult than straining to maintain that habit on empty coffers. I’ve done this long enough to know that I couldn’t walk away forever if I tried—and believe me, I have tried.

I don’t fall into the trap of reading old work and wondering if I’ll ever be that good again. I fully remember the agony of wanting to die with every word as I wrote those pieces. I know that I am still that good, or better. My new motivational slogan is Embrace the Suck™.

Hey, look! I just managed to write something. That felt good. I think I’ll reward myself with another dip in the hot tub. I deserve a little break.

*Feature Photo: some cabin in Washington

Melissa Turkington is a writer and script reader based in LA. She won the 2017 Nate Wilson Award and 2020 AFF Drama Pilot Award. She's been featured in Deadline and GOOD.
More posts by Melissa Turkington.
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