August 16, 2005
Back in the day, when I was freelancing non-Pulitzer-worthy gems such as “You Go Girl” and “The Body Farm,” I made almost no money, but there were definite perks that I miss. When I wrote alone, I could do it at my own pace. No one was waiting for my article about the local art store to show up for a 5 a.m. deadline. And while editors tweaked a word here and there or edited a little for clarity or length, rarely did they request much revision. It was “free” lance writing after all—I did it for almost free and felt free to do what I wanted.
Writing was a lot less stressful when I was doing it as a hobby rather than a job. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the writing than I’m doing now, just that it’s very, very different to create something under a deadline, within specific parameters, in a particular voice, for an audience of millions. Fortunately, I consider stressing out something of a vocation, having pursued it vigorously since primary school. (If only they’d had Zoloft for children in 1974, maybe that “greater than, less than” unit in 2nd grade math wouldn’t have been so traumatic).
For those of you who doubt that stress is a job, take the Belben Challenge: lie on your back in a darkened room during the eight hours you’d otherwise be sleeping, and just stare at the ceiling. Toss, turn, and fail to find a comfortable position, no matter how many soft cushy pillows you pile under your head or how sweet the twenty pound cat curled at your feet. When your shift is over, arise from the horizontal, and chant my mantra: I will not cry, I will not cry, I will not cry. Proceed to the office. Now be witty, congenial, efficient, and original for the next eight to ten hours. How’d that work out for you?
When I first got here, when we were still breaking the stories for the beginning of the season, I had a casual and comfortable getting-acclimated period that I might have mistaken for normal day-to-day operations. Ding Dongs in the staff room? Ordering out for lunch? Pop-a-shot contests? Two-hour work-out breaks? Yee-ha! Ten weeks later, I’ve learned that, o.k., these things exist, but they’re perks that balance out the hours of intense room-time and untold quantities of individual, locked-in-an-office writing time. In my old life, I left work at 3 p.m.—2:45 if it was a Friday and the boss wasn’t looking. Those were the days. Last Thursday, I left VMHQ at 7:00 after tinkering with the script for 12 hours. The only time I ever left my teaching job that late was back in 1990, when I had to stay after school to finish reading the chapter of Of Mice and Men I was supposed to teach the next day.
Turning in an outline or draft of a script is the scariest part of this job—not the blank page, but the empty hand. Sitting at home, typing comfortably, surrounded by lovable pets and beer and all my favorite junk food, taking mid-afternoon naps to recharge the batteries—these are things I do with ease and pleasure; this is writing. Can’t think of a line for Veronica? Must be time to order pizza! Stumped about how to segue into a sex scene? Inspiration arrives in a margarita and a dose of The Daily Show. Once the typing is done—that’s when the real work begins for me. Tom Petty had it right—the waiting IS the hardest part.
“Expect nothing,” Alice Walker wrote. “Live frugally on surprise.” I armed myself with this reminder last Monday night, just after setting out work clothes—a tank top in a my power color (pink) and shorts that make my ass look smaller. I spent a short portion of the night riding the wave of relief—the script is done, at least in the technical sense—it has a beginning, a middle, and an end—yippee. I knew not to come in Tuesday morning expecting to see it covered in happy face stickers and unabashed raving about my unparalleled wordsmanship. I knew to be prepared for red Xs rather than hearts and stars. I knew to enjoy a night of relaxation and confidence-reinforcement before I had to face whatever appeared on the RT version of Episode 205 and begin work on the next draft. And then the phone rang.
You know that feeling you got back in high school when your parents found an empty beer bottle in your room and just left it sitting on your desk without saying anything? Or the gut-dropping sensation of spotting red and blue lights in your rear view mirror? This is what it felt like with the boss called me at home—Oh, shit. The only other time a boss has called me at home was when someone died. Fortunately, the call wasn’t as dire as I’d feared—a scene was missing due to a communication error and needed to be written in. Not that I felt good about the screw-up—far from it. But considering the plethora of other horrible things that could have happened, this was about a 2 on the horribleness scale, rather than a 10.
Arriving at work the next day to face the screen and the script, I reminded myself that I’m here for a reason and it’s not to spend my days and nights wound up in a tight little sleepless wad of anxiety. I’m here to make the most of an incredible opportunity, to suck in the adventure and the fun, to meet new people and go new places and be a part of something strange and exciting. I’m here to learn. And so I opened my computer and poised my fingers above the keys. I took a deep breath and whispered my new mantra. I’m doing the best I can.
 BUST, October 2006.