WHAT 2018 TAUGHT ME (ABOUT WRITING)
It’s 6:30am, 12/25/18. Christmas Morning. My wife celebrates Hanukkah and I – in German tradition – only celebrate Christmas Eve, so this is a surprisingly quiet morning for us. The world stands still while we’re tucked away in a mountain cabin in Yosemite. Even our rather anxious dog is calm, watching the birds play. It’s the perfect time to sit down, journal, and reflect on what 2018 taught me, and what I’ll try to conquer in the year to come. It’s an annual ritual of mine that helps me remember the accomplishments and learn and improve as I plan ahead. Maybe this post can get you on board to join me. All it takes is pen and paper.
In the meantime, for your inspiration, here’s my Top 10 list of things that I learned in 2018:
- TAKING CARE OF YOUR BODY (NOT JUST MIND) IS A THING
I started 2018 out sick as a dog. And to add insult to injury, the flu took me while I was on Christmas vacation in Hawaii. Sitting on the beach, feeling miserable while my wife swam with turtles, I pondered on the fact that I get seriously sick about 4 times a year. Every single time THE DAY AFTER some professional pressures have been lifted off of me. I had been filming in New Orleans up until Christmas break, flew home, then flew to Hawaii and was sick all the way through the trip only to recover in time to finish my shoot in January. Add to this, a bunch of writer’s room snacking anxiety related pounds and horrible posture causing chronic back-pain and I found myself realizing that I had to take better care of my body. So, I made it my mission to try that in 2018. I got a flu shot, vitamins and while I continue to drink my liquor and eat what I want, I even got a regular workout routine going to fix my back, be healthy, reduce stress and maybe even boost my immune system. I wish I could say that all these efforts paid off and I started this year’s Christmas vacation healthy, but… I still got the cold. That being said, it was less severe and I kicked it quickly, plus I haven’t been in back pain for 6 months and that makes writing a whole lot more fun.
- (The Right) WRITING COMPETITIONS ARE GREAT
2018 started out with good news on the feature front. My feature script ANATOMY OF A BREAKDOWN won the 2017 Final Draft Big Break Award and with it came not only a fancy trophy and award ceremony at the Paramount lot, but also a slew of meetings and opportunities (here’s a podcast where I talk more about the competition). Initially, already being a working writer, I didn’t submit the script to “break in” but to take the pulse of unbiased readers. In the end, I walked out of the experience advancing my work in features with amazing additions to my “team”. I now call Jeff Portnoy from Bellevue Productions my manager and feature agents Charles Ferraro and Anna Flickinger joined my existing team at UTA. The biggest lesson learned here is that competitions like Final Draft Big Break area great way to get your material out there, read by unbiased readers, and opportunities in the hopper, no matter where you are in your career.
- LONG-TERM CAREER DECISIONS ARE HARD
April 2018 brought about a big deal for me: The looming end of my 3-year contract at NCIS: New Orleans. Having gotten my start on this show, I had earned 3 promotions in a row and completed my third season as Executive Story Editor. Generally, an Executive Story Editor is what many consider a more experienced “low-level writer” while a Co-Producer (the next promotion) puts writers into the “mid-level writer” pool. So, I had to decide how to go about transitioning from “low-level” to “mid-level” writer and which opportunities I should pursue. I’m not one to make spontaneous decisions and you can only imagine my agony trying to crack the code to the right answer. What I found out along the way is that there is no “one” right answer and that strategic decisions rarely go hand in hand with our heart.
Ultimately, NCIS New Orleans offered me a double-promotion jumping Co-Producer and going straight to Producer and I decided to stay for another year to add the title and a whole set of 24 more episodes to my producing experience.
- WHEN IN DOUBT, WRITE A SHORT
As writers we constantly have to produce new material and that can get quite challenging if you’re working on a network TV series that has its writers’ room running for 48 weeks out of the year. Whether it’s finding the time or getting in the right headspace, I am the first to admit that I’ve struggled writing while being a working writer. (I actually recently wrote a guest blog about that. You can read it here) But here’s a funny, little thing my TV agent, taught me: When the going gets tough, write a short!At first I was almost insulted by the idea of writing anything that doesn’t serve a direct purpose in my career. Last but not least, I only knew short-scripts as a vehicle for auteurs who’re actually planning to direct them. But after a week and with a finished short in hand, I finally saw the light: Not only did writing a short give my agent fresh material that could easily showcase my voice, it also tricked me into writing something without any strings (or pressures) attached. The more I thought about it afterwards, exactly that seems to be a big part of what makes writing so hard when you have very limited time: Stressing out over timelines, second-guessing your concept, not allowing time for exploration. It’s the mind-game that wears you down. A short without purpose takes all these pressures off the table and simply let’s you write. In my case, the product was not only a finished, little “thing”, but also newfound confidence in my voice. This learning experience inspired me to include small, daily “writing prompts” in the Writer’s Wright Journal. And, guess what… 7 months later it turns out that the short I wrote wasn’t without purpose after all. I’m currently developing a feature based on it.
- DEVELOPING (WITH AND WITHOUT REPS) IS HARD
After writing my short, I felt tremendous momentum and decided to ride the wave to a new pilot script. So, in the spring of 2018, I started exploring ideas for my next TV pilot. Considering I had mostly worked on network while my personal voice definitely skews cable/streaming, I wanted my next project to showcase that other side of me. I explored a few ideas with my reps and – I’ll be honest – that part of development felt like the fastest way to shut my momentum down. No matter how much I appreciate my reps’ input, the simple process of submitting, waiting, dissecting and dismissing something just because I have not yet figured out a way to clearly communicate what’s in my head is a very difficult one, no fault to anyone. Out of this, I’ve learned two things:
One – For me, there’s a time and place for developing with reps. While it can be a bit stifling when it comes down to my passion project and a limited time to turn it around, it can be tremendously helpful when I’m playing the long game (think lining up life rights or developing material to pitch)
Two – sometimes your reps can be right, too. In my case, my agent urged me to write something based on a personal experience of mine. For the longest time, I doubted him and the story, but decided to give it a shot nevertheless. Now that the pilot is done, it might be one of the pieces I’m most proud of. The key to turning it around was to take the heart of my agent’s suggestion and find my own way into it.
- WRITING A PILOT CAN DRIVE YOU CRAZY
Consider this the confluence of #4 and #5. After writing the short and committing to a pilot concept that my agent encouraged me to write, I was initially in nothing short of agony trying to deliver what I set out to do next. Finding my concept was a moving target. Breaking out of a straight, formula-heavy network procedural to write a very stylized pilot that has no rules other than mayhem and a non-consecutive timeline was a daily struggle and never before have I veered that far off my outline while writing my draft. It was a constant trial-and-error approach that was very unsettling for my German nerves, but in the end, it paid off. What I learned from all of it is that sometimes development takes time, sweat and tears and that getting comfortable with that will ultimately only help me get past the hump faster. This time, I highly relied on the encouragement and support of friends and the sanity brought by using my Writer’s Wright journal, but getting more comfortable with the process might be one of my personal goals to pursue in 2019.
- GIVING BACK TO OTHER WRITERS IS INCREDIBLY REWARDING
This brings us to the summer of 2018. As you know, I’m a strong believer in journaling and doing so – as every year – was my daily support system in 2018. What makes this year different is that when friends saw and tried my journaling method for themselves, they encouraged me to make it available for all writers. The thought almost started as an experiment to see just how much more I could add to my docket, but soon I found myself on my wedding-anniversary trip finalizing page designs and juggling calls with printers and designing logos between takes while filming on set in New Orleans. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, I held the bound Writer’s Wright Journal in my hands for the first time and had to tackle the challenges of building a web store and spreading the word. I guess I unexpectedly created a business. What followed thereafter was quite an amazing surprise:
Writers from all over the world started to order and try the journal. The feedback was unanimously positive and as I write this, plans of a second edition are in the works. And what’s more, through the course of releasing the Writer’s Wright, I did a lot of research into the psychology of writing, creativity, journaling, gratitude and mindfulness. And while publishing the Writer’s Wright wasn’t butt-in-chair-time spent actually writing, it taught me a lot and made me a more self-aware writer. What’s more, seeing other writers get into has been a tremendously rewarding experience. If you want to start your next writing year with a plan, you can buy your Writer’s Wright Journal here.
- MIND SAFETY ON SETS
A seemingly small but very, very important learning experience was seeing a rigging grip climbing a ladder on the edge of a 4thfloor balcony without safety. A few days after news of the death of stuntwoman Joi Harris on the set of Deadpool 2 broke, this was a loud wake-up call that we – as writers and writing producers – not only carry great responsibility in ensuring the safety of cast and crew, but that we should make it our priority to nudge everyone in the right direction, even if the whole crew is trying to beat the clock and film the best possible version of what we wrote.
- EVERY ONE MUST HOLD THEMSELVES ACCOUNTABLE, #METOO
If you’re in the entertainment industry and have been anywhere near a device with internet access in the past year, you’ve read about the #MeToo movement and the exposed misconduct of a sickening amount of executives, showrunners and talent. As a young, female writer, seeing the movement spread was both empowering and at the same time horrifying. Sometimes I found myself watching, sometimes I found myself smack in the middle of it and while I’m still as unsure as I am hopeful about where all of this will lead, I learned one big personal lesson along the way: A (male) writing mentor of mine used to say “there’s no crying in baseball.”I don’t do American sports, but what I gathered from the saying is that – especially as a woman – it is never wise to get emotional or show weakness if you’re playing in a “men’s’ league job”. It’s something I’ve lived by in the past years and whenever I felt mistreated or unrightfully jumped for an opportunity, I simply focused on working even harder to earn my spot. It’s the way most women in this industry cope and has been normalized accordingly, but a recent conversation with a co-worker changed the way I look at it: Why is it that we have to cry to begin with?Isn’t it proven that happy workers perform better? If that’s true, imagine how our industry could flourish if we focused on creating a positive, inspiring and safe work-environment for everyone as opposed to putting each other down? I know achieving this utopian concept is not as easy as I’m naively making it sound here and especially not while the power to actually do so is held in the hands of those who are part of the problem, but as I move forward into 2019, I will try to at least hold myself accountable to that higher standard and try to support those who want to tag along.
- TAKING RISKS IS PART OF A WRITER’S JOB
This year forced me to make many scary decisions. On the page and on the job. Some of them had the potential of upsetting or hurting others. Others had the potential of blowing up in my face. That being said, approaching all of them strategically and getting my ducks in a row before ruffling others’ feathers seems to have worked out in my favor. Longwinded way of saying: Creative risks are part of our job. Avoiding them out of fear or insecurity can hold us back, while taking them in the most respectful and prepared way possible might just pay off in great ways.
Anyhow, that’s my list. Make of it what you will, or tell me about yours on Twitter @gretaheinemann.
Thanks for keeping me company along my ride through a wild 2018, I wish you nothing but the best and a healthy, happy and productive 2019!