Monday, June 07, 2010

The time I thought my career was over

Every writer has doubts. Some mild, some nagging, and for me in one case – crippling. This might surprise you since I seem fairly prolific – banging out a new post every day (a few even decent). And my list of credits is rather lengthy (more than you know -- imdb doesn’t even include our classic BRAM & ALICE). But there was one point in my career when I seriously thought I was done. The well had run dry. It was fun while it lasted. That’s all she wrote (actually “he”).

It was 1986. My partner David Isaacs and I had created and produced MARY, the comeback series for Mary Tyler Moore (actually comeback two of four). It was an exhausting, grueling experience. The specifics are for another post. But suffice it to say a typical day was writing from 10 AM to 5 AM, getting two hours of sleep, and heading back to the office to repeat the process. Yes, I’m exaggerating; there was one night we finished at 4.

But after six months of that, when we finally completed the order, we were completely fried.

I had lost 35 pounds. I couldn’t write a grocery list much less a script. David wasn’t much better.

We decided to just take time off. “How much time?” our agent wondered. We didn’t know. Maybe a few months. Maybe a year. Maybe forever. We were that burned out.

For the next few weeks I just sort wandered around in a haze, eating stuffed potatoes in malls just to get my weight back up above Nicole Richie’s. Usually ideas for pilots or movies will pop into my head when I’m just out doing something else. But now – nothing.

I seriously started contemplating what I could do besides writing to make a living? That’s what drove me to the upper deck of Dodger Stadium to try to learn baseball broadcasting. Drawing caricatures on the Redondo Pier was another option I was seriously exploring. Not a lot of money there but no pressure – just drawing big ears all day.

After about three months we got a call from the Charles Brothers. They had an idea for a CHEERS story and wondered if we’d like to write the script. We were still gun shy but our agent implored us to give it a try.

So we met with the brothers, the story fell into place rather easily. So easily that it became a two-parter. Normally when that happens you’re thrilled. Double the script, double the fee. To us it just meant extra pressure. But we forced smiles throughout the story conferences. We didn’t want them to surmise they were giving an assignment to two basket cases.

The way David and I write scripts is we dictate them to a writers’ assistant (once upon a time called a secretary). Since we weren’t working on a show we asked if we could use one of the CHEEERS writers’ assistants. They said sure and we could use Les Charles’ office.

We planned to begin the script on Monday morning. Driving to Paramount I was literally sweating. Could I do this again? How embarrassing would it be if David and I just stared at each other for eight hours while a writers’ assistant sat there wondering “what the fuck?!” If that happened I was prepared to go back to the Charles Brothers and say, “You know what? We just can’t do it. But can I draw you?"

We convened at 10, our assistant Barry introduced himself and got out the steno pad.

This was it.

I was so afraid of prolonged deadly silence that I just started pitching. And somehow, amazingly, my mind began to work again. Some jokes were coming out. Same thing for David. One or two of them even keepers! Slowly we got back into a rhythm and things picked up.

I can’t begin to tell you the relief. Not to compare myself to the Man of Steel but it was like Superman when Lois got rid of the Kryptonite. I could feel my comedic powers returning. By lunch I knew – “We were BACK!”

This gift (and it is indeed a gift) was there all the time. You don’t just lose it. You may need to step away, take some time and recharge your batteries, but your ability doesn’t desert you. You may someday face a crisis like this yourself. The real lesson here is to just relax. Don’t lose your confidence. Just roll with it knowing in time you will once again be fine. Don’t be like me. Don’t make things worse by making yourself nuts. Don’t waste money on an easel.

(Tomorrow: that scene we wrote that morning; the scene that may just be the most important one we’ve ever written.)

19 comments:

Todd said...

William Goldman once wrote (italics mine):

"In any screenplay, really, the make or break work is done before the writing actually begins. The writing is never what takes the most time. It's trying to figure what you're going to put down that fills the days. With anger at your own ineptitude, with frustration that nothing is happening inside your head, with panic that maybe nothing is will EVER happen inside your head, with blessed little moments that somehow knit together so that you can begin to visualize a scene."

It never ends.

Mary Stella said...

This gift (and it is indeed a gift) was there all the time. You don’t just lose it. You may need to step away, take some time and recharge your batteries, but your ability doesn’t desert you. You may someday a crisis like this yourself. The real lesson here is to just relax. Don’t lose your confidence. Just roll with it knowing in time you will once again be fine. Don’t be like me. Don’t make things worse by making yourself nuts. Don’t waste money on an easel.

Ken, thanks so much for sharing this experience. After my first two books did not succeed in sales, I let the experience crush my confidence. I started a few new projects but lost interest and drive. I was convinced that I'd lost the ability to tell a story and spent a lot of time feeling like a complete loser.

I decided to choose time off from novel writing. Financially, this was somewhat easier for me since that was my "second job". The break did me a world of good. A couple of months ago, the creative urge returned and I'm diving back into the process.

Good thing. I can't draw worth a damn and all the good busker spots in Key West are taken.

gottacook said...

An interesting story - but wasn't the Mary sitcom actually MTM's third series comeback attempt, not her second one? That is, Mary (fall 1978) and The Mary Tyler Moore Hour (spring 1979) should probably be considered as two separate (although perhaps equally frightful) variety show concepts.

Mel Ryane said...

A terrific parable on facing the ever present fear. Always there and always hungry to take the artist down. It's encouraging to read a story of surmounting.

Dana Gabbard said...

Ken, you wrote an episode of Bram & Alice? Which one?

I remember seeing the giant billboard for it on a bulding near Wilshire & Fairfax and being intrigued. Then I found out what the premise was. And gave it a pass. 9 episodes shot, 4 broadcast...

in beta said...

@gottacook: I was assuming that Ken lumped the 2 late 70s MTM shows together, since I think the 2nd one was a retooled version. Then Annie McGuire and New York News after that.

Jeffrey Leonard said...

Ken, what motivates me is a Taco Bell badge that I keep in plain sight in my briefcase. I wore it while I worked there in 1967. I was still in high school. Every time my creative juices start to slow down, I see that badge staring at me. It always kicks me back into gear. Taco Bell is one place I don't want to end up working for again!

rita said...

woody harrelson scored the winning penalty for the team 'rest of the world' in the soccer aid match last night. thought you might find it interesting.

WV 'fersti': people who score on their first shot penalty without knowing prior to the game what a penalty actually is.

emily said...

I kind of like the idea of a show based on a guy eating stuffed potatoes at the mall...

Richard Y said...

I submit for your approval, a possible Friday question.

Ken, What is it that there can be this excellent breakout series such as _______ (fill in the blank of a favorite as if I throw out a title there will be equal responders that thought it was s**t) that garners great reviews, network loves it, the numbers are good, and it fails, miserably. Then there are shows that get consistent poor reviews and low ratings that seem to go on season after season. Is it some network exec's pet project or heavy sponsor or is it just fickle, the way the ball bounces, television?

Anonymous said...

I recently wrote a screenplay for a friend after not doing it for years. Had the same fears and trepidations. But once I started going I did the first draft in a week. Closest thing I ever had to a religious experience. My body was literally shivering through out the process from endorphins being released. Of course it took 9 more months of fine tuning to get that first draft into something good but I guess all those dormant years had filled the gas tank to bursting as that first draft literally vomited out of my hands.

Jack Lechner said...

Ken, I can't tell you how much I appreciate this post -- because I'm in the stuffed-potato phase right now. My musical closed off-Broadway a week and a half ago, and I have only vague notions of how to radically revise it before the next incarnation. Thanks for reminding me that it won't be impossible!

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

as two separate (although perhaps equally frightful) variety show concepts.


But where else were you going to see David Letterman in a musical number? Specifically singing back up and "dancing" to MTM's arrangement of "With a Little Love"

Mary brought a clip on the Letterman show a few years back. The horror. The horror.

(can't wait for tomorrow's post)

Anonymous said...

My guess is the scene introduced the character Frasier Crane... and those green envelopes continue to arrive...

MacGilroy said...

OT but a Friday question - Do you know the backstory on the newspaper that's appeared in episodes of Six Feet Under, Married With Children, That 70s Show, Dallas, and probably more? It's a mystery posed here: http://www.thehighdefinite.com/2010/06/nothing-new-to-report/

Pat Reeder said...

I had a similar experience after writing the book "Hollywood Hi-Fi" that required several years of listening to celebrity record albums. Although I get a kick out of those records, for several months after being totally immersed in them, I couldn't listen to any recorded music or watch any movies, even good ones. All I could see or hear was the artifice. My eyes would wander to the edges of the screen and I couldn't get into the film, and all I could hear of the music was all the pieces that went into putting it together. It was like looking at a jigsaw puzzle and only being able to see the cuts but not the picture. I thought for awhile that being immersed in the song stylings of Joan Rivers and William Shatner had made it physically impossible for me to ever enjoy entertainment again. After about four months, I gradually got over it, with the help of Ella Fitzgerald and Dean Martin, the most seemingly effortless of talents.

VW: "Autaz" -- An austistic guy with a lot of pizzazz.

Paul Duca said...

Gee, Ken, you WERE in bad shape if you weighed less than Nicole Richie circa 1986--what was she, a pre-schooler?

Zack Braff said...

To Richard Y...One show that stinks that goes on and on is "Scrubs". Even when it had its "final" episode, it was brought back from the dead. Shows you how few good shows there are on television these days if garbage like that can survive for so many years.

Brian Phillips said...

To Dana Gabbard:

According to this site:
http://www.tvrage.com/shows/id-2892/episode_guide/

"Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore", the ninth episode, is credited to Levine and Isaacs.