Sometimes Fate just lifts its leg and pees on your keyboard. Some call it Karma. Some call it Murphy’s Law; whoever Murphy was, that guy must’ve been twitchy as hell. Whatever you name it, you’re never ready for it. And when bad things happen to decent writers, it can drop you straight down into a dark, swirling, bad-smelling shame spiral.
So let’s talk about writer shame. Okay, I’ll start.
I was in the middle of a very difficult week. My spawn was having surgery. I broke a filling, so everything I ate felt like chewing a live electrical wire. Also, I had just found a strange lump that needed to be checked by someone who was not me on WebMD. In the middle of it all, (pause for effect) my manager dumped me by email.
Picture it…I am sitting in a hushed hospital waiting room, while nurses bring updates to all the families around me. No one comes for me. Is that…no. Maybe that one…nope. My inbox bings and when I see my manager’s name, I tell myself not to open it. I’m not expecting good news from her and that’s something I should’ve been thinking about all along. Another nurse passes me by, so I click on the message. The words are a shock; although we had been an awkward fit from the start, the idea that my manager…the one person in Hollywood who is supposed to believe in me as a writer…finds me lacking is painful to read. She blames the failure of our professional relationship on my perceived inability to take her notes and act on them. I’m stunned because, OF COURSE, I believe I’m very good at doing that very thing. From my side of the abyss, her feedback had always been like vague verbal hieroglyphics. She questions my commitment because I don’t generate enough material, which was difficult to do when she said no to nearly every idea I presented. It seems we had both been frustrated all along but we’d never hashed it out.
But why hadn’t I ever brought it up? Shame.
I was ashamed that I could never get a resounding YES from her on my ideas. Looking back, I can see that I wasn’t asking for guidance, I was asking for acceptance, her approval to be myself as a writer. That wasn’t her job, and by waiting for her permission to write a project, I tainted the relationship and killed my creativity. A whole year after signing with a rep, I had worked so hard only to wind up right back where I started.
Now intellectually, I knew that while her opinion was valid, it was also inaccurate. But emotionally, it broke me. What if she was right and I was terrible at taking notes? What if didn’t write enough to have a career? What if there aren’t enough cookies in the house to get me through this crisis right now?
In her book I Thought It Was Just Me (But it’s not), Brene Brown says “Shame forces us to put so much value on what other people think that we lose ourselves in the process of trying to meet everyone else’s expectations.” Writers, and all artists who want to make money from their work, have to walk a line between creative authenticity and mass marketability. I talk to many writers like me, who struggle to find a sturdy place on the spectrum to plant their desk. The tough truth is that you need to be able to sell your stories to people who can get them out there, but also maintain your own unique perspective so that your work is fresh and presents new entertaining insights.
After reading that email, I fell facefirst into a shame spiral that included: wearing yoga pants 24/7 (sometimes on my head), rage-liking social media posts of writers way more successful than me, watching the ASPCA ads all the way through while belting out “I will remember you…”, and consuming far too many cookies to count.
Shame is insidious because it is largely silent. We avoid talking about it, unless we are relishing other people’s shame as entertainment, and/or a way to protect ourselves from facing our own flaws. We feel shame about our shame. I like Brene Brown’s definition: “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” Did you catch the empowering part of that description? We have to first BELIEVE that we deserve the rejection. So the first thing I did was look at what I had or had not done. I got honest with myself on what I could be doing better as a writer, and I also took a hard look at why I never expected good news from my manager. There were red flags that we were a bad fit from the beginning, but I ignored them because I wanted to put a company name on the bottom corner of my script covers. In the end, we were both frustrated and those covers were never seen by execs. I had to take back control of my work, my fear, my shame, and my future as a paid writer.
Are you in a shame spiral? Let’s get you the hell out of there:
- Reach out. I called the friend who had put me together with my rep. I needed to reassure myself that she didn’t think I was a loser…because I did literally lose my manager. What ungrateful idiot does that? Spoiler alert: we’re fine. Go find someone who will understand what you’re feeling: a mentor, a friend, a writing teacher, or (stay with me) a fellow writer. Did you shake your head at that last one? Sure, because who the hell wants to tell another writer that you are no longer one of the Enviable Repped. But here’s the thing…I’ve asked many highly paid screenwriters and guess what…it happened to all of them!
- Have a mantra. I know they feel weird. But here’s the thing: you already have a mantra in your head and it is a nasty one. That dark, inner voice telling you what a loser you are…that’s a mantra. Replace it with a positive one. You don’t have to smile sweetly at yourself in a mirror a la Stuart Smalley, but every time you hear that jackass voice whispering about coulda/shoulda/woulda, shout back that positive mantra. Over and over until you feel good again.
- Get up and move. Go somewhere new. Meet new people. Try something…painting, bocce, ballroom dancing, join a fight club. Whatever, believe me I am not judging you. Just physically change your energy.
- Write it down. All of that fear, rage, sadness. Get it out of your head and onto the page. If it worked for Bridget Jones, it’ll work for you.
And it did work for me, you guys. 2018 has become known as The Year of Epiphany. I now know that I prefer weekly check-ins with my rep. I also like to have a marketing plan for each script that we can edit as opportunities arise. It’s been an incredible year so far. I’ve written more, gone after more professional opportunities, and been read by more execs in the last 4 months than in all of last year. I still sometimes feel the urge to ask for permission before I start new projects, but I’m working on that one.
Question: Have you felt shame as a writer? What did you do to get out of it or are you still stuck in that spiral?