A Portrait of the Artist as a Grown Woman

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Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a dream. There was inspiration and motivation and daring and excitement. She was going to conquer the world and with a voice in her ear and endless story in her heart she knew that she could.

*                          *                           *

The land of creation is populated by liars. Its waters look deep but when stepped in are shallow, and the language is not how it sounds.

–How is it yes means maybe and maybe means don’t hold your breath? She never could understand or remember. She never learned to speak WhatsInItForMe.

But there are sparkly people, too, and she loves them! There are brilliant ideas and shiny talents; there is work and play and work and collaboration. O the collaboration! Yes, she says, and yes again. Let’s do something, or another thing, or lunch. A new project, new spark, new yes and yes I will Yes.

*                          *                           *

How can a world so small and crowded feel so empty sometimes? She has uncovered the challenge of living in the world while working in her head.

–It’s far better than the reverse, she reminds herself.

She watches friends change and fade and move on to better things, to better people. One by one some give up. She dreads the day she is faced with the same decision, wondering how one could possibly stop.

–Better odds for the rest of us. She secretly loves the acquired wisdom such ugly understanding betrays.

*                          *                           *

–This work is fantastic! Can you make it less ‘smart’?

–I love everything about this. Can you make it about a man?

–A brilliant new voice! Can you take out everything that makes it different?

Some create while others calculate, she learns. She wishes the calculators had as much faith in humanity as she does.

Stupidity and fear increase with power. With each note she leans to find the useful in the self-indulgent slop. She realizes she has a choice. Not every suggestion has to matter. Even if it’s right, she decides if it’s right for her. She learns to listen to herself.

*                          *                           *

Success is a carrot dangling, tantalizing up ahead. There is work, and money, but never the meal. She drags the weight of experience one step closer and grasps; victory keeps pace. One more step, one more reach, one more miss. With each try the weight gets heavier. Her legs get stronger. The distance gets smaller. But there is still distance.

She played Lucy once in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. It sucks to be on the other side of the football.

*                          *                           *

–Why can’t my work speak for itself? Why do I have to learn to market to people?

–If only it worked that way. This is a business too, she explains. People have to see the dollar signs.

Mentoring reminds her how much she knows after all the years, how much she has to offer. It is good to give back, help, feel useful. She hopes they won’t look close and see she’s a fraud.

–What is the best strategy for breaking in?

–When you find out you can tell the rest of us.

She explains time and again there is no best way. Everyone has a different story. Everyone has the same answer: whatever works. Time and again she watches their faces fall to frustration. She remembers the feeling. It doesn’t get better, she wants to tell them. Unless it does and she just doesn’t know it yet.

–It really is true that if anything else can make you happy, you should do it.

–They tell the same thing to clergy, her student replies.

–Sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart.

Isolation, devotion, a calling. The joke works because it’s true. She wonders if she accidentally took a vow of celibacy at some point.

*                          *                           *

Night is dark, but feels darker. The city moves constantly, yet nothing changes. She wants desperately to give up. What if the years ahead look just like the ones stretched behind?

Stopping would be easy, logistically – she could teach, go back to school. Stopping spiritually is impossible. The voice is there. She has something to say and the ability to say it. Her drive to be heard will never fade; stopping just means desire with no hope.

But she lacks means. Substance and skill are useless without means. It feels like the means will never come.

Death would stop desire. She briefly considers it; the moment is one moment too scary. Her practical side objects: too much willpower, love, guilt. She wishes there were better reasons to get up.

–OOF. Okay, I’ll feed you! Now please get your fuzzy butt off my bladder.

She is reminded why she adopted the cats in the first place. Who rescued whom, really?

*                          *                           *

Nov. 9: Another birthday without the gift of work from anyone supposedly invested in my career. Another day is frustrating enough. If I make it to 40 in the same situation, it may kill me. Although I’m pretty sure I said that about 39. And 38. Time for champagne!

Nov. 26: Today I get to be with family. As rough as the last 13 years have been, at least I haven’t had to deal with parental disappointment or a lack of love. I give thanks for family.

Dec.1: It’s tempting to hate the agent who refuses to sign female comedy writers, but he’s not wrong. The odds are for-never in our favor re: work. But my motivation is starting to return. Spirits are up.

Dec. 27: Winter is coming? I’m pretty sure it’s here. A Game of Thrones marathon can ease me through the end of the year, but I need preparation to survive. New projects; new strategies; new sparks. Time to work.

Jan. 1: Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated story of my future. Stand me now and ever in good stead.

Los Angeles 2016

[My thanks to James Joyce for writing something I struggled with the first time, started to understand the second time, and have loved every single time since.]

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To Kill a Mocking Turd

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When I came to Los Angeles 13 years ago, it was not to be a writer. I didn’t know yet that I was a writer. This seems silly in retrospect, given that I wrote my first play in kindergarten, tortured my family with puppet shows through elementary school, spent junior high writing original Nancy Drew mysteries, and was one-fifth of a sketch comedy troupe in high school. But math has objective answers and I usually got them right, so that’s what I knew I was good at.

Even after light dawned and I actively embraced what I had been doing my whole life, I still didn’t feel comfortable calling myself a writer. It wasn’t about legitimacy – I got paid as a writer for years before I called myself one; it was a little about resistance – being an actor is sexier than being a writer; but it was mostly about proof. Before I uttered the words, “I am a writer,” I wanted to be confident I could back it up with evidence (blame the mathematician in me).

Writing is weird in that it is something most people think they can do yet very few actually can. Or do. The coffee shops of the world are full of folks with “this amazing idea” who never manage to get it out but still call themselves writers – as if having the intention makes us the thing. I have the intention of learning to change my own oil someday, but that doesn’t make me a mechanic.

Eventually, I came to understand there are a few key elements separating writers from “writers”, all thanks to the quintessential poser I met in my first few weeks here:

Russell the Love Muscle and I met as extras on the set of Legally Blonde 2, and continued to connect on various film sets for months. Russell (dubbed “the Love Muscle” by my eventual boyfriend – who hated him) was many things; he was confident, he had an overdeveloped sense of what he had to offer the world, and he had an inferiority complex about everything. He was the inspiration for the term Nerd Fucker after our one (and only) date, which consisted of car-ride conversations about my IQ and Mensa, and the introductory phrase, “This is Kate, she went to Harvard” used every single time at his friend’s party. The Love Muscle had not gone to Harvard, and my purpose was to prove, through my willingness to associate with him, that the universe had royally messed up on that one.

Russell was also a writer, which was provable because he had a website. In showing me his work, he was the first (but certainly not the last) person to say to me, “Oh, I don’t believe in re-writing. I think the art is more pure if you just let it flow and then put it out there in its original form.” He may have even said “virgin form” – he was that kind of a guy.

This, as any real writer will tell you, is complete bullshit.

To his credit, at least Russell put actual words down on paper (or keyboards). The first key element to being a writer is 1) WRITING SOMETHING, which seems obvious but is probably the hardest step. There are a shockingly high number of “writers” out there who don’t even get that far.

This is because it is scary.

I mentor burgeoning writers regularly, and one of the most common discussions I have is about getting started. People get stymied because they can’t figure out how to translate the glorious idea in their head into words, and I tell them that the secret is to just do it – without stopping or looking back – because the other secret is that they can’t succeed. At least not the first time.

Which brings me to the second key element of being a writer: 2) HATING WHAT YOU JUST WROTE. First drafts suck. They just do. This is why they are called “drafts” and also “first” instead of “finished products”. There is a great Ira Glass quote about how too many aspiring artists stop after producing a bad first attempt, when in truth the mark of a real artist is that very ability to recognize its poor quality. He is completely right. While the Russells of the world look at their first drafts and declare them genius, the writers see all the flaws and get inspired to improve.

That improvement is the final key element to being a writer: 3) WRITING BETTER. My favorite author, John Irving, has said that he considers the real skill of writing to be in the editing. I could not agree more. A writer must not only have the ability to recognize weaknesses and visualize improvements to her writing, but also then have the fortitude to rip apart the work to make it better. There is a reason why this process is referred to as “killing your darlings” (or “babies”) – it hurts. But it is vital, and also impossible without something to fix in the first place.

Writing a first draft is terrifying, because translating a three-dimensional idea into two-dimensional words is essentially an impossible task. You will fail. Admitting that failure is ego-shattering, but necessary because the protective ego stops progress. You must be vulnerable to change. And making changes is heartbreaking, because the initial creation, while flawed, is still precious.

Once a writer gets through this process and creates something to be shared with the world, it is absolutely exhilarating. But the process itself is messy and miserable. No true writer would ever want those earlier drafts – those mocking failures – to be shared with the world.

Think about that before reading Go Set a Watchman. Is the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird something Harper Lee would want the world to see?

The Silence of the Clowns

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In space, no one can hear you scream. On Earth, they also can’t hear you scream if you have laryngitis.

For the last five days I have been without a voice. Speechless. Unable to make sound. It turns out that this is a long time to go without speaking; things get pretty surreal.

My mind first started to fight back with experimentation. I tried any and everything I could think of to break through the silence. Gargling salt water helps, but gargling itself is pretty weird without sound. Whiskey doesn’t help at all, but does improve morale. Hot bath – not great. Hot shower – better, but comes with guilt when living in a drought state. I drank gallons of tea, sucked pounds of lozenges, ate buckets of soup…not even headstands helped.

At a certain point, I started to wonder if maybe my voice would never come back. I also wondered if that would be such a bad thing.

Sure, there were a few moments when my lack of vocal power was distinctly frustrating. Not being able to call my cats in from outside, for example, or tell a new suitor that I heartily approved of what he just did with his tongue (hey, I wasn’t contagious). The worst was not being able to call my parents; I realized that 3-4 days is the most I want to go without hearing their voices.

The rest of life without out a voice, though, isn’t that bad. I have never liked answering the phone to begin with, so it felt pretty great to literally not be able to. It took some quick thinking when the pizza delivery guy called (some quick running, really), but otherwise I decided that it probably would be fine if I never spoke again. Heck, it might even make me better at life!

This revelation isn’t too surprising, since for the longest time I was an actual enemy of my own voice. I hated that people mistook me for a boy over the phone; I hated how high and squeaky it got when I spoke passionately; I hated that I couldn’t disguise it or control it more – though really what I lacked was the confidence to control it.

As a solution, I worked to avoid my voice as much as possible. I became afraid of the phone. In French class, I could only get so far with reading and writing, but still I refused to practice speaking. While I can sing, the idea of singing solo in front of other people was (and still is) mortifying. Even my comedy changed, as I settled comfortably into the role of straight man in my sketch groups, in order to avoid the humiliation of “doing voices”. And then, I found a way to stop speaking altogether.

This is the part where I reveal my darkest, creepiest secret: I used to be a clown.

In my high school, students had to take a semester of oration as an English credit. Most people opted for Public Speaking, but a few of us chose Theatre Production, also known as Clowning. One of the English teachers had actually been to clown college, so he taught it as a course from which grew our school’s clown troupe, which did community service around the city.

For two years, I was one of those clowns.

The goal in creating a clown character is to be completely disguised, hence the face paint and funny hair and fake noses. I loved the idea of being unrecognizable as myself – it was liberating. But in creating Harmony, my clown, I balked so badly at finding a voice that I turned to Harpo Marx for inspiration and chose to be mute.

Harmony wore bells, carried a horn and various whistles, and communicated via kazoo, but never spoke. I had to eliminate my hated voice in order to feel completely free.

Surprisingly, silence didn’t make comedy harder. I couldn’t rely quite as much on my wit, but years of children’s theater, slapstick comedy, and marching band made it pretty easy to make the joke without words. I was even comfortable humming! As a non-clown, as long as I can still whistle, whisper, clap, stomp, and bang on things, I know I could do fine without a voice.

After my clown days were over – which I admit wasn’t until after college – and I hit the real world, a funny thing (funnier than clowns) happened; through improv, sketch writing, and adulthood, I found my real voice. I became a writer. And the more I discovered that I actually had something to say, the more I got comfortable saying it, the less I hated or feared my physical voice. I’m not saying I’ll be voluntarily singing in front of people anytime soon, but I have gotten quite comfortable making noise.

Last year, at Sci-Fest Los Angeles, one of the plays depicted a world where political dissidents were punished by having their vocal chords surgically removed. They were then given a choice: life in prison, or total freedom with the promise to never write another word. A lifetime of “yes”, “no”, and “I don’t know”, nothing more. It was the most terrifying play I have ever seen.

A life without a voice box would be inconvenient, sure, but livable. A life without a voice would be a nightmare.

(I’m still pretty happy to have it back, though.)

The XX Factor

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My first official writing job on a TV series was brought to me by the letter ‘X’. Specifically, the letter ‘X’ without the letter ‘Y’.

After a friend of mine from my improv days sold a pilot script, he and his writing partner were tasked with putting together a six-man staff to complete a six-episode season. They took those instructions literally, promptly hiring four male friends to join them.

A little later, my buddy randomly spotted me in a hallway after a comedy show and this is how it went down: “Oh, hey!” (Me: Hey.) “I’m writing a series.” (Me: Congratulations.) “We staffed the show already,” (Me: Awesome for you.) “but we’re thinking maybe we should have a girl in the room too, for the perspective. You’re the only girl I know who writes.” (Me in my head: This is not true. I know your friends.) “Send me a sample?” (Me: No problem.) I sent him two screenplays and was immediately hired.

As origin stories go, it makes for a pretty lame graphic novel, but I still like to tell it. Because most people miss the point entirely.

Male writers tend to zero in on the double gender standard, while demonstrating impressive ignorance; “You only got the job because you’re a woman! You’re so lucky to have a guaranteed spot at the table.”

Um, NO. I got the job the same proud way my four male colleagues got it: nepotism. But I was the only staffer with any professional screenwriting experience, and yet I was still hired last, as an afterthought, to fill a gender quota. True, my lack of a Y-chromosome was the difference between being hired last and not being hired at all, but if I had the Y-chromosome I would have been hired first without question – or probably been hiring my own staff for my own show. Hiring me to be “the girl in the room” didn’t end sexism any more than electing Barack Obama ended racism.

Most other people take an optimistic view of the story; “Isn’t it great your friend was wise enough to recognize the value of a female voice? We should celebrate him as a shining example of enlightenment!”

Again, NO. I don’t believe in showering praise on people who “choose” to accept well-established information. Like Kindergarten graduations and participation trophies, it rewards people for doing something that should have been automatic anyway. You acknowledge the universe is billions of years old? Yes, yes, you’re very smart. Now shut up. Virtually any collaborative endeavor is improved when there is an even mix of male and female voices involved. (Notice I said a mix – I may play host to a couple of confused cats, but I am well aware that this is the true goal of feminism.) My friend was right to want “a girl in the room”, but he was the kid who shows up to all the little league games only to pick dandelions in the outfield. Hardly an MVP.

So what is the point of my origin story? The “Most Interesting Man in the World” is Satan.

They say the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. While I find that statement confusing given the number of people I see on the news screaming about other people burning in hell, the sentiment applies pretty well to sexism. The true tragedy of how I got my first TV job is the part nobody – including me – noticed.

In the heated 2008 debates about which Democratic candidate had it worse – the one facing racism or the one facing sexism – I started to finally comprehend that even though both are horrible, there is one devilish difference between them. While I can’t speak to it personally, I don’t see a lot of minorities out there who are convinced that their genetics make them inferior. None of my Asian friends think they should have less right to a driver’s license, and I don’t know any Nordic folk who believe they deserve skin cancer more than others. Racism is the devil we know, see, and call out as bullshit. Sexism is too often the devil we don’t.

Women commit as many if not more sexist acts against women than the men of this world, and we do it most often to ourselves, without even noticing. The real point of my origin story is that, despite my ability to recognize and roll my eyes at how I got the job, I walked into that writers’ room on day one NOT confident because I knew I was the only one (besides the head writers) with experience, NOT comfortable because I already knew three of the six men and had performed comedy with them as an equal, but INSTEAD thinking, “I hope I can keep up. I hope they think I’m funny. I hope I manage to pull my weight.”

I had more experience and skill than any of my male counterparts (I was the only writer who maintained her credit or was kept on for more work); I had an Ivy League education and a well-honed comedic voice; I had a solid self-respect and an enviable work ethic – both resulting from a lifetime of guidance by ideal parental role models; I was loved and loving, praised and proud, supported and strong. In short: I had every possible advantage when I walked into that writers’ room, with great hair and a cherry outfit on top.

If even I walked in assuming I was the weakest link, what chance does any girl have?