In a previous post, I talked about having three jobs on the horizon and fearing that instead of lining up consecutively, that they would all land concurrently.
Reader, of course that happened.
The “main job” is a producing gig for a large toy company. I’ve been enjoying it even more than I’d anticipated. While it’s primarily business presentations, these involve some short toy demo videos, the creation of which allowed me to be on a set for the first week or so, which always feels like a coming home. The next phase has been working with the quite large logistical puzzle of arranging schedules for all events that are happening. This is the realm of the Executive Producer, who has been doing this for two or three decades, but I’m getting a close-up look and the chance to problem-solve as I transcribe information to various documents.
This stuff might not sound exciting, but it’s all NEW, and learning new stuff releases dopamine. Throw in some some important deadlines for stakes and you have a kind of dopamine, adrenaline, endorphin cocktail —one I’ve been riding high on that for the last week.
Dopamine highs are fun, but also “dangerous,” in that what comes up, must come down. When dopamine levels rise, the brain senses you’ve been getting a lot, and gives you less. So after high-dopamine experiences, one can experience a “crash.”
This is very familiar to me. A play closes, a shoot ends, I turn in a draft or leave a party. I’m feeling good… and then there’s a feeling of emptiness, and very quickly (for me at least) that emptiness fills with ANXIETY. I second-guess, question, relive mistakes or social mis-steps.
Even this weekend, I’m experiencing this on a small scale. I made a mistake on Friday, born of newness, and the EP had to pull me back. It was something that won’t be hard to adjust in the future, and I think was fairly small but in my head I wonder was it small? Maybe it wasn’t small!
Going through this, I’m grateful that over the last week, even with early call times and late nights, I managed to maintain my 20- minute morning meditation sessions. They don’t “fix” my feelings, but they help me step outside my experience. They’re like a little “time out” where I can remember that what I’m going through is cyclical and the “stakes” for getting things wrong or right are partly of my own creation. I remind myself to keep the importance of things in proportion, to work hard, but protect my health by pacing myself, to value a learning mindset over beating myself up. And to choose kindness whenever there is opportunity.
When it comes to habits, the key takeaway is this: dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it. Gambling addicts have a dopamine spike right before they place a bet, not after they win. Cocaine addicts get a surge of dopamine when they see the powder, not after they take it. Whenever you predict that an opportunity will be rewarding, your levels of dopamine spike in anticipation. And whenever dopamine rises, so does your motivation to act.
It is the anticipation of a reward—not the fulfillment of it—that gets us to take action.
Atomic Habits, by James Clear, p 106
I’ve been thinking about anticipation in our society. About how dopamine keeps flowing for a person who believes a reward is coming—and how capitalism is great at instilling belief in rewards by showing us other people receiving rewards and selling the idea that with enough work, it will be our turn, or at least our children’s turn. And, if that seems too obviously unrealistic, Christianity offers the back-up belief that rewards will be offered in the life to come, if we are good.
For our economic system (or those who profit by it), it’s good for people to believe in capitalism, religion, or both because it keeps them anticipating a reward. If people stop anticipating— because they stop believing the reward will manifest, or in the value of the reward — their dopamine levels could drop to such an extent that (like the rats mentioned in my previous post) they stop working. Which would be bad, because everyone striving for their individual rewards within the system, is the system.
The pandemic has shown, in a small way, how when people can’t / won’t service the system, it becomes inconvenient for the people who need a new bathroom vanities, cling peaches or car parts, and it also becomes threatening to the people who normally profit from all these transactions. I’m far from the first to theorize that in order to keep things running, the system might ultimately have to provide rewards of actual value — like workplace safety, higher wages and maybe some other things, like respect and appreciation for one’s contributions and skills…etc.
Oops — I think most of that was a tangent. The real topic of this post (of course) is me.
Who am I? I’m a subset of people: i.e. a writer, existing in a subsector of the capitalist system: i.e. the entertainment industry. The rewards I want are the same boring things most people in my industry who aren’t sociopaths want: creative opportunities, a living wage, functional work relationships, etc. For a fair while, I’ve sustained myself with the anticipation of obtaining these, because I had some belief that it was possible. Like its parent system, Hollywood is great at saying “look at all these other people getting treats—if they can do it, you can too!”— and also selling the idea that if you are just good enough, God (or someone) will pick you and lift you up to heaven (or at least higher up the food chain). You can anticipate this happening at any moment…Dopamine!
The thing is, one starts to lose one’s ability to anticipate a bright future if this keeps happening:
Please know, that, within my field, I am in no way unique and this football-yanking happens to lots and lots of people, all the time. So this is not a plea for sympathy, inasmuch as a preamble for some self interrogation, wherein I ask:
Who’s at fault in the situation pictured above?
Is it Lucy, for being a jerk? For sure. But. Is it also Charlie Brown? Why does CB repeatedly come back to Lucy and her ball? Doesn’t he have any other friends who treat him better? Is Lucy so much more glamorous and interesting than those friends? Or, is Lucy his only acquaintance with a football, and a football is the only kind of ball he wants to kick?
What’s with Charlie Brown’s obsession with that dumb football anyway? That question is facetious — I know the answer. He feels like he’s meant to kick that football. If he could just have that one chance, where the ball didn’t get pulled away, and his foot could connect — he can feel in his bones how that football would go flying! (And once that ball was in the air, the world would know, and soon he’d have his face on a cereal box or at least be kicking footballs everyday for money. It’s just one kick between him and living the dream!)
But who are we kidding? It’s in Lucy’s nature to pull the ball away. Like the proverbial scorpion who has to sting, or like Jessica Rabbit, who’s just drawn that way, Lucy is literally incapable of not fucking with the ball.
So the question becomes, what should Charlie Brown do now? I mean, shouldn’t he try playing some other game that doesn’t include Lucy? Like baseball or soccer, or Yahtzee? Or maybe he could start mowing lawns, and just buy his own football?
Hell, he could start a lawn-mowing franchise and eventually buy a whole football team. By then he’d be past the prime for football-kicking himself, but he’d likely have friends who are more loyal than Lucy, clients who truly appreciate (and pay for) their evenly-cut lawns, and co-workers who invite him to BBQs and their kids’ birthday parties where they share inside jokes and compare lawn mowers.
Possibly, he could have a happy life with plenty of anticipation and dopamine despite never kicking a football!
Ugh, I just passed 1000 words! I didn’t want to do that. How can I wrap this up? Okay, here:
Capitalism is deeply flawed but seems poised to persist.
Given the fact that I’m not Neo, and can’t unplug from the Matrix, I need to live in it. (Matrix=capitalist system. I didn’t set up that metaphor in this mini-essay, but it’s so commonly used I don’t need to, right?)
Within the capitalist system, my stubborn commitment to football kicking (i.e. screenwriting) seems increasingly likely to end with me living underneath an overpass (at least between police sweeps), while Lucy / Hollywood forgets I ever existed and doesn’t feel the least bit guilty.
However, Hollywood is just one subsector of the big capitalist machine, and if I can quit sulking about the not-getting-to-kick-the-football thing, I could look for a different sector that doesn’t lead to the whole overpass scenario.
And in the process, I could even look for a sector with work-life balance, respect for my skills, and getting compensated happily and fairly instead of grudgingly and as little as possible. (I don’t know if this place actually exists, but what is life without a search for mythical lands?)
All of which would help renew my faith in humanity and the capitalist whole reward system, which would reset my ability anticipate good things, triggering the release of dopamine…
The folks at Screencraft (they run the contest that I won earlier this year) recently sent me some prompts / questions about my screenwriting journey in order to cull testimonials from my answers. They managed to find a few uplifting snippets to use in their Instagram / Twitter posts — and kudos to them for that, because even though I made real efforts to be positive, some of these answers feel a little… dark. However, I seem to have arrived at a point in my life/career where young hopefuls ask me for insights and advice, so for what it’s worth, here are the prompts and my answers in their entirety.
What did you find were some of the biggest obstacles to your screenwriting career goals?
Before I went back to school for writing, I was a freelancer who worked on various shows and events, one gig would always lead to other gigs. You work with people, they get to know your personality and work and then either request or refer you for another job. I got used to that. But after I graduated from my writing program, I took a full time day job that was separate from the industry I wanted to be in, and I think I really gave up an advantage by removing myself from the daily view of people who were in the industry. I see the question come up a lot among early career writers — “Is it better to stay close to the industry, even at the expense of writing time, or to get a day job that lets you practice skills and generate material?” It’s a tough call! At the time, I had reasons for making the choice I did, but purely in terms of career-building, I can see how stepping away from the path had some costs.
Was there ever a point when you felt most rejected?
If anyone out there is unaware, it’s probably good to know that the entertainment business is the business of rejection. After your dreams get dashed the first few times, I’ve found that all the rejections kind of become a blur. But I’m happy to tell you about my most recent example: I gave a new script to someone who I really needed to like it — a gatekeeper — and they didn’t like it. At all. A big door that I’d hoped would be opened instead slammed in my face. It’s clear in my memory because it was literally a couple days ago and I’m still recovering as I write this. But at the same time, I’m aware that even having a relationship with a gatekeeper who’s willing to read my work and give their honest opinion is a privilege —one that took me years to achieve, and that many people don’t have — so I never forget to appreciate it. A rejection of one’s work is still an affirmation of one’s existence!
Are there moments when you think about giving up. What motivates you to keep going?
In terms of ever making my living by screenwriting, I’d say I think about giving up six days out of seven. My escape strategies are a running joke with friends—I literally have tabs open in my browser right now for “how to be a UX writer.” But thus far, I’ve kept going, and I think there are a couple reasons why: The first is that I somehow always have one more iron in the fire. Like right now, I have a pitch being considered at a company for a project I would really-really-really like to do, so I’m waiting to see what happens. And while I’m waiting, I’m working on other things, so by the time this project doesn’t work out (or maybe does—this could be the one —manifestations welcome), I’ll have something else to hope for. The second reason is a little more “woo-woo” which is that I deep-down believe that this is where my gifts lie, and that someday I’m going to be part of making something awesome and meaningful, if I can just find my way to it.
Where are you currently in your career? Anything that you are excited about?
I’m at a place in my career now where it’s easy to feel frustrated, because time passes and I’m still side-hustling to support my writing when I want my writing to support itself. But, I’m also in a place where I once aspired to be: I’ve had representation for a while, and recently added a TV agent to the team! And I’m celebrating my first produced TV credit (with writing partner Paul Seetachitt) — an episode of Creepshow that came out last month called “Time Out.” It’s gotten a lot of complimentary reviews, which is validating. These things give me hope that I’m getting closer to where I want to be.
What drew you to ScreenCraft and how did the competition help you?
A good friend who knows that I also write short stories sent me the link to the ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story competition. At this point I’ve largely forsworn writing competitions, but for some reason I decided to enter… and it worked out! I got to meet with one of the judges which was my first one-on-one meeting with a showrunner and was exciting for me. And while I already had representation, the buzz surrounding winning the Grand Prize inspired my reps to send the story out, and I think was key in their decision to add a TV agent to my team, which is something I’d really been wanting for a long time — so that felt like a victory. I’ve really appreciated that Screencraft has a team of real people who have checked in on my progress since the contest. They’ve pushed me to evaluate those things that any writer can and should control — like online visibility and professional outreach — and encouraged me to be accountable and level those up.
What advice would you give to your younger self as a writer?
Now that I sometimes teach writing, I’ve realized how much I appreciate students who make the effort to show me who they are — I don’t mind if it takes a few minutes after class. It’s enjoyable, and it makes it easier for me to write a recommendation or refer them for an internship or whatever. Being on this side of things makes me look back and think about how often in my life I’ve made the choice to “not bother” someone higher up the ladder than me instead of taking that little risk. If I could advise my younger self (without disturbing the time-space continuum), I would say, “Be braver sooner. You’re a joy, not a burden.” It’s probably good advice for my older self as well.
Today was a day both solemn and joyful. In California, the ceremony was already in progress when I swithced on the live feed at 8:20am. The new president was sworn in before 9am. I cried three times as I watched, stirred by the President Biden’s speech, Lady Gaga’s emotional rendition of America the Beautiful and Amanda Gorman’s transcendent spoken word poem performed with the power of incantation.
President Biden declared: “I will defend America. I will give my all in your service thinking not of power, but of possibilities. Not of personal interest, but of the public good. And together, we shall write an American story of hope, not fear. Of unity, not division.Of light, not darkness. An American story of decency and dignity.Of love and of healing.Of greatness and of goodness. May this be the story that guides us. The story that inspires us. The story that tells ages yet to come that we answered the call of history.”
Poet Amanda Gorman spoke: “And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us. We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside. We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another. We seek harm to none and harmony for all. Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true. That even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped. That even as we tired, we tried. That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious. Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.”
Most of my friends, via text and social media, expressed relief, spoke of hope being restored.
But not “Stan,” my third-party-voting, ultra-left friend. He posted a placard that said: “Joe Biden is president and the children are still in cages.” Really? One can always depend on Stan to kill the joy.
And speak the truth, especially when it’s unpleasant.
And so I must thank Stan for the reminder: Even if our new president seems decent and kind, even if the poem was amazing, even if that yellow coat was to die for, it is not permission for me to allow my sigh of relief to become a sinking back onto a soft cushion of complacency and watching others do their jobs.
The First 100 Days is not a series to watch. I also have a hundred days, and hundreds of days after that, each one an opportunity to stay informed, to protest injustice and needless suffering, to advocate righteous agendas, to communicate out loud to those who represent us that we expect pretty rhetoric to bookend action.
Honestly, I would love it if today was just Day 1 for a new president… but Stan is right. It’s Day 1 for me, too. It is Day 1 for us all.
Woke anxious this morning, and it makes sense. Today is the day we need to clean our whole apartment and pack all our things. Packing always makes me edgy, and today we have a few added elements.
One is that, although my back is feeling largely better, the way we packed the car to come east didn’t allow for any adjustment of the seats, so we’re trying to change that situation by transferring the contents of two large bins to trash bags (my least preferred way to pack!), and then Tetris-ing those bags into the trunk to leave some room behind the passenger’s seat to recline if needed.
And of course, the need to recline the seat is related to the fact that our 40-hour drive will have few breaks due to the pandemic. With some trepidation, we’ve made arrangements to sleep in beds for two nights; but the days will be long: with dining areas of restaurants closed and the friends in isolation, there’s not anywhere to be but the car. We’re unsure whether there will be waits or issues at the reported checkpoints on the borders between states. Overall, it feels safest just to make good time and get home.
In a way, being in Florida has allowed us to compartmentalize the pandemic — to imagine that all the strangeness was just part of our trip, and that when we get home, things would be normal again, but of course that is not the case.