The writer and actress on why there’s no one roadmap to success.
I get asked to coffee a lot.
And usually, it’s because a young writer wants advice on how to break in to be a television writer. They want answers to their questions. So, I say yes and try to do my best to answer them with the little knowledge I’ve been fortunate enough to accumulate.
So, I’ve had a lot of coffee.
And I’ve given a lot of advice over the years. But the one thing that all these questioners have in common is a look. A look that screams to me that what they really want from me — what they are hoping the almond milk and Columbian bean water will really give them — is the secret password. I think some small part of them thinks that I will look around to make sure no one is within earshot…and whisper it to them. I often tell them this. And they laugh. And that laugh usually betrays that, in fact, they were kind of hoping it would be that easy: “Here is the road map. Go that way, and success is guaranteed.”
There is no password or road map.
Or, perhaps I should say that if there is one, I don’t know it. When I moved to Los Angeles, the daughter of Cuban immigrants, I knew no one in the industry. What I learned came from books. From interviews. From time spent alone at the Paley Center teaching myself how to write for TV by watching TV shows of the past.
For me, a career didn’t materialize until I started to make my own magic. I wrote plays. I knew how to put up plays in a black-box theater. So, if I couldn’t get studios or showrunners or producers to read my work, I would put up a play. I would ask actors to be in it. I would find a theater, and make the signs, and sell the tickets, and cobble together costumes and rehearsals and…that is how things began to happen for me. To quote Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” Well, I built it, and they came. Slowly at first. I gave free tickets to my favorite charities. I told everyone I knew to come. And slowly, slowly, slowly…word spread. And the audiences got bigger, and agents began to come, and over the years the buzz got more electric.
So, what do you know how to do? Do you know how to shoot videos on your phone? Then shoot your work and put it on YouTube. Do you know how to stage a play? Then do that, as I did. Do you know how to put up a sketch show, or a one-person show, or pop-up entertainment? Then do that. Or have a reading of your screenplay and invite your friends to your living room to hear it. But put it out there. Find a way to get your art out into the world that doesn’t solely rely on you waiting to hear back from somebody else. Because that waiting can be a soul-killer. And sometimes, a career-killer. Make your own magic. Make your own career start. Find ways for people to listen.
Secondly, find your focus. Everyone has something unique to them, their point of view. And writing from that point of view consistently and confidently will make you a better writer over time. The old adage is true: “Write what you know.” And don’t just write what you know, write who you know.
In my ten plus years pitching and sharing stories in TV Writer’s Rooms, no ideas get more attentive ears than stories that really happened to me. So, it should be no surprise that my favorite job thus far has been writing a version of myself and my mother for the Norman Lear remake of ONE DAY AT A TIME (coming January 6th on Netflix). I get to tell the stories that mean the most to me. Because many of them have actually happened to me. And getting to share that has been the most artistically satisfying experience of my career thus far.
So, let me save you the five bucks that the coffee would have cost you and summarize: Decide what you want to write. And find ways to get better and better at writing it. Write about your dad, you mom, your sister, your favorite teacher, your best friend, your neighbor, your ex. Write and write and write and write. And don’t give up. Then once you write it, get it out there. Make your own magic. And one day, if you’re lucky, someone will be buying you a coffee.
Originally published at medium.com