Career Coaching Actors, Writers, Designers, and Other Creative Professionals: Celebrating Success, Managing Challenges – by Ken Howard, LCSW
As a licensed psychotherapist (Ken Howard, MSW, LCSW – CA LCS #18290) and life coach in Los Angeles for over 20 years, it’s inevitable that I work with quite a few television writers in the course of a year. I find these clients especially interesting, as they are often quite intelligent, creative, and marvelously talented, holding their own in very competitive field.
As accomplished as some of these clients are (or soon will be), they also have their vulnerabilities that they bring to session. Certain themes emerge, some common challenges, that I’ve been able to observe over the years. From these, I have developed a list of recommendations for enhancing “coping skills” for the life of the television writer. These are:
Separating Rejection from Personal Self-Worth: For most of “my” writers, I hear the frustration that either an idea wasn’t validated by a show runner in the room, an agent/manager had extensive notes on a spec or a pilot script, a pitch meeting went badly, or a prized piece of writing isn’t getting sold or attended to. It is critical, though, to separate a rejection of one’s work (however small, however large) from being a reflection on one’s worth as a human being – or even, for that matter, as a writer. Television (like film and theatre) is, by its nature, a collaborative process. Many people are going to have input as to the finished product, from show-runners to stars to Standards/Practices to network to designers. Taking a step back from your piece and letting the collaboration happen – even if you think it’s tantamount to butchering your brainchild – is essential. Who you are as a person, spouse/partner, sibling, child, parent, neighbor, etc. remains intact. You, and your work, are separate entities and are individual gifts to the world. In therapy, I help clients maintain their self-esteem while doing battle with whoever your adversary-of-the-day is, and build your resilience to the day’s (year’s) challenges.
Negotiating with Colleagues Using Assertive Communication Skills: In sessions, I frequently role-play with my clients’ difficult conversations that they are anticipating having with various colleagues – a writing partner, an agent/manager, an actor, or someone else. There is a method to communicating assertively, which can be learned and mastered, but most people are not born with it or particularly confident or adept at it, at first. It takes a bit of what therapists call “psychoeducation,” which is education with a psychological-empowerment component to it. Once you master these skills, it makes all dealings with colleagues easier – mastering the art of negotiation and making agreements without resenting the other person for your feeling screwed by the interaction.
Networking: It’s a cliché in Hollywood – but it’s true – that it’s “not what you know, but who you know.” Networking is as critical a skill for television writers as writing talent and format/structure are. The best work you do is worthless if it doesn’t get to the right people. In sessions, we evaluate your current networking skills, and plan a strategy for gradually increasing them in order to achieve the effect you desire (which is usually doing better work, selling more, and doing it with less hassle).
Tapping your Creative Energies and Self-Validating: Despite all the, let’s face it, crap that writers go through, I always maintain an admittedly somewhat sappy and romanticized view of the art – yet I stand by that, because to see the joy of a writer expressing himself/herself artistically, and to see that joy be shared with theoretically millions of people in the Viewing Public, is rewarding and heartwarming indeed. To that end, it’s important to create an atmosphere – very often – that is relaxing, nurturing, and conducive to tapping your creative energies and letting the ideas – character, story, setting, dialogue – take flight, “downloading” them from the Great Creative Ether from which all wonderful artistic inspiration comes, filtered through our minds and hearts and out through our fingers on the keys and the page – and eventually the airwaves. Identifying in counseling how and when you are at your best creatively can be an exercise that we identify, strengthen, and even defend .
Seeing What’s Being Done and What’s Not: Networks and production companies keep screaming for original material, even if they tend to actually purchase projects that appear familiar to us. Being able to see what’s “out there”, in terms of what’s being sold/produced/aired, and what isn’t – where the gaps are, that could be filled with your original concepts/material – is an important professional skill to keep in your dossier as a writer. It’s about developing an awareness of what’s out there, what inspires you, and what leads to creative concepts that might be the next hit everyone’s talking about.
Having Patience and the Zen Attitude of Letting Go: I’ve observed that many of my writer clients have an almost obsessive-compulsive pattern of their thinking and behavior. Current projects – from a pilot script to this week’s episode – have a tendency to consume the consciousness, sometimes to unhealthy levels. It’s an important skill to have some patience – with yourself, your writing partner, your writing team, your show runner, etc. – and to adopt a certain “Zen attitude” of letting go a little. This is probably when you do your best work, get out of your own way, and the “problems/blocks” in your scripts get resolved. Learn the affect regulation skills (therapy can help) to be able to take a break, step back, and let the solutions flow from a deeper place within.
Getting Help from Partners and Friends: Another life skill for the Mentally Healthy TV Writer is knowing when to get help from others. There are many sources: a writing partner, a show runner, a partner/spouse, a sibling – even a therapist. I recently named one of my client’s pilots after they had trouble finding just the right one. I was glad to help, and they (and their manager) were glad to have it (therapists don’t get credit, though, we get a session fee – and I’m fine with that). But since writing can be such an isolating business – even when you work in a writers room – reaching out to trusted others can be essential to keeping your sanity when you’re feeling the pressure on a project – as long as you can trust that person to maintain the essential confidentiality of your intellectual property.
Empowering Yourself in Ways Outside of Work: The skill of empowering yourself outside of work is essential. Sure; your identity as a professional television writer is perhaps the most significant role in your life, and for good reason – millions of viewers are counting on you to keep the love affair alive with their favorite programs. But that role, however important, is not the only important role you have in your life. You could be a spouse or partner to someone. You could be a parent – to a child, or even a cherished pet. You could hold a position of leadership or volunteerism in your community. You are someone’s child, sibling, niece/nephew, neighbor, and friend. When you get stressed, remember that you are more than the current episode, pilot, re-write, or meeting: You are a human being. That is what you were before your career, and that is what you will be long after. Keep the perspective that keeps you healthy.
Self-Care with Diet, Exercise, Stress Management, and Sleep: While your job depends on meeting the challenges in terms of your creativity, skill, and discipline to meet deadlines, your effectiveness as a writer will be impaired if you do not practice the care and feeding that healthy writers require. Paying attention to your diet, having an exercise regimen that you enjoy (key word), having a strategy for managing stress, and getting enough high-quality sleep are all factors that help keep viewers laughing, crying, or screaming due to your work – and keep viewership up. There aren’t any studies, but I bet there is a correlation to be found between writers who take good care of themselves, the quality of their work, and ultimate ratings success of your projects.
Medical and Dental Care During Down Times: I work with one writer who manages a couple of chronic health conditions. She uses any hiatus week or hiatus season , in part, to schedule various medical appointments, dental exams, even elective (cosmetic) procedures, all to “do maintenance” on herself when she’s not nose-to-the-grindstone on her show. Knowing how to take care yourself during those times when you actually have time for “maintenance” is another important skill.
Experiences to Enrich your Life Beyond Work and Provide Creative Inspiration: Finally, it’s important that you give yourself enough official “down time” to support your “un-official” work time, in the sense that you are seeing the world and living life in a way that feeds your unconscious mind, where your creativity comes from. Taking a walk, doing some traveling, putting yourself in new/unique situations, being adventurous, even having morning coffee with today’s newspaper can all feed your soul in a way that creates spontaneous inspiration for a new project – sometimes, gleefully, when you least expect it. Approaching the world with a sense of awe, wonder, curiosity, amusement, and even questioning can all help you “plug into” the Great Creative Ether and breathe life into new concepts.
The life skills needed to be the Mentally Healthy TV Writer have a lot in common with the skills needed to be mentally healthy in any vocation, but for entertainment professionals, the stakes are higher – the demands of creativity, collaboration, and deadlines are daunting – more so than for the average person’s work week – but the rewards are higher, too. Reaping the rewards, while also keeping your own sanity, is a win-win situation for all.
For help in enhancing all of these life skills – and strengthening whichever one is the weakest link in the life chain for you – consider counseling or coaching sessions. Work can be one-time, short-term, or ongoing, and is customized to focus on the skills you most want to enhance.
For an appointment with me in person at my office for therapy or coaching in West Hollywood, call 310-726-4357. Sessions are also available by phone or via Skype. Call or email KBHMSW@aol.com for more information.