From Not Good Enough to Better Than
When I got the text message from the executive at the production company, I just knew.
“Hey, call me when you get a chance.”
I felt it in my bones. Bad news. The network was passing. Another rejection, leaving me seemingly 0 for 3279 for the last five years of pitching. The same thing had happened in April.
I was working a lunch shift at my bar in Charleston. As I hauled the garbage out to the back patio where we kept it during the day, struggling to pull the bag from the bin, surrounded by smells of dead fish, stale liquor and rotted potatoes, I felt my phone buzzing in my back pocket.
I pushed my bangs out of my face, took a deep breath through my mouth, and answered.
The studio, Warner Brothers, had passed. On a show I honestly thought had more potential than any I had ever pitched. I hung up the phone with the exectuive from that production company, looked around at my place in life — which, at that very moment, couldn’t be any less desirable — walked into the kitchen, into the walk in cooler, and screamed. Then I knelt down among the cucumbers and fish filets, and cried my fucking eyes out.
For nearly ten years, I have worked in the food and beverage industry. Coming out of college within six months of the economic recession wasn’t just inconvenient. To a girl with a degree in English Language and Literature, with no real world skills or direction, it was a death sentence. No magazine would hire me, no publication would pay me. And at the time, my mother was struggling to stay afloat in the house we had grown up in on Long Island, so asking for extra help from her felt down right cruel. I could not afford to live on experience and LIRR stipends alone. When I was laid off from my first office job, I took a hostess position at a steakhouse in New York — Bobby Van’s — one day a week, for roughly $68 a shift after taxes.
It wasn’t exactly the fame and fortune my mother wanted me to find after she helped put me through college.
But I parlayed that one day a week hostess shift into a few days a week, plus a cocktail waitressing shift. And then, at Christmas time, I was offered a position behind the bar on the weekends. I had never bartended before. I didn’t know what went into a martini. But I was given the opportunity to learn from guys who had been doing it their entire lives. The first drink I ever learned to make was a Cosmo. And to this day, I like to think I make a pretty damn good one.
I lived at home, like most stereotypical millennials at that time. I tried to save some money. I interviewed for jobs at Fox Sports, Edelman PR, and other boutique PR firms, but nothing ever stuck. I just wasn’t good enough. Not experienced enough. Not skilled enough. So despite my constant refrain of “I hate people” and “I hate work”, I stayed at Bobby Van’s for nearly seven years.
I started a blog when I was 24 about my dabbling in the world of dating and screwing around with athletes. It was cathartic to rant about the frustrations I found in dating in my 20’s. I’d find the humor in each debacle, write about it, and post. Another failed relationship, another funny anecdote. The silver lining in the constant rejection. Through the blog, I developed a voice. A no nonsense, no bullshit, honest, “don’t give a fuck what you think” perspective that helped me develop my greatest assett today: my thick skin. There is nothing you can say to me at 31 that I can’t laugh about or ignore. I’ve literally heard it all. Slut. Skank. Coat check girl. Frog face. Bad teeth. Small boobs. Big forehead. Long Island trash. You name it, I’ve heard it. And I really just don’t give a fuck. I could probably teach Donald Trump a thing or two.
In the summer of 2012, after a failed attempt at a relationship with a former MLB player and a battle with clinical depression that brought me to the brink of taking my own life, I wrote a script. Girls had just debuted on HBO, and I remember watching and, egotistically, thinking “I can do this better”. I bought a used version of Final Draft, and began my attempts at writing a script based on my blog.
In September of 2012, after Facebook messaging and bothering 50 agents at five agencies, I was miraculously taken on by a partner at UTA. It was, at that point, the greatest accomplishment of my life. And I was convinced I was going to be an instant success.
Nearly five years and god knows how many pitch and general meetings later, I had yet to sell a show or be staffed. For the last year or so, I lived in a constant state of worry that my agents were going to drop me. And honestly, who could have blamed them if they did? No producer or studio was going to give money to a bartender to write a show. A bartender who had never even stepped foot in a writers room, or gotten coffee for a showrunner, or paid their dues in the mailrooms or as an executive assistant. I couldn’t beat the system in place, and that was becoming increasingly clear. I was writing great shit. But no one wanted to take the chance. “No one goes from being a bartender to selling their first TV show, Stef” someone once told me. I began to feel like believing in myself seemed childish, stupid, foolish. But I couldn’t help it.
My dating life during this period was pretty much running parallel to my career. I had moments of glory with some guys. Baseball players, investment bankers, former lacrosse players who came from status and money. But they’d always bail. And I’d see them on Facebook cozied up to some Instagram model or blue blooded Ivy League grad. For nearly five years, in so many areas of my life, I was constantly being told I simply was not good enough. Good enough to meet with? Sure. Good enough to buy a show from? No fucking way. Good enough to sleep with? Totally. Good enough to bring home to mom and commit to? Yeah, no thanks.
I chased relationships in the same way I chased writing. I was determined to prove I was good enough, smart enough, savvy enough, honest enough. I supported men through their struggles with their games, or their jobs, their drug addicitions or drinking problems. But I was always left behind for bigger and better. More seasoned women, with bigger boobs, more femine features, better jobs, more Twitter followers. And with every failed relationship, I wrote a script. If I couldn’t control the events in my own life, I’d control the events in the lives of my characters.
I wrote scripts about young women finding themselves, about a doctor who provided black market euthansia options for his patients. About a female baseball agent, and a woman who controled the images of politicians and pop stars. I heard the dialogue in my head and saw the character the same way I saw my friends. Vividly. Respectfully. Empathetically. Four days at the bar, three days writing. Four days at the bar, three days writing. Six days in LA, seven days at the bar to make up for it. My life became a machine that existed solely to provide me the opportunity to share my stories.
Despite the fact that I was making more than most guys I knew in finance at the time while I was at Bobby Van’s, the stigma wore me down. A guy I dated would come in to my restaurant and I’d have to seat him and his date, politely handing them menus. A kid I graduated high school with would come in for drinks after work and I’d have to bus their table. A guy I slept with pretended he had never seen me before as I took his order in front of his colleagues. I cleaned up spills and bussed tables. I got extra ranch for customers and ran food for the kitchen. I worked Christmases and Thanksgivings, missed birthdays and family events to pick up shifts. I dealt with men in their 40’s putting their hand up my skirt, propositioning me for sex, and calling me names or refusing to tip when I refused.
I have cried in restaurant bathroom stalls more times than I care to remember.
But I also made friendships that have gotten me through moments in my life that seemed unmanagable. Found a work ethic I didn’t know existed when I was a care-free 21 year old college student. Met like minded people who supported my inconceivable dream of writing television, because they shared similar dreams. Made enough money to travel and finally move out of my mom’s house and into an apartment on the Upper East Side with my friends. I worked four days a week and was able to write freelance articles and scripts on my days off. I had a schedule that was flexible enough to allow me to travel to LA to pitch, or the Chicago to see a guy I was into, take a trip to Charleston to hang by the beach for a long weekend. And I had a skill that I could take and translate anywhere in the world. Despite what everyone on the outside thought they saw, I knew what I had and how lucky I was to have it. And I wouldn’t trade my time at Bobby Van’s for anything, honestly.
In 2014, I made the decision to move from New York City to Charleston, South Carolina. I had fallen in love with the little southern town during my many trips there, and decided I needed a change. I was 28, single, with no permanent ties to New York that couldn’t be managed from Charleston. I was struggling to find a new script idea after my previous one had been rejected by God only knows how many networks. I needed a change. I needed to get out of my own head and stop worrying about not being engaged, or married, in a relationship. About the fact that six years after the recession began, I was still working at a bar. And so I moved. Packed up my car on the side of 81st St. and drove 700 miles away from everything I had really ever known.
I spent eight months in Charleston before I got the call to move to LA. Two scripts I had written in my time there — soaked in bourbon and bug spray — had garnered a lot of praise from my agency. This was the right time. I cried as I packed up my car on Smith Street, because I had genuinely come to love Charleston so much.
When I got to LA and quickly realized there was no place for me where I had originally believed, I was devastated. I took a job as a floor manager at a reputable restaurant in Venice. And to be honest, it was the only thing I actually liked about my six month stint in LA. But it wasn’t what I came to LA for. And after something like 40 meetings and no offers on any show ideas, I packed up my car and moved back to Charleston. My tail was between my legs, but I was happy to be going home to a place I loved.
I took a job as a bartender when I moved back. A place that was just opening up, and a bar manager who was from my native Long Island. He got my constant use of “fuck” and my overall hatred for almost everyone around me. That bar supported my drive to write and afforded me the ability to do it. And when an article I wrote about millennials and work ethic went viral in February of 2016, they even let me film news interviews on premises so I didn’t have to miss a shift.
That article, I believed, was my golden ticket. With nearly 6.7 million views world wide, a celebrity retweet base and four interviews on Fox, CNN, and ABC, I had nearly 13,000 e-mails in my inbox by the time the dust had settled. Many, were from production companies. This was it.
My agent set up meetings and I now had a buzz about me. If I was going to sell, this would be the time to do it. I flew out to LA, without a real show in mind, and met with production companies. In a rush to capitalize on the buzz, we pitched too soon and the project was passed on. And like anyone else who has ever gone viral, I was soon forgotten about within weeks.
I went back to bartending, but my attitude toward it had shifted. Maybe it was that I was 30 now, no longer a young spring chicken, maybe it was that I was bitter, or jaded. I would mop the floor of the bar the night before I left for LA, and take a meeting with an exec from Amazon or Showtime the next morning. But the mood changed, and suddenly it felt like I had let myself down. I was fighting with trash cans, throwing away dirty diapers customers would leave behind at the high top tables. People would scream in my face if they didn’t get service fast enough when I was weeded. People would leave no tip on a hundred dollar check. I had to wear a hideous blue vest to work, and never felt confident about how I looked anymore. I made good money, but I was starting to feel like a failure. The constant response to me asking, “hi, how are you?” became “water” or “gin and tonic”, and it infuriated me.
I felt like people suddenly saw through me, and treated me as nothing more than a servant. It got to a point where I would leave almost every bar shift and cry in my car. As much as I hate to admit it, a lot of the patrons in South Carolina treated me the way that I felt about myself. Like a failure, a loser, a woman who was rejected by everyone. I wanted to scream at them that I had taken meetings with Warner Brothers and Showtime, HBO and well known celebrities. I had my degree, I was smart, educated, I could talk about politics and sports, and I could make awesome drinks. That they didn’t know me, that I was better than they saw. I wanted people to believe in me and tell me I was worth something. Patrons at the bar, men I wanted to date, networks I wanted to sell to. It felt like no one believed in me as anything more than a person who could put away cases of beer and make old fashioneds. And I wanted so badly to be more than that.
In January, my agent set up a bunch of meetings for a project that felt the most commercially viable. I had success right out of the gate, with the first meeting of the week showing immediate interest. But it was the last meeting of the week that would matter the most.
I took a meeting with a production company that had no interest in the show I was pitching, but my agent thought would be a good fit for a show I pitched a year earlier that was on brand for the network they had a deal with. The meeting went spectacularly, but still, wasn’t the prime focus. It fell on the backburner.
I picked a production company for my current pitch, and rolled with it. I was confident this would be my breakthrough. After so many years of struggling to get there, I walked into the pitch at Warner completely confident.
I walked out, knowing they were never going to take it.
I was right.
I went home from work early the day I got that phone call, because I couldn’t stop crying. Another epic failure in what should have been a sure thing. I felt like I had a target on my back, and God was just shooting at me every time I tried to make a move.
I had no Plan B. I had no five year plan. I had never thought about a time where I’d have to give up chasing the dream of being a writer for a living. I was just convinced, maybe naively, that eventually something would stick. I’m not good at many things in life, but writing, I knew, was one of those few things. Someone would HAVE to figure that out eventually…right?
It felt like it was never going to happen. And I’d roll into my job at the bar feeling hopeless. I looked ahead to 35, 40, and all I could see was opening wine bottles. Clearing plates. Asking if people needed refills. Praying for 20% tips.
Two weeks ago, I sat in my rental car in the parking garage an hour before my most recent and, honestly, most important pitch meeting with a network in LA. That dark horse meeting in February had brought me here, a saving grace when Warner Brothers passed on my other show. I was wearing a blue and white skirt from Alice and Olivia that I had bought on E-Bay, praying the slight rip in the back that made it affordable to someone like me didn’t show. A testimate to me trying to fake it until I could make it. I reread my pitch, then thought about every meeting I had taken in nearly five years. I began to panic.
My deoderant didn’t seem to be working. What the fuck? My shirt kept riding up. STAY DOWN. My hair fell flat. I have no static guard. I almost ate shit in the stairwell because of the shoes I had on that were killing me, the punishment for buying shoes on Amazon. It was textbook Murphy’s law. And when I looked up at the execs as I gave my pitch, I thought I had lost them. Not interested. Bored. Over it.
I walked out of the meeting believing not only had I blown the pitch, but that I would probably be barred from Hollywood after this one.
I went back to my AirBnB, called my mom and cried.
I was a failure. And who would want a failure to write a show?
I cried in the airport. And in the plane bathroom. I had tense conversations with my mother and sister about taking a hiatus from work, and then maybe going back to school for psychology, or maybe trying to get a job in the athletic department at The University of Maryland (my beloved alma mater). I just knew I couldn’t go back to bartending. For as much as it had given me through the years, I couldn’t do it anymore. I had lost my love of it and replaced the love with cynicism and bitterness. I needed a Plan B, because at 31 years old, Plan A was looking grim.
When I saw the text, I braced myself. I had been here before. I knew the drill. “They loved you, but they just weren’t sure about this, or that. They didn’t see where it could go in season 2. They’ love to find something else to work on with you in the future.”
I called the exec back, and waited for the blow. I asked how her holiday was, and she asked about mine. I told her I was still with my family, planning on heading back to Charleston the next day.
“Well tell your family you now officially have a project in development.”
I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, honestly. I remember hugging my sister while still on the phone, and calling my mom who, I think, cried.
I then got in my car, drove to the North Shore of Long Island, to one of my favorite quiet spots right on the water in Oyster Bay, and I cried (I cry a lot, apparently). I sat there remembering everything I had been through — breakups, rejections, pitch meetings, let downs, my father’s death, my decision to leave NYC, my attempt at suicide, my dreams at 18, — and realized it had all actually lead somewhere.
After nearly five years of nothing but rejections, I had finally done something right. I beat the system. I proved everyone who told me it couldn’t be done, wrong. That a little bartender with an English degree who spent more time making margaritas for other people than herself, just sold a show to a network. Suddenly, I wasn’t just good enough. I was better than I ever thought I could be.
I tell you this story not to humble brag or pat myself on the back (though, I’ll admit I am pretty fucking proud of myself). I tell you this story because I know that everyone knows what it’s like to be told you aren’t good enough. To build yourself up only to be pushed back down by assholes. By men. By wary execs. By customers. I was told more times than I can remember that I wasn’t good enough. That I’d never be good enough. I scrubbed floors and swept up broken glasses. Scraped off dishes and cleaned up vomit. I dealt with patrons who berated me, yelled at me, wrote nasty Yelp reviews that criticized my looks, my bartending skills, my personality. I ate my pride and served people I knew, cleaned up their messes, and said thank you when they were rude assholes and left me 12%.
And I am a better person for it. For all of it. And I don’t think I would trade the last ten years of life in the restaurants for having someone hand me something because of who my mother or father knew.
There will always be someone on the other side telling you that you aren’t good enough, strong enough, smart enough, thin enough, popular enough. That you don’t have experience, are green, have nothing to offer. There will always be people who will shoot down your ideas, your offers, and your dreams just because they can. There will always be that mother who told you that you weren’t good enough for her son. People who will judge you because of a job you have that they think would be beneath them, even if you make more money than they do.
Fuck ALL of them.
I’d say people who tell you that you aren’t good enough have no place in your life, but the reality is that there is a place for them. And you will only realize their importance when you finally succeed in something they said you could never do. Those asshole customers, those shitty execs, those volatile relationships, those people who leave you with that feeling of being worthless, feed the fire to be not just good enough, but better than. Every guy who ever told me I wasn’t good enough, every exec who said I wasn’t good enough, every customer who ever was rude to me or made me cry, I’m grateful. Because had they not, then I just would have settled for good enough. And good enough for them, would have never been enough for me.
It took me ten years of working in restaurants and five years of literally nothing but rejections to get something very few people ever get. I sold a TV show. Whatever your dream may be, whatever your goal is, know that the struggle of attaining it makes it so much better in the end. Do not give up on something that seems impossible. Do not back down when people laugh at you or spit at you or challenge you. Do not be embarrassed of what you have to do to succeed, whether it means working in a bar or a strip club, a doctor’s office or an ice cream store. Do not be afraid to cry when things go wrong, but don’t be afraid to get back up and try again, either. Do not be afraid to take punches if there’s a chance it can push you ahead. Do not settle for Plan B because it’s easier or safer. Do not listen when they say it can’t be done.
Do not settle for being good enough, because I promise you, there is something so much better.