In 2015, the TV writer Shonda Rhimes, had what she called A Year of Yes. “For one year,” she said, “I would say yes to all the things that scared me.” I am also a TV writer, albeit far less known and much poorer than Shonda. But for me, 2015 was the year I started saying no.
What happened was… I lost one of my oldest and closest friends to cancer. Her name was Barb Burg Schieffelin and she was fifty years old.
The last time I saw her we hugged really hard and she whispered in my ear: “Do what you want with your life. Look at me. You don’t always get tomorrow.”
It was the saddest, worst wake-up call to the preciousness of life ever, but her point was made. And after she died, I realized I had to stop trying to do what other people wanted me to do and start doing what I wanted me to do. It was time for me to learn how to say “no” to others and listen to my own heart.
One of the first things I started saying no to was TV. I was grateful for all my years in the business, and the friends I’d made and the financial security it had afforded me.
But when you write for TV, what you write is not what you choose. Yes, absolutely there are writers who find a way to tell their own stories (like Shonda perhaps?) and some of the time I was able to transfer what I was doing in my own life onto the screen: funny things that happened with my kids, domestic squabbles, managing conflicts with my in-laws and so on. But even then, whatever I wrote was always on their terms. Who was this “they?” It could be the head writer of the show. It could be a non-writing producer, a network executive or the lead actor or actress. TV is a collaborative medium and that means considering others people’s points of view…often at the expense of your own.
But in addition to this, in my heart, I knew writing TV was not my dream. What was my dream? To write a novel. It was all I had ever wanted to do since I was a teenager, but a million things had gotten in my way including, of course, the fear of falling flat on my face.
After Barb died I was wracked with grief. My mother had died when I was in my early twenties, so you’d think I’d know what grief feels like. But I didn’t. I would wake up sobbing in the middle of the night. Something snapped inside of me, and I knew I couldn’t go back to the way things had been before. I simply didn’t want to.
So I started saying no to my TV agents. When they asked if I wanted to go up for staff jobs, I said no. When they asked if I wanted to pitch pilots, I said no again. Obviously if I didn’t work my agents weren’t going to make any money from me, so they didn’t like it. Disappointing people has never been my style, so saying no was hard.
It was also hard in other ways. TV was how I got my identity. “What show are you working on?” friends would ask. Now I had to explain why I wasn’t trying to work in the business anymore. They were baffled.
Plus, for the first time in my adult life I wasn’t supporting myself or contributing financially to the household. With two kids in private school and a husband with an erratic income, this was a big risk.
But if I didn’t do this now, this thing I had always wanted to do, I knew I never would. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. And what would I have learned from Barb’s death? Nothing.
So I started writing a novel. I set a goal for myself. One page a day. A lot of the time I didn’t meet that goal. One page of prose is more than you’d think. And new adversaries popped up all the time to make things harder for me and block my path: there were opportunities for jobs that seemed too good to pass up. There was my own inner critic, telling me everything I wrote was lame and stupid. There were medical ailments, family crises, my need to be perfect and control things. The list went on and on.
But eventually, through sheer determination and writing one page a day, I got to the end of a draft. What came after? Well, if you want to know the answer to that, you’ll have to read my next essay ha!
I will never get my friend Barb back. It’s been more than three years since she died, and I still miss her every day. I long to call her and hear her voice and tell her what I’m up to. But even without her here, I do know what she’d say. She’d say keep going…keep trusting yourself… Do what you want with your life. Look at me. You don’t always get tomorrow.
So that’s what I’m doing. I’m saying no to pleasing others. I’m writing my book and seeing where it takes me. I think it’s going to be somewhere good.