Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Doctor

I feel the need to mention that working for an agency is not for everybody. My situation (a low-volume desk with a small roster of successful-yet-low-maintenance clients and an easygoing boss with 37 years of experience) is actually a unique one, and for many other assistants, jobs at the agency can be more stressful. Two of my friends recently were kicked off their desks due to no mistakes of their own, but political restructuring. Other perfectly smart people do not last because their personalities don't mesh with their bosses. Some agents are young and inexperienced and trying to figure everything out while impressing their superiors - and put this same pressure on their assistants. Some agents are really disorganized and expect their assistants to fix problems the assistants didn't even know existed. Some agents have really high-maintenance clients who don't return emails or know how to show up at meetings. Some agents get upset over tiny things, like when other agents' assistants don't recognize their voices when they call from an unknown number and just say, "It's me." Some agents are terrible communicators who are never clear about what they want. One of my friends works for a woman who noticed he wasn't wearing collar stays after 30 seconds with him. She once called him into her office and, after a brief conversation, started making a call. He left - and she snapped, "I didn't tell you to leave!" So he sat back down, and stayed when she started a second call. Then she snapped, "What are you doing here? Did I say that you could listen to this call?"

Being an assistant often involves navigating the fine line between making decisions on a whim and knowing when to ask questions before making said decisions. You have to be patient and organized and informed. You have to accept that you will constantly be challenged, but never in a fulfilling way. You have to anticipate. And you have to not let it drive you crazy that your life consists of running someone else's life. Let's be honest, it's not exactly the description of a writer.
You also have to deal with a lot of bullshit. (I'm sure this an important lesson for any career in Hollywood.) Here's one of my favorite stories, from the guy who recently moved to the desk next to mine. People often come to our room to visit, because A) we're awesome and B) our room is spacious and has become a hangout for transient chairs. I started to notice that all the guys call my friend "Doctor," and last week I finally asked him why. He used to work for one of our big talent agents, who is famous for signing clients and abusing assistants. He'd yell at my friend all day, firing him, saying he was useless, etc. Then he'd call him at two in the morning on his cell phone to say that my friend was doing a great job and that he was just toughening up to prepare him for the industry. It was a tough work environment. So, why Doctor? The agent's favorite thing to yell was, "IT'S NOT FUCKING BRAIN SURGERY!"


Burton said...

Loving the blog. Found it recently while catching up on Jane Espenson's musings and wanted to say hi and thanks for the perspective.

Also, to answer a question you posed last month, "Where do you write?": I like coffee houses in the hour before work if I can, or at home. I'm lucky to have a home office, so I hole up in there away from my roommates most days and then force myself to shut off the wi-fi.

Another way to answer that question: too far from L.A. --- live in Ohio, trying to weigh options of grad school or just chucking the comfortable marketing gig and moving west. My kudos and envy go out to you for not just blogging about it like so many of us, but actually doing it.

Look forward to reading more from you (and hopefully seeing your work on screen as well -- you have a good voice).

Dan Williams said...

Yes, you're right. It takes all kinds, and the demands sometimes seem impossible, stupid and demeaning.

I worked at a call center and took 60+ calls every day on life insurance. And each call, I had to be helpful, sympathetic, knowledgable, and get along with the caller so they didn't have a complaint. What helped me in this chaos was something I learned from a superviser. She said, "They want one of two things. They want reassurance or they want information. So when they call, that's the first thing to focus on. The second thing to remember is: emotions first, information second. Deal with the caller as a person, then as customer/client."

These two rules really helped. I worked out a third on my own. That is, no one has the power to make me feel bad in any way. No matter what is said to me, I'll keep my spirits high and try to help them to my best ability. And I won't blame them, either, for being in whatever mood they are in. Each person can say what they want, and I'm still going to feel good and I'm still going to try to help them.

Anyway, as Burton said, I'm loving your blog, and I hope you have a great L.A. day today.

Anonymous said...

It's just just being an assistant. Whatever you do for a living, you're probably going to have to learn to put up with static from the boss or bosses or whoever. That's just the reality of things. It's maybe a little more interesting if your boss is a pathological liar, as mine was for a number of years. But it's always something. And if it's not one thing, it's another.

Anonymous said...

Typo: It's NOT just being an assistant.

TL said...

Today, it's Sweet-n-Low; tomorrow, it's Equal.

Great blog! As a former assistant (to various industry-ahem-personalities), it really is all about anticipating your boss' needs, however batshit insane they are.

Brynn said...

What a great blog. I wish it had been around when I was an assistant. Here's hoping you'll be able to get out of the agency world and into a writers' assistant job soon. At least there you feel like you're learning something about your craft.