Dustin writes: I'm having a dilemma right now between how much I should focus on my vocation (TV writing) and my plan B career. How common it is for there to be writers who are staffed after having a previous full-on career? And I don't just mean day-job, but careers like lawyers and mid-level office managers, marketing, etc.
I moved to Los Angeles right before the writer's strike, and unable to find any job in Hollywood, I ended up moving into the marketing industry. What started out as a day job assisting a publicist turned into something I became very passionate about. I was still able to write, but definitely did not make as much progress in terms of improving quality and producing pages as I have now that I've been laid off, or, I imagine, as I would bagging groceries at Ralph's. Again I'm looking for work, and this time really focusing on getting a job in the industry. But the only calls I'm really getting for interviews are coming from the marketing side.
I know there is no correct answer in regards to how hard important it is to work in the television industry as an assistant (specifically writer's assistant), but if a paycheck and the economy pulls my day-jobbing completely away from the industry and I end up developing a career in marketing, I worry I'll never get to where I really want to go. How common is it for TV writers to had full on previous careers? Am I just stressing out for nothing? I am writing nearly every day after all.
I definitely understand where you're coming from - and I think we all have a lesson to learn here: when your original plan doesn't work out, you need to formulate a new plan to keep moving ahead with your writing career (I definitely had to).
As for whether writers have had other careers first: Yes, absolutely. Sometimes it's actually seen as a positive thing because of the unique perspective you'll bring to a show. Criminal Minds showrunner Ed Bernero has even gone on the record saying that he doesn't like to staff people who have come straight from film school or assistant jobs and haven't had the "life experiences" of another career. I don't think you should worry about this, since every writer has a different background. What you should worry about is whether pursuing another career will sidetrack you.
Here's my take:
1. Try to find an industry job. In the beginning, these really are the best day jobs for aspiring writers. I think this is essential for the learning experience and the contacts you'll make. If you never have an industry job, how do you plan to get your scripts inside? Some people are lucky enough to have really strong contacts without toiling as a PA, assistant, etc. - but most of us aren't.
2. If you can't find an industry job, find the job that will pay you the most money. Life in LA is expensive, and you want to be able to experience it without going into massive credit card debt. For you, it sounds like marketing is the way to go. But always be on the lookout for that industry job, because of all the reasons I listed in #1. I blogged before about an interview with TV writer Scott Rosenberg, who quit his industry job to be a truck driver. But he did work in the industry first. If he didn't, I bet he wouldn't have had the connections (or knowledge) to transition from truck driver to TV writer. You need to position yourself in the best way possible, and do everything you can (whether it's applying for fellowships, attending events or studying your craft) to succeed.
3. Always be writing. The downside to some industry jobs (like working on a show) is that 12-hour days will get in the way of your writing. You have to figure out the right balance. You say you're writing nearly every day - so it sounds like your marketing gig is a good day job to pair with writing on the side. I would probably only opt for the Ralph's idea if it wasn't.
4. Don't get stuck on autopilot; keep re-assessing how your plan is working out. If you spend three years in marketing and you don't feel any closer to being a paid TV writer, it might be time to make a change. Same thing if you work 12 hours a day on a show and haven't been able to finish a script.
Lastly, Dustin - whether you want to give up on TV writing and pursue a career in marketing is completely up to you. Do what makes you happy. This business is too hard, too frustrating and too time-consuming for people who don't really love it.