Michael writes: I know the industry is very difficult to break into. I've read your posts about the different PA/Agency/Writers' Assistant jobs, which confirms information I've got from an EP I contacted through my alumni network, but, knowing myself, I can't realistically see myself balancing the 10-12 hour/day average with good-quality creative writing, especially over any kind of long haul (especially when one factors in after-hours networking.) I was wondering if you could sketch out a in a little more detail just what the life of an aspiring writer looks like — how many years on average (I know there's a lot of variability and luck to go along with plain hard work in this field) in the "aspiring" category, and how one keeps it rewarding.
This is a great question - and as you might predict, it has a complicated answer. Many assistants on shows do work 10-12 hour workdays...but know that not all Hollywood jobs are this intense. Two of my friends currently working on shows work more like 9-hour workdays. When I worked as an assistant at the agency, I worked 9:30-7 with an hour and a half (!) for lunch, so an 8 hour day and 40-hour workweek. Overtime was expressly forbidden. Some assistants with busier bosses had to log unpaid overtime to stay afloat, but I didn't. I didn't make much money - and I wasn't able to write while I was on the clock or at lunch (for a number of reasons), but I got a fair amount of writing done on nights and weekends. I even had time to drink enough at Happy Endings to add contacts in my phone like "Brian Republican Valley" (oh, to be 22). Here's the ironic part of it all: today in my life as a blogger-tutor-reader, I generally only work 20-30 hours a week - but I honestly don't know if I get much more writing done than I did when I was an agency assistant. I can write at three in the afternoon if I want to - but I can also redeem my CVS Extrabucks and see if Sebastian Stan is at the gym (two of my favorite activities). I bet a lot of readers with full time jobs are really jealous of my odd lifestyle and the fact that I rarely set an alarm in the morning...but it's not as fantastic as you might think. Sometimes I don't speak to other humans until 8 pm. Buying your own health insurance is hella expensive. And writing is still hard.
I guess it all comes down to priorities. If you really want to be a writer, you will get the writing done, even if you're working 10-12 hours a day on a show. I think you have to be realistic about yourself, getting in the writing when you can and knowing that you will have prolific periods and rough periods. Sometimes you will wonder if you're totally batshit for pursuing this career. I think you have to indulge yourself a day or two of "this sucks" and then get back on the horse. I would still try to get a Hollywood job, even if it's super time-consuming, because the knowledge and connections will be invaluable. Just make sure you keep writing so that you'll actually have a sample to hand over when someone important asks to read your stuff. Joining a writing group gave me the deadlines I needed to stick with writing in the beginning. You can also use the Fellowship deadlines to motivate you. Ideally, you won't always have super long hours - and shows all go on hiatus, which could enable you to catch up on writing full time (or at least full time minus shopping and gym-celeb-stalking) while collecting unemployment for a while.
As for how many years it will take before you can stop slaving away all day and writing on nights and weekends...this really varies, depending on how fast you can crank out scripts, how good your writing is and how long it takes you to get your stuff to the right person (be it manager, agent, producer, etc.). But don't feel like you're sending yourself to prison when you take a day job. If you no longer feel your job is worth it, you can quit (like I did) and try something else for a while. You just can't expect certainty or security if you're heading down this path. Even after you sell a script or get staffed, the balancing act isn't over.