wherein KRISTA VERNOFF gets existential about waiting for the phone.
Vernoff has swoon-worthy success. With her five pilot orders (five! that! never! happens!) and tenures writing, producing and running Emmy winning shows like Grey's Anatomy and Shameless, Vernoff is a TV all-star. Herein, she gets vulnerable for WOMENSCRIBES and reminds us that at all levels -- aspiring, ascending, successful-but-disenchanted -- "Happiness is an inside job. Happiness is the climb."
“I am standing at the bottom of the mountain again, looking up.” That’s what I said to my sister yesterday. It’s the second week of January. I’ve written a pilot that has “heat” and “buzz.” I’m anticipating the possibility of a pilot order and every time the phone rings and I can’t find it, I run from room to room, frantically following the ring, yelling out to no one but the dog, “That could be the call!” It’s exciting, waiting for a pilot pick up. And nerve wracking. And fucking exhausting. And almost depressing. Because I’m standing at the bottom of a mountain I’ve climbed five times before. And every time, right when I’m about to hit the summit, a storm blows in, and I don’t….quite…make it.
Let me explain. Because if you’re still waiting tables, you think I’m an asshole right now. You’re like, “You want to see the bottom of the mountain? My shirt is covered in mustard and my manager just slid his fingers across my ass and my tips are for shit and I can barely make rent.” And I remember that mountain. I waited tables from age seventeen to age twenty-seven. That mountain’s steep and the air is thin, and you have all of my compassion, but bear with me…
My mountain, right now, looks like this: I’m forty. And I have been working as a TV writer for a long time. (If I told you the actual number of years you would do the math and know that I might be slightly more than forty.) And I have been lucky enough to have five pilots made. I pour my heart and my soul and my body into making pilots. It’s a 90 hour work week. It’s relentless, it’s exhausting, it’s thrilling, it’s painful physically and emotionally. It’s like childbirth and that’s a serious simile for me to make because I survived 26 hours of natural labor and pushed my baby into the world unmedicated and thought I would die of it. And making pilots is sort of like that except it happens for three months (and nobody literally tears your vagina.) It’s hard work but you birth the pilot and you LOVE the pilot and you can’t wait for the world to see the pilot.
Then you wait for the next call. Only this time you don’t leave your phone anywhere. You glue it to your hand. You take it to the bathroom with you and into therapy with you and you leave it on the pillow beside you even when you’re fucking. You do not risk missing the call that takes your pilot to series. The call that allows you to hire the writers you’ve been reading and interviewing for months. The call that means people will get to see the fruits of your labor. The call that means you’ve reached the top of your own private mountain. You wait for that fucking call. And for me, five times, that call has gone the wrong way. It’s gone the way of the storm that blows you off the mountain and into your bed, for days or sometimes weeks. (You can’t go to bed immediately though. First you have to call your cast and personally blow them off the mountain.) The disappointment is STAGGERING. The first time I got that call, I cried for three days straight. At the time, it felt like a death. I didn’t develop again (meaning, I didn’t pitch or write another pilot) for six years.
I don’t do that anymore – I don’t go that low. Because I’m older now and I’ve survived the actual death of actual loved ones and I know that it doesn’t actually feel like death when your pilot doesn’t go. I’ve also come to understand that this is a business and that nothing is personal. And I’ve become a mother, so the last time I got that call, just this past May, my first thought was, “How will I tell my eight year old?” Because this time, she too had bonded with the cast and fallen in love with the story and world and the music and she wanted so badly for people to see it. So I told her gently and then I bought us both ice cream. When I was finally alone three days later and it finally hit me, I cried for about half an hour and then I got out of bed and went for a hike on a smaller mountain. (Literally, I went for a hike, but also, going back on staff – writing for someone else’s show – is a smaller emotional mountain.)
I have a dear friend who is a TV writer too. A few years ago, he reached the pilot summit and got a series order! (If I had emojis on my computer, I would insert happy faces and confetti drizzled party harts here!) He got to call his cast with good news and he got to pop champagne and celebrate and hire writers and crew up and it was all so thrilling. And then for the next six months, he fought like hell with the studio and network executives, desperately trying to get even a fraction of his vision through the far too many conflicting egos and opinions that are involved in the first season of any TV show. He cried daily. He screamed loudly. And he ended up making a show that even he didn’t like. The critics eviscerated it, no one watched, and the show went “two and out.” (That means they only aired two episodes before cancelling it.) That was about eight years ago and he has never written a pilot again.
I tell you this story because if I ever get past the pilot mountain, I’ll have to get past the first episode mountain and the first season mountain and the critics mountain and if I’m very, very lucky the season two slump mountain and because I know John Wells and Shonda Rhimes, I also know that they are still climbing mountains of their own. They still get blown off by storms. Really! I’ve seen it! It never stops. There’s no end, just like in life. Happiness isn’t at the top of any of these mountains. Happiness is an inside job. Happiness is the climb.
If I get a pilot order this week, I’ll jump up and down and text all my friends and eat too many calories to celebrate. There will be a tired part of me that will think, “I’ve already climbed this mountain five times.” But then I’ll remember where I came from which is nowhere: No pedigree, no industry contacts, less than no family money. I’ll remember that I used to sit in coffee shops in Portland, Oregon, writing scripts ‘til midnight and dreaming that someday, someone important might read one. I’ll remember that someone handing me the money to put on film a world that I dreamed up is a miracle in my life, even if it’s incredibly hard work and even if no one ever sees it. I’ll do this because when I was waiting tables, a mentor taught me that the key to happiness (and better tips) is gratitude. She said, “instead of resenting your job and all the frustrations that come with it, try to remember that you are blessed to have a job that lets you walk around and talk to interesting people and that some of those interesting people are privately going through hell and that giving them a smile and bringing them warm food is an act of loving service. Think about all the people in the world who don’t have jobs, or freedom, or education. Think about how lucky you are.” I took that advice then and I still take it now whenever I’m feeling disappointed or defeated or depressed or overlooked or forty(I have three friends who didn’t make it to forty. Aging in Los Angeles is scary, but it beats the hell out of the alternative.)
I know that I’m in the mountain range that you are desperately seeking but the climb and the missed steps and the falling rocks somehow feel the same. I know some days you feel like if you get one more rejection letter, or stupid script note from a stupid friend, or if one more agent doesn’t call you back, you’ll quit and go find some other mountain to climb. But don’t do it. Because happiness has nothing to do with which mountain you’re on -- and life is hard enough without giving up your dreams.