The Story of Mom

February 27, 2019

A/N — This isn’t about writing. This is about what was going on the past two years while I kept writing — and ultimately, I guess, how words help us writers process our grief in ways nothing else ever will.


The Story of Mom

By Niceole R. Levy – a daughter

I’m in the bathroom, doing my hair. And like she often does, Mom wanders back to tell me something. This time, she has a hat in her hands. A black Stetson she wanted for years, which I bought her six months ago for Mother’s Day. She holds it up, smiling so wide.

“Did you see what my baby got me?”

I laugh. She’s famous for her weird mix ups of names and people, so I laugh and say, “You mean what I got you?”

The look on her face makes me want to cry, but I can’t. I have to keep smiling and hold it together, because in that moment, I can tell my mother is terrified. So as gently as I can, without any fear or anger in my voice, I say, “Mom. Do you know who I am right now?”

“No.”

And just like that, the world shifts on its axis.

The bigger world, of course, had shifted months earlier – when Barack Obama packed up and left the White House and the new resident ran through worrisome to upsetting to terrifying in less than a year. And in the year since that fateful day, the world has felt like a dumpster fire in a lot of ways – and I’ve tried, really hard, to say engaged with it all. To fight. To care. To encourage people doing more than that in any way I can.

But I’m not going to lie. The part of the world that holds most of my attention is the human being who gave me life, raised me, and is – more quickly than I can handle – disappearing.

Looking back now, we (my brother and I) can see that it was happening for years before. Things that didn’t make sense except that, on her best day, my mother can be described as difficult, so we often just chalked the weird up to her being her.

Like when she stopped speaking to me for two weeks, then yelled at me about owing her $40,000 (I didn’t) that she loaned to me for college (she didn’t), and how dare I buy my first home without even offering to pay her back.

I told her I’d write her a check, and that stopped her ranting. She didn’t want my money. It was the principle. Which I reminded her wasn’t a real thing because she never made me that loan and had she, I would’ve paid it back. She got over it. We moved on.

Like her making up stories about how close she was to her estranged sister before my aunt died. Which I knew was not true because I had gone online, at my mother’s request, to try to find my aunt so she could reach out after years of them not speaking to each other.

By the time we were able to locate some of my cousins, it turned out my aunt had passed away. But in my mother’s head, she and my aunt were exchanging weekly phone calls and were so close before my aunt died. And when I challenged that notion, Mom got so angry she almost made me leave her house.

Like the hundred other things we dismissed as “Mom being Mom” – pretending my father wasn’t an alcoholic, making up interactions with people, ranting about politics in a way that seemed unreasonable at best, obsessing about money, imagining conspiracies everywhere she looked. And on. And on. And on. And… well, you get the idea.

I took my mother to her family doctor in the hopes of getting some help. What I found out was that she had been skipping doctor appointments for at least a year. That she was not taking her medications. And that, as was evident from looking at her, she had lost 40 pounds. She kept saying it was because she was exercising, but it was clear after being around her for several days the real issue was – Mom was just forgetting to eat.

This was the beginning of the next phase of our lives as a family – the phase where we beg people for help and don’t get it.

I involved my older brother immediately – sending him photos of her, updating him on her condition, logging unpaid bills we needed to take care of. Meanwhile, her doctor refused to give her situation more of a name beyond “likely dementia.” She wanted a neurologist to diagnose my mother. She needed blood work to figure out if my mom was taking her meds or not. She needed follow-up visits.

So I planned multiple weekend trips home to take my mom to these appointments. Because that’s what I do. I’m the kid who stayed relatively close and, for at least 13 years, has been the center of her universe. Mother’s Day, her birthday, some portion of the holidays – she got them all, along with some random visits just to say hi or do some errands or housework for her that needed doing.

It seemed manageable on some level. A nurse was assigned by the hospital to coordinate my mom’s visits and help get her to the appointments if I couldn’t be there. Our neighbor – a godsend of a woman who likes my mom – kept an eye on her and let me know if a situation was extremely worrisome. My oldest friend, who lives in town, volunteered for drop-in visits and helped keep groceries in the house because even though Mom would tell you she was driving to the store and to church – her car hadn’t left the driveway in months.

Then, Mom took me off her medical permissions with the doctor.

To say this ripped my heart out is an understatement. It felt mean and angry. It felt purposeful. But it was, I realized later, a factor of the check-in nurse asking if the information on file was still current and some made up story in my mom’s head casting me as her villain who kept making her go to doctors. So she took me off and the doctor and nurse were no longer able to speak to me.

I was powerless beyond asking people to drop in and help her.

My brother took over, growing as frustrated as me by the day because the system is not built to help you get a sick elderly parent declared incompetent. The system is there to protect the parent – and I get it. There are shitty people in the world who want to take advantage of old people who are losing their memories. But that isn’t us – and no one seems to care.

And that’s when the next phase of this story began for me. Because that 13 years of being the center of Mom’s world – it came back to bite me on the ass. Because who else was there for her to blame? To be angry with? To make up stories about – for stealing her money, for taking things out of her house, for telling people she was crazy, etc.?

Who was there to hate besides me?

I understand that the woman who says those things about me, who feels those things, is not my mother. She’s the person with a damaged brain who lives in my mother’s body. But they come out of my Mom’s mouth in my Mom’s voice. They still hurt.

But nothing was worse – nothing at all – than having to pick up the phone and call Adult Protective Services on my own mother because I was that desperate to get some kind of legal intervention to keep her safe.

It turned out to be just another thing for her to hate me for. They don’t tell you, of course, who called in the report, but my Mom’s sick not stupid – she knew. And she railed about me to our neighbor. It also did zero to help us because Mom isn’t walking around with open sores and we kept enough food in the house that the social worker decided she was “fine for now.”

Because my mother is a child of her generation and buys into the whole patriarchy mentality of “men run the family,” she let my brother take her to the neurologist. Who said her “likely dementia” was really Alzheimer’s, and my mother couldn’t live alone anymore.

Duh! That part we knew.

Now we just needed someone to help us make sure she wasn’t living alone anymore.

I wish someone had told us, “Good luck with that.” Because it feels like luck is the only thing that’s going to help us. We’re still in a never-ending circle of doctors, a lawyer, and a system that keeps telling us, “No, you need to go to this place, not that one.” We’re still struggling with the shifting sands of my mother’s memory and the rage her condition triggers. Some days, she adores us. Some days, she hates us so deeply that she locks herself away in her room and won’t come out. Some days, there are glimpses of the woman who raised us. But mostly there is just the steep, long decline of someone deeply loved who can no longer understand what love is.

The day my phone rang with news that my father had died suddenly from a massive heart attack, my soul shattered so completely – so brutally – that I really thought, “nothing in the world could ever be worse than this.” It was so unfair. The suddenness. Not getting to say good-bye. Being so far away. Needing five more minutes with him and knowing I would never get it.

I was certain it was the worst thing that would ever happen to me.

I was wrong. So sadly and dreadfully wrong. Because this is worse. Watching my Mom lack comprehension of how sick she is, lash out at us for trying to keep her safe, and listening to this smart, funny woman turn into a confused old lady who speaks in loops and twisted circles of words and memory and made-up stories, knowing there is ultimately nothing we can do to save her…

This is worse.

________________

She loves me today.

This summer, we managed to get Mom on a plane to “visit” family on the east coast. We, of course, knew the visit was really a permanent move. It wasn’t the first option I wanted to choose, but it was the one that we had to settle on. I wanted her in a care facility close to me, but I’m alone in the city, sometimes working 12-hour days. My brother and his wife have a house where Mom can have her own room and bathroom and that’s large enough to accommodate having a care giver, because that time isn’t far off. The time when she can’t live with any of us is probably bearing down on us like a semi-truck. But we’re trying to ignore the lights in the rear-view mirror.

Mom blames me for the entire move, of course. She’s ranted more than once to the family about how I interfered with her doctors and told people she was nuts and how dare we all gang up on her and make her do what we want her to do just because Niceole said so.

This week, my brother and his wife had to travel, so I’m here with my mom. I took a freelance writing assignment so I’d have work to keep me busy just in case she refused to speak to me the entire week. (I’m on hiatus from the TV show I work on, which is the only reason I could come here at all). And I’ve been able to cook for her and visit with her and still get all my work done even though, to my great surprise and relief, she’s seemed mostly happy to see me.

I mean, the first ten minutes were her lecturing me about how I am the worst daughter who ever lived for taking away her choices and forcing her to do what I say. But then I made her baked apple French toast and gave her a new nightgown and bought a cute Halloween outfit for her baby doll (more on that in a minute), and then today… today she just was happy to have me. I spent the better part of the day just listening to her talk – weaving stories that don’t make a lot of sense but amuse her – so even when they break my heart, I listen and “mm-hmm” and nod and laugh because she needs me to.

And I didn’t say anything mean or dismissive about her baby because that’s become counterproductive – so when she went and put on the new outfit I brought for the doll, even though it was too big, it felt like she was trying to give me something. And I’m taking it – a win is a win in this situation, however small it might be.

She started carrying the doll around for comfort several years ago. We thought it was weird, but she kept saying, “I know it’s not real. It just makes me feel better.” So okay… I refused to hold it or kiss it or talk to it, but I tried not to be judgy when she did all of the above.

Then it got worse. The story changed. She’d owned this doll for a while now – I remember when she ordered it. She owns several – has a regular collection of them. But then one day she made up this story about having the doll specially made. That she sent a picture of my dead aunt as a baby to the doll company, and they made the doll custom. That it cost a thousand dollars. And she started calling the doll by my dead aunt’s name.

Warning bells all over. But also – Mom is just kind of nuts. This is a woman who once threatened to hit me with a cast iron skillet because she didn’t like how I talked to her. So, you know, volatile and kind of wacky. I was worried but tried not to overreact. She was still taking good care of herself. Paying her bills. Going to church. So it seemed fine. Not worth fighting over.

Between Mother’s Day and November 13th of last year (the second date is her birthday, so home for a visit again) – everything changed. My mom stopped going to church. Or to the store. Stopped driving altogether. Stopped paying her bills. She forgot how her cell phone worked and stopped answering it. She would prep food to cook it then forget about it and let it go bad. And after years of constantly talking about all the cleaning she had to do in her house, she stopped doing any – and the clean home I’d grown up in turned into a trash dump.

And that damn doll became a symbol of how much my Mom had changed.

The first time she insisted on taking it out in public, I thought I would crawl into a hole and die. I mean… embarrassing as hell, right? But she wouldn’t leave the house without it, and I was home for Mother’s Day yet again. I had stayed in my hometown an extra four hours just to take her to church and dinner before I left. So I let her take the doll. Because it was the only way to get her out the door. And I wanted to be a good daughter and celebrate with her, but man, I was tired of having the same three conversations on a loop, and I wanted to be done and get in the car and drive home.

Then I watched people react to her and her doll as we stood in the vestibule of the church.

When I was seven, my mom had pneumonia and wasn’t supposed to get out of bed, but I was prepping for my first communion (a big step on my path to being a super fallen Catholic.) So Mom got out of bed and took me to mass – a requirement every Sunday until our big day. But she was so sick. Hacking and running a fever. She stayed in the vestibule so she wouldn’t disturb everyone. And my mom was sick… so I stayed with her. I could hear the whole mass from there.

When our new priest – a dude I couldn’t stand already because he was a pompous ass – made a snarky remark to my mom later about keeping me from going inside properly for mass, I told him to go to hell. Right there in the vestibule of the church. And I never felt an ounce of remorse for it.

If you knew me as a kid, you know my mom was mean. The meanest mom in the world as far as I was concerned. (So totally not – but kid perspective is limited). But when my friends slipped up and commented on how mean she was, I was ready to kick someone’s ass. That’s MY mom. Nobody gets to talk shit about her but me.

So yeah, this priest snarked my mom, and I told him to go to hell. And the school suggested to my parents that I not re-enroll. I smiled all the way back to public school for third grade.

Standing there in the vestibule again in May of this year, my mom clutching that doll for dear life, seeing the reactions people had to her and her baby, I wanted to scream. I wanted to tell them that my mom was sick and to stop gawking at her. I wanted to tell the God and saints that are supposed to protect Catholics how damn unfair it is that my mother had become this sad woman who couldn’t feel safe without a toy in her arms.

I wanted to go back in time, to the first moment my gut said “something is wrong” and do something… anything… that might keep that day from ever happening.

My brother and I have lamented in depth about the window we missed… to get her to make a plan for what she wanted in her old age; to have a real conversation with her about what was going to happen if she started to deteriorate; to let her have some say in her future.

Because that’s done now. She hates it. Hates me for it most of the time. But she can’t make her own decisions anymore, about hardly anything. And it’s terrible. And I wish it wasn’t true. But it is.

I came here on this visit with one thing I had to do… I had to say to her, out loud, “everything that’s happening is happening because I love you more than anything else in the world, and I have to make sure you’re safe.”

I said it. I’m not sure if she heard it in a way that mattered.

But today she loved me. Even if she wasn’t always sure who I was.

The fear that it’s the last time… that she’ll know me, that she’ll remember she loves me… runs deeper than I can say. I’ll probably see her in a few months for Christmas or New Year’s. Will she still know who I am then? I don’t know. Things are happening faster now – she barely changes clothes or leaves her room anymore, and simple things are becoming impossible.

I snuck upstairs to write this. To get a break from how hard I had to fight all day not to cry. She came looking for me. Wanted to be sure I was safe – “all the doors and windows locked up there?” I went back down, walked all the doors with her downstairs, kissed her goodnight, and told her I loved her.

“I love you, too, baby.”

I have to leave her tomorrow. It’s going to nearly kill me.

But today she loved me. So I’m going to try to hold on to that. To remember it. For both of us.

________________

“Call me when you get there.”

That’s what she said as she hugged me good-bye.

For a few seconds, my mom was there, treating me like her baby… worried about me traveling out in the world alone.

Tomorrow she won’t remember I was even in the house.

But today she was here. For a moment.

________________

It’s my birthday.

I managed to get all my work done so I could take the day off – just do whatever. That ended up being shopping for some stuff for my house so I could go all Martha Stewart in the guest room and buying a new pair of shoes that I don’t need but really want.

But mid-day my mood just… sunk. Went straight from okay to shitty in about a minute and I couldn’t figure out why.

I tried to ignore it. Returned some calls, talked to some friends – figured out that my Facebook settings were still set to super strict private because of a blow up with a former friend (hence all those messenger happy bdays, which I couldn’t figure out).

But still so grumpy. So I took a walk. Cleared my head. Listened to the iPod playlist that usually helps me think up solutions to story problems.

That’s when I figured it out.

It’s my birthday. But my mom doesn’t remember.

That broke my soul open a little.

But the truth is, it’s better for her. Because my birthday has made her sad ever since my dad died. Even though she tried to pretend. For my sake. Because my birthday is his birthday, too.

“Daddy’s girl right from the start,” she always says.

Or she used to. When she could remember.

So it’s my birthday and my mom doesn’t remember. But she also doesn’t remember to be sad because it’s my dad’s birthday and she misses him desperately.

So that has to be enough.

Happy birthday to me.

________________

I’m not sure I’ve ever missed someone as much as I miss her.

Which is crazy, because she’s still alive, but of course – she’s also gone.

The mom who I could argue with and tease and sass – she’s left behind a woman whose confusion I manage, whose feelings I validate, whose anger I take.

________________

It’s her birthday today.

I sent her a cake because Mom loves sweets and things really don’t matter to her anymore beyond the gowns she wears all day long and the baby doll she can’t live without.

She managed a five-minute phone call – and was generally in a good mood.

It’s the first time I haven’t been with her to celebrate her birthday in so long, I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t.

Maybe not always on the day – because jobs – but always in the vicinity. Lunch. Errands. Watching a movie she loves that I hate (Hello, Easter Parade!)… it’s been our thing.

But the most I could do was send her a cake. Lemon – which she loves. And tell her I loved her.

And wonder if next year, she’ll even know what a birthday is.

________________

They had to call the police on my mom today.

She’s been aggressive. Violent. Screaming and terrorizing everyone around her. So they called the police, and now she’s in an emergency room 3,000 miles away from me, and I can do exactly nothing to help.

She’s so angry. And so scared. And so confused.

This illness is… a nightmare.

My mom wasn’t a perfect mom by any stretch. Sometimes she wasn’t even a good one. But she deserved better than this… for her mind to turn against her and to see enemies in all the people who are trying to love her and help her.

We all deserved better than this.

Fuck you, Alzheimer’s. Fuck everything about you.

________________

Today is Thanksgiving, and my mom spent the day with strangers in a hospital where she’s being evaluated to see what can be done to help manage her moods and the progression of her illness.

I called and wasn’t sure she’d speak to me on the phone, but she’s shifted all of her anger at me for everything to my brother for putting her in the hospital, and so for once, I’m not the villain of her story.

She’s still scared. Still angry. But she was calmer than usual when she’s in those states – so maybe something they’re doing is helping her.

But being so far away from her… I can’t even begin to describe how hard it is. Even if all I could have done was sit with her at the hospital for an hour during visiting and watch TV with her…

But I can’t be. I have career things going on that demand I be here – and I’ll see her in a month for Christmas. And yet I have no idea what that’ll mean… will she be home, more willing to let us all take care of her? Will she be in a facility where I have to visit during mandated hours? Will she know it’s Christmas?

And as always, there’s the big one… will she remember me?

Halfway through our five-minute conversation, Mom had to confirm that it was me she was talking to. And it took everything I had not to fall apart. But then I reassured her it was, and there was enough of her there, present in her mind, to give me a little shit.

Me: “I made a homemade sweet potato pie today.”

Mom: “Well, how does that help me? You’re not here.”

Me: “I wanted to try it first, but I’ll make one for you at Christmas when I come visit.”

Mom: “We’ll see.”

We’ll see… that’s our life now.

We’ll see if she can come home or has to be in a care facility.

We’ll see how long she remembers the people she loves.

We’ll see how much more my heart can break before this is all over.

________________

I can’t remember how old I was when my mom had my Christmas stocking made. Probably around 7 or so because she was working at the community college when I was in grade school, and one of the women there made it. I loved it – a white stocking with red stripes – it looked like a candy cane, which I loved!

Then I saw the name she’d had put on it. Not Niceole, or even Nicky (which you better never call me to my face unless you changed my diaper or I changed yours), or Nic (which is always fine). No, it was the nickname she liked – POO. Not even spelled with an “h” like the adorable bear.

I didn’t want to hang it up, but everyone in my family called me that horrible nickname, and so up it went. And year after year, up it went. I’m staring at it right now because it’s up in my house hanging from the mantle. Despite how much I hated that nickname.

It’s one of the only tangible things I have from Christmases past. The stocking, my mother’s china, which we used to use at Christmas till one of the plates got broken – then we were barred from touching it until I packed it up and brought it home with me. The china’s not very useful yet since I don’t host big family dinners – so the stocking’s the thing that speaks of home and the past and the little girl who believed in Santa Claus until she got nosy and went and found her gifts early.

I wonder if she’d remember it. If I took the stocking at Christmas this year – or just showed her a picture — would Mom remember it? Or would it just be another thing that’s slipped away through one of the growing holes in her memory?

She spent three weeks in the hospital and the doctors finished all their tests and got her on meds and recommended we find a facility for her because living at home with my brother only brings out her most combative qualities. So we’re in the process of vetting places — I’m not sure if she’ll be in one by the time I get there for Christmas or if it’ll be something that happens after I leave. I just know it’s happening, with me doing what I can from here – while she’s there, without me.

The one thing my mom never, ever wanted was for us to think of her as a burden. And she isn’t. Never. Because she’s my mom. But the fear and pain around what’s happening to her – that’s a burden. It weighs me down and makes it hard not to cry when I wrap her Christmas gift and hope she’ll be able to enjoy the holiday. And then I laugh because, my mom enjoying the holiday would be something new.

Not a single Christmas in my life passed without my mother angry. At something that went wrong with dinner. At people being late. At how someone reacted to their gifts. At my dad, my sister, my brother, my sister-in-law, me… I mean, always angry.

It’s easy to remember the anger. Hers, and eventually mine when she refused to come spend the holidays with me anymore, even though she knew I couldn’t spend them in our house without my dad there. Or the fights we had over her traveling with me to the east coast to see our family – blowouts that I won sometimes and lost others. The trips were torture for me… all her bad attributes made worse by being out of her home, on a plane, and feeling like I was telling her what to do all the time. (I was, and it turns out, I had to – but at the time, I thought she was just being difficult and trying to make my life abject misery.)

But there was good, too. Things I don’t remember well because I was a kid more obsessed with presents than moments. And things that stand out. Wonderful dinners. Her letting me make the cake for the first time and being so proud of how it came out. Teasing my Aunt Joan, who then cut off all the edges of my cake because that was her favorite part. Making potato salad at 2 a.m. because she didn’t want to go to sleep in case she slept too late and didn’t get the turkey in.

Then I grew up. And I started appreciating moments more than presents. How you need to hold on to them. I remember more of those than I expected…

Like the year I was so poor that I couldn’t buy gifts for my family, so I made them, and my mom acted like the homemade poem/picture combo was the greatest gift she’d ever seen.

The time I couldn’t come home for the Christmas and my mom cried when I called because she missed me so much.

The year I scraped together fifty bucks to buy my parents a new custom painted mailbox because my mom kept complaining about how ugly hers was. She made my dad go put it up the next day.

And the year I found some of her favorite Abbott & Costello movies on DVD and we watched them all.

Her weird obsession with the books in the “Mandingo” series and how I spent hours on Amazon finding them all so she could read every single one. Which she did, more than once.

The smile on her face when I got her a new turntable and replaced her beloved Mario Lanza album, the original long ago warped by the intense desert heat of my hometown. (I didn’t look for it, but I know this one, too, is now a mangled mess because she kept forgetting to turn on the cooler and the unbearable heat in the house sealed its fate).

This year, I am, strangely, hoping for some of her anger. That when she sees the nightgown I bought her, she says something flip like, “you know I don’t only wear gowns, right?” (because I bought her one right before her birthday, too.)

She kind of does only wear nightgowns – but I’d love for her to be a little offended by it all the same.

Maybe she’ll be annoyed I didn’t make her favorite cookie.

Or get fussy about how we won’t let her watch what she wants to watch (although my brother’s house is an endless marathon of Hallmark Holiday movies, so I might be the one grousing about that.)

And maybe I won’t show her a picture of the stocking that says “POO” that’s hanging from my mantle.

Because then I can pretend she remembers it. At least for a little while longer.

________________

I wish I could tell you it was a magical Christmas. That we got a miracle and Mom was Mom and we had one last, good holiday with her at home with the whole family.

It was definitely not that. It was… so hard. So devastating. And it left me feeling gutted.

One of the things I wasn’t prepared for is how Alzheimer’s is less a long, slow descent and more an insane roller coaster where your loved one experiences extreme highs and lows – plateaus in a spot just long enough for you to catch your breath – then dives into one of those terrifying drops (or slams into a loop) that seems to catapult them to the next level of the disease.

Every time I would go visit my mother, once I knew something was wrong, it would be to see the new damage inflicted… how she went from being a little forgetful and paranoid to not wanting to drive and making up details of her life to fit the thoughts in her head. To seeing my once heavily security conscious mother become a person who’d let strangers in the house to change equipment she owned and paid for then not remember saying it was okay.

The changes in her personality – in her behavior – and in her spirit were always obvious. Always stark. Always heartbreaking.

Over the last 48 hours, we endured one of those seismic shifts. After weeks of wandering the house at will, defiantly packing and repacking her suitcase over and over, declaring she was going home, and in general being a version of the difficult human we’ve always known her to be, Mom became frail, hunched over, and so tentative when she walks, you worry she’ll fall at any moment. She struggles to get up from chairs or her bed. And she’s scared. So terribly, terribly scared.

I had to beg her to look me in the eye today while she sat in the bathroom, shivering, with me and my niece trying to get her into the shower so we could help her get cleaned up after what feels like the first of many incidents to come. (My niece is an amazing human being, by the way. A trained nurse, I watched her care for my mom today the way she cares for her patients, and if your loved one is ever in her unit, then you’re blessed).

I had to ask her at least three times to look me in the eye. She was terrified to get in the shower – afraid she’d fall even though I’d bought her a stool to sit on. And I promised her that I loved her and I would never let anything bad happen to her. That she’d be safe. That I wouldn’t let her fall, no matter what.

She finally gave in. She let my niece clean her up while I ran around grabbing shampoo and towels and getting her gown ready. And today nothing bad happened to her.

But all the bad things are happening to her. That’s the truth of it. As much as I promise in the moment, there is nothing I can do to hold the terrible that’s coming at bay.

I gave her the nightgown, by the way. The one from my earlier passage that I hoped she might tease me about buying. At first, she barely registered it. And then when I showed it to her after she tossed it aside, she really paid attention to it and loved it. And then an hour later, in her room, she didn’t remember that she’d ever seen it.

Everything today at our family Christmas celebration today felt a little final. It may not be. Tomorrow, my brother and I are going to pick out her room at the assisted living facility she’s moving in to next month. They say we can come get her for days at home. But by next Christmas, will we really be able to do that? There’s no way to know, of course. No way to predict this horrendous disease. If the last 48 hours… last six months… last two years is any indication, we’ll be lucky if she knows what Christmas is next year, let alone is well enough to come home with us for the day to celebrate.

But there was this one lovely moment today that I’ll hold on to forever.

Seeing her great grandchildren has been very stressful to her. Partly because small rambunctious children agitate her, and partly because she can’t keep straight who they are – or who their parents are. But today, after the nightmare of the accident and the shower and the terror I heard in her voice and saw in her eyes, Mom came out of her room. And she saw my two-year-old nephew Jackson… and she lit up. She said hello to him and actually tried to pick him up (we were nearby to assist her) and had a few moments where she truly enjoyed one of the tiny humans who are the center of our family’s world.

I got a picture of Jackson listening while his Great Grandma explained something to him that probably didn’t make any sense, but he’s two, so what does he know about sense and logic and coherence in a story? He’s probably Mom’s dream audience.

Neither of them will remember it. But I will.

When I read, then saw “Prince of Tides” years ago, I was so torn apart by the idea of Tom having to be his sister Savannah’s memory because she was too fragile to hold on to the traumas that were tearing her apart. But he held all of it. Good and bad. And helped bring her back from the brink.

If only I could be my Mom’s memory. If only, by way of me, she could hold on to the stories we told around the table today or to the memories of the Christmases we spent with my dad or even the long-ago thoughts of herself as a girl with her four sisters and her parents in a New Orleans living room, tearing open wrapping paper.

I’d carry all of it if I could. If it would help her. If it meant she could feel the happiness of those memories just a little longer.

Yet all I can do is carry my own. That way, no matter what this godforsaken disease does to her mind, she’ll never really disappear completely.

But my god… do I miss her.

________________

We picked the room. The walls are blue – she likes blue. And we found her a chair that’s comfortable but easier for her to get out of than the recliner she’s been using at my brother’s house. And we made a list of all the things she needs: two sets of bed linens, towels, a shower curtain, a phone, extra blankets, a bathroom rug, table lamp, water resistant mattress pad, cushioned mattress topper.

It feels a little like getting a kid ready to go to college – but that’s all about the future. About what’s to come. And this is about the end… making her comfortable until her brain completely fails her and takes away the last shreds of who my mom is… and then ends her life.

Some part of me dreads when those little traces of Mom disappear forever.

Some part of me wonders if it’s more merciful to wish them away so that the flashes of recognition and fear of what’s happening to her go away. Let her be in a place where the degradation of her condition and the horrible reality that she can no longer make any choices for herself is something she is blissfully unaware of – so that maybe the end of all this will be peaceful in some way to her.

Watching her disappear is hard.

Watching her struggle is awful.

Watching her be afraid is the thing that will haunt me, always.

________________

I talked to her today for the first time in nearly a month. Why it took so long is an infuriating, boring story and frankly, I don’t have it in me… a lot of red tape and hospital logistics and getting used to a new assisted living facility and their rules.

But I talked to her today. And she sounded like… her. The UTI that made it seem like she was fading so quickly at the holidays has been treated and her movement and personality are back to… well, where they were before the day they weren’t.

She seems to be adjusting well. Likes her room. I think we were right, that being in a space that feels like hers without us there to tell her what to do is helping. And hopefully she’ll get into a good routine, and once she gets her phone in her room, it’ll be easier to talk to her.

But something’s changed forever – something I’m struggling to come to terms with.

She doesn’t need me anymore.

After decades of my being the center of her world – and her being all-important to mine because I knew I had to be there for her – she doesn’t need me anymore.

“My remote doesn’t work” – she called me.

“I want this book. Order it for me.” – she called me.

“I miss your dad.” – she called me.

Every Mother’s Day and birthday for a lifetime – some portion of every holiday period, no matter how much I didn’t want to go to Ridgecrest, or she didn’t want to come to LA or travel with me – they were spent together. And now she’s 3,000 miles away and I’ll see her maybe two, three times a year – at best.

And the phone calls. Multiple times per week for years. Then the last few, once a week, because she started getting angry about me checking up on her, so I couldn’t call too much.

Now a month can go by without me hearing the sound of her voice – and I don’t know what to do with that.

She’ll get the phone. It’ll be easier. But some days, she’ll be in that place where she hates me – remembers that this is all my fault (because I told everyone she was crazy, remember?) and on those days, she’ll hang up on me. Or not even answer the phone.

And some days, she’ll answer and talk a few minutes before she decides she’s done and says good-bye.

I always tell her I love her before we hang up. She says it back. But I’m not sure she knows it’s me she’s saying it to when the words come.

But yeah — she doesn’t need me anymore.

Not in the ways she used to, at least.

Not in ways she knows.

But I know. I know I have to remember. The days we loved each other. The days we hated each other. The ones where we did both. The way she wagged her finger at me when I was in trouble, and how she was ready to tear down anyone or anything that hurt me or made me cry.

That time she did surgery on my toy poodle’s paw – and cut up a sock to bandage him and took such good care of him even though all she ever did was complain about what a pain in the ass he was.

Watching her refuse to let the grandkids win at Sorry. Or sitting on the floor with them for hours, playing Barbies. Making paper dolls and cutting up old fabric to outfit the kids’ dollhouse.

The glee when I finally – FINALLY – got a job as a writer and I called to tell her.

The way she wanted to write an angry letter to my network when they canceled the shows I worked on – but that she loved.

The first time I took Miss Ellie to her house – and she was so sweet and good to my dog after I was scared she’d be mean, because she’d tell you any time she could how much she didn’t like our pets and didn’t want them in her home.

Her joy over every gift I ever gave her – homemade or carefully hunted down after she told me once she wanted something. Every single time, you’d have thought I gave her a diamond.

The way my father looked at her, on the days when they still liked each other, and made each other laugh.

The way she missed him when he was gone.

When I was five and had the worst stomach flu ever, and my dad wanted me to go back to school – and then I threw up all over him. But then mom came to my rescue – cleaned me up, changed my sheets – and never let my dad forget that he was wrong.

How I couldn’t wait – COULD NOT WAIT – to get away from her, and then still had to call her every few days once I moved away from home, because what else was I supposed to do?

The first year I couldn’t come home for Christmas, when she cried on the phone because I wasn’t there.

The “gas money” she shoved in my hand every time I visited, long after I really needed it.

I’ll remember that she was my mom – until time and this horrible, unfair illness stole her ability to be my mom. And that all the mistakes she made came from human frailty. Because despite my surety when I was young that she was somehow this larger than life, indestructible force of nature – she was just a person, with wounds and pain she carried with her every day.

As much as I will always hate what’s happening to her, I hope the silver lining is that the wounds and the pain are all disappearing first – that those memories are the ones seeping through the cracks. Leaving some room for the peaceful, happy, joyful, loving memories to stretch – spread their wings, and take up the space, and give her more of the things she never had enough of in her life.

I hope the last thing she forgets is my dad. That maybe somehow, the stubbornness she swears I got from him (she lies, it was both of them) will let him hold on, refusing to leave her memory until he’s the last thought she has before she goes.

________________

 

Writing this has been excruciating… every time, when I get to the end of a segment, no matter how long or short, there are tears streaming down my face. I have learned not to fight them because if I try to hold them inside, it just wastes energy I don’t have. Because learning to say good-bye to my mom is taking every bit of strength I have inside me.

I have a pretty deep supply of strong, though – she made sure of that. Not necessarily in ways I will remember fondly – but that were, undeniably, successful.

Anyway, this hurts. A lot. More than I ever thought writing about it would. So I’m not sure I’m going to write anymore. Not here. Not in this way. Not about her.

She’s in everything I write, though. Every piece has a piece of her. Maybe just an attitude in a character. Or a line of dialogue. One of her funny Southern sayings that people never believe are real. Maybe a whole big messy slice of our history.

But she’s in everything. She always will be.

That’s how I’ll remember you, Mom. Always.

________________

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I’ve done a lot of posts about TV writing. But this is a post about the before… the writing I did when I was still learning how to write TV and hoping someone would pay me to do it someday.

Before I even knew it had a name I was writing fanfic. I filled notebooks with stories about my favorite characters from soap operas and prime-time shows, weaving the stories I wanted to see that had never been told by the writers who made me fall in love with said shows.

Once I learned what fanfic was officially called (from an article about the “Star Trek” fandom) well, then I knew that I was writing it. And thanks to the Internet, I had a way to post it and see if other people liked it. To my great surprise, some folks did, and so I kept writing it. And writing it. And writing it.

Oh, did I ever keep writing it.

I wrote a lot of other things, of course – because when you want to be a TV writer, you have very specific things you must be writing, like TV specs and pilots. Lots of TV specs and pilots. But whenever I got stuck or frustrated or just couldn’t make myself stare at a script page for another second, there was always fanfic to go back to.

My first big fandom was “The Pretender.” I was all about some Jarod and Miss Parker and if Steve and Craig were going to hold out on me FOREVER (I love you guys, but for real!), then I was going to write a hundred different scenarios wherein my favorite genius and my favorite badass ended up together.

Next, there was “General Hospital.” In truth, GH was technically first because I hand wrote a ton of stories in those notebooks about GH (Brenda Barrett epics, y’all) that have long since met their end during one of my mom’s spring cleaning frenzies. But in my official days as a fanfic writer, GH took up a lot of my time. A LOT of my time. I wrote mostly Sonny and Alexis fics, but also Cassadine family stories and more Brenda stories (Brenda and Jason, you guys… BRASON FOREVER!) – and then there was my other favorite Alexis pairing – Alexis and Jax. There are all kinds of other random little stories and one shots of things that caught my attention, but 90% of it is easily Sonny and Alexis.

And then there came my deep dive into the “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice” fandom. I consider them one and the same because I got into both shows for the same reason – one Addison Montgomery, legendary kickass surgeon in Jimmy Choos. I wrote Addison winning Derek Shepherd back. I wrote her making it work with Mark Sloan. I wrote her falling for Alex Karev. I wrote her with Pete and with Sam and with Wyatt and Noah. I even wrote her with Burke and the bomb guy (yes, The Kyle Chandler bomb guy.) Because Addison was this amazing woman who just wanted to be forgiven for not being perfect. And really… isn’t that what we all want?

There are for sure some other random stories from other fandoms, but these were the ones that sucked up the majority of my time.

When I became a working TV writer, I pulled all my fanfic down where I was able to because I was worried people would think it was weird or cheesy. Would think I was too much of a fangirl to be taken seriously. And then one day I mentioned it casually to another writer who admitted she had written some fic, too — and she was impressed with the sheer volume of stories I had written. And then I started talking about it more, and finally what the reaction I really got from people was “That’s so cool! I bet you learned a lot doing that” I stopped acting like it was a secret shame — and the truth is, I really did learn a lot from writing all those stories.

— I learned how to write for my whole audience. There are characters in my fics that are characters I absolutely hated on the show, but I couldn’t write them like I hated them. I had to write them for the people who watch the shows. Not to say that there aren’t a few fics in my collection where I didn’t take a swipe or two, but I quickly learned that meant I was alienating some readers. So to the best of my ability, I tried to write those characters fairly. And it was a great lesson. Because any writer who writes TV who tells you they love every character they’ve ever written equally is lying to you. Sometimes there are just a few who don’t resonate for you the same way as others. But you have to write them for the audience that loves your show. That’s your job. So practicing that in fanfic came in very handy.

— I learned that I have a type when it comes to the female characters that often pull my attention the most on a show – tough as nails, often deeply misunderstood, with demons that lead them to make painful mistakes, but who will sacrifice themselves in a heartbeat for someone they love. This is pretty evident in my pilots. They are script worlds built around women that definitely fit the description above.

— I learned a lot about problem solving. I wrote one of my most popular fanfics on a regular schedule… posted a chapter every Friday or Saturday night over a couple of months. In this particular fandom, friends would message me asking when I was going to be ready to post… so the pressure was pretty intense. And if I was stuck on a story point or a line of dialogue, well… the clock was ticking. So I learned a bit about something being “good enough” to meet a deadline. How not to be too precious with every last word and just get the damn thing done. Because that’s a lot of what TV writing is… just getting it done. You want it to be good – great – brilliant, always, but sometimes it is literally just about turning it around to get a script distributed by a certain time – so “good enough” has to do.

In my most recent writers room, several conversations about my fanfic writing led to a declaration that I should repost it all. Then I looked at how much I have. Guys, I’d need to hire an assistant just to post fanfic if all of it was getting reposted, so that is probably not happening. But I will post some of my greatest hits here on the blog as I have time to assemble them.

But here is what I’m not going to do as I repost these stories:

— I am not going to rewrite them. Not even proofing them. You get them as is, typos, formatting issues, and all. Because the point isn’t to pretend like they aren’t chock full of mistakes. The point is that I wrote and kept writing and got better as I did, and that’s why they’re still worth something to me. Each of these stories is a building block to the writer I have become, so whatever they are or were, they have value to me. The mistakes are part of that. My need to make a proofing pass just to see if I used the same word too many times in a script? I figured out that bad habit writing fanfic. And the subtle difference between reusing a line or phrase for effect and just being repetitive? I learned that from writing fanfic, too. So other than copying and pasting separate chapters into one PDF file, you’re getting what the original readers got.

— I am not going to shy away from things that, looking back now, make me roll my eyes at myself. You will see that baby writer Niceole loved her some cliched phrases like “Make love to me” and “You are the love of my life” and so on and so on. Some of my “love scenes” are so trashy romance novel in style that I honestly should have probably tried to write a romance or two back in the day… and my obsession with happy endings is rarely disrupted (though I did write a “Pretender” story once that had people ready to yell at me because it most definitely did not have a happy ending).

— I am not going to change the ridiculously pretentious names of some of these fics. Oy! I have learned a lot about titles since way back, let me tell you. But they are called what they’re called, so… laugh away.

With those rules in place, here’s the first fic I’m reposting – the Destiny Series. It’s a very early one from my “Pretender” days, set just after the season three finale when Miss Parker got shot and I had a lot of time over the summer to obsess about what should happen when the show came back. For those who don’t remember, season three was basically the season of massive Miss Parker heartbreak because she fell in love with Thomas Gates, and then he got murdered, and then she got shot by Willie Gault, and basically my girl couldn’t catch a break.

It’s long, y’all. Most of them will be. So if you’re brave or curious enough… the file is attached.

More to come…

Destiny Series Whole File

A wonderful writer I know, Ken LaZebnik, who helped found the MFA in TV and Screenwriting at Stephens College, invited me to speak at the graduate level commencement ceremony that would mark the culmination of the program’s first class. I had met these students during their first year, speaking on a panel, and I accepted the chance to celebrate their major accomplishment with them. It was an extra-special opportunity to share some of my personal experiences as a female working in the entertainment business at Stephens, which is an all-women’s college (though the master’s program does admit men as well).

As you’ll see in the text below, I found the task of coming up with something to say a bit daunting at first. And I was a nervous wreck when speech time came! But I was moved by the response of the students and so grateful to be a part of their shared experience, and I will always be happy I made the trip to Columbia, MO, for that beautiful day in May.

A few people have asked to read the speech, so I finally just decided to post it here… for what it’s worth to anyone else who might find some use in it.

Congratulations again to the Stephens graduates. They are going to do the world proud!

_____

Hello. Congratulations to all of you, and thank you for letting me be a part of this important day in your lives.  I’ll be honest – when I was invited to give this speech my first thought was, “am I grown-up enough to tell anyone anything about what comes next?” I mean, my collection of Marvel Pop figures and comics and my obsession with “Agents of SHIELD,” would make you argue that I definitely am not. And I was a little afraid when I sat down to write this, feeling an intense doubt that I had anything to say that might matter to you.

As a writer by trade, my career-centered fear often manifests itself in “oh, no, what if I have nothing to write this time!” When I am in that place, I take the advice a good friend gave me… remind yourself you’ve done it before. So I re-read a blog I posted, hoping to inspire new writers the way others have inspired me. I happened upon this bit I had written and knew I wanted to share it with you.  It was meant to give some perspective to diverse writers… but the truth is, it applies to women, in all workplaces, just as perfectly.

In fact, in my industry, where there is so much talk about bringing diversity in front of and behind the camera, the truth is… being a woman has always been a bigger deal than my being black. If you don’t believe it, look at how few female showrunners and directors there are in TV. That is a sad state of reality in many industries, not just entertainment. Wrestling with that reality and your response to it is something you can’t avoid as you embark on your careers. And so this is the thing I wrote, for what it’s worth:

You will meet people who will see you as less than, who will think you only got the job because you fill a quota. They won’t know anything about you… they won’t know about how you worked graveyard shifts to put yourself through college and how you took responsibility for and pay thousands of dollars in student loans because your education was that important to you…

they won’t know that you wrote till 3 a.m. on weeknights and all weekend long around day jobs because that was all the time you had and you knew you had to write to be a writer… they won’t know about the twelve specs and six pilots and the dozen short stories you wrote to prepare yourself when opportunity came…

they won’t know about the literally thousands of pages you wrote that no one will ever see because they were never about making money. Their value was in making you a better writer. They won’t know these things about you… but you will. And you will show them that you earned your job by being the best you that you can be… by proving that you belong, no matter what they think. (That’s the end of the thing).

I wish I could stand here and tell you that your gender won’t matter. But it will. There is this thing I refer to as the “assumption of greatness” that follows most men into the workplace. “He got the job; of course he can do it.”

But for women, it’s somehow always a pleasant surprise when we’re amazing at the jobs we were hired to do. Have you been there? Where you could almost see the thought bubble over someone’s head thinking, “Wow, you’re pretty great at this for a girl”?  I know I have.

So as infuriating as it is, your gender will matter. Your race will matter. It’s okay to be angry about it. But you should also embrace it. Accept it. Then be who you are. Be the person that you are in the deepest levels of your gut and your heart.

Be the person your soul aches to be.

And know that most of what you need to be that person and live in her skin – those are the same tools you’ve used to get to this day, right here… graduating with a degree that you worked your butts off to get despite every obstacle that tried to derail you.

I came from a military family. Spent years surrounded by the sailors and soldiers who made up my parents’ circle of friends. Some of what I learned was about following orders and the importance of doing your duty. But I also picked up invaluable lessons in reading a room, understanding people, and how to be myself even in a situation where my views or opinions are not always welcome.

I learned to tell the difference between someone testing me with a pointed comment and someone truly targeting me with malice. I learned when I needed to fight back and when I won by just shrugging and walking away. And I learned a hell of a lot about football. That never hurts.  Nothing announces your presence in a room like reminding everyone you probably know more about football than most of the men. It’s how I stay true to myself, stand up for myself, while still being part of the group I want to belong to.

Whether you mean to follow me into a writers’ room or head into business or dive into the hard work of helping families, your task is to find out what you can do to stay true to yourself when things get hard.

Then do that.

It sounds ridiculously simple, but it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It took time and trial and error… but I learned to live in my own skin. To not take everything personally and to worry more about what I think about me than what everyone else does.

My family couldn’t afford to help me through college at USC, and to keep a roof over my head — and to do something that felt a little more important and inspiring than answering phones in an office — I got a gig as a police dispatcher, working graveyard shifts to put myself through the ridiculously expensive but totally amazing school of my dreams.

Police dispatcher. Random job of random jobs for an aspiring writer, without doubt. It’s less random if I tell you my cousin was a cop and thought my ability to stay calm in a crisis would make me great at it. He was right. I was pretty great at it. And sitting in front of that radio taught me more about the power of words than anything I’ve ever written.

“Male, possibly intoxicated, talking to passersby.” “Man behaving erratically on a public street.” Two completely different ways to describe the same call that can change the entire tone of the police response.

I became immersed in a world where the words I chose could literally mean the difference between life and death for a citizen, a suspect, or my officers. It was a heady, huge responsibility. But the perspective those years gave me was a gift. In all my jobs since, when tensions are high and people are worried about deadlines and failure and money and whether someone’s going to get fired, I am the person who says, “hey, guys… I know this is important. I know we’re all stressed. But no one’s gonna die. So let’s take a breath and figure it out.” It doesn’t end the crisis, but those words usually stir the air just enough for us to get back on task, look at the problem with fresh eyes, and find a solution without giving ourselves an ulcer.

Most of you won’t have to live through high-octane police radio calls… but you do have perspective to draw on when you need it. What did you have to say to yourselves over the past few years when a deadline was looming and your project was only half done? What did you say to your friends when they encountered the same crisis?

Whatever those words are, you know them already. They will make you the calm in the storm. They will help you stay focused when the people around you start to spin. They will help you get through a day that feels impossible. So know yourself. Know what you need to hear or say to move forward. And never forget it.

I really wish I could tell you that you’re leaving fear of failure behind you with this huge achievement. Oh, how I wish I could tell you that. Instead, I want to tell you… it’s okay to be afraid. Be afraid you’ll fail. Be afraid you aren’t good enough. Fear isn’t something to run away from.

I just started work on my fifth TV show. It’s a job I spent four years campaigning for and working toward. And then I got it. And I was elated. I had worked impossibly hard for this opportunity, and it paid off. It was pure joy. For about a day. Then I immediately felt that gnawing worry that shows up every time I have a first day of work with a new showrunner who is putting their faith in me… “holy crap, can I really do this?”

The answer is, of course I can. I have documented proof. But I never want to believe my own press. Call it being humble or wanting to stay grounded. I find that constant need to prove myself is my friend. It keeps me from thinking I know it all. That I don’t need to work hard. That I should stop studying or learning.

Your version of that fear will come for you. But this… being here today… that’s your documented evidence that you can do it. Most of you balanced work and school or family and school or family, work, AND school to complete your degrees. You have already done what felt impossible. Conquered that fear. So let it motivate you going forward.

But if it ever starts to become a burden… tell fear how awesome you are… and to take a seat, because you’ve got this.

So the big ideas I’ve danced through today are: be who you were meant to be in the world, remember your strengths by reminding yourself of the victories that got you to where you are, and don’t be afraid to be afraid. Now there’s one more. Something I think every woman especially, but every person in general, has to know as they move through the world – at work, in your relationships, in life: know where your line in the sand is.

There will be moments when you can’t let something roll off your back, where an unfairness has to be addressed, where you must speak up because you won’t be able to live with yourself if you don’t.

That’s your line in the sand.

It may be a boss or a fellow employee or a client pushing you there. And sometimes you can’t walk away. You have to say “enough”. Sometimes a fight is worth fighting.

You are the only person who can decide that.

We all have things we can take and things we can’t let go. That’s being human. And you don’t forfeit your right to be a person because you have ambition and want to succeed. You especially do not forfeit it because you’re a woman and the system tells us to smile and play nice to get ahead.

I am a mama bear by nature. And I have reached my line in the sand as a working woman a few times. Usually because an untenable situation is affecting the people around me… my co-workers, my teammates, my friends. Those are usually the fights I choose to fight.

I do it knowing there will be consequences… because there are always consequences. But there will be times when what’s right is worth that risk.  And I implore you to be the kind of people who are willing to choose your battles and fight them.

Ninety-nine times you may say this is not a hill I want to die on. That’s your choice to make. But when the idea of letting something go seems worse than anything you might face for speaking your mind… be courageous enough to speak your mind. Because it is the only way anything ever gets better.

It is the way we slowly tear down those myths about how women should behave in the workplace. In the world. It’s how we destroy the idea that a woman should apologize for demanding her worth be acknowledged or for occupying her space when someone else wants to crowd her out.

You’re all here because you believe you can do something in this world. And you already know a truth crucially important to your success. You have a right to it. Not because you’re entitled. Because you’re willing to work, sacrifice and fight for it. You’ve earned the right to succeed. You will keep earning it.

But you’ll have days where you forget that you deserve success. Days you are afraid and think the fight to climb the ladder is too hard.

I hope on those days you will remember today, when you celebrated this huge accomplishment and some crazy writer from Los Angeles crashed your party and stood in front of you and told you to go out and be who you are in the world – be you proudly, strongly, hilariously, wondrously, and loudly. Be you.

Now go show the world you’re ready for what comes next.

Find your brave

November 14, 2016

The world got turned upside down this week, and most of the people I know and love are reeling. The fear of seeing all that has been fought so hard for being undone is too real… and the reality of racism and sexism and hatred of the other surging in our country is terrifying and frustrating and disheartening.

I feel all of that. And I am so tired of having to be the bigger person… of having to work twice as hard to be thought of as almost as good (whether it’s about my race or my gender or both)… and then having to find a way to get along with the people who think that way… and the message this country just sent to me is – too bad, be ready to work even harder, because your other-ness offends me.

I’m sickened at the thought of people I love being targeted because of their name, their sexual orientation, the color of their skin, or their religion.

I’m scared.

I have friends who are marching in protests and diving in to work with organizations that are ready to fight for our civil rights in the coming years. I know writers far more eloquent than I are already penning essays and opinion pieces and providing sage advice on what we all need to do next. I am going to join in and do my part in the ways that feel right to me — I hope we all will.

I wish I had some great contribution to make to these well-expressed rallying cries. I’ve started and deleted so many posts this week… because my heart is heavy for other reasons outside of the election, from the things that come when life doesn’t stop because you got scared and confused or blindsided by the world you live in… and the words have been wrapped up in that and struggling to find a way out.

But I sat down today to try to write this because I keep having this thought and I figured if it wouldn’t leave me, it was worth something:

Find your brave.

We’re all brave in different ways. Some people march in the streets, some of us (myself included) are so paralyzed by the idea of being in a large crowd that the protest is almost more terrifying than what we’re standing up against. Some of us can write. Some make speeches. Some can volunteer to help an organization that steps between those who need help and those trying to harm them.

There are all kinds of ways to be brave. For me, from the earliest point in my life, it started with two simple words.

“I’m Black.”

I’ve spent my entire life being told by people I wasn’t related to: “No one would even know you were Black if you didn’t tell them.” To which I say, “Why wouldn’t I tell them?”

My parents made this very clear: we were Black. There was no confusion, no wondering. It was simple. So I live by keeping it simple. And I respond to the curious looks that, I’ve learned over the years, mean “what is she” by saying, “I’m Black.” I tell a story the first day in the writers’ room to make it clear so no one has to wonder. I own who I am, and I do it knowing that sometimes after I say it out loud, I will see that subtle shift in a person’s eyes… the one that says that knowledge has changed how they look at me. And then I own who I am by not caring what they think.

I recently spoke with a group of young writers who will go out into the world with the word “diverse” attached to them. They’re the diverse writers – the ones who will be different, and often a minority, in their rooms. And I think maybe I didn’t tell them this, and so I’m correcting my mistake because I owe them this…

You will meet people who will see you as less than, who will think you only got the job because you fill a quota. They won’t know anything about you… they won’t know about how you worked graveyard shifts to put yourself through college and how you took responsibility for and pay (yourself) thousands of dollars in student loans because your education was that important to you… they won’t know that you wrote till 3 a.m. on weeknights and all weekend long around day jobs because that was all the time you had and you knew you had to write to be a writer… they won’t know about the twelve specs and six pilots and the dozen short stories you wrote to prepare yourself when opportunity came… they won’t know about the literally thousands of pages you wrote that no one will ever see because they were never about making money. Their value was in making you a better writer.

They won’t know these things about you… but you will. And you will show them that you earned your job by being the best you that you can be… by proving that you belong, no matter what they think.

You’ll find your brave.

Then reach back and help someone else find theirs. Help that next young diverse writer who has climbed as far as he or she can, who just needs someone who’s done it before to help them take the next step.

Then take your brave out into the world with you.

If you see a man harassing one of your female friends… tell him to stop.

If you see someone treating someone like an “other,” tell them to stop.

If you see wrong, do what you can to make it right.

It will be terrifying. It will be hard. But it’s what makes you who you are. And it’s how we show the people who are scared to speak and to act how to do their part.

You’ll get tired. Hell, I’m already tired. And angry. And frustrated. And sometimes you’ll feel hopeless.

But you’re gonna get up the next day and do it again anyway.

Because you’re brave.

You came that way.

We all came that way.

We just can’t forget it.

When I talk TV with people, I’m never shy about heaping praise onto shows that I love. And I’ve long since gotten used to having this exchange when I bring up “Person of Interest” –

“’Person of Interest’? Isn’t that just a typical CBS procedural?”

Me: “No. It’s one of the most well-plotted serialized shows I’ve ever watched.” (And remember, I’ve seen over 1,000 TV shows!)

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The finale of POI aired last week, and I’m still strung out emotionally over it. It leaves the screen after 103 episodes. Not every single one was perfect but every single one was necessary to complete what turned out to be an amazing canvas.  And in my humble opinion, its legacy is to be one of the most underappreciated shows in recent memory.

As many of you know if you’ve read my blog before (or follow my fangirling on Twitter), I write with TV on in the background – typical latchkey kid behavior manifested in my adulthood.  This translates to writing at the office as well, thanks to my friends Amazon Prime and Netflix, which I stream in the background and listen to over ear buds while I write.  Last year, I re-watched the first four seasons of POI as my background, and even though I own all the DVDs and have seen multiple episodes several times, it was that re-watch that clued me into something monumental about why I adore POI so much – 85% of what I love about the show was put in motion by the end of episode 10. We’re talking characters, relationships, and ideas that consistently played through five seasons – including the final moments of the series – and most of it was on the board by the end of episode 10.  That cohesion over 103 episodes was accomplished without the writers dropping story points and with major cast changes to wrestle with along the way.

Within those first ten episodes, the characters became my heart when it came to this show.  This little group of four became the embodiment of the emotional struggle of everyday life… how we make mistakes and try to overcome them, how we search for redemption even if we aren’t sure we deserve it, how we look for the best in people even after we lose our way.  And they did all this while fighting the good fight for the little guy… taking down bad guys, helping people stay on the path of right when they were about to step into wrong. Even as the core cast both expanded and then lost members in heart-wrenching fashion over the years, the mission remained unchanged, and underlying every action, every episode was one clear message:

No one is irrelevant.

It might be this key point that explains my great love for this show, above the A-plus writing and great performances… POI was hopeful in a way I never expected it to be and that it turns out I needed so much.  Life mattered… good mattered… saving one person at the risk of everything mattered… and that idea propelled the entire series.

Over the past five seasons, we went on journeys to the darkest places within these characters and often found light there – John’s need for vengeance after Carter’s death inevitably brought him home, to the place Carter most wanted him to be – with the people who loved him; Harold’s battle to save the world revealed the best in those he chose as allies; Fusco went from dirty cop to hero because John and Carter and ultimately all of Team Machine reminded him who he wanted to be before the dark side tempted him.  And along the way, enemies – Root and Elias – turned into friends.  Meanwhile Shaw, the embodiment of what it meant for life to be “irrelevant” joined the team and embraced the mission in her own unique way.

And none of these characters’ pasts were whitewashed to make us like them.  Humanizing Elias by letting us into his abusive and tragic past gave us a deeper understanding of the path he chose and the drive behind the rise of his organized crime empire, but the show never tried to convince us his sins were justified. Instead it helped cement how monumental it was when Elias stood beside Team Machine in some of their most dangerous moments, even though he knew Reese, Harold et al would take his criminal enterprise down in a heartbeat if he endangered someone they cared for or one of the “numbers” the Machine asked them to save.

Root – in all her complex, twisted glory – was another character who had done dark, terrible things – had even tried to harm our beloved team – and yet her obsession with the Machine actually gave her the chance to find the connection she’d craved her whole life – both within the team and with the Machine herself.  Root found her purpose after a life of thinking people were just “bad code,” and her mission to save the Machine from all threats helped us to understand that the Machine’s importance was even greater than we’d ever suspected.

But I think the most amazing accomplishment of this fantastic show is the humanity the writers imparted upon a set of typed letters on a computer screen and a bunch of cables and servers.  The Machine was as real to us as any of the team… and our connection to her deepened as it became clear she suffered the pain of loss with Harold and Reese, that she hated the idea of failing them. As the Machine’s very personal relationship with Harold, her “father,” created conflict over the years, she became a maturing child, struggling to both find her own identity and be the “person” her parent wanted her to be. And in her ultimate act of humanity, the Machine found a way to be what… or who… she was meant to be despite Harold’s fears and reservations, even if that meant she might be destroyed.

I could literally write about specific things I loved and outstanding moments on this show for pages and pages. But what I hope after you read this is that if you watched it once and said no… or you never watched it at all, that this will make you go back and give it another chance (Netflix is your friend!). Look beyond the case of the week setup that helped us get into the world and spend time with these fascinating characters, go on a journey with them that will both rip out your heart and renew a little of your faith in the world (as much as any TV show can do that).

And if you loved POI as much as I did… if it brought you the same joy and heartache and wonder that it did me… thanks for sharing the roller coaster. And thank you a thousand times over to the wonderful writers and actors and the crew that made this show come to life… you’ve inspired me forever.

Yes, you read that correctly… as of March 9th, 2016, I have watched at least 1,000 TV shows in my lifetime. I say “at least” because the first 500 or so titles I listed were done from memory and research, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few… but the list is officially at 1,000… and it’s attached in case you want to peruse the titles. tv show list

A little background for those who don’t know the origin of “the list.” I was working on my pilot “Kingdom,” which eventually helped me land my first TV writing job. But as happens when we writer types are stuck and banging our heads against our computers, my brain was all, “Hey, what could we do that feels productive but isn’t work?” And then I remembered this notebook my brother used to keep of every movie he had ever seen. We got those genes split decisively between us… he’s the movie guy, I’m the TV girl. And much like he will watch ANY movie you could possibly imagine, I will watch at least one episode of just about any TV show that sounds even a little bit interesting or stars someone I really like.

Thus, the list was born… and the rules were pretty simple: to make the list, I have to have watched at least one full episode of a show that originally aired in prime time. The program can be a drama, comedy, or a news/reality show – and I counted the shows I had to watch when I was making my living as a closed captioner because, well, I had to finish them, so they counted.

A lot of the original 500 shows were things I saw because of the magic of syndication (which is why I added the “originally aired in prime time” part of the rules). My parents loved to torture me with their favorite shows, so when I got hired on “Ironside,” I had actually seen every episode of the original “Ironside” because my mother loves Raymond Burr. Other shows were seen courtesy of friends whose parents had VCRs and taped shows I wasn’t old enough to watch when they were on but then saw later… some were viewed by way of the Internet and some were just seen through dogged determination to find them somewhere because I wanted to see them. Some were seen courtesy of the one human being I know who has definitely watched more TV than me, who tapes it all and saves it on DVD. And I own a ridiculous number of show box sets, as evidenced by my crowded bookshelves.

When I mentioned the list to my “Mysteries of Laura” writers’ room, co-ep Amanda Green said I had to write something once I reached 1,000 shows… I had to share what I’d learned by watching all that TV. So here are the musings I came up with on what all that TV taught me. But one thing I’ll be up front about right away… I’m not going to shit on any shows by name, for two reasons: One, some of my friends work on those shows, and ever since someone was a jerk to me about a show *I* worked on, I’ve been sure to never do that to another writer. Remember, no one is actively trying to write a show you don’t like… we just all have our own tastes. The second reason I won’t be dropping names is just good ol’ common sense. This is still a business, and I might have to go meet with a showrunner or executive producer who worked on a show that’s not one of my faves. I can still dislike it… doesn’t mean I need to make my career harder by telling that person here in print that I hated their show.

And now… on with the lessons…

 

1 – The reason I love TV is the long-term relationships with characters. I was writing features when I finished grad school and then finally woke up to the fact that I love TV and thus, should be writing it. That’s not to say that I don’t adore some of the movies I see… but when I fall in love with characters, 2-3 hours just isn’t enough sometimes. The weeks, months, and years that go into watching characters evolve and change and fall in love and get broken by tragedy on TV… it’s what made me want to be writer in the first place.

 

I’m a long way from a job title that means I get to decide how a show’s future gets plotted out… but I hope that when I get there, I take my deep love of the character/viewer relationship with me while I make decisions about what happens to my characters. As a viewer, it’s one thing to get a twist I wasn’t expecting – and be gut-punched by it – but see the beauty in it and walk away satisfied. A perfect recent example… I was sure I would be unhappy if anyone but Melinda May killed Grant Ward on “Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” because my goodness, she deserved to get to do it… but ultimately, when it was Phil Coulson instead… I just cared that it was done, that the actions of everyone involved made sense to me, and that finally my little “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” family was safe from Ward (well, sort of, but that’s a whole nother blog post).

By contrast, every TV fan has had a moment watching a show when you can feel the writers’ “aren’t we clever” vibe radiating out of the TV screen at you, and all you’re thinking is, “No, you’re not clever. Because you just made a character do something that five years of viewing tell me they’d never do…” and it’s frustrating, not because you didn’t get your way as a viewer, but because you just can’t buy the character’s actions or the story… and nothing ruins your relationship with a show faster than losing faith in the storytelling. That’s usually the only thing that will make me break up with a show I’ve been watching for some time. I refuse to “hate” watch… so once I dread watching a show, we have to say good-bye to each other.

Now that’s not to say that some good ol’ fan outrage isn’t awesome sometimes. When I’m screaming on Twitter at a show that they just ripped my heart out, it usually means they’re doing their job exactly right… and I’m suffering (in all the best ways) because of it.

I just find that there’s something magical in the idea that writers can make an audience invest so deeply in characters that the viewers will stay through thick and thin, for years on end. I watched plenty of the shows on this list from start to finish… and I don’t regret a minute of it.

2 – I don’t watch nearly as much comedy as I used to. I’m not sure why that is. I used to watch every half-hour show around… and maybe it’s just because what I find funny has changed? I’m not sure. I do watch a few… “Brooklyn 99,” “black-ish,” “Togetherness,” (though it’s more dramedy than comedy), and I will usually try one or two new ones every year, especially if my comedy writer friends are working on a show. Side note: I will always watch at least one episode of anything from Tina Fey, Jack Burditt, and Robert Carlock because 30 ROCK FOREVER!

3 – Please give me the characters I signed up for. I’m all about cool guest stars. I’m the first person to get excited over someone in the promo for next week on a show I love. But I also tend to get attached to ALL the characters in my shows… not just the leads. In fact, sometimes the secondary characters have kept me watching when I’ve grown to dislike the lead characters. When shows sideline regular cast members for too many guest stars – stunting their character development – it is a fast track to me becoming less interested in the show.

4 – If death visits your show a lot, I probably didn’t keep watching it. No doubt because my number one reason for loving television is that relationship I feel with the characters, shows with high body counts have never been my thing. Which is why, when my shows do kill off characters, I’m usually curled up in a ball on the floor. I can barely think about Bobby Simone’s death on “NYPD Blue” without tearing up. Every single little Carter reference on “Person of Interest” is a hug and a knife to the heart simultaneously, and I remain deeply traumatized by Joe Coffey’s demise on “Hill Street Blues.” So, yes, I get it… characters have to die – sometimes because their story is done, sometimes because an actor wants to leave a show – but I need that to be a rarity.

5 – Some more lessons I’ve learned from shows I didn’t like or quit watching:

  1. I need an emotional connection to at least one character before the end of the pilot. If I don’t have it, I’m probably done.
  2. I don’t respond well to the “throw in everything including the kitchen sink” approach to storytelling. Once a show becomes about nothing but nonstop twists, it loses the focus on the characters, and I generally am out.
  3. Don’t get stuck in the same story rut. If the solution to every season is a return to the same story well… who has control of the business, what breaks Couple A up this time, who learns the secret this year… I usually get too frustrated to keep watching. I find that I can handle about two uses of the same plot device before I just start wondering what else there is to the show and have to move on.
  4. I don’t need the characters to be likable… but I need to know why I should care about what they’re doing.
  5. A show doesn’t have to be “bad” for me to not want to watch it. Sometimes it’s just not my cup of tea because it’s too violent or too dark or just set in a world that doesn’t interest me. That in itself is a lesson… not everything I write will be something people respond to. You have to know that going in… and be happy with the audience you do find.

 

6 – Procedure is not a dirty word. I promise. It feels like the turn to “character driven” has made the word “procedural” something worthy of a swear jar in this business. But one thing I know about myself as a viewer is this… if I’m not sure how your show works, I will end up turning it off. Every great show has a formula – again, I know, bad word – but it does. That doesn’t mean your show is a beat for beat paint by numbers project week in and week out. It just means that I know what the show is. If you introduce me to characters who are police officers, they have to be police officers at a certain point, even if the show is really about the dark and twisty parts of their personality. If they’re lawyers, they should be lawyers. If it’s a family drama, I need to know how the family functions. Whatever you want to dub it… procedure, your story engine, your overall blueprint… the sooner it’s established, the more likely I am to keep watching.

7 – The most important thing I’ve learned as a viewer and as a writer is this… every story has been done. It just has. Hell, some of them had been done when Shakespeare did them… so they’ve definitely all been done by now. But that doesn’t mean that your take on Story X can’t be fresh and cool and enjoyable. What does your buddy cop show look like? What does your dark and twisty apocalypse look like? Why is it special?

That goes for pitching in rooms, too, not just writing pilots. I am very careful not to ever say, “We can’t do X because Show A, B, and C did it.” Instead my approach is… “Show A did it that way, so what if we did this instead…”

In a climate where every network seems to be racing to remake what’s already been successful, I find what I’m responding to isn’t something that is a literal remake of something I loved but rather shows that evoke a feeling of one I loved once upon a time. For instance, I grew up loving reruns of “The Rockford Files” and adoring “Hart to Hart.” That type of show – the light procedural — went away for a little while, and then “Castle” showed up and I was like… “THIS! I missed this!” It wasn’t a remake of those older shows, but it gave me the same payoff… characters I cared about and a sense of fun while bad guys got put away. Similarly, I recently told someone that part of the reason I love “Code Black” is because it reminds me of “St. Elsewhere” – and that is a great thing. I didn’t even know I needed that show until CBS gave it to me… and now I am so happy to have it. The characters are very different, and it’s in no way a literal remake of the long-running NBC show, but its spirit is familiar in the very best way.

But it always comes back to the writing. While the idea might not be new… how you approach it can be. Your ability as a writer to convey what you find magical about the setting and the people… and the performances that are born from those pages… that’s what will draw an audience in. Every family drama is, at its core, the same show… but something about the Taylors of Dillon, Texas, was more real to me than any other TV family I’d seen in forever… even though they wrestled the same issues as most of TV families… job stresses, how to keep a marriage together, and teenage kids pushing their boundaries.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is… I’m always being inspired by things I loved. I want to write cool superhero shows because I love “Agents of SHIELD” and “Agent Carter” and “Daredevil.” I want to write my version of uplifting sci-fi because I love “Star Trek” and “Star Wars.” Someday I hope I write a family drama half as beautiful as “Friday Night Lights” or “Once and Again,” and a show about cops that resonates as deeply as “NYPD Blue” did for me, or maybe something that’s even a fraction as breathtaking as “The Americans” or “Manhattan.” Whether it works or not will be about taking what inspired me and finding a way to make it *my* story… what do I have to say about being a cop or a superhero or a family in a small town that someone else hasn’t already said? Hopefully the answer to that question will affect an audience the way these shows did me.

8 – Things that will make me watch a show forever:

  • Character consistency: If I already love the characters, as long as their evolution is true to the person you introduced me to in season one, I will stick with them through anything.
  • A feeling that the show knows where it’s going: I don’t mean that I can literally see where it’s going, but that every season of the show reaffirms my faith that the writers know where they want to go with the series. The truth may be the writers’ room has no idea how it all ends… but the storytelling on screen is so steady, so solid, that I, as a viewer, get to live in the belief that they have it all figured out while I stress out and analyze and wait for the next season to see what comes next.
  • Respect for the audience: again, this isn’t about giving us everything we think we want. It’s about never losing sight of the fact that you’ve asked your audience to invest their heart into a show, and it should always feel to the viewers like it matters to you that they’ve been willing to do so.
  • One great relationship: I’ve stuck with shows when they took a downturn because of one key relationship and generally, I’ve been rewarded with the show finding its feet again and ending strong. And that doesn’t have to be a romantic relationship… a great partnership, a real, grounded friendship… that can be enough to keep a viewer hanging in when the story gets a little murky.

9 – All these television shows later, I maintain this as a statement of fact: “Hill Street Blues” is the greatest show in the history of television. It not only holds up terrifyingly well (if you could CGI the giant portable phones out and update the cars/clothes) with storylines about community policing that shouldn’t still be relevant and yet absolutely are, but it changed the face of television in a way that made every other “greatest” show since possible. The thing I personally loved most about it was the relationship between Joyce Davenport and Frank Furillo. It would still be a modern, risky take on a relationship now… then, it was stunning. These were two world weary, sexy people who were focused on their careers and carried a ton of baggage from their individual lives; smart, savvy individuals who loved each other deeply, respected one another, and yet still constantly struggled to make room for one another in their lives as their careers brought them into constant conflict. I often think back on that relationship when I write couples in my own work, trying to find that level of depth and intelligence in their interactions.

And now that you’re all, “Girl, wrap this up,” I’ll do so by offering the piece of advice I pass on to all aspiring TV writers in case you’re the ones who are reading this – be a student of television. Watch TV. Watch shows older than you. MUCH older than you. Those are the shows that inspired the showrunners who created the TV you love. Know them. Love them. Learn from them. And love TV. LOVE IT. Because it’s too hard and brutal a business to be in if you don’t. When people give you shit for loving it so much, remember that it’s just your chosen form of storytelling. Some people come home and read books every night… you choose TV shows instead. There’s nothing wrong with that.

And never lose your inner TV fan. Because if you love it… that fan is why you love it. Protect him or her at all costs… from cynicism, from snobbery, from haters of all shapes and sizes. LOVE TV. Always.

I’m taking some time to write this now because if I put it off, it’ll be next June before I find a moment, and it won’t be much help to anyone then. As a disclaimer, this is obviously my experience with having and valuing a fantastic spec (or three) in my writing portfolio. You will know people who got hired by showrunners who only wanted to read original pilots. But you will also meet writers who worked for or know showrunners who won’t hire first-timers without seeing a spec.

Why? Because your job as a member of a writing staff is to write the voice of that show — the tone, the characters, the basic elements that make that show unique. If it’s “Castle,” you better be able to nail the romantic banter between Castle and Beckett, both when they’re flirting and when they’re angry. Writing a “Masters of Sex”? Your ability to write all those complicated female voices is what will make that script a winner (if you ask me anyway). Writing a killer pilot can help you get representation and impress execs and get you meetings, maybe land you a job. But some showrunners out there simply will not hire a writer without reading at least part of a spec for one reason… they need proof you can write a show that isn’t your own creation, but rather, models someone else’s, which is what they’re hiring you to do.

Once you have that first precious staff writer job, the spec becomes far less important if not wholly irrelevant. You will hopefully emerge from that job with co-EPs, EPs, and showrunners willing to testify to how fabulous you are, and that endorsement and a great pilot to show off your talent and point of view will get you the next gig.

So what show do you spec? There are definitely places you can go to find out what the hot specs are, and if you’re following people like Carole Kirschner and Jen Grisanti on Twitter, you can find recommendations pretty easily. My advice is always this: only spec a show you love. A show you like a lot isn’t really good enough because that thing you don’t like about the show will torture you throughout the process. So spec a show you love, full stop. And maybe that is one of the shows everyone is recommending… or maybe it’s a show you catch flack for loving or that you hear no one in the industry watches. If that’s the case, you have a choice to make — take the risk on a show you love that people might not know as well or spec the “popular kids” everyone’s raving about.

Ignorance may have been bliss for me when I decided to write a spec of “The Closer,” which I adored beyond reason, for a sample the year I applied to the CBS Writers Mentoring Program. I wrote it out of pure love and the knowledge that it fit my voice to a T. I do not kid you when I tell you that a good half-dozen people who read that script said to me: “I don’t even watch this show, but I had to know how this story ended.” I don’t tell you that to brag. I tell you that to say, if your story is great and you’re writing the hell out of it, the reader will finish it! Yes, maybe someone somewhere said, “I don’t watch this show” and pushed my script off the top of their pile. But I didn’t have to write the best “The Closer” spec anyone had ever read to compete with 100 others. I just had to write the best one I could possibly write, and it stood out on its own.

A writer I know inspired this post today because she was dealing with the issue of wanting to spec a serialized show. As more and more shows take on that element, breaking away from straight procedure, it will continue to be something up-and-coming writers struggle with. This also comes into play when a cliffhanger leaves you wondering what the hell the next season of a show (even a procedural with a killer finale) will look like. So I share these two stories in case they help you.

In the CBS program, I wrote a spec of “The Good Wife,” right before half the universe decided to write one. That show has very clear serialized elements, and at the time, it involved Peter running again for States’ Attorney and Derrick Bond working with Will to take the firm away from Diane. (Damn, those folks love to fight over that firm!). I made a very careful choice (with the endorsement of my mentors) to take clear, simple positions on where those stories existed in the exact timing of my “episode,” and went forward. Yes, there was a risk that one or both stories would blow up, but I minimized them without pretending they didn’t exist and focused on showcasing the rest of the show. The spec later helped me progress deep into another writing fellowship, and no one ever had an issue with the way I handled those choices.

The following year, I had a shot at a job on a show that had a much lighter tone than most of my samples. So to even try to get a meeting, I had to prove I could model that voice. My solution was to wrestle a tight turnaround on a new “Castle” spec, mostly because I knew that show like the back of my hand and knew I could do it. Problem… the beloved precinct captain had died in the finale, and I had no idea what the show was going to do the following season. So I decided to take advantage of a precedent that had been set on the show… the captain was not in every episode, so there would be no captain in mine. That spec didn’t get me a meeting on that show, but it helped get me one for another, and the exec actually asked me about how I chose to deal with that issue since he knew “Castle” well, too. When I explained, it was clear he just wanted to know I had thought about it and not just excised a character I didn’t want to deal with, and the meeting went great.

Does that mean you have to write a new spec every year, because a story element ruins yours or because the show did something too similar? Probably — but you should be doing that anyway!

Another young writer I know said that he had one good spec and one good pilot, and wasn’t that enough? My answer is no. First off, what happens if you’re applying to one of the writing fellowships that requests supplementary material — what are you sending them for round two? And if you’re lucky enough to get meetings for representation or jobs, you may run into someone who wants to see more than one sample. I went into my first staffing season with the aforementioned specs and another for “Covert Affairs,” which I wrote to add a second lighter-toned piece to my portfolio. On several of my meetings that year, it became clear through conversation that the exec and/or showrunner had read a pilot and at least part of a spec while considering me. And I know that on at least two of the shows I’ve been hired to write, more than one sample has helped me nail down the job (though more recently, those have been pilot submissions.)

My point is, you need an arsenal of material — the more the better — pilots AND specs. If you aren’t sure what to write next, think about the shows you realistically think you could get staffed on. Do you have the right sample for that show? Do you have mostly male leads and could use a female-led script to show you can do that voice, too? Is it all twisty darkness in your pilots when you love that one show that is drama with a sense of humor? Examine what you already have and write what you need to make your material selection more well-rounded. That is not to say write everything. If you can’t imagine ever writing a medical show, don’t write a medical show spec or pilot. But if you really want to write sci-fi and don’t have a sample that will get you a meeting — write that.

I’ll close with this — one of those showrunners I’ve heard talk about wanting to see a spec from a staff writer is Shawn Ryan, who I saw at one of those awesome Nerdist panels at Nerdmelt Comics. He listed off every spec he wrote when he was trying to catch a break in this business, and I believe it was something like 15 shows. Shawn Ryan, the guy who created “The Shield”… wrote that long list of specs just to get his first full-time staff job.

So pick a show you love and write a killer spec. Then write an awesome pilot. Then enter that spec in all the fellowships you can. Then write another pilot. And if your spec gets blown up in the season finale, so be it because you are already going to be planning your next one. And your next one. And your 15th… if that’s what it takes to get you that first job.

It took me 12.

And if there is some bleary-eyed typo I missed, please forgive this tired writer — because my new job on “The Mysteries of Laura” is awesome, and our kick-ass writers’ room has been pitching and breaking like madmen and madwomen and well, I need to go to bed.

Now go write! And good luck!