Wow, it’s been a minute.

I knew it had been a while since I had time to blog. Turns out I was last here on May 16th, when I decided to give notice at my job and have faith that the writing gig I’d long sought was waiting around the corner.

It was.

After worrying over how few meetings I was going on… (I later found out my upper-level writer friends didn’t want to tell me all they were hearing about what a tough year it was for staff writers, and thank goodness! There might be way less vodka in my freezer if they had)… I found out that I had a showrunner meeting for NBC’s new series “Ironside.”

I was excited to be sure, but also grounded. I’d gotten close three other times to getting a job. And so even though I really wanted this and knew I was ready for it, I went into preparation mode knowing my life wouldn’t end if I didn’t get the gig.

This showrunner conversation was very different than the others I’d been on. It was going to be over Skype, which till the day I found out about this meeting, I had never used. So most of that first few hours was learning exactly how to Skype. (Thanks to my brother and my friend in Texas for practicing with me.)

Then there was watching the pilot… three times… and reading the latest version of the pilot script and thinking up ways that my life experience made me a good fit for this show.

The next day, after I made sure my room was clean enough for Skype and after I picked out my favorite business casual t-shirt, I met Ken Sanzel over the computer. It was a good conversation, though I couldn’t honestly tell you now what most of it consisted of. It felt like we got along really well. It ended with my asking when he might make a decision and Ken saying probably in the next day or two. And that was that.

I had a lunch date with another writer friend, so I left messages for my agent and manager, sent up a little ask to my Dad that he pull any strings he had up on high in heaven, and went off to lunch, which was great and fun, and I never bothered to pick up my phone because I wasn’t expecting anything but a possible recap phone call with my reps.

So imagine my surprise when I pulled out my phone to see what time it was as we were getting the bill and saw that I had three missed phone calls and two missed texts from my agent, manager, and two of my writing mentors. I looked at my friend and said “Either this is good news or something REALLY bad just happened.”

It was good news.

Of course, I didn’t know that right away because my reps asked me to walk them through the meeting, which I did, and then came the moment my stomach dropped…

“He (Ken) just had one kind of hard question he wanted to ask.”

Okay, I can take hard questions, I thought. Lay it on me.

“Do you want to write on his show?”

I cried. I’m not gonna lie. I cried right there in the thankfully very empty restaurant with one customer and one waitress looking at me wondering what was going on. I cried for all the times I almost gave up and held on; for all the nights I slept two hours to meet a deadline for my writing programs at CBS and NBC; I cried because I am lucky enough and blessed enough to have been surrounded by people who believed in me.

I cried because finally… finally… someone said yes.

There were a lot of phone calls then, and celebrating… at least after the waiting. Waiting for your deal to be officially signed so you can shout your good news to the world feels like torture till you remind yourself how long it took to feel that exquisite, awful delay before you can tell people your dream finally came true.

The best call came from my mom the day after I told her I got hired. She called to make sure I had really given her the good news and she hadn’t dreamed it. She had dreamed it so many times, she just wanted to make sure it had actually happened.

There was also the amazing news and gift that one of my great friends, Brian, was also staffed on the show, and we would be there to help each other through those staff writer ups and downs. Seriously… that was a miracle of some writer god’s making, and I will never forget how the universe had my back there.

We started our show the first Monday in June, and we hit the ground running. First thing you should know, Ken’s not a room guy, so we ran a “writers’ hallway.” Our crew of consulting producers, co-eps, producer, and Brian and I got used to moving into each others’ spaces quickly and comfortably, bouncing story areas, breaking out our boards, and asking questions. Lots of questions.

I was the only person on our staff who had never been on a show before. But everyone, from our P.A. to the boss was willing to answer a question, point me in the right direction, or just let me blather my way to the answer on my own. (This includes my man Brandon, who didn’t tell me I could park at base camp during my location shoot, but I love him anyway).

There are moments from wandering that hallway I’ll never forget, especially some of our bullpen hangouts with Teri Weinberg, who probably won’t miss me taunting her with baked goods. Or maybe she will…

There were hard days in the mix of awesome. It took a while to get my area in shape, and then I think I wrote no less than six drafts of my outline. The first draft of my script was… not what it needed to be. The second made me feel like I had earned my desk.

Then there were notes and then there was prep, and thankfully I had an awesome co-ep shepherding me along the way. You should all be listening to The Mick Betancourt Show on iTunes, btw. He has great people sharing their stories about how they got started in the business, along with some amazing life history that will show you, truly, we all get there in our own way.

After prep came shooting. And let me tell you, if I thought I was blessed before, the crew that made our show happen was the extra helping of wonderful. They were so patient with the new kid who didn’t always know where to stand and who dropped her phone under our vehicle barricade and tried to act all nonchalant about looking for it. They taught me a lot, kept it loose, and got the job done with incredible dedication and class.

And then on the last day of my shoot, we got the news. “Ironside” had been canceled. On top of that, the final day of shooting on my episode was it… we were “done” done.

It broke my heart to be sure… I was working at this amazing job, making TV, surrounded by some of the most generous, talented people I’d ever met, and now we had to say good-bye.

Our final night of shooting rolled past midnight and into my birthday. The crew gave me a cake and sang, and I told them I couldn’t think of anywhere better to be celebrating, and it was the absolute truth.

My first job as a writer lasted just shy of five months, but I got some serious bang out of it. I got to write an episode, see it produced, and even though we’ve officially ended, I’m still getting the chance to sit in on post and watch the final product come together. It’s been amazing, and I don’t think there are words enough to tell you all how incredibly full-up with goodness I am after this experience.

It took a village for me to get there. So thank you to all the friends and family who kept me going; thanks to Brant, Toochis, and Steven; thanks to Carole, Jeanne, Janie, Karen, Jen, Julie Ann, Stacey, Stacey (yep, there’s two!), Bruce, and Deepak. My village is pretty damn awesome!

Thank you to Blair, Brent, Pablo, Neal, Spencer, and Kenny for being such a great cast… And thank you to all the fantastic guest actors who kept me mesmerized during my shoot, especially Lou Diamond Phillips and Robert Forster.

Thank you to our amazing production staff and our crew for making magic happen under the gun…

Thanks to Brandon, Andréa, Rob, Helen, and D.J. for always being around to share a laugh or answer one of my rookie questions…

And thank you, thank you, thank you to Ken, Mark, David, Rob, Judi, Mick, Talicia, and Brian for being the best first “writers’ hallway” cohorts a girl could ever ask for.

Somehow, someday my episode will be something people can see. When I know how, I’ll let you know.

And now… on to show number two, wherever you are.Image

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So with one big life change behind me — moving out of the apartment that’s been home for a decade and into my friend’s house — it’s time for another. I gave notice at my job today and will be leaving closed captioning at the end of the month.

Obviously I do so with great hope that my next job description is “TV Drama Writer” but with plans already set as to what I will pursue to pay the bills if, God forbid, that doesn’t happen. (PLEASE, TV GODS. Seriously!).

So why now? Because I think you just know, deep down in your gut, when your life needs to change. You feel it, it nags at you, and finally, you have a choice… ignore it and stay stagnate or take the risk and change it.

My move is part of what’s allowing me to do that. Knowing I have a safe place to land and a roof over my head makes it easier to risk being unemployed for a short period of time, and while the rational, responsible, grown-up me is already doing minute calculations of just how many bills can get paid for how long without another paycheck… the part of me that knew it was time to do what was best for me is totally at peace.

I was also certain it was the right time and the right decision because no argument could make me doubt it. Sure, I’m a girl who likes nice things (See my numerous posts about shoes and massages on Facebook), and it could mean sacrifices ahead. Those cuts and slashes to my lifestyle could go far deeper than the trivial. But none of that seemed worse to me than NOT changing what I knew needed to be changed.

And thus… a letter of resignation is submitted, my agent and my manager are hard at work trying to help me find my gig, and I am unpacking and cleaning and getting yet another fellowship spec finished up and breathing deeply for the first time in a very long time because I know that I’m doing exactly what I need to be doing.

So what will I take with me from this long road I’ve walked in the closed captioning biz?

Hours and hours studying some of the best writing on TV up close and personal. I’ve had the pleasure of working on shows from awesome folks like David E. Kelley, Mike Kelley, Shawn Ryan, and Andrew Marlowe to name a few, and I’ve learned so much from how each show runs, how it’s assembled, what changes are made from VAM to Final cut, and from seeing shooting drafts become completed TV episodes. I always joke that this job was a master class in pacing and dialogue structure, but one I got paid to take.

Post people work hard, y’all! Unsung most of the time and forgotten when it’s glory time by and large, these are some dedicated, smart, fun people. I’ve worked with some great ones and some not so great ones, but they’ve all taught me a lot about how I want my post production staff to run when I’m finally the showrunner. I’d tell you which show has the best post production staff in TV… but I don’t want anyone hiring them before I sell a pilot and steal them away from where they are now 😉

How much harder and longer can I work when I feel like I can’t type another word? A lot longer, and a lot harder… because no one’s deadline cares how tired you are or how sore your hands are. Get it done, get it out, get it on the air. Oh, and that power outage in Hollywood that meant “Ugly Betty” still had to be at the network by 6 a.m. Pacific even if we weren’t getting final video till 2am or later? Just one of the fun adventures of delivery deadlines.

In a larger sense, I take away some important truths about myself as well, perhaps none more important than an acknowledgement of my own strength, determination, and ability to do what needs to be done to balance my work life and my personal life… a lesson learned after allowing one to grossly overtake the other.

And I have learned that in the hardest of times, when I’ve been knocked down and have nothing to hold on to, I can find a way to stand up and move forward.

So forward it is… to what, we’ll find out in the coming days. But I’m fortunate to have friends and family willing to support me through it emotionally and spiritually, and while I may not be able to say I’m doing this without fear, I can say absolutely that I am doing it with total confidence.

One last note… my new roommate (aka one of my oldest friends in LA) bought this for our house. It’s kind of our mantra for the months ahead. Let the adventure begin!

wakeupsmiling

Recently I got to see a screening of “Things Never Said,” by writer and director Charles Murray. Charles and I met when he came to speak at the CBS Writers Mentoring program during my time as a mentee, and those of you lucky enough to know him, well, you know how awesome he is. If you haven’t had the pleasure and you’re ever around when he gives a talk about writing in Hollywood, go listen, He’s a real dude and he’ll tell it to you straight.

I’ve been following his journey with this film for a while, and even got to go be an extra for a night of shooting. So to finally get to see the finished product was exciting, and not just because I was going to get to see what I’d been hearing about for so long, but because I knew what a personal accomplishment this piece of work is for Charles.

The film is a love letter to his mom, and it’s a strong, well-told story about the ability women have to change their lives. In this case, the woman in question is Kalindra, an aspiring poetess in a broken marriage trying to find her place in the world.

When you get a chance to see this film, and I hope it’s soon (Charles is working on finding a distributor for this little gem of an independent and keep your eyes peeled for some film festival listings), you’ll see some great performances, especially from Shanola Hampton (“Shameless”), Elimu Nelson, Omari Hardwick (“Dark Blue”), Tamala Jones (“Castle”), and Michael Beach (“The Game,” “Sons of Anarchy”), and I’d go on a lot more about their performances, but this blog isn’t really a film review. Just trust me… see it!

What this blog is about is what it was like to sit in a theater after months of hearing about this project and watch it become a reality. The totality of what Charles pulled off was inspiring in a way I’m not sure I can accurately describe. Because it’s not just that he wrote and directed a very good movie… it’s that he pulled together this super-talented, hard-working group of people who dedicated themselves to doing top-notch work on a bargain-basement dollar. And that happened not just because Charles has a talent for making friends… it happened because he never lost that young man’s dream of making a movie he wanted to make on his terms, even through years of struggling to get a break, through working his way up, and while creating a beautiful family along the way.

 It was a fantastic reminder that our dreams are what brought us to this business, and that it’s our responsibility to stay true to them, even if it means deciding to do it on our own, friends in tow, on a shoestring budget.

It’s a business full of business, to be sure… but it’s fueled by dreams, and I hope you all get to share in Charles’ very soon.

 Learn more at: https://www.facebook.com/ThingsNeverSaid

Once, an acquaintance of mine overheard me telling someone a story about my favorite football coach.  When I was finished, she asked, “how exactly does someone end up with a favorite coach?”

I explained to her that football is one of the true deep loves of my life, and that while I admired many players and had a few beloved teams, yes, I did have a favorite coach because he’d not only changed the way I looked at the game, he’d changed the way I look at my life as a person and as a writer.

Tony Dungy is a man who lives in faith, and I respect him immensely for it even if my own relationship with it can best be described as “rocky” and “under construction.”  But he’s one of those people who walks the talk that comes out of his mouth, and as such, he coached both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Indianapolis Colts in the manner in which he lived… quietly, thoughtfully, earning respect by giving it, and by instilling a sense of discipline in those around him.

He didn’t scream at people to get them to do what he wanted, he didn’t curse at officials or badmouth management, even when he had good reason.  In fact, there were times I kind of wanted to see him lose it, but just when you’d think Coach was finally going to lay into a player who was putting self ahead of team — one of the biggest sins you can commit in Dungy football — he’d just get this look of utter disappointment on his face.

And his players would tell us in interview after interview… disappointing Coach Dungy was the one thing you never wanted to do.  I remember one player saying he begged coach to yell at him after getting into some off-field trouble, but that calm voice remained steady, and the player said he’d never felt worse in his life.

I’ve often posted on Facebook after an episode of “Friday Night Lights” where fictional coach Eric Taylor was especially awesome that every kid should have a Coach Taylor.

Every kid should have a Coach Dungy, too.

Coach had lost his job in Tampa for not having the killer instinct, but found a job in Indy because Jim Irsay wanted a man to lead the Colts on and off the field, and he more than got his money’s worth.  And still those rumblings began again, because every year it seemed the Colts just had to finally be ready to win it all and then every year, they came up short.  So there it was… Dungy will never get them to the Super Bowl… Dungy’s too conservative… too nice.  Dungy doesn’t have the killer instinct…

Then the world reminded us there were more important things than trophies and win-loss columns.

When James Dungy took his own life at 18, Colts fans mourned with the Dungy family as best we could, but we all knew that they were facing a tragedy we couldn’t even begin to imagine.  And yet there Coach stood, delivering a eulogy for his son that celebrated the gift of the 18 years they’d received with James, and somehow lifting up everyone around him on what was surely one of the most difficult days of his life.

And then Coach went back to work, and the Colts didn’t make it to the Super Bowl.  In years past, that would’ve left me cussing out my television and hating on whoever had beaten them, wishing them defeat at someone’s hands so they could get what they had coming.  But in January of 2006, when the Colts went home, it felt like a relief… Coach could be with his family, the players had time to grieve the kid they’d known so well, and we could all just take a moment to hope that everyone left behind who had loved James would be okay.

The next year, Coach Dungy returned to his team, and the Colts returned to the playoffs.  But there was no week off in the 2006-2007 playoffs, no dominance that screamed the Colts were a shoe-in for the AFC title game.  First there was a wild card game against Kansas City; then the Baltimore Ravens, who routinely made it their life’s work to beat Peyton Manning to a pulp, but somehow… a win; and then… the New England Patriots, who lived to destroy the Colts’ playoff dreams.

The Colts were behind the majority of the game, and I couldn’t imagine that the team and the fans had come this far to not make it to the promised land once again.  My heart ached a little at the thought of watching Coach Dungy have to shake hands from the losing sideline again… not after he’d come back, not after what his family had sacrificed for him to have another shot at the big game.  And then one of my closest friends, who is also a huge football fanatic, said to me, “Just have a little faith.  You know they can do it.”

So I had a little faith… and just said over and over again, “they can do it.”

And they did.

Now I’m not trying to take any credit for that… no magical thinking here.  What was more important was the reminder from my friend.  The Colts had done everything the way they believed was right for them… they had followed Coach Dungy’s lead, held firm to their philosophy of how to win, and they had earned that win with every second of hard work they’d put in all year… in all the years since Dungy had come to Indy… through that final whistle.

Their belief was rewarded even bigger on February 4, 2007, when the Colts took home the Lombardi trophy and made Tony Dungy a Super Bowl winning coach.

And what in the world, you ask, does all this have to do with me, my life, or writing?  Well, it has to do with what I learned by watching Coach Dungy walk through his coaching life back from his assistant days with the Minnesota Vikings, which is where I first became acquainted with his coaching philosophy.  You don’t have to be the loudest, you don’t have to ignore everything else in your life except the job, you don’t have to listen when people tell you that you have to change who you are to get where you want to go if you’re sure who you are is the best person you can be.  You can instead keep working and moving forward and doing what you believe in your soul to be right.  And even if it takes a little longer… it will still get you to where you wanted to be all along.

This last year of my life has been filled with more excitement and optimism and more stress and disappointment than any year I’ve lived so far.  I like to think of it as the featured roller coaster in “Niceole Land,” and the ride is poised to continue.

But when it starts to feel like… well, like the downs are little more frequent than the ups… I think about Coach Dungy and how he got to where he wanted to be by doing the things he believed in his soul to be right.

It might take a little longer… but I’ll get there.  And I’ll still be me when it happens.

If you want to read something both entertaining and full of inspiration, pick up “Quiet Strength” by Tony Dungy.

As far as I can tell, everyone I know has been victimized by what I like to call “mom’s favorite phrase.”  Of course, most of us have a different one to relate… a mom’s response to how you dress (You’re really wearing that?) or how you do your hair (Did you see that on some TV show and think it looked good?) or that thing she says that makes it seem like she lives to embarrass you (Oh, I know she doesn’t like it, but I’m her mama, so I get to call her “baby doll” no matter how old she is.)

My mother’s favorite phrase is guaranteed to lift my shoulders to my ears, tense up my neck, and make me clench my teeth.  “I could be dead by… (insert necessary time frame here).”

–We try to plan a visit to my brother’s family in the fall.  “But I could be dead by October.”

–I invite her to spend Mother’s Day with me in the city.  “But I could be dead by that weekend.”

–A friend invites her on a road trip to Nevada.  “Well, she wants to go in April, but I could be dead by April.”

Why is that the phrase I wish I could get some higher power to permanently ban from usage where my mother is concerned?  Well, because frankly, I don’t like to be reminded that there will be a day when she will be dead by…  I know it’s inevitable, I know it’s the way things are supposed to work, but really, who wants to think about that?

She gets mad at me every time I remind her she’s not allowed to say that to me, and tells me that I take everything she says too seriously.  I’m sure that’s true to some extent.  She is, after all, the person who could pronounce a death sentence over my social life for days, week, and months at a time for an 18-year period of my life… I learned to take what my mother said very seriously during those 18 years.  And I know that what she really means is, “yes, let’s make plans, but just know that things can change and don’t get mad at me if they do.”

Recently, though, I’ve had a new thought about the dreaded “dead by” phrase.  And I think it’s bothered me my whole life not just because every time she says it, an image conjures of a world without my mother in it, but because those words have always sounded like a reason not to do things… not to make plans or chase a dream.  Instead of hearing it the way she meant it, I heard, “why bother?”

As I worked on my pilot “Thin Air” and as I struggle through the outline for my latest, I’ve realized that’s the question that interests me most about all my characters.  Why bother?  Why would I bother to write them?  Why would you bother to watch them?  What is it that makes them say “to hell with that, buy the plane tickets and let’s make the plans”?  And what makes them shake their heads and say “why bother”?  Exploring those issues with my detectives in “Thin Air” and with the driven and yet incredibly vulnerable McKellar family in the “in progress” script has led to whole blocks of writing time spent self-debating why a son comes home to a father he no longer believes in and why a daughter can’t begin her future until she confronts the worst moment of her past.  It’s finding those answers that reminds me, I’d do this every day for the rest of my life, even if no one ever paid me (but really, someone should pay me!)

As it turns out, for all my moaning and groaning about it, even when my mom says IT, she usually gives in and makes the plans.  Oh, there’s a lot of bitching and me having to plead and sometimes get a little snippy, but we usually end up on the plane to my brother’s, or she comes to the big city for a week of shopping and running around crazy with yours truly, or she accepts her friend’s invitation and goes on the road trip, which leads to her annoyance when I tell her to remember to call when she gets where she’s going (Since when do I have to call you?  I am the mama here).

Because sure… things can change, plans can blow up, and the risks… oh, torturous!  Technically, she’s right.  She could… we all could be dead by… but making the plans… making the plans means we hope we’ll still be here… which is why I like to think she always ends up making them.

And you know what she never says it about?  She never says it about the day she gets to see “written by Niceole Levy” on her TV screen.  She has definite plans to be here for that.  And I’m plotting away at this laptop, doing my best to deliver.

 Let’s make the plans!