Today’s reader question comes from E. Daniels, who asks:
“Is it possible for writers to balance a career and family? With all the talk of being trapped in a room for 14 hours, I'm wondering if it's even possible to be a single parent and make a living as a TV writer, particularly given that most people move away from their families/support systems to start their career in Los Angeles. Thoughts?”
Well, E. Daniels… I’ll be honest: I’m not a single parent, so I didn’t feel fully qualified to answer this question myself. Which is why I tracked down someone who did… my friend Jennifer Vally, one of the other writers here on Reality Binge. Jen has written on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Late Late Show with Craig Kilbourn, Reality Remix, Street Smarts, and many more shows for both broadcast and cable networks… AND she’s raised two daughters.
Jen was really gracious in letting me pick her brain for a while. So without further adieu, here’s Jennifer Vally…
CHAD: How did you begin working as a TV writer? How did you get to where you are now? Tell me about your path?
JENNIFER: I started as an actress in plays in high school… in San Diego… and college. I went to junior college in Orange College, and my second year I was hired by a professional theater group and I did summer stock. From there, I decided I wanted to move to L.A. and find my fame and fortune.
I didn’t find my fame and fortune right away, but I was very ambitious. I always produced stuff, got myself on stage. I joined a comedy sketch improv group and we got to be pretty famous. We opened for Garry Shandling; we went around the country. And then I got tired of writing by committee so I started doing stand-up. And from stand-up, people started asking me to write jokes. One of my very good friends who would ask me to write jokes got a job writing on The Keenan Ivory Wayans Show, and that was all I needed. I was like, “if he can get it, I can get the job.” So I got a job working on that show.
Around that time, I was reading in the paper about the Oxygen network, and I said, “Boy, this is something I should really check: a network for women.” Because even as I was working, I would be the only woman writing [on staff], or one of two, or one of a few. So when I heard about the Oxygen network, I got very excited. I literally did all the networking myself; I had no agent. I just found out they were going to do twelve shows [and] called down to Sunset Gower, [where] I heard they were setting up production offices. I hounded them and sent my stuff and they hired me to write for the show. I was the only female writer, writing for a show called I’VE GOT A SECRET for two years… I wrote 112 episodes all by myself. From there, it just evolved and I got jobs working on different shows.
Where in that timeline did you have your children?
I actually started doing stand-up when I was six months pregnant with my youngest one. The day I had my child I was performing at The Laugh Factory. I got offstage, my water broke, and I went to the hospital and had Hannah—the same exact night I performed.
It was tough because I was single. I don’t have any immediate family in the area. My parents are from overseas, my mother lives in San Diego, I have no relatives. So I had to do everything on my own, [like] find sitters. In the beginning, I had to take my kids with me to comedy clubs and have other comics watch my kids while I did my set.
How was that lifestyle for your kids? Did they like it? Did they understand what you were doing?
They couldn’t come to a lot of the gigs… because they’re in clubs; you have to be twenty-one. But [one time, I was performing at a sober house and took my oldest daughter]. And I was telling some jokes and she got up and ran out of the room, in the middle of my set, crying! Afterwards, I went after her and she was like, “I had no idea this is what you did! You talk about me!” I hadn’t even said anything about them! I’d said that I had kids and she was mortified and ran away screaming! It was horrible. But then, when I started getting jobs on TV… then they were excited about it.
You've been working steadily as a TV writer for many years, so you have good traction and many contacts. But starting out as a TV writer is a much different ballgame than continuing to work once your career is moving. What are the biggest challenges, both personal and professional, faced by a single parent just trying to break in?
My advice to someone would be: CREATE YOUR OWN OPPORTUNITIES. So many times people come to this town and give themselves deadlines. People say, “I’m giving this six months, and I if I don’t make it, or if I don’t get a job in six months, I’m leaving.” Well, you might as well just leave, because you are setting yourself up for failure. Nothing is going to happen that quickly. It’s all perseverance, working hard.
But how can people do this? If someone moves to town with almost no contacts, how can they "create their own opportunities?"
Years ago, I started this cable access show. This is a way someone new to town could [do something]. For thirty-five dollars, they’ll teach you how to edit and do all this stuff, and there are many cable access networks in the city. You can use their facilities to tape whatever you want for two hours, with a crew, for forty bucks. It’s professional quality stuff, so I did a show called Chick TV, and from that show I won two grants: a grant from the NEA, [and another] from private foundations, because it was a comedy show featuring women. You just create your own opportunities.
There are writers groups all over L.A. I get emails from friends of mine who are starting up writers groups all the time; someone writes a screenplay, or even just a page, and they’ll go with other writers and read each other’s work. Or have actors say them out loud. So even if you’re not working, you can still get your words read by other people… and see if you’re gong on the right track.
Also… UCLA and all these places have extension courses where you can take screenwriting classes and other things. I’ve never done that, but people say they like it.
If you’re coming from out of town, I’d [also] suggest getting a job anywhere in show business. I’ve worked on a lot of productions where even the simple P.A. moves up to another position. So if you’re new and don’t know anybody, take a job anywhere at a production company. Even if it’s just answering the phones, be nice, show them you’re creative, slip your head in; after you know the place, slip them a few jokes, some samples. They’ll take a look at it because they know you and they know your work ethic.
Production assistant jobs are pretty low-paying gigs. Is it possible to be a P.A. and support your family or raise children?
You’ll have to come out with some money saved because P.A.’s don’t make much money and work longer hours. But that’s the best way for someone with absolutely no contacts or experience to get their foot in the door.
Is it possible to work as a full-time P.A., with a part-time job on the side? Could you work as a P.A. during
the week, but also work at a restaurant, or a movie theater, or as a secretary?
You might be able to. [A girl in my office now] was our very own example. She’d work on the weekends as a nanny and a P.A. during the week.
As you said, P.A.'s-- or any low-level entertainment positions-- often work brutally long hours for very little pay. How does this impact your ability to be a good parent? Can you still be a good mom or dad while working as a P.A.?
That’s something you have to really work at. If you have a lunch break, you can run home. When I first started working long hours at Oxygen, I literally had to have a team of handlers. I would take the kids to school in the morning, then I had someone who would pick them up in the afternoon, someone else who would take them to their things, and someone else who would stay with them at night. It’s tough. Your weekends are very precious, and any down-time you have, you come… or you have them brought to the set. You spend as much time [with them] as you can.
The thing about working as a writer—or anything in show business—there are periods of unemployment. [Also,] when you are working, you make enough money that you should learn to manage it [and] save it, so when you aren’t working, you don’t have to stress. That’s when I catch up on all that mommy time.
That brings up a good point: being a TV writer is an incredibly unstable job. Sometimes you work for many months; other times there are long dry spells of unemployment. How do you and your family survive the dry spells... both financially and emotionally?
Keeping busy helps. There are all kinds of freelance writing jobs you can do from home: grant-writing, writing for websites, writing for different organizations. You’re not going to make the same amount of money, but at least you’re still keeping in it.
What’s great about [times of unemployment] is: that’s when you can volunteer at your kids’ school. I was PTA president for six years at my daughter’s middle school. So I was either involved 100% or involved 20%. It gives you a chance to be involved in your kids’ lives when you wouldn’t have the opportunity otherwise. If you were working a nine-to-five job every day of the year, you wouldn’t have those opportunities, so it’s nice to have down-time every once in a while.
What are some other advantages you find working as a TV writer? Some things you feel you've "gained" being a single mom writing for television? Advantages in your personal life you wouldn't find if you had another job?
It gives you enough money to send your kids to the dance lessons, the gymnastic lessons. So when you are working, they’re keeping busy, because you don’t want your kids to slip away or slip through the cracks or get in trouble. Because I hate to say it, but if you have money, you have the resources to give them opportunities you wouldn’t working at a regular job.
And the follow-up question: are there things you feel you've lost, or personal disadvantages from working in television?
I don’t think so, because when my kids see me working, happy, productive, and being able to raise a family, that reflects on the kids. I’m happy, so they’re happy.
How much harder is it to break into TV-writing if you're a single parent?
It’s just another job, so when you’re a mother you learn how to juggle a career and have kids. But I will mention that for a woman, especially when you want to go into comedy, it’s a LOT harder. The truth is: most guys—and I did comedy for years—they don’t think women are funny. That’s the bottom line: “women aren’t funny.” So you just have to break into that boys club. I’ve worked on several shows where I was the only woman… or one of two. So there’s that disadvantage, too. But if you’re talented, people will hire you.
Breaking into TV-writing is always tough, but it's even tough for out-of-towners. What advice would you give a single parent who lives out of town, but is considering moving to L.A., to help him/her make the transition? What can he/she do before moving to L.A. to help the move-- and the professional transition-- go more smoothly?
If you haven’t done any writing in your hometown, I’d suggest you do as much of that as you can before you come out here. I’m sure there are plenty of opportunities in any city to be in a theater group and write a play, or local news, or the local entertainment show. It’s hard to break in here unless you have a little bit of experience or are willing to take the time. [Especially] if you’re coming out with NO experience, stay in your hometown a bit longer, get SOME experience, even if it’s just sitting at home writing a screenplay [or] spec script, then send it to people in Los Angeles before you make the move. Get some advice, see if it’s the right move for you.
We always hear that in order to have a TV-writing career, you must live in Los Angeles. is that true? Does an aspiring TV writer need to live in L.A.?
Not in this day and age. Every major city has the news, the “Good Morning, Mike & Mary,” plays, theater. Start in your town before you come out.
Earlier you suggested people just moving to L.A. should start at the bottom as a P.A. or other low-level position. But if you've spent many years building to a level of success in another industry... as a doctor or lawyer or secretary or fireman... it's tough to begin again. If you've been successful in one career and decide to try your hand at writing, do you really need to begin at the bottom?
Yes. If you have a field you’re already an expert in, find [writing] jobs doing that. There are always writing positions in every job—law offices, doctors. Everyone needs someone writing something for them, so start by writing for the doctors or the lawyers.
If you were advising a single parent just beginning a career as a TV writer, what are the top 3 "do's" you would offer him/her? What are thre three things he/she should be sure to do to balance parenthood and a professional life?
Number one: have good samples of your work, whether it’s a play, a short story, a spec script, a bunch of scripts. Have some samples to show.
[Number two:] do your homework. Find out what kinds of job you want… what your niche is, what your specialty is. Have in mind what you want to do before you set out. I like variety, so that’s what I’ve been going for. I like writing jokes, I like writing sketches.
A friend of mine created a long-running sitcom, and she used to call me, crying about the hours. Literally, she was working 18-20 hour days. That job wouldn’t have worked for me with my kids. As lucrative as it was, I just couldn’t do it. So find what you like and go for it. Do you want to be a sitcom writer? Do you want to work on hour dramas? Do you want to work on a talk show? Watch TV shows you like and see what production companies make those shows. Then arget those specific companies. Do some research and see if there’s a way in.
Number three: don’t expect help from anybody. You have to do it all on your own. Create your own opportunities. Don’t wait for somebody to give you a job. Be proactive. When I was doing that chick TV show, I would put out ads in looking for women, different talent. I’d talk to these women and say, “What do you do to further your career?” “Oh, I wait for my agent to call me.” Well, that’s not how it works. You have to find your own jobs, create your own oppor
tunities. If you want to be a writer, hook up with an actress; write her something and do a one-woman show or a play. Then you can invite people from the industry to see your work.
What are the top 3 "don't's" you would recommend?
You should NOT give yourself a deadline, a timeline, because that’s just setting yourself up for failure.
Don’t come to L.A. to be a writer if you’re doing it just for the money. You’ve heard writers make lots of money and that’s why you do it. You will fail. You have to do it because you love it and that’s what you want to do; you would do it regardless of whether you’re making a lot of money or not.
Don’t be afraid to knock on doors you think will be closed: you never know. Let’s say you love reality shows and would love to work behind the scenes on Survivor. Don’t be afraid to go to Mark Burnett Productions and say, “Can I do something here?” They need P.A.’s every day of the week… and people fall out all the time.
[And lastly,], don’t let anybody squash your dreams. If you have dreams, go for it, but be proactive, that’s my number-one thing. Don’t expect to have anyone really help you. Don’t sit around and wait for someone to give you a job. You have to do it on your own. If you want to be a writer, write every day, even if it’s just writing in a journal.