Julie Livingston: 3 Rules for Writing Workshop…And Life

NCIS-Gibbs-Rules

by Julie Livingston

So here I am. Finally settled in L.A.. Well, settled-ish anyway. I’m actually moving again in a couple weeks, but that decision was motivated more by my personal desire to live in a neighborhood where no one pees in the produce section of the super market than anything professional. Workwise, after the initial flurry of activity of having a manger and then not having one, things have been fairly quiet. Hollywood hasn’t exactly been beating a path to my door. The phone isn’t ringing off the hook with job offers and pilot deals. Fortunately, I’m not sitting around waiting for that to happen. I am doing what I always do when I’m not sure what else to do, I’m going to school.

A few weeks ago I started the UCLA Professional Program For Television Writing. It’s a year-long intensive in which students essentially get all the writing classes they’d get in the MFA program without all the theory. And so far, I have to say, it’s awesome. There is something truly exquisite about geeking out over the thing you love with other people who love it as geekishly as you do for six hours a week. I am impressed with how smart and experienced my fellow students are and inspired by the sacrifices everybody has made to be here, but the thing really solidified the belief that I am in the right place is the set of rules set out by my teacher, Rick Williams. No one is more surprised than I am that my favorite part of the program so far is the rules, but these rules are not about page counts or act breaks. They are instructions on how to be a person who creates and guidelines to becoming someone people want to work with, which makes me feel they are worth sharing outside the ivory tower.

Rule Number One:
Attendance Is Mandatory. You must be present, not just physically, but mentally too. Like everyone, I sometimes struggle to put away my cell phone and let go of the distractions of the day, but I know I owe it to my classmates to try. Television writing is, after all, essentially a team sport. I get that. But to be honest, my real motivation to follow rule number one is selfish. I generate more ideas, make better jokes and generally have more fun when I am fully engaged. So while I hope my classmates feel like it’s a benefit to get my full attention, truth is, I do it as much for myself as for them.

Rule Number Two:
Invest In Your Classmate’s Success. This one is HUGE. In the someday land of real TV, shows are usually written by a room full of writers. They work together to create character arcs, break stories, write jokes, but to earn a spot in the sandbox, you first have to demonstrate you understand the game by playing alone — or as LB one once told me, “Before you get to do it the easy way, you have to do it the hard way,” which means as you work to establish yourself in the business, you must do alone what might otherwise by the work of a half a dozen people or more. One of the great benefits of a program like mine, or a class, or a writers’ group, is that it is an opportunity to draw on other people’s insight, experience and sense of humor to make your work better. No one can (or will) do the work for you, but ohmigod, what a difference it makes to have other people lend you some brainpower. Working on each other’s projects is really gratifying, and in my experience, it is usually a whole lot easier than working on your own. More importantly, working on other people’s projects makes you care about those projects and those people. Assuming everybody does their part – comes prepared, participates actively, gives feedback constructively — you become a de-facto writer’s room, which is, by definition, an organism that is greater than the sum of it’s parts. Then, theoretically, at some point down the road, when one of you makes it into an actual writer’s room, that person looks to the people who sweated alongside her in the trenches of anonymity to become her comrades in the ranks of the gainfully employed, once again proving that helping other people is also a way to help yourself. Which brings me to Rule Number Three.

Invest In Your Own Success.
There’s way around it (at least none I’ve ever found, and, believe me, I’ve looked), if you want to do this thing, you’re going to have to put your money where your mouth is. And by money, I mean time – and money. Writing is a greedy time-eating beast. There, I said it. And Rick says it too, although he phrases it somewhat more delicately asking each student to make a commitment to, “prioritize our work.” Ass, meet Seat. And while he stopped just short of suggesting we withdraw from society completely, Rick didn’t mince words in explaining that a fairly unavoidable part of saying, ”yes” to your own success is saying, “no,” to pretty much everything else. Maybe not forever, but definitely during the large swaths of time when you are what he calls, “on script.” “No one will ever care about your work more than you do,” Rick assures us, and even in this early phase of the journey, we all know it’s true.

In the months and years ahead, I imagine there will be any number of concepts and constructs I will struggle to understand, so it’s nice to start out with a few basic principals that instinctively make sense. Knowing there is unfamiliar territory ahead, it is comforting to know I have already have a basic roadmap and three simple rules to guide the way: Show up. Be nice. Work hard. 

About Julie Livingston

Julie is a comedy writer living in Los Angeles.