Everything is Already Something Week 28: The Beauty of Being Second Choice

Allison Page wins the silver medal for drinking bleach.

I’ve never played “the sports”. That wasn’t really my thing. I don’t really like going “outside”. But being pulled off the bench is something I’m very familiar with. Someone drops out of a show because they’re having a shotgun wedding, or they jumped off the space needle and broke every bone in their body, or they forgot that they’re being audited by the IRS that day and someone has to come in and save the day…someone who’s around…someone who’s available…someone that can be relied on most of the time and IT’S ME, guys.

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I wouldn’t even be a company member of the sketch comedy group I’ve been in for the last 4 years if someone hadn’t dropped out, and I stepped in to replace them. Was I tooootally in after that, because I was so amazing the first time around? No. Another one of their shows came up and another person had to drop out – and there I was again, crazy wigs in hand and ready to go! After that, sometimes people actually wanted me around on purpose. How about that?!

Last Saturday I was, once again, a fabulous second choice. A literary event called Women of Letters originating in Australia took a little jaunt to the good old US of A. The show’s basic concept is to get a bunch of awesome, prominent humans together, give them a theme, and they will then bring a prepared 5-10 minute long letter they’ve written to someone or something and read it out loud to an audience full of excited onlookers. Literary events are kind of all the rage right now, and this is a good one. People included on the US tour? Oh, I don’t know, how do Edie Falco, Moby, Kimya Dawon, Jena Malone, Ayelet Waldman, and Merrill Markoe strike you? That’s just a sampling. A bay area comedian was included in the San Francisco show but had to drop out to go open for Anthony Jeselnik in San Jose, and when that happened they needed someone else…and somebody recommended me! I was surprised and delighted…and I had 24 hours to write something the rest of the group had about a month to write. Naturally, I accepted and got to work. Our theme was “A letter to someone who told me the truth”. I made a list of possibilities, including a letter to Liza Minelli because I once sang “Cabaret” for an audition and it was the last time I ever bothered to sing, because it was a disaster. I decided to go with a letter to a man I kissed against his will, because his lips told me the truth when they did not kiss me back. Here are three things I knew for sure:

It’s fantastic to be a last second replacement. Everyone’s really relieved they got someone on super short notice.

2) They may not actually be expecting much. I mean, they’ve never heard of me. So that means that if I’m even a little good – I’m a savior!

3) I was obviously the comic relief. The woman who had to drop out was a comedian, and the rest of the line up were authors, poets, and one musician. I was definitely there to be the light one. I wasn’t going to fight that.

When I arrived at the theater, the first question I got was “What’s the tone of your piece?” I said it was relatively light and funny. They were relieved. It was a fantastic experience, and I was surrounded by some pretty inspiring women who said some pretty exciting things. And something happened that I didn’t expect. Ayelet Waldman (author of Red Hook Road, Love & Treasure, Bad Mother, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, Daughter’s Keeper and a bunch of other things, and also happens to be Michael Chabon’s wife.) was instantly just fiercely encouraging. Within 5 minutes of chatting backstage, we got to this conversation –

Ayelet: “Why aren’t you writing for TV? Is Lena Dunham funnier than you? Absolutely not. Do you have a spec script?”

Me: “Um…no.”

Ayelet: “Well, you need to write a spec script, immediately.”

Me: “I mean, even if I do write one I’m not really sure what I’m going to do with it.”

Ayelet: “I’m tired of women putting off things like that and thinking that they have to go through a million steps before they’re good enough to do things. Wait too long and suddenly you’ll be me, waking up at 50.”

Me: “You seem to be doing okay to me!”

Ayelet: “Well…the industry is scrambling for new talent and there’s no reason in the world that it shouldn’t be you. It should be you. Go write a spec script. Making you do that is my new mission.”

Don't be like that, Lena, I didn't say it!

Don’t be like that, Lena, I didn’t say it!

I certainly didn’t expect that have that interaction. It was surprising and…ya know, pretty flattering. But also, it’s not like she knows me really well and has seen my writing. She was just basing that on knowing me for 5 minutes. Either way, it was a nice thing to hear especially because I’m going through a pretty frustrating slump right now. I’ve been feeling unmotivated and generally pretty useless. I imagine that’s because I’m unemployed – which at first was amazing, and is now just making me feel depressed. I have all this time to write and each word I type feels like a giant stone I’m somehow supposed to move by myself in order to build a great pyramid in my mind. I feel like Burgess Meredith from the Twilight Zone. He had all the time in the world to read, and he broke his glasses, rendering the books useless to him. It’s a little mentally crippling. It’ll pass, though. And Women of Letters helped. And I wouldn’t have gotten that boost if not for being a lucky second choice.

From left to right: Front row: singer Kim Boekbinder, Women of Letters co-curator Michaela McGuire, graphic novelist Ellen Forney. Back row: linguist Laura Welcher, Me, novelist Ayelet Waldman, performance poet Daphne Gottlieb, author Natalie Baszile.

From left to right: Front row: singer Kim Boekbinder, Women of Letters co-curator Michaela McGuire, graphic novelist Ellen Forney. Back row: linguist Laura Welcher, Me, novelist Ayelet Waldman, performance poet Daphne Gottlieb, author Natalie Baszile.

What I’m saying is, don’t ever feel second best just because you were the second choice. The moment you step in, you’re the first choice and you need to treat it that way. And always be ready to say yes to a good opportunity – it might just lead to something more.

Allison is spending a lot of time on her couch right now, but you can find her on Twitter @allisonlynnpage

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9 comments on “Everything is Already Something Week 28: The Beauty of Being Second Choice

  1. RickSteele says:

    Be not afraid, and take to heart what Ayelet told you. Here’s why:

    1. I have been essentially unemployed for nearly three years. It is not for lack of trying, and I do everything I can to remain constructively occupied and as useful as possible. The blame for the root causes lies squarely at my doorstep, and yet I do put some of the onus upon the Great Gray Ceiling because

    2. I am a member of that quasi-“protected” class known as Workers Over 40. Protected, my lily-white pagan ass. I was 54 when I “woke up” last year and realized that my best abilities still resided with the theater, as they did all those years ago (you rightly should not want the details, but if you insist on them, it will cost you a pitcher of beer).

    3. I act because it brings me back to life. It is the perfect workplace for me, being surrounded by the kind of people with whom I love to be. And last but hardly least

    4. This applies to writing, too.

    Bon chance, mon amie, as I too have been putting in a lot of couch time.

  2. “Second choice” isn’t synonymous with “second-best”. That’s why it’s great to always have your skills honed, because you never know when they’ll be called upon.

    This post is all the better having actually heard the aforementioned “kissing” story.

    • ALSO: this is just my opinion, but I’ve never been a fan of Hollywood spec scripts. Not so much the scripts themselves, but the idea of them. The point of a spec script is that it’s meant to NEVER be produced. It’s meant to show off your skills on the page, but not actually be put on-screen? That strikes me as illogical.

      But then Robert McKee has made a long career out of giving seminars based only on his unproduced script work, so what do I know?

  3. Absolutely, the importance of preparation and being ready to step up to the plate even if you know you’re “second choice” can’t be underestimated. When I was in 8th grade, I auditioned to sing a solo verse in one of the songs my choir was doing. There were two other girls, Hayley and Kristin, in the alto section who had absolutely amazing voices and, like… I could hit the notes, I was a fine singer, but I couldn’t make it SOAR the way they could. It was pretty clear that I was the 3rd choice, and the solo went to Hayley.

    Well, a few months later we were at a performance and Hayley couldn’t be there that day. Someone else would have to sing the solo! “Kristin, can you do it?” my choir director asked. But Kristin demurred! She wasn’t sure she could remember the lyrics!

    So that’s how the solo ended up going to me, the 3rd choice — at least for that one performance.

    Also, contra Charles, I have to put in a good word for writing spec scripts… writing my “unproduceable” screenplay for APHRODITE, in the 2012 Olympians Festival, is one of the more fun writing jobs I’ve ever done. It can be somewhat liberating not to be bound by the demands of “produceability” as you write — even if there’s a small secret part of me that wishes that someone with a spare $20 million and a love of 1940s cinema would come across the screenplay and want to produce it. 🙂

    • But that’s the thing for me, Marissa: I don’t see “produceability” as synonymous with thinking/wishing to have it produced.

      I see the former as something with which a writer shouldn’t concern him/herself (at first); that’s really the director’s job to make the writer’s wild ideas translate into a plausible production. That idea mainly comes from my having done Blasted – once you’ve done a Sarah Kane script, the words “unproduceable script” are no longer in your vocabulary.

      I see the latter as the difference between someone writes as a hobby and someone who writes because they have something to say. Spec writing is hobby writing, except you get paid for it; no one is ever expected to see the work come to life. Not like “The Black List“, which is full of scripts their writers DESPERATELY want to have produced. Those folks care about their scripts – spec scriptwriting is specifically asking you not to care about your writing, just your marketability.

      As someone who studied to be a film-maker, I would actually love to shoot The Love Goddess and I know exactly how I would (it wouldn’t even require $20million). Hell, both after and during the intermission for See Also All, I spent the downtime talking with some locally theatre folks about how I’d stage it, had I the money. Again, I don’t believe in an “unproduceable” story. More importantly: I can’t imagine you, Stuart, or most any of the writers we know (Allison included) caring so little about a script to not care if it were ever read/produced.

      To me, Marissa, you will always be the writer who, within 30min. of meeting her, said “Scripts are never finished, only abandoned”.

      • Charles, I wonder if we’re talking past one another, and maybe that’s because there are different definitions of what it means to write “on spec” floating around. Some people use the term to mean writing a “spec script” for an episode of your favorite TV show, merely to demonstrate your skills as a writer, showing what you’d do if you worked on that show and had those characters/scenario to play with. (And of course, that script won’t get produced, because you are not actually on the writing staff of that show.) Other people use “writing on spec” to mean any kind of writing that is undertaken without compensation or assurance of future profit. (Hope for a future profit/production is not the same thing as assurance of such.) According to this definition, I write most of my plays on spec; JK Rowling wrote the first “Harry Potter” book on spec; and Matthew Weiner wrote the pilot of “Mad Men” on spec, hoping to sell it to a studio and turn it into a full series. I consider my “Aphrodite” screenplay as written on spec because I knew how slim the odds were of it going on to a future life, and I wrote it partly as a way of teaching myself how to write a film. And while I joke about selling the script to Hollywood, I don’t really care if no one ever reads or produces it again, because it taught ME something about how to be a better writer; as such, it accomplished what I wanted it to do.

        (To say “spec writing is like hobby writing, except you get paid for it” distorts the meaning of what a “spec script” is — the whole point of writing on spec is that you’re NOT being paid.)

        I’m not sure if Ayelet Waldman’s advice to Allison to “write a spec script” meant to write a fake episode of a popular TV show, or to write an original TV pilot. And I can see how you think that to do the former means that the writer lacks integrity and is not a “true artist.” But then again, the purpose of writing this kind of spec script is to get a job on a TV-writing staff — and if you have that job, you don’t own the rights to the work you create or have full creative control — you are subject to the showrunner’s vision for how the season should play out. Some writers don’t have the temperament to make these kinds of compromises (being 1 of 12 writers in a room, not always getting to say what you want to say); others do. But your point of view comes dangerously close to suggesting that ALL television writers — some of whom are putting out pretty amazing work — are just “hobbyists” or are whoring themselves out.

        And I’m not the person who came up with that “scripts are never finished, only abandoned” adage; it’s as old as the Hollywood hills.

      • I don’t mean to call anyone’s artistic motivation into question. Nor do I have a problem with serial writing (tv, comics, wherever) which does produce a lot of great work.

        In short, I’ve never been a fan of the Hollywood model for spec writers to write work-unlikely-to-be-produced simply for the sake of joining a writing staff. That to me has always been a means of showing off one’s individuality for the contradictory sake of losing it.

        I’ve always been more drawn to ones – like Rowling, like Weiner, like Aaron Sorkin, David Milch, and most recently Mindy Kaling – who always want their work shown, but come to terms with the fact that it might not.

      • Allison says:

        I’m going to pop in and say that what Ayelet was advising was that I should write an original spec script for a pilot of my own creation. Something I left out of the conversation when talking about it in the blog (there were lots of things, actually) is that I said I was working on a spec for an already-airings show and she said “Okay, but you should write one for your own series. That’s important.” So she was talking about that as opposed to me writing a spec for New Girl.

      • Now THAT is an idea I love!

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