A series of interviews with hard-working writers – by another hard-working writer!
by Kelly Jo Brick
Aspiring writers often wonder how the pros got where they are. The truth is, everyone’s story is different, but there are some common elements: dedication, persistence and hard work.
Writer Liz Tigelaar (Life Unexpected, Bates Motel, The Astronaut Wives Club) rose through the television ranks, from intern to PA to script coordinator to writers’ assistant before breaking in as a television writer.
WHEN DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A WRITER?
I went to Ithaca College and I originally had kind of been thinking I was going to go into theater and music. They had such a great Communications program and I was really interested in television, but I didn’t know what I would do in it. I was not a big film buff by any means and as my time in college progressed, I got into creative writing too.
It was actually my mom who really encouraged me. She’s a wonderful writer and she said, “You love to tell stories. You like to entertain people. You love television. Why don’t you try writing?” And so I just kind of decided to give it a try and I wasn’t that great at it in the beginning but I did really like it and I loved TV.
So it just kind of fit. Ithaca had a program where you could come out to LA and intern. I was a huge soaps fan so I interned at General Hospital and just loved it. And it was weird because I actually just worked on a show, Astronaut Wives Club, that was on the same lot and I was in the same building on the same floor as where my internship was. And it was so cool to be back there and to be on a show, looking at my old internship spot in the lobby where I would sit and answer the phones and I was like, “Wow. If anyone had told me twenty years later I’d be back here, I don’t know that I would have believed them.”
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB IN THE INDUSTRY?
When I graduated, I interned at Dawson’s Creek right as that show was taking off. That really was what started and shaped my career. I started as an intern and about 6 weeks later, I was offered a job as a post PA. I did that for a year and then moved down the next year to the writer’s office, which is where I really wanted to be.
I was a script coordinator and then I was a writers’ assistant. And I wrote a freelance for them at the time with another woman who worked on the show, we were writing partners.
The freelance afforded me kinda picking what my next job would be. I didn’t get on staff from it, but I could be a little more choosy about my next assistant job. I went and I took some time off, kind of looking for the perfect job and contemplating what I wanted to do and then Maggie Friedman, who’d been working on Dawson’s and had gone on to Once and Again, called me and said that Winnie Holzman was looking for an assistant and it was right as Winnie was doing the show and doing Wicked and I ended up getting to be her assistant for a year.
That was incredible and really kind of changed things for me because Winnie’s such an iconic voice and such a known writer and a wonderful person and a person who really is able to infuse herself in everything she does, and it was like being in grad school.
AFTER WORKING WITH WINNIE, WHERE DID YOU GO NEXT?
Then I went out for staffing, I didn’t get anything again and was looking for a writing job, but if not, then an assistant job. And then I saw the pilot for American Dreams, I just remember the end of the teaser was Brittany Snow playing Meg, watching American Bandstand like it was all she wanted in the world and I felt like I was watching her watch that and this was all I wanted.
I was just like, the show is incredible. The show is a fit. Somehow it just felt like me to me. And I was like, I’ll do any job on it. I’ll go back to being a PA, I’ll be a writers’ assistant, anything. I just want to be on this show from the start. And I was lucky enough my manager at the time knew the showrunner and so she got me in as an assistant.
And from there, when they hired me they said if we get a back 9, we’ll give you an episode to write. I wrote that episode and then, myself and the other writers’ assistant, we both got to write episodes and we both got promoted. It was a really kind of nurturing, familyish like fun, really special place and a group that’s really stuck together. That was my first job on staff and I got to be on that staff for the run of the show.
HOW DID YOU FIRST GET REPRESENTATION?
I had a writing partner at the time and her mom was a very high up executive in the business. A really wonderful person and she sent our material out to her peers and people she knew.
She wanted us to go to Endeavor at the time. We basically went in there and met and they signed us. Without her, I don’t think we would have been on anybody’s radar. It was definitely like a who you know situation. I will say, I’ve been with them for like 18 years now. It stuck.
WHEN YOU WERE FIRST BREAKING IN, WAS THERE A PIECE OF ADVICE THAT REALLY STUCK WITH YOU?
Yes, a couple things, Jon Feldman, who was working on Dawson’s at the time, gave me advice like, if you ask someone for notes, be willing to get notes. Because a lot of people ask for notes, but what they really mean is like, “Hey, tell me it’s good and pass it along to your agent.”
Or you give somebody notes and then they kinda want to argue what they were trying to do versus what you thought and why you should feel differently about it. He gave me advice that was just like, do the notes. If you ask for notes, do the notes. If you do the notes, you’ll get better.
This is not necessarily advice that I got, but advice that I learned along the way. I think it’s really easy, especially when you’re an assistant, you want to break in so bad and you’re working so hard, I think as different generations have kind of come up, the expectations for this has even increased this idea that like, you deserve this. Like I do my time and I deserve this.
I think that that can be kind of like looking at your career through the wrong lens in a weird way. I feel like someone hires you to do a job as an assistant, do that job as best you can. Don’t worry about what you deserve or what you think it will lead to or how long you’re doing it for.
If you do that job well, whoever gave you that job, will help you out for the rest of your life and you will eventually get where you want to be. I think it’s when you think you’re above a job or just want to hurry through it, that it can take so much longer.
I mean I look at working for Winnie Holzman. I probably worked for Winnie for 9 months. She never read my writing. I never asked her to. Winnie has been my advocate for I would say 12 years now and it’s been amazing and I know people because of her and I’ve gotten jobs because of her, but I never had to ask her for anything. All I had to do was do the job she asked me to do.
Coming soon – Part Two as Liz shares her advice about taking meetings, pitching and the most common questions she is asked by aspiring writers.
Kelly Jo Brick is a Contributing Editor at TVWriter™. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.