Bricks of Breaking In: TV Writer Andrea Ciannavei on Building a Creative Career
May 16, 2019
While there is no one path to break in as a film or TV writer, there are a lot of similar challenges — both internal and external — that aspiring writers have to confront. Below, Mayans M.C. writer Andrea Ciannavei shares how she faced the odds to grow her career as a television writer.
“I’ve always written; I’ve always wanted to be a performer of some kind. That impulse has been with me since I was a very small kid. I didn’t know what any of that meant, I just did it,” Ciannavei said.
Harnessing her writing interests became difficult without her mom’s support, though.
“I wanted to go to college for acting and my mother was absolutely against that,” she said.
It was only after a longtime friend reached out to Ciannavei’s mother to say, “You need to let her do something creative in college or she’s going to flunk out” that her mom got on board, and Ciannavei went on to study dramatic writing at Tisch and attended Juilliard, where she studied to be a playwright.
While transitioning from plays to TV, Ciannavei dealt with a wall of self-doubt that many writers face.
“My agents were like, ‘You gotta write a pilot so we can try to get you a job or at least a meeting.’ I had such a hard time with that; I procrastinated on that for years,” she said.
“I was like, ‘I’m not smart enough to write a pilot.’ I think it was just that I have a severe handicap when it comes to self-confidence. So I had every reason in my mind why I couldn’t write this thing.”
With encouragement from showrunner Liz Tuccillo, Ciannavei began to reflect on her own life, asking herself about things she had done over the years. Her experiences traveling, her involvement in movements and her memories of working with veterans got her thinking and hitting the pages to create a show about a retired Marine who goes to work for the financial crimes division of Homeland Security.
As part of her day-to-day survival job, Ciannavei worked for Tom Fontana as a project coordinator for free writing workshops for wounded veterans and family caregivers.
“Tom Fontana was actually the person who gave me my first TV gig,” she said.
“I had already been working for him for two years doing those writing workshops. He’s very cognizant of the apprenticeship aspect of TV writing, which I think is really important because the business itself is so unstable and unpredictable; you can have a job and it can disappear the next day for no reason. The thing that is good is when writers who have been around for a long time can take you through the steps of becoming a stronger TV writer.”
Reflecting on the struggles she went through while trying to break in, Ciannavei mentioned a few big challenges that would get in her way; some of which she continues to work through, even as her writing career grows and develops.
“The biggest struggle for me was [and] is that sort of negative self-talk,” she said.
“And then if you don’t have a process that works for you and you just kind of jump into things without any real thorough preparation, you’re going to end up being stuck and frustrated. That’s when you open the door to procrastination, negative self-talk, all that stuff.”
Ciannavei is still figuring out how to get past her own inner critic.
“Ultimately to me it’s like, ‘Alright, I’m just going to sit in front of this computer and if I write a quarter of a page today, that’s what it is.’ You just have to sit through it. It’s like doing crunches; you’re not going to be able to do 400 crunches first time out, you can only do like, 15,” she said.
“The thing that’s crazy making is that’s just with my stuff; when I get a script order from my boss, it’s done in a week. That’s because the process was in place and it helped me through it.”
She’s also learned that the journey as a writer is hard enough, meaning the things that add chaos and crisis to your life have to go.
“You can’t write when your life is in chaos. That means other people. That means money. That means any kind of substance problems. Food. Whatever. You’re not taking care of yourself. You’re not exercising. If you let your life fall apart in that way, it’s never a happy ending. It certainly doesn’t make anyone feel good if you’re miserable all the time.”
Ciannavei’s received some helpful advice along the way.
“Right before I went to L.A. Tom said, ‘If you believe them when they tell you you’re brilliant, then you have to believe them when they tell you you’re a piece of shit.’ I was like, ‘There it is. That is it. That is the only thing I need.’”
Sometimes writers can feel out of control: Jobs come and go. Shows are cancelled. There are extended gaps between jobs. To help cope with the ups and downs that can accompany a writing career, Ciannavei’s friend, Jason Grote (Hannibal, Mad Men) offered her a lasting tip: “The only thing you have control over is the writing. That’s it. That’s all you have total control over. All you have to do is sit down and write.”
According to Ciannavei, beginning writers often ask her how the industry works and how to get into it. In many ways it’s a mystery with different routes in for everyone. For her, it starts with building a community around yourself.
“There’s a big misconception about what networking means. To me, it’s not a disingenuous thing to meet people who are in your business,” she said.
“Everyone who is in a business [networks]; they have to go out and meet. If you’re a lawyer, you meet other lawyers. Writers are the same thing. We’re not in isolation, so you have to meet other writers and sort of be in conversation on some level with the other voices that are out in your field.”
She also recommends people look to their fellow writers for camaraderie and support.
“One thing that’s always bothered me — and I don’t think everyone does this, but it is out there — is this idea of competition or this sort of Darwinian weirdness,” she said.
“Yeah, we live in a capitalist society so competition’s a thing, I get it. But really, writers have to stick together. Nobody gets anywhere alone. We have to create a community among ourselves and establish a culture of how we’re going to treat each other; be the kind of person that I would want people to be to me. Like, if they’re successful, then my job is to support that and protect that. “
When it comes to breaking in, the avenues are numerous.
“If you have the impulse to shoot your own short films, you should do that,” Ciannavei said.
As for other opportunities to get in the door, she suggests doing it “the writer’s assistant way.”
“You can do it the showrunner’s assistant way, the writer’s PA way. There’s all those different ways to go about it. I’ve noticed that playwrights who have more of an established career in theater tend to make a move into developing. Sometimes they just bypass the whole room thing.”
Ciannavei further advises that you “put yourself in the company of others you admire as much as you possibly can.”
Ultimately, the path you take and what you write is up to you.
“If you have a burning desire to write something, if your reps are like, ‘Don’t write that, nobody’s gonna buy that,’ just write it. I’ve heard these situations where writers want to write and their reps say, ‘No, don’t. It’s not going to work,’ then literally two years later someone’s producing a show about the exact same thing on some channel and it’s not your script,” Ciannavei said.
“Follow your instincts. If it’s a mistake, learn from your mistake. It’s fine to make mistakes.”
Written by: Kelly Jo BrickKelly Jo Brick is a television and documentary writer and producer. She wrote the Telly Award-winning film PAUSE and the Frank Lloyd Wright documentary The Jewel In The Woods. A Sundance Fellow and winner of Scriptapalooza TV, Kelly Jo has been a panelist at the Austin Film Festival, Wisconsin Writers’ Institute and for Stage 32. Follow her on Twitter @KellyJoBrick.