Why I Moved To, and Escaped Hollywood Immediately After School
In support of Kernel’s Optimism Project, we’re publishing real student stories of struggle, trials and optimism through it all.
It was awesome. It was enlightening. It was a bad idea.
“Get to LA.”
As I was hugging my teachers goodbye at graduation, my favorite instructor left me with those words, and I took them all the way back home with me.
In Los Angeles, you need a car. So, I took ten days and drove from Maryland, coast to coast, to California.
Let me rewind and give you a little context:
Hey, I’m Terry. I grew up on a large farm in Maryland that still has no internet access in 2017. I majored in film production at Towson University in the Baltimore area, and driven by the need to get out and see the world, I took a job teaching English on a tiny island in South Korea. The contract was meant for a year. I stayed for four.
It wasn’t long before those pesky dreams of mine started clawing at the door of my heart, so I began searching for the next leg of my journey. I was an amateur screenwriter, having taught myself the craft after deciding to stay in my Korean apartment and “git gud” (as the nerds say these days). So, it was a nice bit of validation at the time when Vancouver Film School accepted me into their screenwriting program.
After my final teaching contract finished, I flew straight from Jeju Island, South Korea to Vancouver—not only leaving one culture I’d gotten pretty immersed in, but also entering a brand new one as an American (no, I did not vote for Trump) who’d never set foot in Canada before. My first thought was you guys sure had a lot of French stuff written everywhere.
Word to the wise: Don’t move under your budget. The destination will still be there.
It’s kind of dumb and a little opaque to say I learned a lot in my post-graduate studies, but while my teachers were wonderful founts of knowledge (and friends I made for life), my education came from this new, dazzling fact that there were people who wanted the same stuff that I did. More than my teachers, they were the ones who incentivized me to “git gud.”
Encouragement and a sense of community. These things are rocket fuel for creatives. So when my favorite instructor, followed by my new friends, all told me to “Get to LA”, I really took that to heart. I always knew it was what I was supposed to do if I wanted to succeed as a screenwriter.
There was one problem. I was now broke.
Being forced to move home invokes quite a knee jerk, visceral, negative reaction, no matter how supportive your family is. I lollygagged for maybe a week before I picked up a day job (a bank teller; “I tell bank”, I used to say at parties) and started saving money. I gave myself a departure date (June 30th, it was then December), and I gave myself a minimum amount of cash I should have bankrolled ($10,000 – if I had less, then I wasn’t going).
June 30th arrived before I knew it. All I had to do for that was wait. Guess how much money I had saved? It sure wasn’t ten thousand dollars. But I went anyway. Word to the wise: Don’t move under your budget. The destination will still be there.
In Los Angeles, you need a car. So, I took ten days and drove from Maryland, coast to coast, to California. Taking even your best friend with you on a trip like this can be taxing. We stopped in Lexington, Nashville, New Orleans (go hit Molly’s on Decatur and say, “Hey” to Harold for me), Austin, Roswell, Flagstaff, and Las Vegas on the way. It was the road trip of a lifetime, but if I’m being honest, it was pretty stressful.
A second word to the wise: If you don’t have friends in town who are putting you up, don’t stay inside a city. Especially during the work week.
Hollywood is a nightmare, littered with tourists more interested in their Instagram posts than the history they’re in.
My friend didn’t continue on the final leg form Vegas to Los Angeles, he had to meet his sister. So, for the first time in the whole trip, it was me with my car. Make no mistake, LA traffic is a very real phenomenon, and much like John Wick, the nightmare stories about it are, at best, watered down. But, I still made it. My 2005 Chevy Classic made it. I had all my limbs, and my landlord was gracious enough to help me unpack.
The first thing I noticed: Hollywood is a nightmare, littered with tourists more interested in their Instagram posts than the history they’re in. The Hollywood sign itself, a beacon for all dreamers who watched it through their TV screens for years, is a musty, small thing—barely visible through the pollution that chokes the place. City of Stars? More like City of Smog. You didn’t see one star, Gosling. Not ONE.
An end-to-end cross country drive in a mid sized car costs about a thousand dollars with gas, food and motels. I was on my own now, and already over my budget. I should have gotten a day job.
I had a package of writing samples ready to go, and every studio in the area was going to get a piece of me.
Whittier, the community I moved to was quaint, if not a little far from the city. Twelve miles may not seem that far on Google maps, but in LA, it may as well have been a hundred.
Regardless, the job search began. I had a package of writing samples ready to go, and every studio in the area was going to get a piece of me. Every single morning was spent querying agencies, applying to production companies, television studios, and video game developers. If I wasn’t going to write for television, I was going to be a good production assistant, and if I wasn’t going to get in that way, maybe I could get in with video game writing.
I heard nothing for a month. And then, like the clouds parting, I got an interview from a Writer/Producer position at a YouTube studio up in Burbank. They offered me the position the day after.
It didn’t go well.
I arrived after my hour and a half drive to work, bright eyed, bushy tailed, and ready to start writing and producing. I didn’t get to do any of these things. I realized four hours into my ten hour day that I hadn’t inquired about compensation. So, I finally did, and they told me. Nine dollars an hour for a job I didn’t apply for, and for a near two hour commute. Another piece of advice to the wise: Know when to quit, and have the guts to do so.
A major video game studio asked me if I’d like to interview for a writing position in San Francisco.
I tendered my resignation that evening. But then, right after, something happened that was so serendipitous that I couldn’t ignore.
A major video game studio asked me if I’d like to interview for a writing position in San Francisco. I can’t say who they are, but you probably know who they are, and you definitely know the properties they’ve worked on. They actually flew me out to chat in person. And I ended up having a very delightful talk with the writing and design staff of the company, and while I didn’t get the first job I applied for, I’m still in contact with them to this day.
Also in contact with me were my parents. Who were getting older. Suddenly, I realized just how much I’d taken my no-internet-having farm town for granted. All I wanted to do was get out. I didn’t see the forest for the trees, and I sure as heck didn’t see the stars (which were there the whole time).
Still, if you do something like this, tell a friend. Don’t be like that 127 Hours guy.
Flying back to Smogtown from San Fran, I had a little revelation. It didn’t matter where I did this from. I could be writer anywhere, at least, until I needed to be somewhere.
I serviced my car, got my tires rotated, changed my oil, and set forth back to Maryland.
The drive home was, in a word, freeing. I had a new playlist (I recommend First Aid Kit’s “My Silver Lining” for all moves), a new horror concept I started writing, knocking out a page per night in every hotel room I stayed on my route back, and an empty passenger seat. I hadn’t told my family I was coming back, and I looked forward to their faces as I pulled back into the farm. Still, if you do something like this, tell a friend. Don’t be like that 127 Hours guy.
My route took me through Utah, and one of the worst storms I’ve ever driven through. The elevation was so dynamic that at one point, I drove right above the clouds. Seeing the landscape go from torrentially grey to alabaster white to clear as day is in no uncertain terms, surreal. Also, you know, a metaphor for my current circumstances.
I continued on through Omaha (don’t eat Mexican food in Omaha), Champaign, and Ohio before I got back to Maryland. I got back just in time for dinner, and the look on my parents’ faces was exactly what I hoped for. Their smiles were worth the whole trip. You really can write from anywhere, gang.
This whole experience lasted maybe six months, but I arrived having a firmer grasp of what I wanted than ever before.
My last word to the wise: Drink in your choices, good and bad, and accept reality when it hits you. Being home is okay. The stigma is false.
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