The part of Fellowship applications we all ignore until the last possible moment: The personal essay and the bio. We like to say it’s because the script is so much bigger and more meaningful, and it should be the only thing that counts, right? But when we stop and look deep down inside, the reason we’re procrastinating is… this shit is hard.
For the personal essay, the prompts and rules differ slightly, but the basic idea is that you need to write about what makes you a unique person, what compels you to write, and why your voice is so sorely needed in the modern TV landscape, without being cliche or insufferable, and all in 500 words. So easy, right? And the bio is “another writing sample” which means it should tell your life story in a way that’s entertaining and relatable and about a half a page, max.
So first, don’t run away. And don’t assume you can write a page and a half in your sleep so this will be easy. Don’t even tell yourself that. Find a couple days between drafts of your script, when you can’t look at the thing anymore or you’re suddenly sure that everything you ever thought was brilliant and right is clearly ALL ALL wrong. Take a deep breath and tell yourself it will all be okay, you’re just going to redirect for now. And turn your attention to the essays. Make yourself focus on them. Do not write blog posts about writing them instead of writing them. Ahem.
A good place to start is by defining your brand. This is a great article that explains what that means, exactly. And even better, gives concrete steps to take to define your brand. Do them. Do all of them. Figure out how you’re trying to sell yourself. This will reflect on everything else you write. (Or should.)
Next, the essay. There are so many different thoughts on this. I’ve taken seminars and heard from judges and everyone I know has thoughts. Here’s what I’ve landed on: your personal essay proves that you can tell a story. So find your most affecting personal story and tell it, like a short story. It needs a beginning, middle, and end, and if the end can relate back to the beginning, so much the better. Your reader should have the same reaction you want them to have to your script – which is to say, if you’re a comedy writer, it should make them laugh. If you’re a drama writer they should cry or gasp or whatever. Laughing and crying would be best, but don’t force it. Cloying is the worst. Just tell this one story. If you incorporate your brand statement, it should fit nicely as the “why I write” without being the same thing everyone says.
Your bio, on the other hand, should hint that you have many, many stories to tell. You don’t have room to actually tell them all, but every sentence should make them want to sit you down and ask you questions. I think of when I was a page at Paramount, where new employees would be interviewed and hired in groups. My bosses told me about someone they were bringing in for an interview just because she had the bad fortune to be named Britney Spears, and they had to meet this person. The chances that you have the same name as a celebrity are low, but what about you would make someone say, “I HAVE to meet this person!”? Imply your most fascinating stories. Use adjectives to do it quickly and efficiently. Don’t just say you were a wedding videographer, and don’t tell me you were a wedding videographer who didn’t know how to frame a shot. Tell me you were a terrible, overpriced and overworked wedding videographer.
And lastly, all that stuff that people say and you say “I KNOW” but really you don’t know. I was talking with a friend recently who was a finalist at Disney last year and she told me it’s important that your spec and your pilot (they ask for a pilot if you make it to the next round – you knew that, right?) have the same point of view. For instance, hers both reflected her unwaivering optimism. (In her spec, this meant featuring the optimistic character.) And I said, “Ohhh, THAT’S what that means!” I had no idea what “point of view” really meant, in a way I could define. So find the one word that defines you. If you’re not sure, look back at the work you did on finding your brand. If it’s not in there, it should be.
And then the interviews. You should know, going in, that part of the price of admission is being vulnerable. They want to know that you’re willing to give everything, to tell all your most painful stories for just a chance at winning. So be prepared.
And finally, a lot of this is luck. Writing is subjective and reading is subjective, and most of these contests “cast” their winners. My masterclass at UCLA was like that – of the 8 people selected to be in the class, four were men and four were women; four were comedy writers and four were drama writers. There are slots they need people to fill and maybe you fit the category and maybe you don’t, but that part’s not in your control. Do the best you can with the parts you can control. And try not to procrastinate.