Being creative in a pandemic is a struggle for everyone. It’s important to give yourself a break in these tough times. But if you have a story that you simply need to get out, the emotions you’re feeling can fuel the writing process. It can be hard to write about loss, but personal experiences — even bad ones — can fuel your writing.
We spoke with screenwriter Jackie Cloud about her Top 25 script, BIG GIRLS, and how she uses personal experience and loss as a source of inspiration in her writing. Jackie Cloud signed with Bellevue Productions in 2019. Learn how writing from your experiences can help create compelling stories and bring you a step closer to becoming a professional screenwriter.
How personal loss fueled inspiration
“I started writing when I was five as a way to cope with losing my dad,” says Jackie. Her father died in the September 11th terrorist attacks, and Jackie was raised by her mother, a Japanese immigrant.
BIG GIRLS is a dramedy about a young girl struggling with the loss of her father, who discovers that her mother is a pornography performer. While the loss was real for Jackie, the pornography was simply a plot device. “I played around with a lot of different genres, but BIG GIRLS was the first project [I wrote] that said something. It’s the most representative of me and the kinds of stories I want to put out in the world.”
How to get started as a screenwriter
Speaking with Jackie, she’s incredibly upbeat and positive. After graduating from Yale, she attended USC for her MFA, moving across the country where she didn’t know anyone. “I didn’t really think anything of it until I went and people said, ‘You’re moving to LA?’ But it just seemed kind of obvious to me.”
When she was a young girl she entered a local creative writing contest and placed second. “I thought, ‘Wow! Big screen here I come!’ I was always just excited to be good at something.” That personal confidence has clearly been an asset throughout Jackie’s life and an incredibly important tool for any writer. That didn’t make delving into her feelings surrounding her father’s death and her relationship with her mother any easier.
How to write about loss
“At first I dreaded it because it hurt to write. [My screenplay] is about a complicated mother-daughter relationship and grief. It taught me that honesty and dishonesty are things you can really feel in a script. It taught me to be more truthful in my writing.” And she’s still diving into her personal experiences in her work.
“I wrote a book about a girl who loses her dad, so that’s the closest to my own story. [My new script] focuses on a sibling relationship inspired by me and my brother. I’m taking what I learned from BIG GIRLS in balancing the characters and plot.”
“Bad work is better than no work”
Jackie is also a firm believer in the vomit draft, which can be very helpful in a time when people might be a little too much in their heads when they’re trying to write. “My professors at USC were very good to encourage me to not be precious about things. Bad work is better than no work.”
How to write about diversity today
There is a growing conversation happening in entertainment currently about diversity behind the camera, and the importance of finding diverse writers to create diverse experiences onscreen that are personal to them. It’s an issue that Jackie didn’t grow up considering, but knows is an important topic for her to work through.
“It’s something you have a responsibility to do. When I first started I would do it sneakily,” she said regarding writing for a diverse cast. “But it was too whitewashed. You have no choice now. You are putting something into the world and if it doesn’t make some conversation better then why are you even writing it?”
Considering that Jackie likes to tell stories with a personal connection for her, it wouldn’t seem diversity would be easy for her. Yet, Jackie is actually still processing her place in these conversations and how best to highlight them in her work.
“I’m only half-Japanese and I am white-passing. You don’t want to write about the plight of the ‘not fully white girl’. Coming to terms with the way I portray my sexuality is a conversation I have, as a woman, been having for a very long time. But I am just coming to terms with my ethnicity. It wasn’t until college that people pointed out to me that ‘You are not white and you are not treated like you are white.’”
Learning how to pitch your script
Jackie remembers her first time pitching at the “First Pitch” event at the end of her MFA program at USC. “You go around and pitch your projects. It’s two hours long, rapid-fire.” The purpose of the event is for the students to meet potential representation and producers to help jumpstart their careers, but that didn’t happen so quickly for Jackie.
“I hadn’t found the person who really understood what I was saying with [BIG GIRLS] and added value.” Jackie took the advice she heard from another student, to ask any potential reps what they would change about their script, so you can see what value they would bring to her voice.
Still wanting to find representation, Jackie applied for the Launch Pad Feature Competition in the hopes of connecting with someone. She landed in the Top 25 and met with a few different industry people, including Zack Zucker at Bellevue Productions. When Jackie asked Zack for his notes on her script, he came back with something different than others. “Zack picked up on everything [in the script] I was hoping, and he had distinct notes to make things clearer and more impactful.”
This is not a writers’ retreat: How to write during a pandemic
Just as the stay-at-home orders began, Jackie was visiting family in Connecticut before moving to Berlin for a job. The quarantine has kept her on the East Coast and away from the creative community she was a part of in Los Angeles.
“This is not a writers’ retreat. It’s a stressful time and to be creative I have to be okay emotionally and no one has been right now.” But Jackie urges fellow writers to take a break and step away from the keyboard when they can’t type anymore.
Success is not determined by your credits or paycheck, only your perspective.
An important aspect of a successful screenwriting career is building a network and community of creatives that you can work with and gain inspiration from. The stay-at-home orders have made leaning on those networks difficult.
“I didn’t realize how important friends are to my mental health and my creativity and inspiration. Being away from them and my creative group has been tough, probably tougher than any other writing during the pandemic. I can sit down and type something out, but having that wave of inspiration and having that feeling that what I’m doing matters that comes from my friends is missing.”
How to find a screenwriting community
As difficult as it is to write and finish a script, there is a big community available to you if you’re feeling like Jackie. There are forums, video chat meetups, and countless groups in different online platforms that can help ease some of the isolation that the stay-at-home orders bring. And when you’re ready, there are places and people to send what you’ve been working on, so you don’t feel stuck.
“The only qualification to say you’re a writer is to write,” says Jackie. She spoke about how we all know people who want to be writers or directors but aren’t doing the work. Success isn’t determined by your credits or paycheck — only your perspective. You can be a successful writer today if you simply write something. All you need to get started as a writer is a pen and paper. So let out whatever story you’re carrying on the page!
Jackie also suggests not pigeonholing yourself to one format. She’s currently working on a manuscript, whose story is even more personal than BIG GIRLS. “I feel like having a manuscript that I’m proud of opens more doors and makes me more appealing to people.”
“If it’s meaningful and truthful and honest and raw your story will connect with people.” Many speakers at college campuses and entertainment panels will advise people to “quit now” and Jackie points out, “that is horrible. I’ve heard everything about how hard the industry is and I wish more people were telling me that if you have something that is honest and true, you will find people. Anyone can do it. I wish someone had told me if I can do it, then you can do it too.”
So if you are currently struggling to get your voice on the page, take Jackie’s advice. She’s doing it, and you can do it too.