Beth Lapides is a hallmark on the female comedy scene. She has graced our screens and stages as she continues to entertain audience across the world. Creative Screenwriting Magazine got up close and personal with Beth to chronicle her entertainment career. In doing so, she discusses finding who you are as a writer and how to best tap into that.
“I see myself as unboxed, almost wholly unboxed,” Beth Lapides says when asked which type of writer she would categorize herself as. It’s a fitting description for those who are familiar with her work. Self-dubbed a “creatix” Lapides is the founder/host/producer of L.A.’s UnCabaret, “the original alt-comedy show,” in which big-name comedy performers – Margaret Cho, Patton Oswalt, Judd Apatow have all made appearances — are encouraged to try out material that might never make it on the screen. Lapides told NPR back in 2013 that she tells her performers, “Do the material that, if you don’t do it, your head is going to explode.” Which is basically the philosophy to which she abides by when she’s creating her own work. “I don’t feel like myself if I’m not writing,” Lapides says, which explains why her resume is so long, and also varied.
Lapides has acted on TV shows “Sex and the City” and “Will and Grace.” She’s toured her one-woman show internationally to critical acclaim, she’s written for publications like the The L.A. Times, and she hosts and produces the UnCabaret podcast. Currently she’s writing a screenplay and two books. “There’s so much left to do that I haven’t done yet,” she says.
And when she’s not creating, she’s teaching other writers how to write their most compelling and authentic stories so they can sound more like themselves through their own writing.
Creative Screenwriting thought Lapides was the perfect person to chat about the different approaches one can tackle to break into the industry. We chat about why being “unboxed” might work for some while others might be better suited for one medium over the other, why there aren’t any rules, and if there is one, why passion is the most important rule of all.
In today’s climate where there are so many different media, is it important to try keep trying your hand at them all or should you stick to what you know?
If you’re a writer, you have to write. But you also have to know who you are. Are you a screenwriter? Or a TV writer? Or are you just a writer? While other writers see themselves as only one thing. When it comes to writing projects, you might think, I’m a standup comedian, or I’m a memoirist, I’m a TV writer, I’m a screenwriter, and I want to find things for those medium. You can also look at the sort of stories you want to tell and see which medium they fit into best. Some stories are more appropriate for different media. For example, we have so many limited series now. There are specific kinds of storytelling that good for specific types of characters. So as the media changes, you fit the stories to match the medium.
You don’t have to mould yourself to fit each medium if you don’t want to. Writers are some of the weirdest people in the world. To have someone to tell you there is one way to do it—if someone tells you there is only one way to be a writer, don’t listen to them. Some people have been screenwriters who have made the leap to TV. Look at Judd Apatow. He had a hard time with his TV shows, then he went to movies, and now he’s back at Netflix. It’s more varied than it used to be, but there are people who have careers in one area, like screenwriting or TV writing, and that’s all they to do. So you can mix it up or not.
If a writer is having a hard time breaking into the industry, should they look for other media to write for? Or should they keep plugging away with TV and film?
The most important thing for a writer to do is write. If people are saying no to you, and you’re fine with that, then keep doing your thing. If you’re feeling frustrated, then try to write something else. Follow the green lights. See where there’s energy. If you’re just getting “no,” it’s hard. You have to balance it out. You have to consider whether you’re going to quit too soon, or are you being too stubborn. Are you giving up or have you not worked long enough on your craft. This is why I work one-on-one with people. Because everyone is different. You can work with one person and say, “You’re not working hard enough.” And you can say to another person, “You’ve got to shift your direction.” There are a number of examples of writers who kept at it no matter what. Stephen King famously put up his rejection letters with a big rusty nail, saying, like, “Great, keep them coming!”
His wife found “Carrie” in the waste paper basket, and he even sent it out before that – and, well, the rest is history. I think writers get in their heads a lot. We tend to second guess ourselves and it’s easy to think you’re making a mistake. You probably are! We trade in human fragility and in order to do that you have to be sensitive, and then in order to be that way, you have to be oversensitive.
If I were to recommend anything, I would say don’t isolate yourself. If you’re just in your room and no one you can trust is reading your work, find a writing group, a mentor, someone else with experience, who can read your stuff and know that you aren’t beating yourself up.
What helps to keep you motivated during those lull moments?
I love it. What keeps me motivated is that I don’t feel like myself unless I’m writing. I understand myself in the world truly only through writing. So if I don’t write, I don’t feel connected to my full self. So that’s what keeps me going. How I stay motivated in the business? I want to get paid, but it’s not just that. You want people to experience your writing and connect with it and love it. I want to connect to an audience so I feel unalone. So what I do is I post stuff on social media. I tell people that it’s easy to find an audience. Just keep posting stuff on social media.
Keep creating and putting it out there how you can. My particular corner of the writing world is me getting people to express their true selves in their voice with their own stories, and the importance of that. What kills people during the down moments is when they’re working on something that they’re not necessarily passionate about and it doesn’t sell. But when you’re working from a passionate place, yes, you can get discouraged and wish there was a different outcome. But, ultimately, you’re writing the stories that you feel you need to tell.
What helps you balance multiple projects?
Badly. [laughs] No, I have a formula: There’s a stove. On the stove, there are two front burners and two back burners, and you can put something in the oven. But you can only have two front burners going. You can switch it out. You can something from the front burner on the back burner, and vice versa. I’m always constantly assessing what’s on the front burner, what’s on the back burner, what’s in the oven, and consciously seeing where they’re at in the kitchen. Reassessing if you still have energy to work on a particular project. Giving yourself permission to admit to yourself that you’ve had a false start and that you’ve run out of steam. I would often beat myself up before if something wasn’t working. I also try not to have too many projects that are of a similar nature. For example, I’m writing a screenplay and probably won’t be working on another screenplay. There’s the standup, there’s the book. That’s how I do it. You have to experiment with it, and to get to the point of, “Okay, this is too much for me.” There’s something to be said about gestation. That you’re gestating on a draft or an idea. The key is to wait without waiting. If you feel like you’re waiting on something, you need to get busy on something else. You definitely need enough things to have going so when you’re waiting, you’re not really waiting.
You host a podcast. Podcasts are huge. But some writers see them as something to do in “in between” gigs rather than seeing them as their own thing, like “the” project. What do you think of them for writers?
Oh, they’re for sure their own thing. Scripted podcasts are a new thing now. A young writer needs to look for areas that are new because they’re not saturated. They have to look for a market that’s not saturated. One way to break into the industry is to have intellectual property within another media. I have friends who wrote a book in order to sell it as a TV show. So whether it’s a podcast, a book, a graphic novel – those are great ways to get started in the business, and if anything, you’ve made something. And I think that’s the frustration when you’re so focused on film and TV. I have friends who left the business because they only had sold things over and over again, and never had anything made.
They were thinking, “Well, what am I doing here?” because their work was never meeting an audience, which can be really frustrating as a writer. So you have to look at yourself and know how important it is to connect with an audience? For me, important. Other people, not so much. So scripted podcasts are an area to look at to break into. They’re a great way to promote your book or movie as a guest. As a host, well, I’m not going to lie to you. It takes a lot for you to actually make money from a podcast. You need 10,000 listeners per episode to even start to get commercials, so…
What are the most essential tools in a writer’s tool box?
Number one, be human. Also, write. It seems obvious, but I know writers who didn’t like to write. Another one, sensitivity. A sense of rhythm. A love of language. Structural insight into story. Interest in people. Interest in others. Curiosity. Be interested in life. Sometimes people come in to me, and I have to tell them, “You have nothing to write because you aren’t living.” You have to give yourself fuel for your writing.
Also, every writer is different. You don’t need to have all the things. Maybe you’re great in dialogue or scene structure or maybe you’re very poetic. You don’t need to have them all in order to be great. And the difference between a good writer and a great writer is knowing your own voice. Having the confidence in your own voice. Knowing when you read it that you know something is off, and you keep rewriting it until it sounds like you. You want someone to read your work and say, “That’s you.” It goes back to that term, “reliable narrator.” Do we trust you as a storyteller? Because the more you know yourself, the less we have to figure it out because you know your voice and your story.