Pivoting to Screenwriting in My Forties Because I’ve Never Been More Confident
Even on my worst day as a writer, I’m closer to the creative life I dreamed of at eighteen than ever before.
I couldn’t afford to mess it up.
When I got to college, I selected a psychology major instead of theater or writing—the most interesting “safe” subject. I learned that to be “safe” in psychology and guarantee a competitive salary, I would need to go to graduate school. So I got a PhD in social psychology and almost immediately turned to a career of education policy research, culminating with a senior principal investigator position at the University of Chicago. I made every adult decision rooted in fear, wanting to cement financial security like Han Solo in carbonite.
But all these safe decisions didn’t release me. My panic disorder peaked late in graduate school, after also starting a full-time job. Struggling intensely just to leave the house, my hands shook as soon as the alarm raged each morning. I drank heavily in the evenings and slept whenever possible to hide in my subconscious from pressures of school and work. Before I even finished my PhD, I already felt frustrated with my work. I was struggling for something that I didn’t even want to do. Nearly a decade later and nothing had felt quite the way standing onstage in that powder-dusted wig once had.
Even with such a carefully structured safe life, even though I felt like I’d done everything right, I still couldn’t “fix” my anxiety. After a few months of uncontrollable attacks, I finally sought help and began a regime of medication with regular talk therapy. I could sense a major difference, though I was far from “cured.” Still worried constantly about money and security, I forced myself to work harder and get promoted. This was what I could control.
A year or so after my treatment began, I started to feel better. It happened slowly, quietly, with such insignificant daily changes that I didn’t notice for months. One day, as I was sitting in a coffee shop with my partner, I realized I’d forgotten Xanax. Yet there I was, just quietly sipping my iced tea without a racing heart and tunnel vision, completely unaided by my beloved barbiturates. This win brought me to tears over the blissful calm. I was able to decrease my medications slowly, especially the “as-needed” panic meds.
In lieu of panic attacks, I found myself bored. Work remained stressful and rarely enjoyable. I felt like someone pretending to be an academic, still just a dorky theater kid playacting at a responsible-person job. The people I worked with were nice enough, and certainly brilliant, but they weren’t “my people.” I didn’t get horny about elegant hierarchical models like they did. My topical meeting jokes were generally returned with blank stares. I didn’t get excited about large grants won or having our work cited in national and international policies, like my colleagues did. Every new step forward in my career just felt like more stress. But I was good at it, and people wanted to pay me. So I stayed and saved.
I also began to overcorrect for my quiet life. Invigorated with newfound remission from my panic disorder, I joined Roller Derby, became polyamorous, and started teaching social psychology to PhD students at Northwestern. My partner and I started backpacking in Central America. I filled my life with stimulation wherever I could find it—I could laugh, finally, and wanted to make other folks laugh too. I wanted to start sharing my joy again, and I began writing on my frequently neglected Blogspot page.
I dipped my toe back into creative worlds delicately, worried that higher-ups in my field would Google me and find my writing. When these prestigious researchers read my half-satire essays about boning younger dudes, they’ll certainly reject my multimillion-dollar grant proposals, I thought. With careful social media sharing and LinkedIn wizardry, I managed to keep my creative self under the radar, slowly building confidence and even (gulp) enjoying myself.
The first time I had a piece accepted to a small online humor magazine, I was breathtakingly thrilled, more excited than I had ever been with any of my work or school accomplishments. I got the acceptance while on assignment for a high-profile work client in Manhattan. While I needed to prep for a day of observations and interviews, I was quaking with excitement that people would read my obviously genius satirical defense of the word moist. (Spoiler alert: It was terrible.)
As I stretched my legs deeper into creative waters, a literary agent read one of my pieces and convinced me to become a humor memoir writer. Just a few years ago, I signed a book deal. My brain felt framed, finally, for a challenging and deeply personal career, which did not feel possible for me twenty years ago.
When I was young, I needed to have a life that allowed me to keep my fears tighty corralled. But my forties brought with them the realization that, despite all my careful orchestration, life will throw many rubber balls (read: mouse infestations, career faux pas, and cathartic heartbreaks) I can’t always juggle. In addition to working through a panic disorder, I watched my parents experience multiple cancers, and I lost my dad. I’ve dealt with marital struggles, financial turmoil, friendships ending, and professional drama. When I was young, I didn’t know how I’d make it through some of these experiences. The horror seemed unfathomable without years of experience—without the years of wisdom to help better frame them properly—but I know now I can survive grief, disappointment, anxiety, embarrassment, and pain. I know because I’ve already done it, and here I am.
When I am afraid before a presentation, I now invite images of the worst-case scenario. I visualize myself fainting and knocking a podium to the floor, sending pitchers of drinking water flying and earning the nickname Fainty McGee for the next decade. And I remember that if that happens, I will survive. I see myself getting through it. It took years of work, of healing, but I now try to relinquish myself to the unknown, rather than control. Float, rather than fight.
After I wrote my book (and acquired healthcare), I finally felt able to leave my job as an academic to pursue writing and performing. Holding my book in my hands was like holding my old Lake County Rotary award. It was a real, tangible thing that proved I could be a creative. When it was published and written up in Bust and Refinery29, I even pitched a sitcom based on my experiences as a teen girl working at the local DQ. After years of fear and anxiety, everything was coming up LaForce! The creative life was mine!
I felt like a dorky theater kid playacting at a responsible-person job.
The day after we pitched my show, however, the studio shuttered. Covid raged, which certainly didn’t help my creative career to take off. Rejection after rejection poured in. For the last year, I’ve had very little to show for my “creative self,” other than unpaid successes like starting a zine and writing for low-budget feminist mags. I wondered if I’d made a mistake in finally pursuing my dreams. Sure, it’s been fun to work on my weird projects like my Fleabag-meets-Outlander memoir pilot, but am I just kidding myself?
The reality is, though, that even on my worst day as a writer, I still get to do work that fulfills me in a way that I haven’t felt since I was a creative child. I love writing my zine and silly articles for small magazines; they are a return to the fun nonsense I used to write in my zine back in high school, when I did it solely for joy. I’m even able to go back to performing (improv and stand-up classes on the docket!) with much less anxiety than I once had. I’m resilient against rejections in a way that I definitely was not as a kid, which helps keep me going. Because I’ve seen what it’s like to do work that I’m not passionate about, and what it takes from me, I’m ready to be in this complicated place now.
To be sure, this is not easy work. Natural pessimists don’t acquire a healthy state of mind solely by passing time. There are too many well-trod neurotic pathways to simply flip a switch, chill out, and let the creative life roll over you. The lack of concrete feedback, timelines, and progress checkpoints (something my old job could provide with much more clarity) often leaves me spinning in self-doubt. With all my efforts, it remains annoyingly easy to slip into a weeklong self-loathing Cheetos binge. I must work at my mental health every day, must make the effort to recognize damaging thought patterns and reframe them.
I don’t regret foregoing my dreams when I was young. I needed to make that choice. With so much anxiety and a lack of coping skills, I would have suffered too much under the uncertainties of a creative life. There were simply too many of my own demons to battle before I could stomach a creative career, which is essentially freefall into the unknown. I am such a different person at forty-three than I was at eighteen, much better equipped and confident to do the work that scares me, opens me up, and moves my heart.
Even now, I haven’t left the house in a couple days, and I rewatched Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion instead of working on this essay yesterday because I was struggling to believe what I was writing. Yet I knew that I would muster my strength and do the work. I know I can drag myself through pretty much anything now and come out on the other side of this moment, just like any meeting, conference presentation, essay, or challenge I’ve faced before. If I get battered, I now know I am tough.
I recognize and nurture my creative brain, so I edit today with my favorite mood enhancers: a solid night’s sleep under my belt, Lizzo in my ears, Blue Dream in my lungs, and coffee with oat milk. The keys under my fingers feel different when I’m writing my heart rather than a logistic regression analysis. Tears of catharsis are much more satisfying than tears of SAS code frustration.
The world is finally talking about mental health more openly and recognizing that even young students need support to be their best selves. Students are now being taught the emotional skills in school that took me twenty years of therapy to cultivate (and correct for) later in life. We have the potential to be not only a happier society, but a stronger one because of it. I’m hopeful that young folks today won’t struggle as much to be themselves as my generation did. But if they do, I hope they take comfort in knowing that it will never be too late.
Dr. Melanie LaForce is a comedian, author, and social scientist from Cleveland & Chicago. Her 2018 indie memoir, CORN-FED, received praise from Refinery29 and BUST. Her work has been published in Marie Claire, McSweeney's, Washington Post, and New York Magazine. She currently lives in Burbank.