After nearly 20 years of writing for TV, Ellie channeled her creative talent toward giving back by working with youths and artists.
Tell us a little about your background…
Well, my life has had many acts! I grew up in Winnetka, IL, and studied English at Bryn Mawr College. I was always a fanatical reader and started writing in my last year of college. In my twenties, my dream was to be a fiction writer; to that end, I wrote three bad novels that I never published, but also many short stories that, after a while, I published in literary magazines—I even won an O. Henry award for one of my stories.
But the traditional writer’s life was too isolating for me. At 29, now living in L.A., I became a television writer, pretty much on a whim. A friend called me and asked if I wanted to try to break into TV with her and I was so frustrated with being at home writing short stories that I said yes without even thinking about it. Within six months, we were staffed on a show, Newhart, and my TV career was on.
We got that big break when our agent passed our “spec” script on to the executive producers for Newhart, who liked it and called us in for a meeting. I was totally surprised when the meeting had absolutely nothing to do with the job—we chatted for a while about the high price of real estate in L.A. and also, randomly, about horse racing because one of them owned horses and was a high-stakes better. When the meeting was over, I was confused; what was that all about? I was stunned when they called our agent the same day to tell him we’d gotten the job just because they liked us.
After that first year, my writing partner and I decided to part ways, since she was more interested in comedy and I preferred drama. For the next nineteen years, I wrote for many nighttime TV dramas, including Desperate Housewives, Chicago Hope, My So-Called Life, and The Riches. Since at the same time, my husband and I were raising our three children, I was fortunate enough to be able to consult for shows rather than be there at all hours.
When did you start to think about another change?
The “inciting incident” for me was the WGA (Writers Guild of America) strike in 2007. For months, I walked the picket line with the other writers, day in and day out. Even after years in the business, I was surprised at the faces I saw on the line: almost 100% white, mainly male. On a subliminal level, I’d always noticed this, but having months of walking in circles with nothing to do made me think. If I was going to fight this hard for something, why not fight for something that mattered? Why, in the 21st century, were the most powerful storytellers on the planet still primarily male and almost exclusively white?
After the strike, the show I’d been on, The Riches, was canceled. I was extremely sad because I loved that particular show and all the writers; I felt I’d never had a TV job I loved as much as that one. My oldest daughter was accepted at college and, impulsively, I decided to end my TV career right there.
At 47, I got my teaching credentials at night at Cal State Northridge while working days in a classroom as an intern. For the next five years, I taught English electives at Animo Pat Brown Charter High School, an amazing school in South Central Los Angeles, one of the most high-poverty communities in California. Those years were probably the most rewarding professional years of my life, but the workload was not sustainable for me; we were continually in crisis mode, chronically underfunded and reactive to whatever draconian education mandate was coming down the pike that minute. The work was physically and emotionally draining. After my fifth year, at age 53, I made the difficult decision to leave that school and take a year off to reflect.
During that sabbatical, I wrote an education blog—I visited high schools across the socioeconomic spectrum in order to better understand what we mean when we talk about education. I also taught a poetry workshop at Venice YouthBuild, a continuation school for young adults who were unable to finish high school.
What is your next act?
I work with young writers in underserved communities. I continue to teach creative writing at my old school and at Venice YouthBuild. Next month, I will step into a new role as Program Manager of PEN in the Community, which is a project of PEN USA, whose mission is to defend freedom of expression domestically and internationally. I will be running a creative writing program that brings working writers into underserved schools, communities, and reservations to teach workshops and publish literary magazines.
I also work with young artists at Art Division, a non-profit for art students from low-income families, ages 19-25; I am extremely excited to be teaching a screenwriting class there. When I think of my work with youths, I don’t really think of myself as “helping,” but more as creating space in which to allow and support growth. My students astonish me every day; it is an honor to be able to work with them.
Here is a very short poem one of my students in South L.A. wrote recently, a remarkably talented 15-year-old named Priscilla Hernandez:
I Am Worth It
if this feeling only lasts for now
i’ll swallow the night
rearrange the stars to map
the letters of my name
because i am worth
every second it takes
to let the world know
Finally, I have a coaching business, Ellie Herman Coaching, where I work one on one with writers, artists, and musicians; I help them get unstuck, finish major projects, and create sustainable careers.
Tell us more about your coaching business…
Coaching was something that really interested me. I got my training with Erickson College, an excellent, rigorous online program, and continue to receive mentoring from their coaches. My coaching practice has been building organically. I just love the one on one time with my clients and being able to provide that support. Creative work is an act of faith; it requires enormous courage. I have so much respect for the work my clients do.
I work with creative people who are stuck or blocked, or who want to take their work to the next level. They come to my home office or, if they live outside L.A., we talk on the phone or via Skype. First, I help them connect with what matters most to them and what they want to accomplish. Then, we create a timeline with some benchmarks—kind of a road map toward their goal. After that, they work every week toward their goals, usually with “homework” in-between sessions.
It’s amazing and inspiring to me to see the kind of progress they make, often in a relatively short time. In one case, a very successful music composer who’d been blocked for a long time was able to break through some mental obstacles and start writing music again. In another case, an artist who’d been totally blocked because of some serious financial setbacks was able to face her situation with calm and logic—and unexpectedly found herself freed to paint a whole new series for a show. Often, my clients will send me photos of their work (or clips)—full disclosure: sometimes I’m so inspired that I cry!
Do continue to do your own writing as well?
Right now, my coaching and teaching really feel like the work that inspires me most, so it’s where I’m channeling my creative energy. I do love to blog, though, and I post twice a week on my coaching blog. Blogging is totally addictive—instant gratification!
Why did you choose this next act?
Honestly, I feel as if this next act chose me. After I left my teaching job and took that one year sabbatical, my plan was to return to the classroom. When the time came, though, I realized I could not go back; the job simply wasn’t going to be sustainable for me in the long run. I left myself open to see what would happen, following my instincts.
There have definitely been times when I’ve said “yes” to too many things, but I feel like now I understand what I’m meant to be doing. It’s deeply meaningful to me to work with writers and artists, and it is my passion (and my privilege) to be able to work with young creatives in underserved communities. The power of writing and art should not be a privilege for the wealthy few.
How hard was it to take the plunge? Where did you find support?
I wish I could say that it was hard, but I am, alas, an exceedingly impulsive person, so it was no trouble at all. And I did not prepare one bit—double alas. My mode of learning is to fail and figure out what I did wrong. I have kind of a crazy addiction to failure.
My family and friends, God love them, have been astonishingly supportive of my most unorthodox path! I am grateful to all of them but above all to my amazing husband— David Levinson, a talented writer himself—who has never, ever wavered in his support for what I’m doing, no matter what that might be.
What challenges did you encounter?
There are so many challenges, especially when you’re working in a low-income community with limited resources and students in crisis. Often, though, I must say that my most formidable foe has been myself. I am learning to have faith that things will work out, maybe not always in the way that I envision, but as well as they can under the circumstances, if I really commit to my path.
I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture of work in high-poverty situations. There is a tremendous amount of deeply entrenched institutional injustice, and just marching in with a positive attitude is not enough. You can’t win every battle. Sometimes you can’t win the majority of your battles. But you can keep going; you can believe that maybe one person’s life will change because of your work. That’s what makes it worthwhile.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
Oh, yes! A million times. I love giving up! It’s so relaxing. But I also have kind of an addiction to losing battles. I love getting knocked down so that I can get up again. Actually, it’s much harder for me when things get easy. I get bored—that’s when I tend to quit stuff. A client of mine once said, “I love being bad at stuff!” That’s me. I absolutely delight in being terrible at something, then slowly learning it. That for me is total joy.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I have learned to slow down and enjoy life. One of my biggest lessons to date is that even though it turned out, much to my dismay, that I am not one of those amazing, heroic people who is able to selflessly give her entire life to a cause, I still can contribute, I still can work toward change. There is a traditional Jewish saying: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.” I wish I were a saint—I’m not. But I believe that as a joyous person doing work that I love, I still have a great deal to give.
What words of advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife?
Go for it! What do you have to lose? If you and the people you love are in good health, these are without question the best years of your life. You’ve lived enough to know that all the old nonsense about what women are supposed to be is completely meaningless. Go out and be yourself. Through my work as a coach, I’ve come to believe that everyone, secretly, knows exactly what she really wants to do—even if she hasn’t admitted it to herself yet, maybe because it sounds impossible or scary or eccentric. I say, hell yeah! Why not give yourself permission to get in touch with what you really want? Then ask yourself: Who might I become if I allow myself to try?
What words of advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
I can’t help thinking there is no one on this earth who would pursue a path as odd as mine, but I guess above all I would say that you should be true to your deepest values, which does not mean that you should be a flake or a dilettante, because sometimes we really do have obligations to the people we love and those obligations are sometimes financial in part. But the balance of our lives is always changing, so the way we live can also change as we grow and life goes on. Here’s another quote I love, this time something I heard on a Buddhist podcast: “Everything you meet is the path.” At every moment, there is something to learn. That’s a joyous life, no matter where your path may lead.
What resources do you recommend?
I am a huge fan of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, as well as Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. I also highly recommend David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. He’s a Buddhist and a professional time manager—how awesome is that?
And I think the best resource of all is to have a circle of great, warm, funny, and wise women friends.
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
Ha! Who knows what’s ahead? I hope so! I still think I have a great novel in me somewhere. I plan to write it when I’m 80.
Contact Ellie Herman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please visit my coaching blog. And if you’re a writer, artist or other creative person who wants to work with a coach on a project or to create a life plan, definitely get in touch because the first coaching session is always free, so if you think it might be useful, try it out!