Writer/producer Elizabeth Fraser writes in her bed and sleeps in her notebook. She confesses that between working as a producer for a lifestyle TV series and raising a daughter as a single mom, her passion projects usually develop in her short daily journal entries. The Harvard grad first pursued a relatively safe career at her parents’ urging, until one day she decided to go for what she truly loved. Although her novelist ambitions were cut down by a respected professor and rejection hurt, Elizabeth was determined that someone else’s words wouldn’t write her own story; she listened to his suggestions, read between the lines, and eventually applied her craft to a medium she never dreamt would be her forte. The first screenplay she seriously developed landed her in the Canadian Film Centre and her career jumped off from there. Today, she continues to eavesdrop on awkward interactions between strangers, jotting overheard (and often humorous) tidbits in her notebook for future use. All kidding aside, Elizabeth is passionate about storytelling; she pulls inspiration from her personal experiences for a web series she’s currently creating. Her character – loosely self-based – is chasing happiness while simultaneously terrified, as she sees struggle and rejection as an opportunity to learn, and to come back stronger and wiser.
Journaling every day
Just be yourself
Pray for land, but row for shore
When you think you’ve done your best work
When there are not enough hours in the day
Writing by hand
Describe what you do.
I work in television as a writer and a producer in various capacities. I guess you can say it’s a ‘day job,’ although I hate using that phrase because I love what I do. I work as a producer on a lifestyle series – a home reno show – and it’s amazing. I get to make some fun TV with great people, and we get to do something really cool and different every episode.
I’m also busy developing my own scripted narrative drama and dramatic comedy writing projects on the side. Again, I hate to say ‘on the side’ because I value both parts of what I do equally. The reality however is when you’re writing, and trying to push your own content forward, you sometimes have to balance work that pays with work that doesn’t, but maybe will one day.
What did you study and has it helped you in your career?
I did a post grad at Harvard in Public Relations, which is funny because being a publicist is probably one of the most outgoing professions you can get into and I don’t think I could be more of a heart-and-soul introvert if I tried. Maybe that’s why I was attracted to it, because I thought it might make me more of a social butterfly? But the skills that I gained from being a publicist, including the hustle and really pushing for what I want, being smart about how I put things out there, and the knowledge on how to market my own projects has really become invaluable in a lot of ways. It’s given me business savvy.
So if you started in Public Relations (PR) - what made you decide to switch careers?
I chose PR over 10 years ago mainly because I had amazing parents who gave me the not-so-amazing advice that if I wanted to be a writer I should get a job first so I’d have something to fall back on while I pursued my creativity. Working as a publicist and not really loving it while constantly writing on the side was kind of a detour; I always had this gnawing feeling that I wasn’t doing what I wanted with my life; then I got pregnant and really that was the moment of reckoning for me. I thought that if I’d be spending all this time away from my daughter working to support us and build a life for us, then I should at least be chasing something that I’m passionate about and that’s going to make me happy. I transitioned from a marketing/PR capacity to really doing my art and pursuing film and television three years ago.
How’d you make the transition?
I went back to school, took creative writing and kind of little by little I made changes here and there. First I stopped doing PR and I started copywriting full time; that paid the bills and I loved it. I learned how to write on tight deadlines how to write for clients, so that was really interesting. Then I started doing more creative copywriting, and it kind of morphed a little bit into getting a few very tiny stories published. Then I just kind of said ‘screw it’ and on a total whim I applied to the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) with the first screenplay that I ever wrote and I got in, and that kind of kickstarted my career with writing for TV and film. It’s still a work in progress, trying to get my footing, so that’s why producing in lifestyle TV is super cool because I get to make TV that people actually watch, and that they enjoy, while I figure out what my own voice is and what I want to say.
There seems to be a perception that following an artistic career path is scary, uncertain and unlikely to pay the bills. Your parents apparently thought so - do you feel there’s some truth to that?
People say it’s hard to make a living doing this, which I think is true. You have to be really creative and accept that you might not have the security of a 9-5. I think especially for my parents’ generation, that idea is scary because they knew a world where there were health benefits, medical insurance, a really nice retirement package and all those lovely things – things that with the career that I’ve chosen, I’ll probably never see. But, that said, I think the fear is overwhelming sometimes and you have to calm it down and realize that this is hard and maybe non-traditional but there is a way to do it.
Was it difficult pursuing your passion on the side while working a steady job? Did you ever burn out during the process?
Constantly – it was constant burn out and it was constant struggle. It was kind of on two levels because there is nothing more difficult to wrap my head around or difficult to reconcile in myself than just existing and not really doing what my heart tells me I should be doing – that’s a really difficult thing to keep moving through. I mean, in retrospect, I think the only reason I took my parents advice back then is because I really didn’t think that I could make it in a creative capacity; I had a tremendous lack of confidence in my own ability and in my own writing and I really thought that maybe I should have a backup plan in case it didn’t work.
Do you have any regrets?
On one hand, I kind of think maybe it’s unfortunate for me that there are people who are my age who are a lot further ahead in their careers, because they just went for it full tilt right from the get go. But on the other hand, it really took me a long time to cultivate the confidence in my voice and to define the parameters of what I wanted to do. The urgency that I have now makes the hard choices that come with pursuing a creative career easier, because I know the payoff is worth it. When you spend a long time doing something that really grinds you down and makes you unhappy, you get context and you appreciate it more when you have the opportunity to do what you love.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice what would it be?
To give myself time to do things. I put an enormous amount of pressure on myself; sometimes it’s to conform to this idea that everything has to happen in this time frame or everything has to go a certain way, and it’s hard to relinquish control of that and tell my brain to calm down a little bit and let things happen the way they’re meant to.
What attracted you to writing specifically for film and TV?
Actually, I had no desire to write for film or TV; I wanted to be a novelist. I had this idea in my head for years for this novel that I was just hell bent on doing. While studying in my post-grad program I had this professor who audited my assignments who basically said to me one day that I’d never be a novelist. He was kind of a larger-than-life personality, so you had to take most things he said with a grain of salt, but I was upset when he first said that. In breaking down his criticism, he pointed out that I have a really good sense of dialogue and sense of pacing, so I should try writing for stage, for theatre. I hadn’t even gone to see a play in a decade, so I didn’t know how I could possibly write one, but this is probably the one time in my life that my lack of confidence served me pretty well. Because this guy was a published writer, I listened to him and wrote a one-act play. I haven’t read it since I wrote it, but I enjoyed the medium and that way of writing. Once I put aside the formating of a screenplay or a script, I loved the idea that I could jump these images that were in my head onto a piece of a paper faster than writing it through a traditional approach, and I fell in love with it right away.
What came next?
In less than a year, I wrote two scripts for features that I’ll probably never do anything with. I was just really excited to finish writing things and to get these ideas that I’d had for a while out of my head. The first script that I ever wrote with a serious amount of effort is the one that got me into the CFC, which really changed everything. I knew that once I got into the screenwriter’s lab that was what I wanted to do. I started off moreso wanting to write film because I loved the idea of creating a world and containing one narrative in a set, in an hour and a half; I think there’s something really beautiful about that format. But TV has since kind of opened my eyes to the idea that you can have much more freedom with a story if you have six, or twelve, or thirteen or however many episodes, so I’m playing more with TV now than I have in the past.
You specialize in writing dialogue - how does that work?
A lot of the time if a new idea is coming to me or if I’m experimenting with a new story, the first thing I’ll hear is the character’s voice. Not their actual voice in my head, but I’ll hear the way they talk, or what they’re saying, or what they’re thinking. A lot of stuff that I do just starts with random bits of dialogue; I might not know what exactly it is or what it means, but I sort of find out as I go where it fits.
Do you eavesdrop in real life? When you hear people conversing do certain things they say stick with you?
Oh my gosh, yes! I just literally, not even 45 minutes ago, was getting food and there was an enormous wait at the counter, and as people kind of gradually started talking to each other I was listening to their snippets of conversation. The awkwardness that people have when they’re trying to share a space with strangers is intriguing. One guy was trying to kind of uncomfortably make small talk with a woman and then suddenly out of nowhere this young blonde hippie kid, who wasn’t like anyone else at this place, just walks in with his two ‘bro’ friends, talking about how they’re going to get the hottest chick at this restaurant. This guy says to his friend, ‘Good thing I have a bidet at home’ and I don’t know why, but this line is stuck in my head – why does this 17-year-old kid have a bidet? – and now I’m just dying to find a way to write something where I can use it.
You’ve mentioned that you’re working on some passion projects in addition to your TV work - could you elaborate?
The one that I’ve really been engrossed in for the past year is a show based on my life. I’ve been developing it to start off as a web series, and I’m hoping it will maybe turn into a TV show, but I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on it. It really started after I left the Canadian Film Centre and I was having a really difficult time finding a job, or finding anyone who wanted to pay me to write, to be honest. I started thinking about what kind of project I wanted to work on that would make me excited to write again, and I just started writing about my life as a single mom. For the past five years I’ve been figuring out how to be a mom – with the help of my wonderful, supportive family – and how to get what I want out of my life at the same time. I started looking back at all of the journals that I’ve kept from when I found out I was pregnant through to about a year ago, when I was dating for the first time since I had her, and was having trouble taking a real stab at getting my writing career off the ground. I realized there’s a character in here, a story and a show. At first it was totally based on my life and what I’d gone through, but gradually this character started emerging as a variation of me and my experience; she really became kind of her own entity. I think at this point it’s only really loosely based on my life, but I think the heart of it is the same and it really is the story that I want to tell.
Why is this story important to you?
Because I really just want to write something about the type of woman that I feel like, and that I am. I don’t have all the answers and I’m not on a war path to success, feeling like I’ve got everything figured out – even though I’m a strong, independent woman. I have days where I feel like that sure, but then there are other days where I just feel like a complete mess, a failure who has no idea what I’m doing – and on top of that I’m responsible for another human being. I want to see somebody on TV who is struggling through that and figuring herself out as she goes, because I think that’s real, I think that’s relatable.
Is the relatability for women what you think makes this character believable?
Yes; I love the idea of somebody becoming a parent who isn’t necessarily ready for it and seeing how it shapes them. I think this character is pushed into a moment of growth in her life, maybe kicking and screaming in some ways, but she knows it’s what she needs to do to be happy. I think maybe it goes full circle for me – the things that make you happy are sometimes the things that scare the shit out of you the most at times. I want to see someone on screen who is simultaneously moving toward happiness while constantly terrified, because I think that’s realistic. I don’t understand why people are so averse to seeing realistic struggle on TV; I think that instead of it making characters seem weak, it makes them have more texture and be more relatable.
In writing you really put yourself out there; do you ever find it difficult dealing with criticism or rejection?
I lick my wounds probably longer than I should. I think the past year of my life I’ve been really trying to let go more, because while I can take notes very well and I can work really collaboratively, getting rejections or realizing something is not going to move forward has really knocked me off my horse a few times, and I’ve taken it very personally. But I’m becoming smarter about detaching from that and realizing that whether or not I have a project on the go, whether or not I have a million things published, whether or not I have something in development, nobody else gets to assign the value of my work without my permission.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
Constantly. I write everyday, even if it’s just in my journal, and I find that kind of keeps my head in the story box, but I do realize that my day job is pulling me away from my own writing progressively more. I’m starting to think about how my creative energy is pulled away from the things I want to be writing, and what is taking my head out of my own projects and slowing them down or stagnating them. Out of necessity, I’ve had to write in spurts when time allows, like when my daughter is sleeping or when I’ve had a few weeks off between gigs. I’ve had to start focussing on how I can be more protective of my time, so I can avoid bouts of writer’s block or dry spells that I find are usually connected to how much time and energy my other projects take up.
How do you get into the right headspace for writing?
If I’m lucky, I like to have lots of quiet time to get me in the mood to write. I also like to write by hand and edit paper copies; it makes me feel more connected to my work. Even while I’m really busy and don’t have time to write, I always at the very least write three pages in my journal. I’ve done that for almost six years now, whether I’m just talking about what’s happening in my day, or creating a little spark of a character by writing a scene or two. It’s funny, the three major projects that I’m currently working on right now all started in some way or another in my journal.
With a five-year-old daughter and a ‘day job,’ how do you find time to pursue other projects?
Sometimes you just have to reconcile the fact that there is no balance. Right now, for example, I’m in Nashville and I’ve been away from her for a week and it’s during her March break, so this would’ve been time that we would have gotten to spend together. But on the other hand, the bills have to get paid and even if they didn’t, I’d probably still be here because there are things that I want to accomplish. As a single parent I rely heavily on my family, who are amazing and really supportive and are a huge resource. I think relying on whatever resources you have is important, and so is realizing that you can’t do it all on your own. Sometimes I think embracing the idea that there isn’t always balance – and that’s not a bad thing – is necessary. If you’re trying to do a number of things, and instead of being in one place and really present, you’re in three places and not totally present for any of them, that’s not ideal. When I’m with my daughter, I’m not checking my emails or checking in on work; we spend time together and we enjoy doing fun things that are important to us. We may not get to spend every moment of every single day together, but the time that we get together, I’m 100% hers and she has my full attention.
Lastly, do you have any advice for a writer looking to get their work looked at or produced?
Start with the basics. If you’re a writer, specifically, work hard on your script. The one thing I hear constantly is “I’ve got this great idea, and here’s this first draft of my script and it’s ready to go and I’m ready to start putting it out there.” I can almost guarantee that those scripts are not ready, because they haven’t been edited. Ninety percent of writing is fine tuning and finessing through editing and multiple, multiple drafts; it needs to go to multiple people for feedback, and learning through those criticisms will strengthen your work. I suggest finding other people who are starting off – there are screenwriters’ groups, film co-ops – and have fun doing projects together. It’s very difficult to get an established producer to read your work when you haven’t already done your own project, like your own film, or without some kind of ‘buzz’ around you. So just start doing things because you love to do them and you want to improve yourself, and then gradually start networking with a mixture of people who are doing the same to find success.