Narcissists and Blueberry Muffins


As a child of a narcissistic parent, it’s taken a long time to untangle the damage and begin to break out of the toxic patterns of behavior that childhood created for me. It took a long time to even see it at all. I learned that my needs didn’t count and that it was more important to be a good team player.

The upside of this childhood training is that, well for one, I became a really good team player. Any team with me on it was going to win because failure was not an option. Even if that meant I had to stay after everyone else left and pick up others’ slack.

The downside of this training is that setting boundaries became *really* hard for me. Saying what I needed was just letting the team down. I became adept at running myself into the ground. Because that’s how you earn love, right? Out in the professional world, learning that ‘the company will never love you back’ was very painful lesson.

Another downside of this training is that other narcissists can spot it and know how to use it to their advantage. I got into a series of toxic and abusive work partnerships where I was essentially rescuing a narcissist and pouring myself into making their dreams come true at the cost of mine. Not to mention my health and well-being.

Thanks to therapy and support, I have begun to reset these patterns. I have noticed that when you do finally set boundaries with a narcissist who has become used to enjoying the fruits of your labor, they get really angry. That part is scary and forces me to confront all my childhood training. It feels like bracing for a hurricane. The last time I did this, the narcissist became so upset that I was staying calm they actually screamed “Why aren’t you reacting?” as though my upset was a goal for them. In that calm, I realized it was like watching a toddler throw a tantrum over their favorite toy being taken away. I don’t have to be afraid of toddlers.

The good news is that on the other side of that storm, is peace. Once they realize they can’t manipulate you anymore, the winds die down and the narcissists generally go away. They’ll find someone else to use. (*Obviously this is all more complicated if physical abuse is part of the equation.)

As we all know, Hollywood is a narcissist magnet so navigating healthy creative partnerships here is a minefield for someone with my training. The result has been a lot of uncredited and unpaid work. A lot of “co-writes” where I in fact did all the writing. My husband (with whom I co-founded screenwriting retreats and coaching company, PageCraft) and I began referring to these jobs - the amazing opportunities! - as blueberry muffins. He has crafted these thoughts into the following essay in the hope of helping other creatives not get taken advantage of by narcissists. He helps me continue to spot and avoid making more blueberry muffins.

Imagine your friend asks you for help making muffins. You know how to bake, so you say, “Sure, I can help, let’s make muffins.” Your friend comes over, and he brings blueberries, because he wants blueberry muffins, and maybe he also brings a couple eggs, because he has heard eggs are used in muffin recipes.

In your kitchen, you add missing ingredients – flour, sugar, a fat – you know from experience whether butter, yogurt, or even sour cream will be the right fit. Then you mix everything in exactly the right proportions, using your measuring tools. You fold in the blueberries and put the dough into your muffin tins. Then you put them into your oven for the amount of time you need to get the perfect bake – not a second more or less. Your friend misses most of this, because he keeps excusing himself to take phone calls. He offers only one suggestion – more blueberries.

Finally, voilà – the muffins are beautiful and scrumptious.

Now imagine your friend acts like these are his muffins. He had the idea to make blueberry muffins, he reasons, and he supplied the blueberries. He serves the muffins at his party, not even bothering to invite you. What’s more, he tells everyone that he made the muffins, and even offers to sell people the recipe.

Absurd, right?

Unfortunately this sort of absurdity is all too typical in Hollywood. Just like our appropriator of muffins in my analogy, innumerable self-identifying “producers” gallivant about town, shamelessly taking advantage of aspiring writers to develop ideas on spec that they are utterly incapable of writing themselves. Sometimes these so-called producers enter into a writing partnership with the best of intentions, only to cast the writer aside when they get frustrated (usually at the lack of quick success) and find another collaborator they think has more promise. Sometimes they are far more calculating. Invariably they regard themselves as the owners of projects that contain almost no intellectual or creative capital of theirs. They’ll even call themselves the co-writer, when they haven’t written a thing. At most, they came up with an idea.

Don’t fall prey to the notion that you must work for free on other people’s projects in order to make it in Hollywood. Ask to be paid, even if only a little. Make sure you have a signed legal agreement that protects you from innumerable unpaid rewrites and states that writing credits on the final project will be assigned according to WGA standards. Consider a clause that guarantees you a story or screenplay consultant credit if for some reason you don’t qualify for (or lose) a writing credit – the “Additional Literary Materials” credit approved by the WGA in November 2021 may offer another alternative. Register any script that you write. (The WGA has great boilerplate agreements anyone can download here.)

Undaunted and determined to work on spec with a writing partner? Make sure your partner is actually a writer, or you’ll end up sharing credit while doing all the work. Have a writing agreement that establishes and protects your ownership in the project, and your credit. Consider how you will resolve disagreements, whether about creative or business matters, and who has final say. Can the writing partnership be dissolved unilaterally by one party, and if so, does that party then have the right to bring in other collaborators? Establish what will happen to the project if the collaboration falls apart. When the story is inspired by your partner’s own experiences, things could become especially contentious, but just because your partner might have life rights over the project does not mean they own your creative output.

Writing partnerships can and do go sour. Before entering into one, be confident about what each party will bring to the table. And, if a producer does come to you with an irresistible concept they want you realize, remember: an idea cannot be copyrighted. Provided you do not rely on someone else’s original material, maybe you can develop the idea on your own, and in your own way.
©Betsy’s Bell Jar 2022