Skipping drama class

questionmarkI’ve looked through your archives and have found nothing that closely applies to my question. I’ve been a visitor for about three years now, and for some reason have never gotten up the nerve to ask you a question.

I’m 16 and have wanted to pursue a career in filmmaking since 8th grade. I’m sure you’re not too old to remember what it was like to be 16 years old and trying your best to not ruin your own life forever. (I really don’t want to be a receptionist.)

So far I’ve been teaching myself the various techniques of screenwriting through books I find at Chapters, audio commentaries on my favorite DVDs and you.

And here I am. Terrified that I might be making all the wrong moves. Should I have taken drama and bitten my tongue every time that insane teacher opened her mouth? Should I be doing more after school type programs?

And, of course, should I go to film school? (I know you’ve done a response on this, but I’m more concerned with what I need to do before I get there.)

Thank you for your time, it really means a lot.

– Veronica

You’re sixteen. Go out and experience life. As interesting things happen, write them down. If something other than screenwriting appeals to you at some point, pursue it with full abandon and no regrets. You’re at an age when you don’t need to be making any firm decisions, or beating yourself up about missed opportunities. A bad high school drama class is a bullet dodged, in my opinion.

When you’re applying to universities, sure, apply to a film school if that’s still your dream. But if you don’t end up going there, you won’t have missed the boat. Most people in the film industry didn’t go to film school. It’s not like medical school, or law school. It’s not mandatory.

My one bit of trust-me-on-this advice: work on your spelling and punctuation. Your original email had seven mistakes, which I fixed so that they wouldn’t be the focus of a lot of the comments. What I’ve written about professionalism has no minimum age requirement. You’re writing in to get professional advice. Make sure you’re presenting yourself professionally.

Lecture over. Go be sixteen.

Quitting, and the age question

questionmarkI know the ultimate answer to every quitting question tends to veer towards, “If you can quit it then it wasn’t meant to be.” But I think there are many people out there who have yet to find some singular passion. The best I’ve been able to muster is finding things I really enjoy doing and I’m 40.

Which brings me back to your opinion on quitting writing. Or should I say, quitting trying to become a paid writer. In my case I’ve been writing screenplays for about four years. None great. One almost optioned (the first, since then manager pretty much lamed out on me).

So it’s years later and I’m pretty much still at square one in terms of contacts. Age being an issue aren’t the chances seriously evaporating à la a woman over 35 trying to get pregnant? Isn’t it more a 20-something game? Am I asking too many questions?

Anyway, would love any thoughts you might have on the matter.

– marc

You should quit.

I know that’s pretty controversial advice, and I feel uncomfortable typing it. After all, this is a blog about the wonders and challenges of screenwriting, full of hope and sunshine except for off days when I rip on Parade magazine.

But there’s hope, and there’s false hope. And the latter is harmful. It keeps people locked in a cycle of unmet expectation, passing up other opportunities in pursuit of an elusive, often impossible dream. So I want to be honest with you, and explain how I came up with my answer.

Let’s start with the positives, and address your age concern. Apparently, the median age of a new WGA member is about 35, which means there are plenty of screenwriters just getting started in their late-30’s and early 40’s. You’re not too late by any means.

Also, you’ve only been doing this for four years — it took me longer than that to get Go made. Granted, they were a very different four years of my life. They were Ramen years, when I slept on the floor of a studio apartment and abused my student ID for discount movie tickets. Striving and struggling is exciting — romantic, even — in your 20’s. You hit 30, then 40, and the appeal fades. Particularly if what you’re striving and struggling for isn’t your singular passion.

That’s the heart of the age question: It’s not harder for an older writer to start. It’s just easier to quit.

I often fall back on my basketball analogy, but forgive me if I dust it off again. It’s relevant.

Let’s say you’re good at basketball. In fact, of all the people you play with, you’re the best. Should you pursue a career in it? Let’s assume you’re willing to do the hard work — you’ll train every day, work with coaches on specific skills, and do everything in your power to make it. What are the odds you’ll end up in the NBA?

The answer has a lot to do with where you’re at in your life. If you’re 18, maybe. If you’re 38, no. That’s not ageism. That’s just reflecting the fact that most basketball careers are established in their 20’s (or earlier). That’s when your natural talents are developed enough that it’s obvious whether you’re cut out for it. You may become a better basketball player in your 30’s, but you won’t suddenly become one when you weren’t before.

While there are limits to the analogy,1 a good writer is like a good basketball player in that there’s some inherent and unobtainable aptitude required. Either you’re good at it, or you’re not, and no workshop is going to change that. Until my senior year of high school, I didn’t know screenwriting existed, but I always knew I would be a writer. It was the one thing I could consistently do better than my peers, and once I recognized that, I ran with it.

The weird thing with screenwriting is that many people try their hand at it without any prior background (or demonstrable skill) in writing. They see writing movies as being akin to watching movies. Here the basketball analogy holds up: being a fan of the Pistons doesn’t mean you can play for the Pistons.2

Coming back to you, Marc, if you’ve been trying for a couple of years, and have started to seriously question whether you’re cut out for it (“none great”), maybe it’s time to look for another field. I think you wrote in asking permission to quit considering yourself an aspiring screenwriter. You have my blessing.

But keep in mind: I may be completely wrong, and you may be deluded. Here are some signs that you should ignore my advice and keep at it:

  1. Smart people genuinely love your scripts, and want to keep talking about them after the obligatory period has passed.
  2. You can pull one of your older scripts off the shelf, reading it for the first time in years, and be more impressed than embarrassed.
  3. At least once a week, you write something that sends you to bed happy.

None of these are guarantees that you’re going to make it as a screenwriter. But they’re indications that writing (of some form) is probably a net positive in your life, so don’t stop doing just because I told you to quit.

  1. Most notably, basketball has many purely quantitative measurements to let you compare yourself to your peers, while screenwriting is fundamentally qualitative. “Number of produced credits” reflects a combination of consensus opinion and good fortune.
  2. I chose that team at random. I don’t follow the game at all, which makes it awkward to use basketball in this analogy. But I’m sticking with it.