“No banging your head on the display case, please. It contains a very rare Mary Worth in which she has advised a friend to commit suicide.” – Comic Book Guy, The Simpsons
I 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 Ã 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.
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:
- Smart people genuinely love your scripts, and want to keep talking about them after the obligatory period has passed.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
MTV, please, have a seat. We wanted to have this meeting because we love you, and we can’t sit back and watch you destroy yourself. Last night’s Video Music Awards program was an embarrassment. Sure, the headlines are about Britney, but if you took her away all you’d have was a bunch of bored rappers and fire code violations. Sure, you can say you were just “experimenting” or “re-inventing.” But the Palms was tired after the first Real World: Las Vegas.
I know you wanted to throw a party for the cool rock stars, but they don’t even like you. You’re a joke to them. A tool. You’re not really about music anymore anyway, so stop trying to kiss up to them. Just make your semi-scripted reality shows and play videos from former Disney stars.
Please accept this help we’re offering today. Because we refuse to love you to death.
At the Nuart last weekend for The Nines, Kris Galuska re-introduced himself. He’s a writer I had met at the Austin Film Festival last year. On a short elevator ride, I had tried to convince him that he really needed to move to Los Angeles if he was serious about working as a screenwriter. Apparently, it worked.
At the screening, he started to fill me in on the last twelve months, but I was sure that his experiences would be especially valuable to readers, just as Adam Davis’s recent essay had been. So I urged him to write it up. Once again, Kris took me up on my suggestion.
I started writing as a way to pass the time during my first summer away at college. What began as a diversion soon became my obsession. A year or so later, that obsession led me to the amazing, uniquely writer oriented, Austin Film Festival. I chose a panel on pitching and was delighted to see that the writer of Big Fish (one of my favorite movies) was on the panel. Though, I have to admit, I knew nothing more about John August than what was written in his short bio in the festival program. As the panel began I was blown away by John’s ability to give honest and immediately useful advice. He was able to knock down many of the walls around the industry that countless books and “insiders”? had constructed in my mind. I changed my plans so I could attend the rest of the panels John was participating in. Eventually I got up the courage to step up and introduce myself.
I blurted out my name nervously and proceed to elaborate on my dreams of writing and the epic fantasy, action adventure, and science fiction movies I would help create. I wanted to make movies that entertained first and had a message second. I wanted to bring back the good name of the blockbuster and the popcorn flick. I pleaded with him for wisdom and any advice on how I could start my career and become the writer I dreamed I could be.
John’s answer was not a surprise, but it was an answer I dreaded. He told me to move to LA. To move away from the cheap apartments and light traffic of Texas and brave the ever growing expanse of Los Angeles. I left the festival and debated the decision until there were only three days left on my lease, and I would be forced to move out. My parents wanted me to work in New York, so that I could live close to them. I could even live in their house in Jersey until I found a place. NY had always held a certain lofty position in my head as a city made for writers, but I knew that John was right. The subject matter and the style of my writing was more in tune with the studios in California.
Unfortunately, as has been the case far too often, my expanding stomach led me to a different answer. It came in the form of two fortune cookies at a cheap, all I could shove down my face, Chinese buffet. The first said, “Spend this year with your family.”? The second continued, “Don’t be afraid to act now.”? Well who was I to argue with the wisdom of prepackaged, American made, Asian cookies? I packed what fit in my boxy little Scion and left for NY.
I don’t regret the six months I worked in Manhattan. NY is without a doubt a city every writer should spend some time in. You can’t walk down the street without a thousand stories striking your imagination. I worked each day with a constant monolog running through my mind – describing the people, the sights, the smells. Ah the smells”¦ like an expert wine taster you develop the ability to name the location and ingredients of the putrid perfume of alcohol and urine that give each corner of Midtown its distinct flavor.
Despite the unappealing smells and the layer of exhaust that forms a visible cloud of carcinogens in the belly of the Port Authority buss terminal, New York is still a charming, surreal city that I’ll remember fondly. Even though the city overflowed with creative energy, I knew I was not where I was meant to be. I met many artist, musician, and documentary film makers, and they were all passionate and creative people, but every person I met that was doing what I wanted to do ““ write and make movies ““ was visiting from Los Angeles. So, after a month of planning, I quit my job, repacked my motorized shoebox, and made my way from one coast to the other.
I’ve only been in LA for three months now, but I already know I made the right decision. In three months I’ve worked on the set of a commercial and a feature film. I had an internship at the production company responsible for amazing movies such as Kill Bill and Good Will Hunting, and recently I got an assistant job at a small talent agency. Though none of these experiences have been writing relate, they have given me insight, contacts, and a feeling of participation in an industry that was once impregnable.
The best part of living in LA is the realization that anything can happen. You never know who will have a contact that can push you that one step closer. While working as a boom operator on an independent feature, I made small talk with one of the actresses between takes. I explained how I really wanted to write, and I pitched her some of my screenplays. By the end of the day she gave me her card and asked me to send her a copy of “my quirky little thriller,”? as I like to call it, Sex and Pudding. It turned out that she was part of a new independent production company, and they were looking for scripts to pitch to investors. Less then a week later I received a call from her producer. We are now working together to get the project financed.
There is the strong possibility that the movie will not get made. If A-list producers and writers struggle to get their movies in front of an audience, how can an unknown writer with and unknown production company do any better. It is this impossibility that makes movies magic. Whether the movie gets made soon or not, I’ve already got the high from that first phone call. That first call when the producer said she loved my screenplay. It wasn’t a compliment from my mother or a friend or a competition I paid to enter. It was a compliment from another creative person that was willing to risk their time and energy in my story.
I have by no means “made it”? as a writer, so my advice is limited to my experiences so far, but maybe these three suggestions can help others about to make the trek to the magical land of sun, stars, and smog.
Change your cell phone to a Los Angeles number as soon as you get out here — preferably with a 323 or an 818 area code. I spent the first month and a half living on Craig’s list, mandy, and other similar sites. I couldn’t even get an e-mail rejection. The day I changed my number I got three calls for gigs.
Befriend the assistants and others just above you. Now if you have Jerry Bruckheimer eagerly listening to your pitch of “Lord of the Rings meets The Matrix, but with talking animals”? than by all means use that opportunity, but don’t waist your time stalking celebrities and producers, begging them to read your work. Get their assistant’s assistant to read it, and you’ll have a better shot.
Don’t be afraid to pitch and talk to others about your script. I’ve met a lot of people that are afraid of getting their ideas stolen, but if no one ever hears about your project it will never get made. As I discovered, you never know who can help get your script to the right people. Even if nothing happens you’ll get practice pitching which can never hurt.
Looking back it is clear to me why it took me so long to finally make the move to Los Angeles. I was afraid. Not afraid of the move or of leaving my friends and family, I was afraid of loosing my excuse. The excuse that I needed to be in LA that it was my location not my writing that was the problem. If I moved to LA the only thing holding me back would be my own skills and ambition, and that terrified me. I’ve learned in my short life that the thing your most afraid to do is probably the thing you should be doing.
I’m not going to say that everyone of you that wants to be a screenwriter needs to pack up and move to Hollywood. Many great writers and directors have proven that with enough drive and passion you can make a movie anywhere, but for me it was the change… the step I needed to really push me forward. Don’t let fear hold you back. Yes, it is risky to uproot your life to fight for a dream, but risks are what make our lives adventures worth having stories about. Live your life so you have stories to tell, even if they’re made up along the way.
Questions, suggestions or encouragement for Kris? Leave them in the comments below.
We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason why they write so little. — Anne Lamott
While in Venice, I had dinner with several journalists, buyers, and Gabriele Veneziano, who is the father of our international sales rep.
Veneziano, a physicist, is one of the pioneers of string theory — which is ironic, considering some of the related issues in The Nines. In fact, there used to be a scene about it in the movie, which got cut for time.
This is from Part Two, which is structured as an episode of the reality TV show “Behind the Screen.”
INT. MODERN HOUSE IN THE HILLS – DAY
Gavin talks with HOWARD RODMAN in the living room of Rodman’s mid-century modern Lautner house. They both have iced tea.
How’s the writing going?
Good. It’s really easy, actually. Effortless.
There’s poison in your drink.
What I mean is, I don’t feel like I’m doing anything. I’m just an observer, documenting what happens. I can tell you what every character is wearing, the color of the leaves. It feels more real than sitting here talking to you.
Maybe it is real. Multiple dimensions, string theory...
Explain string theory.
Ah! Well. In the end, it all gets tangled. And the more you try to untangle it...
The worse it gets?
...the more you appreciate why God made scissors.
You’re saying I should cut my losses?
Howard’s not willing to say that.
In life’s great drama there are Actors, and there are Creators. In this reality, you are a Creator. You know that if your show doesn’t get picked up...
...that whole universe goes away. Boom.
Tough call. Who do you save, your friend, or the universe?