doing it book coverThe Writers Guild Foundation has a new book out, Doing It For Money, in which working screenwriters contribute short pieces about the pleasures and pitfalls of working in Hollywood. I’d feel bad about giving my essay away for free, except that pretty much every entry in the book is at least its equal. Buy the book. You’ll like it.

There are no famous screenwriters.

There are rich screenwriters with houses in Malibu. There are acclaimed screenwriters with awards on their mantels. But none of them are actually famous. Your aunt in Pittsburgh can’t name a single screenwriter — except for you, her little champ, working so hard to make it in Hollywood.

She’s proud of you, but worries. Who wouldn’t?

True, there are the hyphenates: writer-directors can be famous, not to mention actor-writer-directors, whose many hats only add to their publicity value. But no one gets famous just for writing 120 pages of 12-point Courier. You should know this going in, because if you have any interest in becoming “a household name,” your best bet is to pick a pseudonym like Crisco or Clorox.

Here’s an example of someone who is actually famous: Drew Barrymore. A few years ago, paparazzi took pictures of us having lunch. In the caption, I was the “unidentified companion.”

I wasn’t offended, honest. By this point I had fully accepted that I would never be recognized. The more time you spend with actual famous people, the more you realize that it pretty much sucks to have random people taking your picture, or asking for autographs while your dog is pooping at Runyon Canyon Park.

Well-paid anonymity is a luxury, frankly. I came to enjoy it.

And then one day, someone recognized me.

My boyfriend and I were at LAX, flying to Colorado for Christmas vacation, with both our dogs in carriers. Out of nowhere, a young guy on crutches came up to me and stuck out his hand: “I just wanted to say, I’m a big fan.” I stammered and thanked him, then went back to my dogs.

At the time, I was busy promoting Big Fish, so I figured that Crutches Guy had been at one of the countless Q&A screenings. He’d seen the film, liked it, and remembered me as the guy sitting next to Danny DeVito. I was flattered, and enjoyed the little jolt of adrenaline, but quickly wrote it off as a one-time thing.

But it wasn’t.

As I’ve done more publicity, and talking-head interviews on various DVDs, I’ve found that random people are recognizing me and saying hello with increasing frequency. It’s once a month or so — nothing alarming — but it always comes when I least it expect it: shopping for strollers, in line at the movies, at breakfast with the woman carrying my baby.

The hand-shakers are invariably polite, so I can always genuinely say, “It’s nice to meet you.” But what’s fascinating is how everyone around us reacts. Remember: as a screenwriter, I’m not actually famous. Yet suddenly someone is treating me like I am. I love watching that double-take as bystanders try to figure out who I could possibly be.

Once a nearby woman actually asked me, “Are you somebody?”

Almost apologetically, I said I was a screenwriter. Her face showed a combination of confusion and disappointment that would have been devastating at another point in my life.

While I stand by my no-famous-screenwriters rule, I need to issue a clarification. It is apparently possible to be recognizable among the subset of “aspiring screenwriters living in Los Angeles.” That’s far short of famous, but quite a bit better, in my opinion. Screenwriters are commendable folk. (Except for one guy who asked me to sign his hat, then dissed me in his blog.)

If there’s a downside to being recognized, it’s that occasionally I get half-recognized. At a restaurant, someone will see me and know that they know me from somewhere. Throughout the rest of their meal, they will steal glances, wracking their brains to figure out who I could be. A musician? A contestant on The Apprentice? The Neo-Nazi from last night’s West Wing? By the time salads arrive, I can feel their growing frustration.

So I take off my glasses.

With 18 inches of vision, the rest of the world blurs out, leaving me alone in my happy anonymity. Unless that guy comes over and asks if I am somebody. Then I don’t know what I’ll say.