Writing from the trough August 21st, 2008

First, a brief note to everybody:  I’m baaaaaack.This may be in fits and starts, as my new life in Boston is excellent but demanding.  Also for the past month I have been writing little essays about Groundhog Day to accompany my publication of the original screenplay.  This has been fun, but it keeps sucking energy away from the blog.   Hopefully I’ll at least have that to show you one of these days.As usual it’s easy to get me talking by asking a question, and this one comes from Tim in Los Angeles:

Being that you chose a creative career that is extremely difficult to even have a modicum of success in, how did you persevere and stay motivated during those lean years? You know the days when top ramen filled your shelves, and you shared a place with 14 roommates and roaches?

Tim JulianoLos Angeles, CA


By the time I moved to L.A. I had already completed the roommates and roaches portion of the program – although I still like ramen.    I spent my lean years in Chicago, which is a better place to starve than L.A.  The housing was affordable, public transit was good, there were lots of cheap but excellent ethnic restaurants, and a person could go see the finest blues musicians in the world for a two dollar cover at a local bar.  

Every day, however, teetered on the ledge between hope and despair.  One moment there were good friends, positive feedback and big plans.  The next there were rejection letters, quiet telephones, and bitter cold.   It went on like this for years, and frankly it culminated in my getting ridiculously sick for a while.

How did I deal? 

1. Keep writing.  There is always hope in a new project. It’s like babies.  There’s no evidence that they’re going to turn out any better than anybody else, but somehow there is always hope in babies.  Besides, supposedly you are writing because you like to, not because it will make you rich.  Doing things you like is helpful. 

2. Be with other people.  Writers necessarily spend a great deal of time alone.  You need to counterbalance that.  Besides, other people even at their worst can give you good ideas to write about.  In general you need to have experiences in the world, so be sure to do that – otherwise you’re just writing what you know, which is about being alone and lonely and desperate and depressed.  Who’s going to buy that movie? 

3. I spent some time in the community of other writers.  They are the only ones who know exactly what you are going through.  Even in your alonest alone periods, you’re not alone in this. 

4. If you can, make money as a writer.  You may not be able to sell your screenplay just yet, but I always figured that any kind of writing would be better than flipping pizzas.  I wrote industrial videos and I typed resumes.  I worked for peanuts on a local TV show, wrote brochures, wrote sketch comedy for corporate shows – whatever I could wiggle my way into.

5. Watch movies.  Watch good movies and tell yourself that there are good movies being bought and shot.  Watch bad movies and tell yourself that you could write better than that, you do write better than that, and if that piece of crap can get made, yours can too!  

How did I cope?  My answer is really the same as everybody else’s: I just muddled through.   I muddled through until I got lucky.  But I was always preparing the soil for luck to land.  It didn’t come out of the blue, but arrived after years of trying and pushing and practicing and connecting.  

And the final hard truth is that there is no real arrival.  Every successful screenwriter I know has long periods of time without success.  The roaches and ramen may be gone, the roommates replaced by loving families, but the odds are always stacked against anybody in this business.  Dealing with the trough is a life-skill you will always need.  If you can figure out how to be happy and optimistic independently of your writing career – keeping all parts of your life in perspective – there is more chance you will stick it out long enough to get lucky, as I did.


Comment by A Long
2008-08-21 16:07:09

If they gave out Olympic Medals for writing advice you would have just clinched the gold with this posting. Fantastic.

Comment by Mathew
2008-09-07 09:32:13

You’re so right about being happy outside of your writing life. A year ago I thought I hit the motherload of free time by moving to a small town with few distractions, but found myself so bored and isolated that it was difficult to focus on writing. Having a life is important!

Of all of the great advice you just gave about surviving the lean years, where does your choice to go to graduate school fit in? Was it to gain some level of security through teaching or was there a writer that you wanted to mentor under?

Comment by danny
2008-09-07 12:52:00

When I went to grad school I wasn’t yet focused on being a writer; I simply knew I was interested in media. At the time (1980 or so) I was watching cable inching into the scheme of things and wanted to sit back in an academic setting and figure out how it was growing and where the industry was going so I could better plan what to do next. The program at Northwestern was a 1 year masters – I wasn’t thinking about future teaching, I was just thinking that I could do anything for a year and that at the time it was the most attractive option before me.
During grad school I took my first and only screenwriting class, and it wasn’t until after graduation – when I did not get an internship I was hoping for at the public TV station in Chicago – that I started inching toward a commitment to being a writer.

Comment by Mathew
2008-09-10 14:17:31

Thanks once again for insight into your development as a writer. I had thought you were born with “FADE IN-
HIBERNATING GROUNDHOGS…A family of groundhogs is nestled together in their burrow…” tattooed under your arm.

Alas, another childhood myth busted!

Comment by danny
2008-09-11 11:39:12

Actually, Harold Ramis is the one who woke up with “FADE IN: HIBERNATING GROUNDHOGS…” tattooed under his arm. That was the first line of the shooting script. My tattoo reads “FADE IN: CU CLOCK
A digital clock-radio changes from 6:29 to 6:30. The radio
comes on. It is playing the end of the Sonny and Cher hit,
“I got you, babe.”

I guess you’re going to have to try getting your head around that while I finish publishing the original draft of the script, which will include a photograph of my tattoo.

Name (required)
E-mail (required - never shown publicly)
Your Comment (smaller size | larger size)
You may use <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong> in your comment.