Career Thinking

06Jun12

I routinely listen to podcasts as part of my commute to and from anywhere, and lately two have made me think a lot about my career.

The first is from my friends, the 25th Century Heroes, and it was an off-hand comment by Bryan during the “What We Learned” segment of a recent episode. Apparently Bryan is trying to write a sitcom spec and what he’s learned is that writing a spec is really hard.

I wanted to agree with him, but I wasn’t in the same room. 

It is really hard, I thought. Of course it is. Why would anyone think it’s easy?

Why, indeed. It’s because we all “love” TV and movies, and we love watching them and talking about them and we know how they should work and what it looks like when they’re great… but that doesn’t exactly pertain to the act of writing it. The script is a blueprint for greatness. Of course you can write a great script. People do it all the time. But it’s hard to just jump in and do it.

Again, why, indeed, do people assume this would come easy? I certainly thought it would be. At least easier than what it actually is. I knew there would be work, but I don’t think I fully understood how difficult it was until I tried again and again and again.

The difficulty comes in trying to create an end result that you don’t control. Two end results, actually. From your spec script you want A.) to write a great episode, which is subjective, and B.) to get noticed as a great writer so you can get a job. But you can’t fake being a great writer. You have to actually be a great writer.

I’ve thought about this with myself, of course, and I’ve always kind of dreamed that “if I can just write that one great script, then people will notice me” that all lazy people dream. But the fact is that by the time I actually write that one great script, it won’t have happened because of luck. It will have happened because I took the time to work on my craft through page after page, episode after episode of writing.

Writers get hired not just because they have one good idea, but because it appears they are a well of other good ideas. So… you actually have to HAVE those good ideas, and present them well.

That’s why it’s difficult.

The other podcast I’ve been listening to is John August and Craig Mazin’s “Script Notes,” which I kind of enjoy despite largely hating it. It does a few things that annoy me in most podcasts*, but one of the biggest things it does is act rather snooty and snotty about the world these two pros inhabit. Not to put too fine a point on things, it’s mostly Mazin, who is an admitted grump and wears that title proudly. He freely uses words like “hate” and “stupid” and “dumb” and you can see him throwing his hands in the air in disgusted disbelief at the very notion of being asked another one of those stupid questions from a dumb listener, which he hates.

In truth, I’m probably just jealous of Mazin’s career, but that’s (slightly) beside the point of this particular post.

The actual point pertains to a recent episode where they answered listener questions, and there were two “I’m moving to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter” scenarios, one was from a 23-year-old single person, the other from a 30-something with a baby. Understandably, the hosts were more in favor of the 23-year-old with nothing to lose to take the risk than the one with everything to lose, but THAT’s not the point either.

The point is the way Mazin explained the risk involved, talking about how this business isn’t steady and it isn’t a career and it isn’t for the faint of heart. And how so many people out there come out with a blip on their radar that fizzles out and they’re left with nothing.

And he’s right. It hurt to hear. I fear that I am one of those blips fading into nothing.

I live in constant fear of this, or at least it feels like that at the moment.

I don’t feel like I have momentum, and you need that. Or you need to feel that. You need to feel like you’re working toward something, but as Mazin states, there really isn’t something to shoot for. There’s always the next thing, whatever that is.

It’s frustrating, but it has me thinking.

And coupled with my earlier musings, it has me worried about my own well of ideas, and my energy and discipline to see those ideas through. To market myself and be satisfied with what I have, and to be happy.

This leads me to another rambling idea: that the entertainment industry preys on addicts. Studio executives pinch every penny, because theirs is an unpredictable industry. So they hire people who can’t help themselves — writers, singers, dancers, actors, etc. — the people who would do this for free anyway, and ask them to do it for a little more than free.

I wonder how much of an addict I am.

I certainly have that bit inside me, that weird gene that makes me concoct stories and tell jokes and show off and try to look like I know what I’m doing in the writing world.

But if I were still living in central Illinois, would I be so driven that I would be writing plays, shooting YouTube videos and just loving storytelling?

I’m grappling with being an addict and not being enough of an addict.

Yeesh.

*Those would be:

1.) Overly-long and way-too cute intro songs. I don’t listen to a podcast for the introduction music, no matter how tied into the theme it might be. . . particularly when I might not yet know the theme

2.) Un-funny connection “Hi How Are You Good’s” at the top. It’s funny, but these guys are professional screenwriters and if their podcast was a script, these are the things they would easily cut. Or would have called another person dumb for including.

3.) Self-congratulatory and awkward closing remarks. “Well, this was a pretty good discussion” seems like the standard out for every episode. They cannot all be remarkable, and stating how much fun they all are kind of dilutes the fun affects of the episodes that actually WERE fun. And don’t tell me it was fun. I’ll decide. I’m the listener. You’re in charge of giving ideas and talking. Don’t take away my only power. Besides the power of not subscribing. Which I have used.

INCIDENTALLY, the other thing they’ve done that has gnawed at me ever since I heard it was in the episode months ago, where they reacted to Charlie Kaufman’s speech about making movies. I think… Anyway, there was some point where a reader or commenter or somebody had said something about the “crime” of writing crappy movies, since August was responsible for “Charlie’s Angeles: Full Throttle” and Mazin is responsible for his stuff. And they were very defensive about this charge, specifically the use of the word “crime.” I want to say Mazin said something to the affect of, “What’s a worse crime: stealing a car or writing a bad movie?”

True, writing a bad movie is not something you should be arrested for. You cannot prosecute soon for delivering bad entertainment. That’s just crazy.

But it also feels disingenuous to have these guys go on and on about how important their jobs are, and then try to take away the responsibility of that importance. Naturally, they’re on the side of the WGA and the unions, and that’s all great. They’re defenders of writers because they’re writers. Makes sense. But I don’t think they should bemoan the poor treatment of writers, and the bad contracts, and the importance of a movie’s success on a good script and then say, essentially, “What’s the big deal?”

You just argued that it SHOULD be a big deal, man. It’s all you ever talk about.

And if I may use the power of my own website to belabor a point, I might argue that time is the most precious thing we have in this life. How we use that time is important to who we are and how we feel. And to waste another person’s time or annoy them or disappoint them could be considered a robbery of that time. So that would be a crime. A time crime.

…Also, just own up to the fact that you’ve written some shitty movies, guys. Or at least some movies considered “less than good.” I’d love your careers, and I’ve admired your work, and I’m sure there are better things to come down the road. But don’t try to tell me that “Hangover II” is “Casablanca.”

EDITED TO ADD: I say that last part having not seen all of “Rocketman.”

EDITED LATER TO ADD: Okay, cheap shot.

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3 Responses to “Career Thinking”

  1. the question i have is: “can you be a great writer and still be unsuccessful?” my hunch is no, but i could be wrong. i think you should keep writing though and lay off the podcasts. there are too many amazing audio books out there to be polluting your mind with the musings of smarmy, self-important screenwriters. have you read any (or all) of gladwell’s books yet? email me and i’ll hook you up. outliers and blink taught me more about human nature (and by extension writing and narrative) than august and mazin ever could. maniz wrote some okay movies, this guy eradicated polio: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonas_Salk

  2. “Can you be a great writer and still be unsuccessful?”

    I want to say “Of course,” because that would feel like validating myself, but the hard answer is probably “no.”

    Given the amount of media access the average person has today, a diamond in the rough is becoming harder and harder to stay hidden. There’s almost no excuse for not being productive outside of talent. If you can find 2 friends and $1000, you can have a production team, and therefore give yourself the opportunity to prove yourself.

    • your answer is a good one. i feel the people that answer that question “yes” are often answering that way because they feel it applies to them. that’s a dangerous state of mind for a writer.


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