Looking for the Overlap
[While the blog takes a short vacation, here’s a post from a few months ago that I’ve always been partial to. See you in two weeks!]
Writers and artists get asked all the time, “How do you decide which book to write, which painting to paint?” The person asking the question usually has a million ideas in her head; she’s struggling to determine which one(s) to pursue. Here’s an answer from my experience.
A few years ago, in Hollywood, I got a new agent. He was a good agent and he did what a good agent should do: he immediately sent me out on a round of meetings. I met with producers and studio execs, actors’ and directors’ development companies. These were the kinds of meetings that screenwriters go on all the time. I told the execs what projects I was working on, they told me what they were looking for, we tried to see if there was a way to work together.
I had thought the meetings would be fun and energizing. Instead they were terribly depressing. By the second week I was feeling down. Week Three, I was clinically bummed. By the fourth week I was suicidal.
I couldn’t figure out why. The people I was meeting with were uniformly smart, motivated, funny. They treated me with respect. They were good peeps. What was wrong? Was it me? This was serious. The emotion was such a downer that I thought, I can’t keep feeling this and stay in this business. What was happening? Finally it hit me.
I realized that floating in the air over every meeting I had been on was an unspoken assumption. The execs and producers and studio people all shared this assumption, and they assumed—because I was in the room with them—that I shared it too.
The assumption was this: We will do anything for a hit.
I don’t fault that position. It’s a good business model. If ultra-violence will get us a smash, let’s go with ultra-violence. If jerk-off teen comedies work, crank ‘em out. Movies based on board games, old TV shows, comic book characters … cue ‘em up, let’s roll.
The problem for me was I didn’t share that assumption. That was why these meetings were depressing me so much. I hated those kinds of movies. That wasn’t why I was here at all! I had decided to take a crack at the movie business because I loved movies; I wanted to write stuff that meant something to me. Movies like the ones I worshipped. Movies I myself wanted to see. I wasn’t a writer for hire. I was a spec writer. That was where my heart was.
I realized that I wasn’t in the same business as the people I was meeting with. I didn’t share their guiding assumption. This was a real problem. I thought to myself, Maybe I’ve picked the wrong business, maybe this isn’t going to work.
Here was the breakthrough. I drew two big circles on a piece of paper. In one I wrote STORIES I LOVE. In the other, STORIES THAT MIGHT SELL. These were two separate circles. But, I thought, let’s move them together. Is there an overlap?
Is there a quadrant, however miniscule, where these two spheres intersect? Yes, there is. That tiny sliver I called MY BUSINESS.
That was the mental model that let me stay in the movie biz. I told myself, “Steve, focus all your effort in that little overlap and don’t ever go outside it. Don’t work on stuff you love that you believe is totally uncommercial. And don’t work on projects that you imagine will sell but that you hate. Stick to the sweet spot.”
Here’s the interesting part: it didn’t work.
Maybe sorta. It kind of stumbled and bumbled in an okay way. But nothing really clicked for me until I gave up completely on hitting the overlap and just did what I loved, even when I thought nobody else in the world would be interested.
I also stopped trying to write movies. I went to books. Why? Not as a deliberate plan. Just because ideas started coming to me as pages in novels, not reels of film. The first two were The Legend of Bagger Vance and Gates of Fire. I was certain, as I was working on each of them, that these were the lamest, most arcane, least commercial subjects possible—a quasi-mystical novel about golf and an epic about an ancient battle that no one had heard of and could neither pronounce nor spell. Who would be interested in this stuff except me?
I did them anyway and to my amazement they worked–not just critically but commercially. So I guess I have to take back everything I just said about “hitting the overlap” or “writing for the sweet spot.” At least for me, no amount of second-guessing the marketplace while simultaneously trying to be true to myself paid off. As much sense as the overlapping circles made in theory, they didn’t work for me in practice.
What did succeed was being totally stupid and jumping off a cliff.
That’s my business plan and I’m sticking to it.