What Kind of Writer Are You?
I had been working in Hollywood for five or six years and had a semi-respectable B-level screenwriting career going, when I got a new agent. My new agent was a go-getter. He decided to mount a campaign where he would “re-introduce me to the town.” That sounded good to me. I said, “Let’s do it.”
My new agent started setting me up with meetings. The campaign would last six weeks, he said. He would send me out to two or three places a week—studios, production companies, the individual development entities of actors, directors, etc.
The meetings would usually last between half an hour and an hour. They were meet-and-greets, friendly, informal. It would be me and two or three development execs. The company people would tell me what they were looking for and I would tell them what I was working on. For example, if it was the production company of an actor, the execs might say, “Jim’s looking for something darker than his usual stuff, something David Fincher-esque, with a real edge to it.” Or I might say, “I just finished a spec Western” or pitch them a supernatural thriller I had percolating inside me.
The hope was that the twain would meet and a gig would come out of it, or maybe I would sell one of my specs. And for the first couple of weeks, everything was going great. The meetings had energy; plans were made; I was doing callbacks and follow-ups.
The only problem was I getting depressed.
I mean down.
Three weeks became four. My tally was up around ten, twelve meetings.
I was getting seriously bummed and I couldn’t figure out why.
I got to dreading these meetings.
What was wrong with me?
Why was this experience such a bringdown?
My bummed state seemed to make no sense. The people I was meeting and working with were universally smart, dedicated, enthusiastic. They knew movies. They liked me.
What was my problem?
Slowly the answer began to dawn on me.
Floating in the air in every meeting was an unspoken assumption. Everyone in the room bought into this assumption. This assumption was the foundation of everything the studio and development people said and did.
It was assumed that I, by virtue of being in these meetings, accepted this assumption too.
The assumption was this:
We will do anything for a hit.
The goal was box office. A winner at any cost. Short of producing a snuff flick, the name of the game was commercial success.
Who could argue with that, right?
Hollywood is a business. That’s why they call it “the industry.”
The problem was I didn’t accept that assumption. It wasn’t my assumption. I didn’t buy into it at all.
I wanted to write what I wanted to write. What I cared about was whatever idea seized my imagination. I wanted to have a hit, sure, but out of 100 potential writing ideas, there were at least eighty I wouldn’t touch, no matter how much you paid me or how sure-fire they were at resulting in a hit. They just weren’t interesting to me.
It struck me that I might be in career trouble.
I was actually getting kinda scared.
I realized that I wasn’t in the same business as the executives I was meeting with.
They were looking for one thing and I was looking for another.
In other words, for the first time in my twenty-plus year writing life, I found myself confronting the questions, “What kind of writer am I? Why am I doing this? How do I define success as a writer?”
Am I a writer for hire?
Am I a genre writer?
What kind of writer am I?
And more important: Am I in the right business? Is there a future for me here?
OMG, am I facing a career crisis? At forty-three years old am I gonna have to reinvent myself yet again? As what?
Here was the conceptual breakthrough that solved the problem for me (at least for the moment):
I visualized two circles.
One circle was “Movie ideas that the industry wants to make.”
The other was “Movie ideas that I want to write.”
The two circles might not coincide, one on top of the other. They might in fact barely overlap at all. But there was some overlap, however marginal or occult.
I told myself, “I will make my living in that overlap.”
And it worked.
For another five or six years, for six or seven screenplays (most unproduced but all written to a paycheck), this new theory worked fine.
The problem was I had opened a Pandora’s box by asking those questions, “What kind of writer am I? What is my objective? How do I define writerly success for myself?”
The answers eventually carried me out of the movie biz.
What kind of writer are you?
Why are you pursuing a literary vocation?
How would you define success for yourself?
These are questions that we have to ask and answer, you and I, no matter how uncomfortable they make us or how much we’d prefer to avoid them entirely. For me, the process was life-altering and life-enhancing. These questions and the answers they elicited helped me not only to advance along the path I had embarked on, years earlier, blindly and impulsively, but also to see that path clearly and to understand it (or begin to understand it) truly for the first time.
We’ll keep investigating these issues in the coming weeks.