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.
By the second paragraph of this post I was feeling depressed for you. Over the years I’ve tried to shoehorn myself into various writing tracks – technical writing remains a particularly painful memory – and always come back to fiction. Thanks so much for this series, and for your willingness to share your own history.
By the second paragraph, I was thrilled for you.
What a brilliant turning point. What an opportunity to look straight into the eyes of the beast and refuse to blink.
This is gold. Thank you for sharing it.
Pretty rad right? Its also totally awesome to see this comment from the only other blog (besides Steves) that I read religiously. Good shit!
How would you define success for yourself?
This is THE QUESTION.
I would love to hear how other writers are defining success for themselves.
Bingo! I’ve landed a painting commission and I’m feeling the same way. I can’t move on the project, stuck in sketches with color that I’m hesitant to email. Resistance is huge and I’m slogging in muck. I just want to paint what I want even bough I’ll get paid for it.
I had a similar experience, Dora, and it’s awful. I was up for a commission–3 pieces!–early this year and worked for weeks trying to bend my vision to the client’s. Each time the consultant responded to something I sent, my ideas were constricted into smaller and smaller boxes. And the completion deadline got closer and closer. Eventually, they decided to go with someone else, which was a disappointment–the money would have been great–but in the end, I was very relieved that it didn’t work out. Now, I’m working on the pieces as I envisioned them and I’m much happier. Poorer, but happier. I hope you find a way to make this work for you, if you can. If not–just move on…Best wishes.
I LOVE your use of color! Beautiful work!!
Wow – this really hit home – even in a non-writing area for me. To realize that you’re not after the typical commercial success, or the productivity/revenue/comfort gains that my customers want. Thank you so much for bringing this up. I agree with Seth – what an opportunity to get really honest with yourself and escape the prison of giving up too much of yourself. I am really curious to read more about your overlap and how you made it work for you. Thanks again!
I think this is a question that gets asked several times in a life. I know I find myself asking it in my mid seventies.
For years I defined success as ‘paying for the house and feeding the kids.’
Now that’s over. And I find that I have absolutely no choice in what projects I take on.
The projects choose me. And I am surprised each time. Once it happens I have no choice but to dive in and keep going until it is done.
Thanks for a great piece of writing.
These posts have been like a salve for my creative wounds that I chose to leave gaping for a while, after some life-force draining disappointment I created after my first book was published in 2012 in the self-help field. I feel like there’s something that possibly happens at age 40 or 42 or 43 where the soul or heart or spirit, whatever you call it, says, “Hey, do you really want to sell your heart/soul/spirit to be commercially successful?” Something like that, I think.
As I type this, I’m approaching 45 and choosing to focus on my path as a musician. I refuse to put pressure on my music to create traditional success. I don’t expect my music to put food on the table. I would do it, even if I was on my deathbed. It’s my calling. I don’t need Hollywood, Nashville, or NYC as a writer, artist, and musician. Nope.
Bravo Lisa. Never sell yourself short. Do what you love, money will follow. –Renee
My father has commented that us Millenials (okay, I’m straddling the millennial and an x-er line) are the “sell-out generation.” We sell everything about ourselves from our thoughts to our habits to our tips to our stories, but not for money, for little numbers on screens.
Nothing wrong with that, unless there is something wrong with it. I often wonder at what point the selfie-teen realizes that taking pictures of themselves with c-level celebs isn’t really cutting it anymore and its time to do something “real.”
The fight for “real” is real. We always have to defend our dreams from those who want to use us for theirs.
Pinocchio was one of the most important fables in western literature for a reason.
Cool post, Steve. You rock.
The irony here, that they are (mostly) blind to: they created this.
One of my favorite lines ever is in a Pat Conroy novel when he is describing family dysfunction: “the un-indictable crimes of my grandparents” he wrote.
The unwritten is this: My parents were the way they were because my grandparents were monsters.
Whenever anyone disparages the younger generation, it’s projection. Children don’t raise themselves.
And yet, when I point out the damage, I’m usually attacked: “You have to be a grown up. You have to be responsible. You have to take ownership…”
Yeah, okay, sure, but I’m being asked to do things I was never taught, have no experience in, and can barely even imagine existing.
I just finished getting caught up on The Walking Dead a couple of days ago, I realized something significant. One of the reasons this show is so popular is the idea of the community/family being portrayed; nobody gets left behind.
We all desire this, yet, nearly none (maybe none) of us experience it.
Last night I started a new series, Shameless. A white-trash ghetto family abandoned by their mother, and left with their worthless alcoholic father.
The show is all about family; loyalty, respect, love, care, etc., and how all the kids pitch in and live a dysfunctional–yet happy–life.
It’s an insane fantasy, experienced by nobody ever, less believable than the zombie apocalypse.
And yet, there you go, it’s wildly popular because we all want this so badly it hurts.
Some people do live in the Shameless world. It’s where I was raised. Missing father, alcoholic mother, seven kids.
Tina, I think Michael’s point a bout it being a fantasy was this part: “The show is all about family; loyalty, respect, love, care, etc., and how all the kids pitch in and live a dysfunctional–yet happy–life.” Not the alcoholism, etc. in and of itself.
Yes, I know. That part is the fantasy I wanted to believe in.
Yes, lots of us grew up in similar worlds.
I did as well: insane mother, absent father, druggie abusive step father, no stability, poverty, blah, blah, blah.
My point, as Larry noted, is that the show is a fantasy, nobody who grew up in an environment like this had all the happy-happy-joy-joy that’s portrayed, and yet that’s the reason we like the show.
We vicariously experience a better childhood.
Sometimes I wonder if this is healthy or not…
I grew up watching The Brady Bunch. Was that healthy? I don’t know.
Such good insights and good writing. Thanks
we want connection and more and more tv online shows are about families struggling to connect inspite of secrets, addiction, inter generational tragedy. Writing about these underlying themes is going to be deep work and I don’t think I could be commercial at the same time.
I am no expert and every writer is different. Most are searchers and struggling to be happy.
In the old Roswell series about the kids who were secretly half-alien, a big theme was them sticking together, in a world they could not trust—they daren’t even tell their own foster parents.
Today, our culture is completely confused. We focus on the external and not on the internal. Us baby-boomers (I’m a tail end boomer) raised our kids in an atmosphere where there was nothing to believe in, nothing to value, nothing to aim for so the Millennials turned to the most superficial values left: money and fame. But underneath it all, they have the same burning desire, the same hidden drive, everyone does for real meaning, real worth, real values, real wholeness, real growth and real evolution. It’s not their fault they didn’t grow internally. We, their parents, didn’t grow internally, either. No one teaches us this stuff in school. That’s the real crime.
That is so true, and at the same time the idea of LOVE was presented instead of organized religion, a direct connection to god consciousness. It seems we are living in a limbo between values where a community holds together through a system of dogma and something much higher.
Other cultures have it, but we don’t.
Freedom is a great, and difficult place without guidelines and safety net. The up side of this is a chance at inventing a new way of connecting that involves real connection and insight into ourselves. It requires beginning right now, just as it is and within me.
oH I guess that means it begins with this blog. The parts i love are when someone shares their feelings in a raw honest way and the comments start to connect. Some of the comments stick to complementing the first article and then they take on a life of their own and people connect.
So why are we really here? On this blog. Right now.
Probably not to make money writing.
As for the schools…. I worked in the school system and tried to connect children to being connected to each other. There are a lot of wonderful ideas out there on this subject but teachers are often very task oriented and won’t take time for this. Schools can’t do it as it stands.
Awesome, we’re all here because we unite behind a theme: Artistry.
Its difficult and scary to be vulnerable. To publish the raw parts of ourselves for the world to see…
We connect with each other in pursuit of truth. An experience, or an answer, that can only be found from within.
The path to pursue artistry is an inward one, and it feels good to connect with other people who are going through the same journey.
As artists its our duty to own the truth in whatever shape it takes. Fuck the world around us. Fuck the people and their opinions, assumptions, or allegations…
A true artist doesn’t play into all that bullshit. A true artist owns their voice and takes measure to cut out the ego.
I really dig all of the stuff Steve does because I agree:
Its essential that we figure out “why” we’re doing it, and then, dive headfirst into the craft. All while maintaining an understanding that there will always be judgment and misunderstanding…
Its human nature.
As artists, exposing the human parts of ourselves is essential. Cause not a lot of people are courageous enough to do it…
That’s why we have to.
Cause it’ll help those who can’t, and influence someone who eventually can.
To answer why are we on this blog…
I use this, and all the writing I do, as therapy.
Writing, well–good writing, I mean honest from the heart writing, is cathartic, meaningful, and brings about healing.
I’m often (a lot) confounded by the reticence I find among so many people who I know must be struggling and fighting as I am, but to each his own.
An interesting perspective difference:
I too am a last born gen-Xer (1965) and I raised my children as evangelical Christians with hard core VALUES….and blah, blah, blah, blah…
Church every Sunday, home groups and mid-week church, vote Republican, abortion wrong, homosexuality wrong, blah, blah, blah.
We HAD values, they were just all bullshit.
Eventually we all figured out the game was a fraud.
Here’s the difference: I was 47 when I became an atheist.
My youngest figure it out at 10.
So the real struggle is that now, without the facade of some other persons narrative (whether Jesus, Allah, Krishna, etc.) this generation doesn’t know how exactly to deal with morals, ethics, and virtue.
We/they have no idea what a real community looks like (not in America anyway).
This is why Sam Harris’ work is so important: How do we live morally in the Age of Science?
What happens to us after we’d killed off God?
The irony that really bugs me is that parents of the baby boomers (the Greatest Generation) were, in reality, so screwed up, so mentally off, that they produced the insanity of the baby boomers and the reaction of the Xers and Millennials.
I have to say that my real path to healing started with Pat Conroy (although I didn’t know it at the time) because he made it safe to say: “Yeah, my parents were in league with the devil, but only because of their parents, and so on…”
All this talk makes me want to get wealthy, marry again, and reverse my vasectomy.
Maybe I can be a good father on my fourth try?
“God” is inside you, Michael. It’s that thing that makes you want to write, your Muse, your spirit, the spark of life you have inside you. You connect when you write, when you dream, when you are kind, when you help others…all those “good” things you are talking about.
Great stuff…enjoying this thread alot
As I look to make photography more than a hobby, those same questions are relevant to me. Many people tell me I should be a travel, wedding, portrait, nature photographer! I don’t like those types of photography; they mean nothing to me. I want to be a fashion photographer. I know what I want, or do I? What kind of a photographer am I?
Thank you, Steve!
I want to thank you for sharing this today. Your words are timely and extremely insightful for me at this time. Many thanks!
NOW your circle is overlapping with mine! And it led me to old-fashioned blogging. I write what I want to — but I write daily, 1,000 words or more, the best I can muster up. And it gets better as it goes along. No sales. Who cares? I’m living on SSI. Barely enough to operate my computer, but that’s enough. My time is my wealth.
That is so beautifully expressed: “My time is my wealth”, Love it.
Seems that you’re not the only one sailing in that particular boat…. No financial security to speak of but a wealth of thoughts and imagination.
I would love to read your blog, if you’re willing to share.
Click Mary’s name and itll link you straight to her blog.
how uncomfortable they make us
I need a course in “How to Let Go of That One Writing Coach’s Beliefs” so I can make my own answer instead of secretly believing I’m a failure because I don’t believe their answer.
Joel, I hear you.
Depressed, and lonely. Your muse probably didn’t attend the meetings, was a bit resentful she wasn’t asked, and not around when you went looking.
The mantra in genre fiction is write a series and stick with it. The next mantra is stick with the same genre. But I’ve seen a lot of depressed, very successful writers, putting out the same series/genre every year.
On the practical side, that mantra is also a trap.
There is a fine line when dieting, eat too few calories and your body revolts, you do more damage than good.
A line from Gladiator: “Sometimes I do what I want to do, the rest of the time I do what I have to do.”
I struggle with being unsure, scared, and hopeless more often these days, depression has become the norm, life as a creative seems like an impossible dream.
What kind of writer are you?
An honest liar.
Why are you pursuing a literary vocation?
Freedom and the ability to speak.
How would you define success for yourself?
Two Grand a month and a bungalow in Mexico or a cabin in Oregon and the mental health to actually have a reasonable shot at a loving committed relationship.
Most of my life has been spent in a prison; the walls being the narrative of others, my acquiescence to this–to my shame–is simply that I didn’t know any better.
The question remains: Am I so damaged that it’s too late?
Well… this post couldn’t come at a better time. I’m in the middle of my own “what kind of writer am I?” moment in life right now. I’ve been freelancing for the past 2 years full-time and making a living (just barely, but still getting by). Before that, I worked part-time and did freelance writing the other half of the time. My first FT freelance year was pretty good work/money-wise. Year two has been a lot harder in the fact that good, consistent gigs are hard to find. The stress of it all wreaks havoc on my anxiety at times. It’s made me come to a point where I’m questioning if keeping on this track is really a good idea. Maybe I should just a fulltime job working for someone else like everybody else. But then another freelance project comes along that gets me excited again, so I keep flipping back and forth between what to do. It’s frustrating not knowing what to do. And part of me also thinks that if I do quit, am I just giving up? I mean, does taking a FT job with someone else for the security and consistent paycheck mean I’m chickening out because freelancing was “too hard.” I couldn’t handle it or something like that… Ugh… Also I wonder if I went back to working for someone else, would I really be happy with that. Would I get frustrated quickly, would I get depressed because of it? There is no easy answer to any of this!
You nailed it, as you always do!
What kind of writer are we?
Everyone needs to find out for him/herself.
When you got depressed after all those meetings, and you read the writing on your soul, your had the answer.
NOT THAT KIND OF WRITER.
Bless you for your straight forward approach to writing but more importantly, to life.
I second what Burt said. I’m in the questioning, squirming, think-I’ll-cook-something phase right now and your words are perfect. The questions are much easier to avoid than to answer… But you know that already!
Steven’s other vocation when he’s not writing on matters of the creative body, mind, and soul, is as a shepherd. Every single time he’s writing about writing, he’s also speaking several languages at once – a universal translator for creators wading through the clap trap of commercial art. All creatives can partake of this consistent universal wisdom.
As Steve delightfully outlines in ‘Nobody Wants To Read Your S*#t’ – in regards to advertising – the commissioning agent suffers from clients disease; all clients are in love with their own product or service, and it falls on us to polish their piece of turd. In this case it’s about realizing you’re expected to pump out the next big movie ‘hit’, and to get everyone else famous and wealthy. It’s like we’re all starring as Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad and they’re all dealer junkies wanting you to ‘cook’ like Heisenberg to make them ‘sky high stacks’, cause ‘they’ (being the suits) can’t cook themselves out of a wet paper bag. But how the hell are we supposed to know what’s gonna ‘hit’ – we’re too busy pandering to everyone else’s agenda, for peanuts.
That’s exactly what I do as a freelance commercial illustrator, same deal down here in Australia, where the prevailing culture exists that artists are merely lazy ‘cooks’; as in crazy.
26 years later after working in advertising, film, animation, & publishing I’m still asking the same questions all the readers & posters are asking here, ‘what sort of artist am I?’ for exactly the same reasons. Thank you Steve, and everyone here for showing me that although we all work alone, in fact we’re all very much connected through the ridiculous and contradictory nature of our collective creative experience. Best, Andrew
Hell yea dude. Good shit.
This is spot on. As a screenwriter for the past 20 years, I’ve had that same depressed feeling after doing pitch meetings. To change things up, I just started writing my first short story in decades. Rather than obsess over things like “what network would broadcast this?” and “is this an effective act break” I really love playing with the beauty and rhythm of words, and seeing where the characters lead me. It’s a refreshing change.
and I like to write on serious business topics. for example one of the last articles I wrote about startups. seems to be quite interesting, but you can also give your opinion on this matter. I will be pleased to hear what you think
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