Scuffling in Tinseltown
When I came out to Hollywood from New York, one of my first paying gigs was working on a low-budget action script with the director Ernie Pintoff. Ernie had actually won an Oscar (you can look it up) for a short subject called “The Critic” with Mel Brooks. But mostly he made his living doing episodic television.
Ernie and I would work at his house in Outpost Canyon. We sat side by side at a huge oak table in his kitchen. Sometimes we’d work for eight or ten hours at a crack. I’d drive home exhausted.
Ernie never spoke to me about anything except the movie we were writing. I wasn’t sure he even knew my name. But little by little we started getting to know each other. One day during a break he asked me what else I was doing when I wasn’t working for him. I told him I had written three novels that never got published—-and I was constantly hammering out spec screenplays that also didn’t sell. He regarded me thoughtfully for a long few seconds.
“Keep working,” he said.
I could tell this was a piece of serious wisdom from a veteran who had been through the wars, but I wasn’t really sure what Ernie meant.
The next day I asked him if he wouldn’t mind elaborating.
Again he said, “Just keep working.”
Then Ernie’s fiftieth birthday came around. His wife Caroline threw a big party and I helped out. When the event was over, Ernie and I wound up in the kitchen together doing the dishes. Ernie had recently been diagnosed with cancer. He had had cancer twice before and survived.
“Keep working,” he said. “Don’t turn anything down. Porn flicks, slasher movies, free stuff for friends. Don’t get precious. You’re young, you’re learning. Keep working.”
Ernie cited three reasons:
“One, working means you’re getting paid. I know you’re getting peanuts for this job. It doesn’t matter. It’s money, it’s validation. Every buck means you’re a working pro, you’re toiling in your chosen field.
“Two, when you work, you learn. Everybody has something to teach you. A grip will show you something about lighting, an editor will drop some pearl about what to keep and what to cut. Even actors know something.
“Three, you’re making friends. Some kid who’s schlepping coffee today may be a producer tomorrow. He may buy one of your specs. An actress you do some free work for today may get you hired for a rewrite six months from now.”
I was thinking, Does this movie we’re working on count?
Ernie read my mind. He laughed. “Don’t turn your nose up at anything. This piece of crap we’re working on now can teach you plenty. Because it’s working. The principles of story-telling are in this piece, just like in Shakespeare. I’m making sure they’re in there. Watch me. Do what I tell you. Porn works, splatter works, horror works; if they didn’t, nobody’d finance ‘em and nobody’d go to see ‘em. You can learn from all of them.”
There’s a sad ending to this story. Ernie died a few years later. Our little action movie never got made.
But I took a lot of jobs because of what Ernie told me, and I never regretted any of them. I learned my craft. I got to work as a pro. Ernie gave me the best advice I’ve ever gotten.
Inertia kills creativity, so staying in motion creatively is indeed essential. It also seems to the best preventive measure against a writer’s block.
Thanks Stephen! This arrived exactly when I need the boost.
Like many of us here, I try to soak up what I can learn from others. Books like Steve’s War of Art or Do the Work or shorter things like The Lunch Pail Manifesto. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones or Wild Mind. Anne Lamotte’s Bird by Bird. Stephen King’s On Writing. Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream.
James Ellroy gets up early and drinks lots of coffee. Lee Child sleeps in and smokes a lot of cigarettes. Ernest Gann wrote in a renovated chicken coop and JK Rowling wrote in a coffee shop.
Churchill and Hemingway wrote standing up. Richard Powers likes to write lying in bed.
James Salter started with an outline. Elmore Leonard started with a guy in a situation and just let him start talking.
I was getting ready to interview Tim O’Brien one time, and my friend Ziebart (teasing) asked me to ask him if wrote with a pencil or a pen. “And ask him if he writes with his ankles crossed or uncrossed.”
We tend to look for a secret method. Some pixie dust we can sprinkle on ourselves. But it all eventually boils down to those two words, like the Occam’s razor of the writing craft.
As novices, we search for some magical explanation. Might be too generous to say ‘we’, instead of saying I. For me, when while avoiding my own dragon’s lair for so long, I would inquire about how people grew up.
Oh, see, two organic parents. Oh, see, professionals-educated parents. Oh, see, introduced to gymnastics as a kid, no wonder they are such gifted soccer players.
I was, for the longest time, explaining my own failures and others’ success to the family ingredients I wanted.
The same search, just my own personal little perversion. Just like SP has said, “Just Do The Work”. Keep Writing. Keep Grinding.
“…the labor, not the fruits of the labor”
Brian… that line from the Gita is tattoo-worthy. I was listening to a Brett McKay / Ryan Holiday podcast yesterday, and they mentioned the “fruits of your labor” quote.
The other thing your words bring to mind: when we’re trying to figure out the “meaning of all this,” I think it’s embracing the experience we’re given, whether on the surface it appears good or bad (the Stoic aphorism “amor fati”).
Frequently, when giving a decision brief to a commander, we use a weighted decision matrix (DECMAT) For example safety is more important than cost, so multiply 1.5 x the criteria for safety. Just before explaining the numbers you might say, “More is more–or less is more” to explain if the score is like a golf score or a football score.
This is certainly ‘less is more’. 2020 has been unfolding in this crazy serendipitous/quantum entangled way for me. It may or may not coincide with some personal insights (some good, a lot..uh..not so much), but much clearer.
I have this little boutique consulting biz with 1 client. I have been thinking — and this goes to your posts about theme. What the f-bomb is my theme? I think this is it:
You matter. You belong. We need you at your best. Now let’s get after it/get to work.
Cannot decide on the last imperative. I think I am begging to see everything in from this lens. I can see Ernie saying this to you implicitly as you wrote side by side.
Steve: You matter. This work, this crappy piece of trash does, in fact, matter. You belong. At my table. With me. You’re a professional, like me. This shit is hard, so we need practice. The world needs our craft (even the porn, slasher, trash–we have to do this to get better). And of course, the only explicit advice he said, “Get after it”. Keep working.
I attribute no small measure of my adulting, and repeated attempts at adulting to your fiction and non-fiction, and especially these Writing Wednesdays.
Love this. Thank you!
Steven – I get so much out of your work . . . I’m just hoping you keep following his advice!
Bwahahaha – “Even actors know something.” As an actor, this line cracked me up. Most of us know more about accessing (hidden) truth and emotion than we are given credit for.
I think you had posted this before?
Love this – words to live (and work!) by – as always, thanks!
Thank you! Timely to read after receiving my meager royalty check a few days ago. But it’s something and I’ll keep working.
I will be sharing this with my co-writer during our next songwriting session. Thank you for the inspiration and encouragement.
Ernie sounds like a tank.
There’s something very serious to be said for learning though the work.
Sometimes I think character stories (like Ernie) stick with me, and fuel the heart of writing more than any tip of technique can. Its a parable, but with daytime television writers! So good!
Got it…nose to the grindstone! I enjoy reading about your experience as writer. It keeps the fire burning in a novice like me.
Yes! The Chinese say “Walk slowly but don`t stop”.
And the Zen buddhist say: “When walking, walk. When eating, eat.” It can be continued: when writing, write.
Thank you for this. It was sorely needed today.
OMG, “The Critic” is hilarious and fabulous. I used to show it to my film students when I was teaching. What a great thing that you “kept working” with Ernie. Some of the lines in it stick with me to this day. Clearly you kept learning from him. What a great tutor.
Thanks for your wisdom and his.
Thank you for showing up every week and dropping wisdom. So helpful. Keep rocking….
Surprisingly and many interesting things, thanks for sharing this information, it came up with many ideas for reading your article.
Thanks for sharing your story, it really makes me think more about my lifestyle. I am 100% agree with you, and support the point that “you learn when you work”. I have obtained my PhD in Business, and now create content for this resourcehttps://writingbros.com/ so check it out. Thanks to my job, I get new knowledge every day, and it inspire me to keep working 🙂
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