Stay with me here (I’m still figuring this out):
Last week we were invited by some friends to join their Thanksgiving festivities. One of the other guests (I’ll call him Chuck) was an aspiring Hollywood writer. I know this because it was impossible for anyone in attendance to avoid learning this. Or avoid learning how many spec scripts Chuck has written. Or avoid hearing again how tough it is for Chuck to get a break in this business.
This guy annoyed the crap out of me.
Now wait – wait a second. This post is NOT a mean-spirited rant about this guy or how miserable he is. This post really isn’t about Chuck at all. But he was that perfect stereotype – the “artiste” writer who whines ad nauseum about how he is so exhausted and so underappreciated and so humiliated to have to bow down before the lazy-ass, do-nothing, no-talent philistine executives just to get a foot in the door of the movie business. Sound like anyone you know? It was pretty painful.
For a few years this guy Chuck had been “on the inside” as an assistant to a producer. Now he has just completed his latest script and has received glowing feedback from a powerful contact at a major talent agency. He dropped names and moaned about how – as if it wasn’t hard enough already – the writers’ strike had made things impossible for him because despite the fact that everybody loves his script, for various strike-related political reasons his contacts are now unable or unwilling to move the script forward through the maze of making things happen. And the longer the strike goes on, his heat will dissipate and the contact will lose enthusiasm and, well, it’s just hopeless. Excruciatingly, nasally, long-windedly hopeless.
Now, although I had met Chuck before (very briefly), and although our hosts (his relatives) were aware that I was a writer (I have discussed Dead Guy and Psycho Ex with them), this guy Chuck was not aware that I was an aspiring Hollywood writer myself. I kept my mouth shut as long as I possibly could, but then… well, I’m never content to be the second-most annoying person in the room for long. I tried to gently share what I had learned about the strike actually not being such a bad time to be looking for an agent. I tried to diplomatically explain that all his advantages of being “on the inside” had become disadvantages due to the strike, and suggested he embrace the internet and all the tools used by the rest of us “on the outside.” I told him I was trying to encourage him, not discourage him, but I could tell from the look in his eye that he regarded me with about as much skepticism/disgust as I regarded him.
Now, at the time, I simply rolled my eyes at the guy’s moaning and chalked it up as yet another unfortunate reinforcement of the “miserable writer type.” But here’s the thing – for the next few days I couldn’t stop thinking about the guy and his attitude. At first I thought it was just childish jealousy on my part – nobody asked for my opinion, he didn’t bow to me and my wise advice, he got all the attention at Thanksgiving even though I’ve optioned something and written twice as many scripts as this guy has (I’ve counted a few times to be sure)… but this wasn’t it. There was something more. On Thanksgiving I was merely annoyed but as the days passed, it started to bother me. I got really disgusted – disgusted at some guy I don’t even know, at some attitude I witnessed days ago, which I had just shrugged off at the time. I couldn’t let it go. And then I began to get… really angry.
“Angry at what, exactly?”, you may ask. What was it that bothered me? I didn’t know either. But I knew there was definitely something there. There we were, two writer-types who could have actually connected and even helped each other. But instead we just… annoyed and infuriated each other. So I thought about it. And thought about it.
And I think I have a theory as to why writers are so miserable. In a word: control.
You jump into the movie business with a plan. Maybe it’s a plan you read about in a book or magazine (this guy did it this way), or a plan you heard about from a friend or college instructor (that guy did it that way), or conventional wisdom from working writers themselves (this is the way it’s done). But regardless, you have a plan. You pursue this plan with all you’ve got. And yet, unless you’re very lucky, this plan doesn’t quite work for you the way you thought it would. And so… you get down on yourself, concluding your plan was no good and look at all the time you wasted with your obviously faulty plan. So you reset, you critique your plan, you adapt, and try again. With a different plan. The problem is, this plan probably won’t work either. There are a million shifting variables that have to line up just perfectly. Or maybe there aren’t – it’s different every time. And although you adapt your plan again and again, it probably isn’t getting any better, not really. Or if it is (or isn’t), you wouldn’t know. Every case is different, every script and every reader and every situation: just different.
This contradicts human nature/human instinct in a fundamental way: people want to get better, get smarter, get closer to success. And if one course of action doesn’t work, we want to immediately chuck it and try something new. When we second-guess ourselves and change strategy, we want an observable, unambiguous improvement. Did the change work, or was the old plan better? We want trial and success, and if we can’t have that then trial and error is almost as good. Both of these show us the way to go. But trial and randomness? That’s just madness. This suggests the unthinkable – that consequences are not really connected to the actions that are supposed to determine them. And this realization hurts. Literally. Sometimes – a lot of the time – plans, strategies, and scripts don’t get better, or smarter, or closer – just different. The only truth is this: you can’t plan for everything. And you can’t control much of anything. All you can do is (1) keep writing and (2) endlessly second-guess yourself and your plan. Problem is, the more you revisit your plan, the more you second-guess yourself, the more you hang onto that illusion that you have real control over the shifting sands of the process… and the more miserable you become when your plan doesn’t work. Again.
At some point – probably when I quit the business and got a steady day job “on the outside” – I came to a possible 3rd solution, a Zen-like (or so I like to think) understanding about this fact: there are many things in this process I cannot control. I can write scripts, and work hard to make them better, and do all I can to get them into the hands of the right people. But beyond that, the idea of control is an illusion. And the chasing of this illusion can only drain me and destroy me. Maybe this is wisdom, maybe it’s pure crap, but I am content with it. Or I thought I was…
So here’s what I think happened on Thanksgiving: I met Chuck. And in his big-talking, whining, poor-me nasal swagger I recognized myself, clinging to control. Chuck may just get a break. Or who knows, maybe I will get the break. I hope we both get lucky. But if Chuck gets the break from working “on the inside,” my instinct will be to conclude that not only has my plan been faulty, but all my agonizing second-guessing has been faulty and hasn’t gotten me any closer than where I started from. And I think his disgust for me was the same: if I break in from the “outside,” then he will suspect all his hard work and his plan and all his revisiting and all his second-guessing will have been… meaningless. After all, if one of our plans works then that must mean that the other plan is hopeless, right? We immediately disliked each other because we shattered each other’s illusion of control.
Maybe my “Zen-like solution” is really the illusion; maybe Chuck proves that I am just fooling myself that I can consciously turn off this instinct, that I can live without this need for control. Maybe Chuck annoyed the crap out of me because I considered that he might be going about this the right way and I might be wasting my time with my path – he pulled me back into thinking that maybe I should be second-guessing myself again, maybe I should be clinging to control, maybe this whole “Zen-like solution” crap is really just another plan whose time has come to be second-guessed. Again.
So this is the thing that got me really angry: getting sucked back into this whirlpool of crud.
I think writers (and all creative people) really have to figure out their own personal relationship with the idea of control. If they don’t “need” that feeling of control, if they can really let it go, they might just be happy, well-balanced, and more focused and productive. But if they can’t, they are going to be miserable. Or maybe not. Or maybe when I say “writers,” I am really just talking about “me.” Who knows.
After I figured this out, I went to the bathroom and shaved off my goatee. Hey, I have to be able to control something, I guess.