Life of a pseudo-writer
October 20, 2009
This post is not really about anything ridiculous!
OKAY WAIT, let me get the ridiculous things out of the way first:
1) Just in case I mention this later, I am telling you now so you won’t be WILDLY STARTLED – I am having a kid. I periodically get very “Oh man, what if after I have a kid it turns out that it’s like that Breeders song, MOTHERHOOD MEANS MENTAL FREEZE, and I stop being funny?!?” and Husband Guy says things like “Have you noticed that you are still kind of a jerk about the same things you would previously have been a jerk about, like when the doctor was all “Here is your baby on the ultrasound!” and waiting for you to get teary-eyed and instead you were all “Good lord, check out the size of the skull on that kid.”?
But- anyway, just so you know!
2) In conjunction with the above, I have come cross-country to visit my in-laws, who live in the Finger Lakes. This trip immediately multiplied the number of states I have been to by about four hundred.
Also, I have now experienced WAFFLE HOUSE. My husband is from the South and I guess people who are from the South think that Waffle House is The Best. In spite of my fascination with chain restaurants, I just did not get Waffle House. I mean… why does everything come with a pickle slice? (And I say this as someone who really likes pickles. AND IS PREGNANT. I am a pickle’s target demo!)
Other things I discovered on this trip: Arizona is really beautiful and also partially on fire. And FULL OF ELK who want to jump out at your car and pick fights with you! Apparently. According to the signage.
The Grand Canyon is really big. So big that your brain can’t really process the scale of it, and you think things like “I wonder why the other rim is kind of green and fuzzy” and then you realize that the fuzzy green bits are TREES and then your brain goes “…!!!! Shit, man!”
New Mexico is full of signs that say things like “FEED THE OSTRICH” or “CACTUS MOCCASINS FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY”.
North Texas is full of giant crosses! Like there’s some kind of company that makes and sells huge-ass metal crosses, and if you are a really serious Christian of a particular type I guess you buy them and put them up on your land… to make some kind of point about Jesus, or post-industrial design.
(Speaking of Jesus, I saw many semi trucks with signs reading things like “HIS NAME ISN’T THE MAN UPSTAIRS, IT’S JESUS CHRIST”, which strikes me as a really odd place to make your stand. “This far! NO FURTHER! I HAVE HAD IT WITH THESE BASICALLY RESPECTFUL BUT OVERLY FAMILIAR REFERENCES TO THE LORD.”)
Arkansas’ state motto should be “EXPERIENCE OUR MOISTNESS”. The air there was so wet I kept having panic attacks. “AHHHH WHY IS EVERYTHING SO DAMP. GET IT OFF GET IT OFF.”
(However, they make up for it by frying the heck out of all kinds of fish and serving it to you in little baskets with delicious sauces, so they’re back in my good graces.)
Virginia is startlingly gorgeous. Like, really – why do you think the pioneers left there and came West? Having just made the opposite trek, I feel secure in stating: BIG MISTAKE. BIG, BIG MISTAKE. Wait until you get to North Texas, you guys.
…I am skipping states in there. But anyway! Yes. Here I am, in the glamorous Finger Lakes, where it is COLD and there are DOGS and trees and you can go apple-picking (good times) and watch the alpaca stampede (I am looking forward to this quite a bit) and buy pumpkins from honor-system farm stands and nobody locks their doors.
So here is the not-ridiculous part of the post: I have been thinking back on this past year of pseudo-career as a young pseudo-screenwriter. I mean, I kind of am a screenwriter in the sense that I have been able to con Manager Guy and Agent Guy into representing me, and I have specs, and I go on a lot of meetings, and people in those meetings seem to think that I am a Real Writer, and like sometimes the assistant will be all “Elana?!? Oh man, it’s so good to meet you, I loved your sample!” – which makes me think that they don’t realize that I am just some chump off the street or whatever.
BASICALLY: I am a screenwriter, but only in the sense that I am expected to function as though I am one, with the writing and the meetings and the being available all the time and the pitching, etc etc. Of course I am totally clear on the fact that nobody is paying me, so it’s not like I’m a REAL screenwriter. You know? It’s just like I have this weird full-time job I don’t actually make any money doing.
I have a couple of friends who are in this same place, and I was talking to them recently about what’s going on. We all had many of the same comments. So I thought I would write them down and post them on the internets and maybe someday in the future some young baby writer will happen on them and find them useful.
OR NOT. But it’s my blog and you can’t stop me.
Here, in any event, are some things I have noticed, a couple at a time, because I am not organized enough to cram them all in one post:
I have been to the mountaintop, and I have seen that there are like fifteen more mountains beyond it.
When you are a young writer-type person, you think that for sure getting an agent or a manager is going to be a huge deal, you will basically have ARRIVED. And you know – I am not going to pretend that it doesn’t put you ahead of the curve. Because they call people for you and tell them that you are an up-and-coming genius and they should totally meet you. And people listen to them, so that’s pretty cool. And I also don’t want to be disingenuous about how, when you’re not-repped, it seems like this huge obstacle, this MOAT staring you in the face. But my experience has been that you get repped and then realize, OH WOW, that’s just the first tiny step, you may be closer to your goal, but only in the sense that you had NO IDEA HOW FAR AWAY YOU WERE AND NOW YOU KNOW.
It’s kind of like, you’re on this uphill hike, and every time you think “Oh! THERE IT IS! THE PEAK!” you realize that it’s actually just a narrow ledge of a plateau. And you stand around there for ten minutes as you absorb, with no small amount of horror, the fact that the actual peak is still miles and miles away. And then you take a breath and set off for the next leg of the trek, and eventually you go “Whoo! THERE IT IS, the PEAK!”
And then you realize that you’re a sucker and you just did it again. And it goes on like that for some time.
The odds are so much worse than you think.
I think I have only fairly recently realized just how terrible the odds are that I’m going to make it. I do not mean to sound defeatist. I think of it more as – my friend K., who is a TV writer and is in the place I am and is also basically a genius (I mean, you guys, she is really-really-really good), told me that a Real Writer friend said to her something like, “Listen. You’re in the place now where everyone else is as good as you are. And now it comes down to sheer dumb luck.”
And that’s how it seems to me. I have done the work. I learned to write. I have learned how to take meetings and not seem like a huge dumbass. I am still not a great pitcher, but I’m not the worst, either. I am actually a pretty good writer – not the best ever, but I think I’m good enough to do the work without embarrassing anyone seriously. Blah blah blah. Fine. That’s all great, until you realize that, HOLY SHIT, now it’s you and ninety-seven other guys up for the SAME JOB.
THERE’S ONLY ONE JOB.
AND YOU’RE ALL GOOD ENOUGH TO GET IT.
It comes down to something that isn’t talent or drive or persistence. Someone’s going to get that job, but it may or may not be you.
(I think about Bull Durham a lot.)
(I also think about how nobody even knows the name of the guy who comes in behind Usain Bolt. He might as well not exist.)
Nobody tells you about the money.
A number of months ago I had a meeting with a pretty successful young director (I mean, the guy works. Do you know how rare it is for directors to work? If you’re feeling bummed about your odds as a writer, AT LEAST YOU’RE NOT TRYING TO DIRECT.) and he told me this story about how when he was working on his first studio feature, he hadn’t actually gotten any checks yet, and he had to go in to work and basically eat only the free food in the kitchen, like oatmeal and Cup-a-Soup.
And yet he couldn’t really tell anyone about it, because he was this hot young director, right? And finally he cracked and told his agent that, um, he was literally broke, could he maybe get part of that first check now…?
And it was awkward. Because nobody wants to talk about that. Because we are all weirdo Victorians who are pretending that we don’t ever think about filthy lucre.
For a number of years I worked pretty happily as an assistant, and wrote on my own time. It was FINE. I sort of miss it.
I guess I assumed that when I started to Make It as a writer, that would probably start with someone, I don’t know, buying my spec. Or else I didn’t really think about it in much detail. The point is, I never gave any thought to the fact that the best-case scenario, really, is that you will at some point have TOO MANY MEETINGS to have a job. (This is true for the people I know who are assistants… and most of the people I know are assistants. I assume that if you have some kind of job where you work at night or have super-flexible hours, this will be a different issue for you.)
So then you quit your job, and go on meetings and come up with pitches and outlines and stay home and read novels to pitch on and movies to pitch on. And that becomes your job. And you live on your savings for a while, and it’s fine.
But unless you are independently wealthy, you’ll probably run out of money long before you run out of general meetings. Of the people I know who are on this hamster wheel, one is living on cashed-out home equity, and another is married to someone who’s giving her her shot.
(I am also married to someone who is giving me my shot. I have spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about what people do if they don’t have huge savings accounts or a supportive life partner. I don’t know what the answer is. I am not exaggerating when I say that I don’t know how I would have pulled this year off if I weren’t married to a guy who is willing to do things like “Get a job not in his field and pay the rent so I can stay home and write”. I don’t really know what else to say about it, because it’s a very generous thing to do, you know? It is humbling to be the recipient of that kind of niceness. Of course it will all pay off for him when someday he needs a kidney… but still.)
And I don’t think people talk about this, because talking about being broke is TOTALLY UNCOOL, so I guess that people you have meetings with naturally assume that you are pretty fabulous, a real writer, blah blah blah. Once I had a meeting with a really very fancy executive, and I pitched him something, and then he went off on this tangent about how writers made so much more money than executives, I was making more money than he was JUST BY SITTING THERE. And finally I said, very mildly, that I didn’t actually make any money writing… and he kind of waved this off, NOT GERMANE TO THE CONVO.
(More points later, once I turn in the thing I am supposed to turn in. YES.)
Your pal in the Finger Lakes,