Before we get into this, I want you to sit down and be prepared for a bittersweet ending. You see, this isn’t one of those blog posts where I encourage every writer to keep fighting, this is a heartfelt and open case for why I may have to quit.
As some of you may already know, I’ve been spending the past five and half years battling a deep depression that nearly cost me everything. Worry not. I’m in a pretty happy place now, but have been putting on a brave face for a long, long time while I’ve been cheerleading others to keep fighting. I don’t think I’m special in this regard and believe there’s many out there in my previous situation, some of whom who will be even worse than I ever was.
Following a lot of therapy and personal efforts to rebuild, I’ve been reading a lot of psychology, and a chapter of Robert Greene’s “Games People Play” hit me hard. We’re all pretty much familiar with the concept of alcoholism, how it pulls in the vulnerable and gives them purpose — sadly a purpose which is entirely self-destructive. Those alcoholics exchange fleeting moments of happiness for a constant cycle of self abuse which spirals downward and downward. The thing is, this pattern does not have be fuelled by ethanol, there is such thing as what Greene calls the “dry alcoholic”.
I feel it’s about time we had a little conversation about how utterly life destroying the screenwriting dream can be.
I never wanted to kill myself with quite so much determination and regularity as I did when writing 24-7. I’ve been suicidal in the past, back when I felt trapped in a job working for a bully. The fix was simple and, once I’d found the strength, I quit. With screenwriting, nothing was so clear, and the very thing that seemed like medicine was slowly killing me from the inside.
I turned to writing in the midst of a breakdown. Following a couple of great years freelancing as a marketing consultant, my world came toppling down. Successful clients moved on to agencies. Lucrative contacts found their businesses bought up by investment corporations. In the space of a few months, my successes had manifested into failures as I worked myself out of future returns by doing a job well enough to allow my clients to outgrow me. Now, I wouldn’t have it any other way, I would never hold a client back to milk more money out of them, but I fell to floor regardless, in fits of tears and desperation when the good times ended and I had no idea what to do.
Writing was something new to me. I was aware that my spelling and grammar was poor, but these ideas kept swarming in my mind every night. Surely, if I could picture this stuff, I was within my rights to jot it all down. After all, with all the stress in my life, these movie scenes that had been plaguing my mind for so long and were seemingly costing me sleep. With my schedule free of work, it felt only right to fill it with something creative, something I’d always wanted to do deep down.
Now, let’s not pretend there isn’t a Cinderella story to screenwriting, and let’s not kid ourselves that we don’t like to believe in it. There was a part of me that fantasised about making it big, about being discovered, and becoming rich and famous. I convinced myself that I didn’t care about all that when really I did. Deep down I was looking for a quick financial solution which would mean I’d never have to worry about losing a client again, and that I’d become so respected and admired that the rejection I felt would be patched up by cult like acclaim. This was me at my most egotistical while basking in denial.
It wasn’t long before screenwriting started to take its toll on my relationships. Our isolated lifestyle of being homeworkers who’d moved far from family and friends resulted in my wonderful partner Joanne taking the brunt of it. I remember being prepared to walk away from our 10 year relationship if she wanted to stop me writing. I would have thrown it all away to sit at a computer and type. I was that crazy. Being as supportive as she could, she allowed me to negotiate more time to make it work while I disappeared for longer and longer stints in my imaginary world, only to surface with ramblings about writing and little else. I don’t know how she managed to put up with it. One day I was a novelist with a franchise ahead of me, another I was a screenwriter who would go on to direct, and the next she’d find me with my head in my hands because I’d learned of a project slightly similar to whatever I was working on at the time.
Then the financial toll hit. I needed the books of course, then I needed to enter the competitions, and I needed to start gambling on the Blacklist too. This was all sound investment and I wouldn’t hear anything to the contrary. I blew what little I had in savings and grabbed the one armed bandit of speculative appreciation. I just needed that one break as soon as possible.
I withdrew further and further from society and relationships. My friends would sporadically visit me to find my clothes hanging from my now boney body, my eyes darkened, and attitude manic. When not writing I was talking about writing, or avoiding talking altogether so I could make notes on my phone. Even during those special one on one moments with Jo, walking through the woods together or going on holiday, was just the surface of my being playing along with normality so it I could remain buried in fiction.
I made new friends. My writing buddies. They understood. We mutually kept each other writing and talked about little else. We rode the waves of a good day’s prose together, capping each end with story development and rewriting plans — and it was oh so good.
To wake up in the minds of our characters and plot their exciting lives. To almost fear that moment when we sat down and faced the blank page but to instead lean into it and, before long, become lost and emotional within the boundaries of our own narrative. Avoiding those pesky interactions from real life, we’d reach the end of the day creatively drained but proud of what we’d done. It was work, damn hard work, that consumed ungodly hours, but it felt like it had a point that would soon resound with the world at large.
After a couple of years, features just didn’t cut it and that catalogue of story ideas was near bursting. It was time to start writing shorts. Sweet, powerful, punchy shorts that gave the thrill of story creation and completion within the day. There were even short writing challenges to join in with where we could all lock ourselves away for the evening and get a quick fix.
Of course, amongst all this, was the the abuse. Fuelled by a mixture of ambition and delusion, I would submit my offerings to the world in a fit of nervous excitement. Every completed script was a “sure thing”, before being a case of “take or leave it”, and eventually written off as “needing a good rewrite”.
Feedback was the hangover I reluctantly traded and sometimes it nearly ended me. They say you have to grow a thick skin but that does nothing when you’ve spread your arms wide and exposed your heart. Sully, bitter addicts, suffering their own morning after would sucker punch me when my guard was down. Sometimes they’d catch me sober and I’d put them in their place. Other times they’d hit me square in the jaw and I’d flail back manically, before leaving to go lick my wounds.
Then there was the infighting, the cults, and the belief systems. One writer would preach Save The Cat and the room would cheer loud enough to drown out any criticism. Another would take worried souls aside and convince them that it was writing “we see” that would end them. The bar was littered with experts, each more shit-faced than the next, and encouraging the barmen to keep the taps of bullshit and snake-oil flowing in their direction, those barmen caring not a dot where that last regular disappeared to as a fresh new face wandered through the door.
It was a dark world where the sky was always a melancholy grey and beautiful words badly substituted an ugly reality. I became lost, my ego riding desperately on the back of mysterious figures who passed me by. Each option a stagger forward and each production stall a stumble back.
Five years of work manifested itself as a few dozen mediocre scripts, many of which had been torn to shreds by disrespectful opportunists, some kind coverage, the occasional accolade, and a handful of precious short films. Like so many others, I wore this as a badge of honour, wilfully waiting to be beaten further in the name of being a true creative.
And through all this, by pure chance perhaps, I found sobriety. Maybe it was the gradual resurgence of a fledgling career. Perhaps it was rekindling old friendships. It was almost certainly in part to the therapy. Either way, I turned my back on the keyboard over and over and started to live in the moment rather in my dreams. First I missed screenwriting and then it felt like I was falling behind. Soon it felt more and more demonised as it crept into my mind and begged me to come back for one more little sip of creativity.
Now I find myself torn, terrified of picking up the bottle while begging for the taste back on my lips. I am perhaps no longer a screenwriter and maybe better off for it. Is there a healthy pastime to be built or an ugly shadow to outrun? It’s hard to determine what’s in my future. It might simply be that screenwriting for me is dangerous and that might be the case for others too. Either way, maybe it’s time we had that conversation.
All I know is, my name’s CJ Walley, and I’m a writerholic.