The reality of a screenwriting career is so elusive the term is bordering on an oxymoron. Most amateur writers give up before breaking in. Over 50% of WGA writers do not go on to earn a dime after their first success. Everyone struggling up the greasy pole reports the same experience – the further you get the harder it gets. It doesn’t help that the world’s focus is set firmly on Hollywood in which the film industry is run with the kind of politics found in a high school cheerleader squad blended with the kind of business ethics of a dystopian sausage factory. The result is something daunting on the whole with feint glimmers of opportunity in the cracks. Sure, there seem to be screenwriters out there living the dream, but they are blades of hay in a mountain of needles. So how are we, as aspiring creatives, to move forward?
It Isn’t About Fitting In, It’s About Finding Your Fit
With the most recent generations before us working single track careers, we’ve become predisposed to the concept of a job for life. The result of this is an attitude of keeping our nose to the grindstone from 9-5 and asking how high when we’re told to jump by our superiors. There’s something uncomfortably servile about the way many of us try to lean into a screenwriting career, especially when considering these kind of values are so poorly aligned with the common mindset of a creative. In fact, it might be fair to say creativity and industrialisation are fundamentally opposed, each will only ever frustrate the other.
But times are changing fast as millions of workers walk out of the full time lifestyle. In my case, my own career is oddball and I’m thankful for that. I was worked freelance for a household name while still at high school. I skipped uni and went straight into a well paid job. I had my own office by 19. I was a company director before I turned 25. Plus I’ve dipped in and out of self employment like there’s nothing to fear during all those years. I’ve had a lot and I’ve lost a lot. It’s only because of those early experiences that I have maintained the self confidence to chose what I want rather than live with what I’m given. We are only now becoming empowered to live by our own rules, however, as a majority, it’s taking us a long time to adjust.
Something I’ve come to learn, and I think it’s sadly something many of us are oblivious to, is that a fulfilling working life is all about orientating your environment to suit our needs rather than trying to manipulate ourselves to suit our environment. We are ultimately irrational emotional beings and we benefit more from reflecting on that than we do trying to ignore or rationalise it. It’s really up to us to understand ourselves and approach the industry with this understanding. Many of us grumble we’re in the wrong job, but whose fault is that? We have to accept it’s ours. It’s not always the case that our work sucks or our boss sucks, it’s often the case that we’re just in the wrong working relationship.
Maybe we’re the type of person who wants a single-track career, there’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe we’re the kind of the person who wants a portfolio-career, there’s nothing wrong with that either. What is wrong is complaining the hole is round without realising we’re a square peg. And no, risk is never a good excuse not to follow the right path to fulfilment. Surely it makes sense to compromise the material things in life in the short term rather than our own wellbeing over the long term.
For many of us, writing doesn’t have to be a full-time job for life, it may not even need to be a career switch. Writing can be part-time. It can be unpaid. It can be a hobby. It can be whatever we choose it to be. The writers to envy are the ones who’ve found the right balance for them. We need to be wary we don’t get caught up in the aspirations of others.
Learn From Success, Not Failure
Screenwriting communities are obsessed with the concept that learning from failure is the route to self improvement. While I do like the notion that we should never fear failure, this whole concept runs into some serious issues within the context of subjectivity. You see, if we’re are tasked with job of designing a bridge, and after being built to our design, that bridge falls down, we have without doubt failed. However, someone passing on our scripts, someone not liking our work, someone hating our material – this is not failure on our part. We cannot be held accountable for the tastes and expectations of others any more than we can be held accountable for picking the wrong PowerBall numbers.
Worse still, this is a highly demotivating attitude to adopt as a writer. It’s only typical that our work will be seen as imperfect by some, and thinking that issue can be addressed time after time is a route to madness not improvement. There is going to be a point where many of us burnout because we end up going in circles.
Focussing on our successes proves to ourselves the reality of subjectivity and motivates us to progress further. Simply starting that first script is a huge success and proof our ambitious can become actions. Finishing that script is another huge success and proof we can put the work in. Studying craft is a success. Redrafting is a success. Sharing our scripts is and – here’s the thing – having anyone appreciate what we are doing, be it only in a tiny way, is a massive fucking success. Does this mean ignoring our weaknesses? Certainly not. Active practice is essential but lot easier to tackle with a good dose of self confidence.
We can either build on what we know has worked for us or we can obsess over what hasn’t. Two very different ways of looking at the same problem. One reinforces the belief we have in ourselves, motivates us to write in the way we love to write, and assures us the future is all a matter or serendipity. One slowly strips our self confidence, homogenises our voice into something mediocre, and causes us to falsely believe we’ll fail until we fit in. Let’s give ourselves permission to see ourselves as success stories now rather than dream we’ll be seen as such in the future.