Or perhaps this should read the evasion of sadness. Sadly, waves of extreme sadness and even depression go hand in hand with the life of a creative – hell some would say it fuels them. The thing is, being continually down is a very unhealthy way to live, regardless of any minor benefits. Things get dark for many people, it did for me, and I’d rather be sticking around, because life has a great deal more to offer than the continual head fuck of trying to break into screenwriting. So here’s some musing on the subject of that elusive but essential part of life, happiness.
Depression, anxiety, and writer madness.
I know what it’s like to spiral down into writer madness. I also appreciate how many have been, currently are, and will be sucked into this cycle. Creativity is in a way a crutch for our daily emotions and it’s all too easy to become obsessed not only with the craft but also validation from peers and ultimately success in the form of being widely appreciated. I know what it’s like to lie awake at night with insomnia, thinking about what I want – no NEED – to sit down and write. I know what it’s like to forget to eat and not realise I’m losing weight until my jeans start falling down or crossing my legs feels like trying to settle down on a cattle grid. I know what it’s like for my jaw and eyes to ache from sobbing, what it’s like to zone out of normal life, to take every bit of negative feedback like a cold knife to the heart, to listen incessantly to the horrid voice my head, to plan my own suicide, and not so much set a date to go through with it but to simply hang around to see when I do it.
Anyone living like this has to seek help immediately. No good can come of this. Recovery can come fast. Nobody lost anything by regaining their happiness. The first step is to reach out to somebody and tell them. If they don’t listen, tell somebody else. If you have to, pick yourself up from the ground. Eat well. Exercise regularly. Laugh at the nonsense that voice in your head comes out with – it’s not you. Look at cognitive processing therapy, you can do it online. Google mindfulness to help you feel present. Everybody can be helped. Stop writing and take a breath if feel like it; the longer you are going to be around the more time you have.
Working yourself to death isn’t perseverance. Burning out isn’t perseverance. Taking a moment in your life to regain your strength is perseverance.
Accept that no cavalry is coming
There are no reports of any screenwriter reaching some kind of pinnacle in their career where all their worries and fears drained from them. If you care about being talented, being appreciated, and being valuable now you won’t stop caring about that later. Watch the documentary Seduced & Abandoned and note how Alec Baldwin struggles to get a movie funded, and how Francis Ford Coppola once became so upset he couldn’t get a new project off the ground he threw his Oscars out the window. This is the reality.
Beware the fallacy of the Cinderella Narrative, the story we are told over and over as children that you just have dream a little harder than the next person, without feeling entitled, for your fairy godmother to show up and give you everything you’ve ever wanted. Marrying the prince isn’t the end just like placing in a competition, getting a read request, selling a spec, getting a script produced, or getting critical acclaim isn’t the end. History is littered with creative after creative who’ve found huge audiences and huge fortunes only to feel the same if not worse than they did when they started. Many of those people cannot understand why they feel so bad when on paper their life seems so good.
Experiences cost less and are more valuable than consumables
If you got a six figure spec sale tomorrow what would it really change? Would you feel validated for ever more? Would you stop worrying about negative criticism? Would the house you aspire to live in still seem so grand? Would it make you a more interesting person to meet and converse with? Would doing a workout change how you feel tomorrow morning? Would exploring next street or nearest park change your week? Would working with a great team of people to produce a film for free energise you?
Happiness is in essence the feeling of fulfilment we get as a direct result of positive experiences. We don’t know why we are happy any more than why we sometimes feel sad. That blissful positivity that puts a spring in our step and a hum through our lips streams from our subconscious, the part of our mind we cant control. Gaining material things isn’t the same as earning material things. A life spent obsessing with a dream lifestyle rather than embracing the world we live in is a life wasted.
Cut out the toxicity and embrace authenticity
Screenwriter communities are dominated by the arrogant and the deluded. People who channel all their fear and shortcomings into criticism of others. They are no more confident or skilled than the next person and overcompensate for it. Regardless, exposing ourselves to them is like drinking poison – no good can come from it. These people want us to submit our work and be judged seemingly for our own good. They have no authority to demand this. What they really want is for the weak and naive to seek their approval, which they will never give as they are only interested in knocking others down to build themselves up. Feedback is, for the most part, complete nonsense, a mania triggered by opportunists. There’s a reason the adage nobody knows anything exists not only in the filmmaking industry but in every facet of the creative world. Yet every success story seems to have the same pattern; the writer led to believe they didn’t have what it took until they connected with someone who appreciated their work. Alignment is everything in any creative pursuit. The famous artists of every generation weren’t discovered by some collective attempt at objective scoring but instead because one or two people stood up against the majority and said they liked what they saw, or heard, or smelt, touched, or tasted.
Therefore no critic really matters but the one who lives in our mind and that’s why authenticity is essential to any writer. We have to love what we are writing. We have to feel our writing represents us. We have to know what we are writing now is precisely what we want to see on the screen. We must be brave enough to stick to our guns and wait for the right person to cross our path rather than lick the boots of those who kick us down believing that making them happy will ultimately make us happy too.
I see it time and time again. A writer is openly mocked for their material by the self appointed elders of a screenwriting community. They pick at her formatting because it differs from their style. They scoff at her characters because they aren’t to their taste. They snigger at her typos because they are viewing from afresh. They give her a creepy pat on the back and hiss faux compliments into her ear as she leaves with her shoulders slouched, kicked in the gut but still putting on a brave face and singing their compliments because she’s too polite and too compliant to do otherwise. But then, while she slaves over that new draft, unsure how to please such polarised and vague opinions, while second guessing the very imagination she is blessed with, something happens, someone reaches out to her and wants to put that original script into production, because they love it, love it far more than the work of those who have belittled her, and, with little pomp and ceremony, with that redrafting hopefully tossed aside, she aligns and remains authentic – still an amateur in the eyes she leaves in her wake because they are consumed in themselves and their next wave of subjects. Occasionally she reappears to advise someone in her previous position to stop worrying and see subjectivity for what it is, but her voice is lost amongst the drone of pretentious lecturing on how the industry works from many whose knowledge comes from little more than hearsay. And the gurus, they are mostly full of wank too, and create little more than cults, raging like sports fans as they toss reason after reason their beliefs are right and all others are wrong. Stay away from it if you can.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I cannot believe how much feedback has set me back while self belief and focusing on remaining authentic has pulled me forward. There is no satisfaction in having a script we never intended to write reach production – only a sense of shame and disappointment we didn’t stay true to our values.
So, those teams we become part of have to be the right people, we must lean in to those who mutually support us. That’s not to say we should never accept our short comings or not pursue self improvement but to remind us there’s a positive and negative place it can come from. Did the teams who walked away from great movies with great friendships thrive on criticism of one another or from belief in one another? Do great directors always work with the same great actors because their relationship is dysfunctional or because they feed of each other’s energy? Sure, some have taken a very rocky path and seemingly succeeded in terms of money and glory, but we know the bitterness they feel for working with the wrong people taints it all. They all too often announce in interviews.
What we want to be and who we want to work for
Have you ever heard of a to-be list? I bet you’ve written a to-do list. But how can a to-do list, that robotic system of organising and processing tasks help us be more authentic, consequently feel fulfilled, and ultimately feel happy? Spoiler alert; in the long term it can’t. What we have to do is layout our goals in terms of who we want to be, who we enjoy being, who we are. Perhaps those lists of scripts we need to write must make way for the activities we want to engage in. Maybe we want to be someone who laughs more, entertains more, inspires more. Only once we know who we want to be we can establish what we need to to.
I’ll wrap up with this as I’ve rambled on this time. I had a bit of a revelation recently. My girlfriend returned home from a business trip feeling a little rejected that her dinner plans with a friend had been cancelled. I took her out to one of our favourite (and affordable) bars and we sat in the window talking about values, authenticity, happiness, and how that all applies to our careers. We couldn’t get our heads around why we suffered friction working with some while got on so well working with others. I’m not sure which one of us hit upon our conclusion, I insist it’s me while she argues it’s her, but either way I feel we stumbled upon a remarkable finding that only two people who align well can; we concluded that we all tend to work predominantly for one of three things – our superiors, our craft, or our audience. Now I can’t tell you how much that, as a writer, affected me. It was at that moment I was able to realise that I’d become misdirected, I’d become obsessed with serving the craft and preoccupied with serving my superiors. Was I serving my audience? Sure, a little. I mean, I was kinda thinking about them in the background, right? Ultimately, what I’m trying to say is this; if we aren’t serving our audience, those people we want to sit down and enjoy the film created from our writing, if we aren’t caring as much about those people as we are about formatting, structure, presentation, and what producers want, then why are we even bothering? Serving our audience is surely no better way to remain authentic because we should be a member of that audience, and if we can remain authentic then we will find fulfilment be it from simply knowing we have written something true to our heart or from seeing the script made into a film people love, and if that is the case, nothing can stop up from us enjoying every word we put on paper, smiling at every line our characters speak in our heads, and feeling nothing but happiness from our writing.