a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Choices That We Make As Writers

So on Saturday I went to a barbecue that was largely attended by members of my screenwriting group, people that (other than quick conversations before or after our Monday night meetings) I rarely get to hang out with socially.

So I found myself in a conversation with three other aspiring writers, good writers, who I have a lot in common with: we're all in our late 30s-to-mid-40s, and we're all in a period of our lives where, we'll we are getting better as writers, we're also in periods of our lives where we can't devote the time to pursuing a writing career that we really want to.

Or if we do, it means major changes in our lives.

One woman has been trying to devote herself more to writing, but she had to take a long leave of absence from working to really do so, plus she's got a husband and couple of kids, so even then writing is not something that can consume her days.

Another guy is just completing a pestigious masters program in screenwriting, but he had to go heavily into debt to do it. The last guy is a lawyer, who loves writing, but his job is also sucking up more and more of his time.

Devoting a lot of time to writing is really a young person's thing. It's just so much easier to do when you don't have a wife/kids/career/rent/mortgage pulling you down.

But, ironically (and I know there are exceptions, but still), good screenwriting is something that you get better at when you have these things in your life. When you have a life to draw on, when you've matured and experienced more. The things you have to juggle -- hell, the process of juggling, of dealing with responsibilities, of making choices in your own life -- make you better as a writer.

So it's a Catch-22. An endless juggling act, for people sliding into middle age, who really have to make serious choices about how much time to devote to the pursuit of a writing career, as opposed to really putting the time into the more stable career you are currently involved in, the one that might need to actually support you and young family for the rest of your life, the one that you often just can't afford to give short shrift to.

And the sad thing is that this dooms a lot of people who'd probably turn out to be pretty good writers. Because unless you can find the time to write, really write, it's all going to slip away. Like I see happening to so many people I know.

Like I see happening to me.

I've tried to screenwrite as much as I can, and I had an inadvertent aid during the writer's strike, when business was so slow that I had big blocks of time at my disposal. I didn't have to juggle, I didn't have to worry about the effect of choosing writing over work, because the work wasn't there much.

Financially it wasn't so good, but I wasn't really making a choice. The time was there. I used it. And I got some things done.

But now, I'm back in the grind, where there is always a pile of work to do, and credit card bills calling out for me to do it. And don't get me wrong -- I love reading scripts for a living.

But wow is it hard to find the time -- or the will -- to write when I've plowed through 20-25 scripts by other writers in any given week.

But this is my dilemma, and versions of this is currently being wrestled with by a lot of writers I know. There are X numbers of hours in a week, they need to be parceled out, and often devoting them to writing means being selfish, and taking them away from areas of your life that need time too.

And I respect the hell out of anyone who can make that work.

I even respect anyone who can bite the bullet, and pull the plug, and devote life to family and career and let the writing thing be a mistress that you just visit every once and a while, without much commitment.

But today's the day I start another push. At least one hour a day, every day, devoted entirely to screenwriting. Whether it is brainstorming a script, or outlining a script, or banging out pages. I did it last fall, and it was scary-effective, but then I went off the rails after awhile. 40 days? 60 days? I don't even remember any more.

But it's back on now. Because I'm not getting any younger -- hell, let's be honest, I turn 45 in 10 days. It's time to step up or drop out.

Anyhow, I just wanted to put these thoughts in play. If anyone wants to share their current juggling acts, feel free.



At 10:00 AM, Blogger Lucy said...

Wise words.

It's a harsh reality that to make it as a writer - as opposed to being a "hobby" writer - you have to make time and actually write... Or bust. With no portfolio of scripts, with no interviews, trial scripts or whatnot you are not a writer. you just want to be.

And juggling reality for that dream is damn hard work. I suppose I'm lucky because I've always juggled. I wrote when I was a kid, but never scripts. I had a kid when I was 18, so know no different - but year on year it gets harder to combine work and family commitments.

I do find however that being a reader is kind of like revising all the time for an exam - every time you read a script where you think something doesn't work or whatever, you know not to use it yourself in your own draft or have a solution in advance. Do you find that, Scott?

If I was a chef or something I think I would find it harder to juggle.

At 10:38 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I definitely think that being a longtime reader has made me a much, much better writer -- it has been my film school.

At 10:59 AM, Blogger marcoguarda said...

EEEK! You are a Gemini [too]!

Gemini are renowned for being the best at juggling things.

[Me, I must have some bastard ascendant, 'cause I cannot juggle more than one thing at time, and even that tends often to go crashing on the floor]

Well, either I'm breaking through this year, or I'll go back to the work I'm supposed to be doing.

[PS: not really -- I'm waiting for the next year, and maybe the year after that... as well]


PPS: this series is interesting:


At 11:23 AM, Blogger WordCooper said...

I am only a couple years behind you and have unfortunately gotten used to the low-grade sense of guilt interspersed with brief periods of frenetic writing.

At 12:16 PM, Blogger Cathy Krasnianski said...

Happy Birthday, Scott!

P.S. Don't read this for 10 days.

I remember turning 45. least I think I do.

At 12:19 PM, Blogger marcoguarda said...

Scott wrote:

"But wow is it hard to find the time -- or the will -- to write when I've plowed through 20-25 scripts by other writers in any given week."


I don't think I've got enough room in my studio or my hard-disk for all that material!


At 2:04 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Well, notes, coverages, etc.

Way too much stuff.

I did write for an hour today. 1 day down, 99 days to go.

At 3:45 PM, Blogger scottycwilliam said...

I guess I should feel lucky. I turn 25 in 10 days.

I haven't written a script that I like until now (we'll see if it stays that way when I finish the draft).

Thanks for posting this.. it's definitely a wake up call. I better get my act together.

At 4:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

wake up at 4 a.m. and punch out a couple hours...

drink lotsa coffee...

do the "life thing" during the day (whatever it may be: kids, job, school)

... punch one more hour out at 8 or 9 p.m.

Repeat and good luck!

At 5:18 PM, Blogger Fun Joel said...

You hit the nail on the head with this post, Scott, and there IS no answer. At least not that I know. I'm a bit behind you, and struck my balance in a slightly different way, but one that is equally unsatisfying at times. Either way, I wish you best of luck in maintaining your current page-a-day pace, and that you progress with it all to the point where you no longer need to struggle for balance, and can just write full time!

At 5:33 PM, Blogger kristen said...

When you find the solution to this work-writing-life balance, do let me know. I'm finding it really hard, but I can tell you one thing -- it was a lot easier before I had 24 hour internet access in my home.

At 6:06 PM, Blogger Harold said...

Keep it up I think us 40 somethings will have to break the old with new -- writing for many different mediums, movies, games, comics, etc. By the way I love Speed Racer it was like a cartoon on steroids.


At 6:21 PM, Blogger E.C. Henry said...

I find writing comes in pushes. Right now I'm trying to get back in the flow of a romantic comedy I was in love with a month and a half ago, but now when I try to write on it, it's just like were two north poles. It's a stange feeling... BUT I laugh at it.

I'm a writer, that's what I enjoy doing the most. Sure, sometimes it comes easy, sometimes its like a trip to the dentist. And you're right, Scott, it's a juggling act. But for Pete's sake enjoy the journey!

I think C.S. Lewis was in his 50s when he wrote the Chronicles of Narina series. James Clavel was up there in years, when he wrote Shogun - Noble House. Wasn't Alan Sageant like 71 when he wrote Spiderman 2. And even our industry's poster, goldenboy, Willian Goldman is no spring chicken, yet there he goes getting a screenwring credit on "Michael Clayton."

Like you, Scott, I too honor anyone endeavoring to write, cause shackled to ole ball-and-chain or not, writing something GOOD isn't easy.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

At 7:05 PM, Blogger Matt said...

Well, Alvin Sargent had written a quite a few things before Spiderman 2. So it's not like he was working the night shift at the warehouse while banging that one out on his computer.

Not to nitpick, but I don't think Goldman got a credit for Clayton, at least not from anything I've read and not according to IMDB. He's also written a couple of movies before, so he's not frying up burgers at Carl Jrs.

At 11:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't drop out. Don't even think about it

At 8:36 AM, Blogger PJ McIlvaine said...

Due to circumstances beyond my control, in 2005 I had to quit my full time job, the dead end, low paying miserable job I had for over 16 years. I am now a stay at home, full time writer. I am poor, but I am happy, and I go to sleep each and every single night secure in the knowledge that I am doing exactly what God meant for me to do. It's only money. :)

At 8:50 AM, Blogger Emily Blake said...

Most of us can't have work, writing AND a life.

And that's why I live alone with my cat.

At 11:17 AM, Blogger Christian M. Howell said...

Wow, we just had a big post about this over at UNK. I am going crazy with the thought that people seem to love my writing, but I don't have enough time to finish the scripts they are waiting for.

I just talked to a producer who wants a type of story that I haven't started writing yet. (Forgive my screams)

I do manage to get a couple of hours everyday even if it's brainstorming or evaluating plot points or refining a character.

I do console myself with the fact that I am pretty consistently able to query execs, get reads and even get them to ask for other stuff.

That's frustrating the hell out of me, but as Joel said, there is no way out except through. Either you keep going or stop trying.

And having a job that pays well makes it really difficult to consider quitting. My lifestyle would suffer and I think my writing. I mean, how can you really concentrate when there are roaches and rats running across your tenement floor? Or how enthusiastic can you be eating PBNJ three meals a day?

I figure it will work itself out and in the meantime I have to say that I'm doikng all I can to make it as a screenwriter.

At 3:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm poor. I work a dead end job. It's physical and I come home exhausted every night. But it's also mindless and boring... I can work and think about my stories in my head ALL DAY LONG. When I finally do sit down to type, everything is already worked out... just have to make it sound pretty.

Getting a better job, or heaven forbid -- a career, tempts me all the time. I drive a shitty car, live in dump, and stack boxes for a living, by choice. I'm giving myself a shot. For how long, we'll see.

At 5:48 PM, Blogger E.C. Henry said...

Matt, thanks for the love!

Can't believe how the responders morphed Scott's post into a discussion about shitty jobs?

I HATE my job, but for a different reason than you might think. I have excellent work ethic, and I can make almoast any job I get work, but it's a totally different story when it comes to dealing with my coworkers. I hate being a writer and having to deal with coworkers who don't have the mental facilites to process what one of my after-work "hobbys" is. They tell me their hobbys and I'm very supportive. But then I tell them mine, and they starting acting weird... For me this is an uneasy patern thatI've seen time-and-time again. In fact this even became the kernal for idea for a spec. script I wrote... They must think I'm on the verge of becoming rich, when in all actuality I funnel almoast every spare dime I have to write and market my wares. My coworkers, past and present, have NO IDEA how hard it is to make inroads in the entertainment industry -- yet they're jealous of me. Idiots. I tell you this world is filled with unreasoning idiots. And if you feel slighted having not met enough of them, I welcome you to accompany me someday to where I work. I'll show you idiots. I'll show you WHOLE LOT of idiots!!

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake WA

At 7:29 PM, Anonymous Joe Valdez said...

Good post, Scott. I've been thinking a lot about these life choices due to taking the year I've been unemployed to write.

I don't have family or even a cat depending on me, so I've been able to focus on my writing. This means I've been able to finish a novel, get a non-fiction book about overlooked movies nearly 80% finished, and start working on a second novel.

However, life is all about trade-offs, and in addition to not having a family to share in this with, I've also discovered the wonders of mustard sandwiches. Thousand Island sandwiches are best, but mustard is cheaper.

PJ and Emily seem to have made sacrifices along similar lines. I guess what's worked for me is recognizing that I don't need to have it all, but I can pick at least one thing out of three and excel at it.

At 7:45 PM, Blogger Matt said...

I don't think sacrifices need to be made, although I don't have children yet, so that could change things. In fact, I'm sure it will.

I work 40 hours a week, and in November, December I work more like 50 a week. My commute is nearly an hour each way, so that cuts into my time even more. I'm married, and we spend Monday and Tuesday hanging out entirely, and smaller chunks of time on the days we work.

I still find time to play in a summer softball league, a winter basketball league, and ride my bike an hour a day nearly every day.

I do all the daily errands that everybody else needs to do.

And I work on my scripts for 1-3 hours a day every day. Sometimes more.

I guess I sacrifice watching crappy television. I have four shows that I have to watch every week. That's all I watch.

It can be done. You just need to be motivated enough in all these areas. I want to be a great husband, a great friend, a great employee, stay active physically, and be a great writer.

As much as I enjoy reading a handful of blogs, I would think that would be the first thing to go if you're feeling pressed for time. If you spend an hour a day planning, and writing your blog that's too much. Some people only post once a week or so. That probably has little effect on the screenwriting time.

At 8:04 PM, Blogger kristen said...

I think Matt's right that you can do it all, but it's difficult and it requires being very good at managing your time. I personally was much better at balancing it all when I had regular work hours. Once I went 100% freelance, I found it much more difficult to have enough energy for everything, in part because launching and sustaining a freelance business takes a lot of creative energy and the fluctuations in work and income can wreak havoc on your concentration.

I'm almost to the point where I'd advise serious writers to get and keep any full-time job they can find that doesn't exhaust them fully or drive them crazy. Being around people makes for good material and inspiration, and the steady paycheck frees up your mind.
A flexible, work-at-home schedule is over-rated. More often than not you end up giving your time to the wrong things.

Cutting out excess internet & TV time is probably a huge help. Since we got a DVR my TV watching has gone up exponentially. It used to be just "Lost" and the very occasional "How I Met Your Mother", and now it's everything. Like the internet, another example of technology being worse for productivity instead of better.

At 8:33 PM, Blogger Brett said...


At 9:04 PM, Blogger PJ McIlvaine said...

Writing is a discipline, the more you do it, the better you get at it. However, having said that, I write and still have a life. I've been married to the same man for twenty-eight years, have three kids, a live in Mom, three cats and enough tragedy and trouble to rival a Tennessee Williams play. Yet through it all I've written each and every single day. Yeah, sometimes I had to get up at six o'clock in the morning to do it, and I did it while the kids threw up in a pot by my desk, and I wrote though holidays and funerals and school functions and medical emergencies. Either I'm insane or very determined. I've yet to figure out which.

At 9:11 PM, Blogger Matt said...

I should add that I have extreme ADD and in the past, getting half the stuff done that I do now wouldn't happen. I'd be too busy staring at walls and daydreaming. But I had to learn to discipline my mind, and my time, and it works.

I also have to say, I think it's tougher in a way if you read scripts for a living. I can't imagine reading a dozen scripts per week and still be expected to work on my own.

At 10:06 PM, Blogger Laura Reyna said...

Finding the time and/or energy is a universal problem for us writers.

I get easily distracted too. Something else aways seems to be more important than writing- at that momemt. I tell myself I'll make it up but by then I'm too tired.

And when i do sit down to write, I have hard time concentrating for more than 10 minutes at a time. ADD? Don't know.

I've been meditating for the last few years and it's helped. But relaxing & focusing my thoughts is stil hard.

I'm currently thinking about putting my laptop, with it's evil internet access, aside and getting a NEO writing machine. All you can do on it is type.
No blogs, no wikipedia, no news articles, no Youtube...

Creating an effective working routine is part of being a sucessful writer. I know that if I want to reach my goals, I have to get that part of it under control. It's a work in progress.

At 10:46 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I've found that the best way to focus is just to take my laptop and get out of the house. Because though my laptop has wireless potential, I never bothered to figure out how to use it.

Because then all I can focus on is working or writing, and making the most productive use of my time.

But I'll admit that I have too many other pointless distractions in my life as well. I'm a diehard Mets fan, and though I can throw a text feed up on the computer and check it from time to time when I'm working, it still obviously slows me down.

I've been reviewing DVDs for a websire (in exchange for free DVDs), but I've really let that slide lately. Still, I'm loath to let it go -- it's nice to be forced to watch things that you wouldn't necessarily watch otherwise. Keeps one well-rounded.

I also enjoy evenings playing Scrabble with the wife in front of the TV. Yeah, I could be boiling down part of that time to write or bang out some work, but at the end of the time, isn't the point to play Scrabble in front of the TV with your wife?

Though wow do I find myself avoiding almost everything on TV with plot most of the time -- it is possible to get too plot-crazed. So that's why you'll usually find us watching American Idol, or Top Chef, or Ax Men, or Parking Wars, or hell even American Gladiator.

I'm not ashamed.

Back to the grind.

At 3:25 PM, Anonymous Mark said...

Totally relate to your article. Going on 36 and have a wife and a two year old and the time doesn't seem to be there like it used to be. And I feel I'm getting more mature as a writer, currently working on my 13th screenplay. I had a few options and even a manager earlier on in my hobby, but my youth got the better of me. Now, I've joined Trigger Street and enjoy the process a lot more. But like you said the time starts to dwindle a bit. Anyway, nice to see someone else share what I've been feeling for a while.

Mark's Screenwriting Page

At 10:54 PM, Blogger Butch Maier said...

I am 36, have a wife, have three sons not in kindergarten yet (one a baby, one with a disability), have a full-time job as a newspaper sports copy editor with a 30-minute commute, I'm new-car shopping and I am in preproduction on my first feature-length film, which I have written, cast, location scouted, will produce, will direct, will edit, will publicize and will distribute. And during editing breaks, I will work on two other scripts. I spend days off with my wife, I go to one son's soccer games, I take another son to physical therapy, I change the baby's diapers. You can do it -- whatever "it" may be for you.

At 8:40 AM, Blogger Emily Blake said...


It doesn't count if you're an android.

At 9:22 AM, Blogger kristen said...

Butch is definitely an android. Matt may be too. Where do you people get all this energy?

At 9:28 AM, Blogger PJ McIlvaine said...

I don't know about anyone else, but it's not so much about energy for me but grit and determination. For example, today I'm not feeling well, but I've got at least ten pages to do on my new spec (if not more) and a script I must read. And this with the kids around, they're home from school/work/vacation, and my Mother circles me like a buzzard because she's bored.

At 3:09 PM, Blogger Brett said...

We make time for what matters.


At 5:39 PM, Blogger MoviePen said...

I think the real problem is not that we as writers must balance our time between writing and life, but that it's so damn hard to break in to make writing the day job in the first place, thus removing one of the many weights on the scales.

We pursue our craft like other folks pursue advanced learning -- nighttime classes, lunchtime studying, squeezing in weekend time for homework. Only in our industry, it's 99 times as difficult to take that practice and learning out to a job market and reap the rewards.

For me, the battle is against omnipresent futility in the odds, not the ways to make time to do what makes my blood sing.

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