Here’s a question I get asked a lot:
“Geoff, you’re a handsome, muscular genius. How does one know if they’re good enough to make it as a professional screenwriter? What’s the point at which one should give up if it’s clear that they’re not?”
Well thank you, Questionably Complimentary Reader I Made Up Solely for the Purposes of this Blog Post! How nice of you.
Let’s start off with the bad shit, OK?
A full 99.999% of you reading this right now will never make it as a screenwriter. You will never sell a script. You will never rewrite an existing script. More than likely, you will never even get within a thousand miles of either. Screenwriting something that’s really hard to do, and it’s something that’s even harder to do well, and it takes a talent that’s equal parts innate and developed, and almost no one who attempts the craft starts out with the former, making the latter moot.
I’m often called all kinds of names – “arrogant dickhead” seems to be the most common – for saying that to aspiring writers, but that’s OK. I have no problem being the messenger who gets shot. Because I don’t say it out of conceit or authority or ill will. I say it because it’s math, plain and simple. The same 99.999% of you (with some statistically insignificant wiggle room to account for the change in medium) will never become a pop star, or sell a million-dollar painting, or perform on Broadway or write a bestselling novel. Just like I won’t. And before you jump into screenwriting or take your efforts at all seriously, you should know that. The deck is stacked against you like a pebble trying to roll uphill (mixed metaphors!).
Here’s the real bitch of it, as many of you already know and so many more of you are going to find out: you’re never going to know if you’re one of the 0.001% who IS good enough to make it unless you try. And trying demands that you work very, very hard for (probably) a very, very long time. So there it is, writers: your future is the ultimate Catch-22. You will more than likely toil relentlessly for absolutely no tangible result.
Welcome to art.
Now that that’s out of the way, can I say something else? All of that stuff I said up there? You know, where I was being a conceited dickhead and stepping all over your dreams? If you ARE going to be that one writer, ALL of that should above should make you GIDDY. You should be CLAPPING. And instead of being wracked with discouragement and self-doubt, you should be flush with motivation.
A lot of pro writers think that the best way to encourage aspiring writers is to coddle them, to cushion them with pure encouragement and a “you can do anything you put your mind to” brand of self-actualization. And I’m not sorry to tell you that that’s absolute bullshit. Are you turned off by the above statistics? Do you find it too daunting to relegate yourself to the knowledge that you have a literary Everest to climb? If so, writing will always be a hobby for you – perhaps less, but in no way, shape or form more. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that. What do they say? Writers write. You will continue to write, and you will always be a writer. No one can take that away from you.
For the rest of you, use the above statistics to kill yourself, every single day, to evolve into the best writer that you can possibly be. Put as much pressure on yourself as you can to beat the odds. Drive yourself to learn more, to write better, to tell stories that people HAVE to hear. Believe that with every twitchy fiber that strings you together. Because there is, quite literally, no other way.
That fine line between Determinationism and Delusionism (I’ve decided those are two states of being, and it’s my blog, and I get to make up words accordingly for no other reason than I like the way they sound) is the line you have to learn to walk. Because here’s the thing that not too many other people will bother telling you: there’s no guidebook for when you’ve tried hard enough that you can look in the mirror and say, “It’s time to stop attempting to be a professional writer today. It’s time to hang up the typewriter. Also, I don’t use a typewriter and hanging one up would be a serious fool’s errand, and I’ve now gone from being honest with myself to being schizophrenic, so let’s wrap this up.”
No one can really be told to concede. You know when you watch AMERICAN IDOL during the audition rounds, and there are those clueless assholes there without a shred of talent or ability, dead-convinced that they’re going to “make it”, and it’s just that OTHER PEOPLE don’t understand them, or are haters, or are jealous, etc etc etc? Yeah, there are writers of the same breed. LOTS of them. And just like you can’t tell some people that they’re more Frank Stallone than Frank Sinatra, you can’t tell some writers they suck. It’s pointless. It goes in one ear and out the other. It’s half admirable, half hilarious.
Those people practice the ancient philosophy of Delusionism. What’s really crazy is that every writer NEEDS some of that delusion to succeed – the key word there being “some”. When you’re starting out, how else could you describe the process of convincing yourself that you’re good enough to try this without you or anyone else actually knowing if that’s the case? The trick is finding the right middle ground, where you know how fucked you are but still believe in yourself enough to try to unfuck things.
To properly unfuck things, those who practice Determinationism are aware that *just* writing and *just* learning can only take you so far. You have to make an effort. You’ve gotta get your work to people who know what they’re doing and aren’t afraid to be graphically honest with you about the quality of your work. You eventually have to put yourself in proximity to those people – and others – who will be in a position to PAY you for said work, assuming you actually get it to a level that warrants payment. And after all that, you have to resign yourself to the fact that, when it’s all said and done, your success or failure boomerangs back to how talented you are. And having that level of honesty with yourself takes BALLS. Pretend we’re not talking about writing – what if one of your best friends said to you, “Yeah, I’m thinking about dedicating a significant portion of my life to a practice that has a nearly 100% rate of failure. Keep your couch open for me just in case.”
And yet…here we are, and this is what it takes. The determination to be the best and the delusion to believe it’s all going to work out for you. Pretty grand, right?
You know when you’re good enough to be a professional screenwriter? When someone pays you to write screenplays. Period. Up until then, it’s a mind-numbing process of trial and error and writing and waiting and hoping and wishing. When does it make sense to give up on all that? That’s not something I or anyone else can ever tell you. Have you spent years sending out scripts, never really making any headway, never getting any traction? Are you ruining your life, financially, emotionally and spiritually? Are you putting your friends and your family through hell and harming them financially, emotionally and spiritually? I mean, yeah, that’s probably a pretty good sign you’re not cut out for this. In addition, if you ever get to the point where you find yourself telling people that you’re misunderstood or that Hollywood is too incestuous and closed off and that shit isn’t fair and no one’s willing to give you a fair shot or whatever other canned idiocy you use to drug yourself…you’ve cascaded past being delusional and have entered the realm of Unholy Douchery. God help you.
But you can’t be told. That is a whore of an unfortunate truth, but it’s a well-grizzled whore nonetheless.
Now, for the rest of you still with me? You’ve either ignored or come to terms with all of the previous. In that case…throw yourself into this fiasco with everything you’ve got. Push yourself to be better than the best, to see what others don’t see, to find the truths and places where no one else is even looking.
Because what I really wanted to say today is this: one of you reading this blog today IS going to make it. You ARE going to be a screenwriter. You WILL beat the math. And I can’t wait to find out which one of you has been hiding your tightrope-walking prowess from the rest of us.