Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Time to evolve

I have officially decided to quit my day job.

Well, not exactly "quit". More like modify.

Today was a good day, but I am circling toward burnout. The accumulation of kids who have set out to make my life hell over the years has finally gotten to me, and I no longer feel enthusiastic about going to work every day.

Funny thing is, today has been so good that I'm rethinking my position.

But I can't. I must steel myself and move forward. It doesn't matter how awesome their Great Gatsby projects are. In fact, The Great Gatsby projects are a sign. My first year teaching, I saw another teacher's projects. Her kids had made 3-D models of New York and Long Island with all of the locations on from the novel on it, and I just thought that was the coolest project. I promised that some day I would teach Gatsby and I would do that project. And now, I am. My dream has been realized.

Among others, I've taught Hamlet, Animal Farm, Siddhartha, and The Joy Luck Club, all books I just wanted to share with the kids. I've done screenwriting and poetry and essay writing and short stories. I've taught almost every thing I ever wanted to teach.

And like today, I still have really great days. I'd rather quit while I still remember really great days.

But it's not totally up to me. Our enrollment is shrinking, so again in June teachers will be displaced from this school. Every year since the economy crashed, teachers have been forced to find new jobs. I've always avoided the chopping block because I've been here long enough, and last year I was skipped because I do yearbook. Teachers who'd been here longer were displaced over me, for which I was grateful. But it caused such a fuss that the principal has already said he won't do that again. This year, seniority is the only factor, and I'm second from the bottom. I don't want another school. I've put too much into this one.

My boss is retiring. I love my boss. I hate all other bosses.

I don't have a screenwriting career yet, but I am taking meetings. Eventually I will have scripts passed around town. I am focusing more on writing, and there is a possibility I will be able to launch a career within the next year. If I start a new year at a new school, I can't leave in the middle of it, and I don't want to take a million days off, because then the kids would suffer.

So for all these reasons I've decided to become a substitute teacher. I can stay at my school, only working when requested by teachers who know me. I won't have papers to grade or lessons to plan, and if I need to walk away in the middle of the year I can. I can still teach lessons whenever a teacher leaves me nothing to do, and if I hate it, and somehow I sabotage my screenwriting chances, I can always go back into the classroom. In the meantime, I keep my benefits and a full time job. Even though I will take a pay cut, I can still pay the bills.

It's time for me to shift priorities. Writing will come first now.


  1. Sounds like a good, and yet brave, move. Congrats. Best of luck!

  2. Holy poop, Batgirl,

    Talk about being put up the tree.
    For all of us who have not yet been pushed to the edge, who still year by year, say, "You know, this isn't so bad, I can stay in my cubicle/truck/post/sleeping bag and still keep typing/dreaming/crying.

    For those of us who have been following your path and enjoying both sides of the road (I'm not quite sure what that means but I think we enjoy your class stories as much as your writing stories.)

    For those of us who still want to know the best shoes to wear to a pitch meeting;

    I can only say, "Type faster Tinker Bell, type faster"

    You'll do it and then next year, we'll be pulling up IMDB links, saying, "Yeah, I know her. Kind of helped her out when things got tough. Gave her an adveb when she needed one, that kind of thing."

    We'll be following,


  3. Congratulations and good luck.

  4. Hello, I'm Claire. Well done you for listening to your gut and making a decision that is right for you. I wish you well as a substitute. All the best with your writing too.

  5. Actually, that's kind of a great idea Emily. I always wondered how you were going to keep a full time job and yet meet the demands of your agent, manager and producers wanting to know what "else you have." Trying to invent something out of thin air is hard enough. Have you also thought of having your own tutoring services? I remember my my chemistry and math teacher cost an arm and a leg.... and there's demand in certain competitive school districts with kids wanting to get a leg up on their competition.

    Just out of curiosity, what is your writing routine now? Are you doing the Stallone thing and just darkening all your windows?

  6. Congrats!

    I'm excited for you...and a bit jealous.

  7. I’ve written and erased this a few times now. I’ve been in the exact same place as you. I know how exciting it is to have things finally starting to happen and the last thing in the world I would want to do is take that away from you. But if I could honestly go back in time to that time and tell myself one thing, it would be to not quit that job.
    I was in the same place as you. Working a full time job that wasn’t satisfying, with a manager and agent and a screenwriting career that was going places. I thought I was responsible, waiting until had my first sale until I finally quit my job. I thought quitting was the smart thing to do. I’d have more time to write, I was making money from screenwriting, and hey, I could always go back to job later on. Here’s where things start to unravel.

    I quit my job just after the writer’s guild strike when I made my first sale. The first thing you learn is that all of the things you thought about script paydays are wrong. I know others have covered this, but it should be repeated anyway. The numbers that are thrown around for how much you can make from a script are usually in the range format. Not only is that higher range completely out of reach for what you will ever see, the lower range is probably a lie as well. By the time my agent, manager, lawyer, writers guild, and state & federal taxes had taken their bite, my ‘huge script sale’ was approaching a number approximating what I might have made by staying in my job. Still, it was writing money and it paid the bills.
    And more jobs did come. However, not enough jobs and for never enough money. The problem with the current market is that, as fresh screenwriters, we should be getting less prestigious, less high paid work. If a studio wants a script for low six figures or a quick rewrite, that used to be the bread and butter for beginning professionals and as time goes by, you would start to move up that pay ladder. Unfortunately, that’s no longer the case. Most jobs I go up for now I not only have to compete with other fresh writers, I have to compete with experienced, produced, ‘name’ writers. The reason is the economy. With the economy going to hell right after a prolonged strike, a lot of older, experienced writers took the hit. These writers who should be above this kind of work are now slumming it for guaranteed paydays, drying things up for the rest of us.

    After a year or two of steady work, I started to realize that financially this wasn’t working. I lived a relatively cheap life with my partner, but things were still a stretch especially if we wanted to start a family. On top of that, the first thought after every pay check arrived was ‘ok, but when will I get another’. The fact of the matter is that to be a working professional screenwriter you need enough money at any given time to live comfortably in Los Angeles for years a time, because you will find times in your career where years might pass between big jobs. I have a partner who makes a comfortable, stable living which is a godsend, but having to rely upon them as a safety net is unfair as well as infeasible. No job is secure these days, and shit happens. To be frank, I also worry that over time it’s going to strain our relationship in ways I can’t fully grasp. And as you get older, the stretches of time between work will get longer and longer. It’s an issue the WGA is trying to address, but it is still an issue. There is an expiration date for most writers and you will have to have enough money or job security to deal with that when it comes.


    But what about all of the free time to write and take meetings? First, regarding the meetings. Meetings will dry up. There are only so many people you can take a general meeting with. After that, most people know who you are and what you can do, so the meetings become more specific but less frequent. Your representatives aren’t lying when they talk about the success you’ll have and how much money you’ll make. They just might not be right about it all. They have faith in you, but they can’t control the market or the economy or whether or not they’ll be laid off from their company. Belief that you can do something isn’t the same as belief that you will do something.

    And as big a pain in the ass as it is to come home from a long day of work to write, it can be much worse. Try writing on a deadline when you know how much you need this job. Try writing when a sale means the difference between having a kid this year and putting it off another year. Try writing when you have to worry that you’ll have to ask your spouse to cover you for the rent. It sucks. It sucks in a way that I cannot begin to describe. It sucks in a way that I can’t share with most of my friends, who assume once you’re working everything is set (who also assumed once you had an agent/manager, you were set). It sucks in a way that makes me long for the days of writing tired but secure. And it sucks because it taints your writing.

    So, in the last few months, I’ve tried to go back to work at a steady job while I continue to be a screenwriter. I had years of experience and thought it would be no problem. Well, it’s a problem. The fact is that I now have to compete for the job I once took for granted. I am not only competing with people younger than me who have been working steadily and older people who are willing to take a demotion just to work, but with people just like me who left to pursue other careers but are now racing back to find something secure. I applied for the same job I held at the same organization and found out that they had received almost 300 applications for the position.

    I would like to say that this is just my experience and that the current situation is some sort of lack of dedication or skill. But I know I’m not alone. Out of my grad school screenwriting class, 4 are actually working in screenwriting in any way and all 4 are currently looking for 9 to 5 work to make ends meet.
    Listen, it’s not all glum. I still love writing. My agent and mangers are smart, dedicated, and top of the industry, and I feel really good about the projects I’m working on. It’s just, I know the place you’re at, with all of your friends and family saying you’re making it, and your representation telling you about all the opportunities you have. But I honestly would regret it if I said nothing here. You are a talented, thoughtful person who should be deeply proud of the success you’ve had and confident about the success you will have. However, please, please, please make sure you deeply consider all possibilities before you let your job slip away. If you have a full time job, fight for it until there is NO WAY AT ALL you could keep it and a writing career.

  9. I'm glad you wrote your story, Jaime. It's food for thought. I'm pretty sure that many here have already been to circus once or twice and are not completely green. I always wondered how writers handled trying to come up with stuff from scratch under the deadline pressure and dealing with story notes...

    If we work with purely hypotheticals, can you explain how much a writer can actually make... say one that says:

    1) 300k against mid-six...
    2) low six figures (which I presume to be $100,000)

    I do look at those writers lucky enough to be getting several sales of mid six to a million or the likes of Dan Fogelman who are getting their chance to direct.

  10. I meant after the agent, manager, Uncle Sam, WGA take their piece....and also the staggerred payments... for original draft... once in production...etc.

  11. First of all, thanks guys, for all the support. I wouldn't congratulatr me yet. All I'm doing is changing circumstances, not becoming a professional screenwriter.

    And Jamie, that is a great post. Thanks for sharing it. Those are all the reasons I decided to become a full-time substitute. Subbing pays the bills but leaves flexibility in case things go well.

    Good luck. Hopefully you can get some great projects going soon.

  12. Paul - I was all set to break it down, but then I remembered that John August did it much, much better. Search his site for Money 101 For Screenwriters. There’s not much I could add to it, but a few quick notes.

    My first sale contract was ridiculous. I mean, it was a novel. So yes, with that intricate web of possibilities, there was a way that I could walk away with A MILLION DOLLARS! All it would take is that I would be the sole writer (no other people, even for rewrites) on a major studio script that was made into a major movie that became a blockbuster that led to a series of films that sell a ton of DVDs and are TNT all the time with all sorts of ancillary revenue streams like toys and video games. There is no way, no matter what, that any of that would ever happen. Most sold scripts and most working writers will never see production, let alone enough material produced to make a whole career. So for the most part, the money you are paid upfront is all the money you’ll see and that figure is always at the lowest end of that range. I don’t think that’s pessimism, I think it’s literally the odds. I used to intern at a production company and a few months back I found a sheet of the scripts that they had sold to studios back then. Of the 12 projects, none ever went into production, and only two of the writers appear to be still writing 5 years down the line. I also know of a produced screenwriter of at least one hit movie who is about to lose his modest sized house through no fault of his own, other than getting older and selling less. No matter how bad your day job and no matter how fun screenwriting seems, everyone needs to keep in mind that this is rough, unstable, poorly paid path for most.

    I’ve been working with some comic book guys recently on a project and I think that is the future business model for screenwriters. For a lot of working comic book writers, it ends up being a passion project that provides some supplemental income to their day jobs, letting them be upper middle class. If you get signed on for multiple major comics a month or sell your creator-owned comic to a movie/TV studio, you may be able to go full time, but for most it’ll remain a fun, exciting, profitable side job. I’d love to go back to the era of ‘Let’s pay a million for the MILK MONEY script!’, but I think with media splitting off in so many directions that this is the future of payouts for screenwriters. More people working, less people making a living.

    Emily – Trust me, getting projects going is never the biggest problem; it’s getting more projects going than bills that becomes tough. But I’m glad you thought it through. Best of luck!

  13. Wow. Thanks Jaime. Yeah, I noticed in that article and spotted the sole credit provision and thought it was a scam. First, as you pointed out, almost no writers end up with sole credit... and second, the production company can control that aspect and pretty much just hire another writer to screw you out of the bonus. I worked at a few agencies and interned at some prod. co's before and most of the writers on those lists I do not see around anymore, even the ones with the big sales. I used to think it was the end goal to just get a big rep's attention, but it's actually building a huge money-making career that's the the thing. It's a huge wakeup call.

    It sounds like writers almost have to have a side business... no wonder I've seen so many take up screenwriting teaching jobs or consulting on the side.

    But, I don't want to get too debbie downer here....what you and Emily accomplished is pretty amazing. Most writers don't even get to play in the NBA level of scriptwriting...or at least they briefly get in, but don't know how to stay in.

  14. Congrats on your decision!! Very brave move. But change is healthy and leads to the good stuff...just do not stop writing!!
    Bravo from Barry in the Great White North.

  15. This is a really interesting comment thread.

    Jaime, I've heard stories/reasoning similar to yours before. I decided to repost your thoughts on my own blog. If this bothers you I will take it down.

    Emily, follow your heart. Best of luck.

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  17. Does this new development in your career mean we - your adoring reading public - will no longer have your wonderful, "Tales from the Classroom," to read, because their loss will be... umm... truly disappointing.

  18. Emily. Cool. Leather jacket cool.

    I agree with Adam. Fascinating comment thread. [this means you,

    "She breaks my heart again and again, but I still love her."


  19. Strong post. Solid thread. Nothing to add as everyone has shared deep, thoughtful insights on finding that balance. What did hit me was what Slugwriter wrote - after just reading your CHICO post before: the Classroom stories are awesome. There's a story for you in there for sure. Once you have (legal/non-liable) distance from your school... Wouldn't be surprised if you use this very blog for your notes. Vigilance!

  20. Emily,

    Why don't you do script notes or script consulting to supplement your income, like many of the pro writers? Could be quite a financial cushion, if you're averaging a few scripts a week. Just occurred to me.

  21. I think script consulting would be too much like grading papers. Believe me, subbing can be a full time job but without the homework. Adding on a second job would be like having homework again, which would defeat the purpose of quitting. Thanks for the suggestion, but don't worry about me. I'll be fine.


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