Friday, April 11, 2014

Fear of failure

Time for some brutal honesty.

If you decide to be a teacher or an accountant or a lawyer or a doctor or a construction worker or most jobs in this country, you have a clear order of operations to make that happen. You go to school. You get an entry level job. You work your way up. You have a career.

It doesn't work that way for screenwriters. There's no prescribed degree that will qualify you for the job. There's no entry level position from which to work your way up. You have to wave your arms to get noticed, and then you have to hope that what you offer is what someone else is looking for.

I've been writing since I figured out what a pencil was, but here I am, a full-grown adult, and still not a paid writer.

Sure, I've been validated. I know I don't suck. I've been repped and won a highly rated contest and met with producers who tell me how much they like my writing. But that doesn't make me a professional writer. It makes me a talented hobbyist.

It's so easy to get demoralized. Half the time, you have no idea why you've been rejected, so you start to second guess everything. Did they think I was a comedy writer? Is it because I'm a woman? Are they looking for something more commercial? Do they not like my snazzy writing style?

Or the worst one of all, the one we all have to face down at regular intervals: What if I'm not as good as I think I am?

What if you're the kid at the American Idol audition who talks about how amazing he is, then opens his mouth and wails like an angry goat? What if every person who ever told you that you were any good was just trying to make you feel better, or trying to make you shut up, or had no taste themselves, or was making fun of you? What if you are just wasting your time?

You could throw in the towel and go back to looking for a job where your resume and an interview are all you need to get hired, where you won't be told constantly how amazing you are by people who won't hire you. It would be so easy.

People do it every day. They leave Los Angeles and go back home, often swearing to return once they've gotten their shit together. But they almost never do. Most people take one shot at this, and when it's over, they fold up their tent and get an office job.

I think about it sometimes. I was a good teacher. I didn't hate teaching. What if I just went back and made it my career and stopped trying to be something else? That wouldn't be so bad.

But I'm not there yet. I still think something is around the corner.

I've wanted to be a writer my entire life, so every time I think about throwing in the towel, I think of Little Me and what she'd say. She'd tell me to shut the fuck up and get back to work on the next script, because Little Me apparently had a foul fucking mouth.

So for now, as I seek new management, I put my latest script, Nobody Lives Forever, up on the Black List site. I'm very proud of this one. It's an action script with a white male 30-something lead and a strong hook with an emotional core. It's got bromance and fight scenes and a female villain. I believe in it. It's probably the most sellable thing I've ever done. And while I wait for the downloads and the reads and whatever they may bring, I'm going to keep working on the next thing.

Because I'm not ready to give up, no matter how many times the bastards try to get me down.


  1. Anonymous9:20 AM

    Even if you're really good at something and work hard at something, sometimes you need a little random luck too,and just be in the right place at the right time. My biggest regret is not having taken bigger risks and as I earn a pretty sweet pension, I am not as inclined to pull the plug and try to earn a living doing something I am good at and love. One day, if I ever win the lottery....All the best to you!!

  2. Anonymous11:03 AM

    Remember the single shot hallway scene in Oldboy? He just keeps on moving until he gets on that elevator.

    You keep on moving. You give us hope that quality can triumph. May quality and you triumph.

  3. Anonymous1:23 PM

    I had to have a defibrillator implanted in Dec 2013...since I can no longer do heavy or moderate physical labor, screenwriting is my plan B....I've been at it for 4 years and I'm still trying...and you do give me hope...I just keep plugging away. It'll make hearing that "yes" that much sweeter.

  4. I have this debate with myself at least once a week! I'm in my mid 20s, so, in theory, it's normal for me to make no money and not have a real job, but it doesn't feel normal. My friends have careers. They're buying houses. When they aren't working, they are off--no writing homework to finish.

    But I always ask myself--would I really be happier with some "real"job? No, not really. The last four years, I've done everything I can to give myself time to write. That is what makes me happy. I'd rather have a job at a restaurant or bar and write 30 hours a week than have a "real career" and be too tired to write.

  5. All I can say, Emily, is that you'll know when, if ever, it's time to throw in the towel. I've been through this, not as a writer but as an athlete attempting to reach the highest echelons. I chose to pursue my sport (equestrian/showjumping - admittedly not a high profile sport) instead of a more sensible career and got farther than anyone would ever have expected. I struggled through not really having the funds or the right horses at times but that never deterred me. I did eventually make it up to the highest level where I found myself regularly competing against Olympians … but I never could quite beat them.

    I have no regrets (and am now a coach) and never questioned my dedication while I was competing. But there did come a day when I knew it was time to move on. A time when I knew there was little chance for increasing returns, and a time when I was at peace with letting go of my original ambitions. What I always thought would be a torturous dilemma ended up feeling more like a natural progression.

    So, the best advice I can give you is … you'll just know and until you do, you just soldier on.

  6. Emily,
    We all go through this. We all feel like we suck. Like it takes too long. Like it's an absurd business that will drive us mad.
    But when you look deep and hard within yourself you'll know... there is nothing else for you to do but this.
    You excel at this. You are good at this. You know this shit cold, girl. Does it suck that you have to wait for someone else to agree with you? Hell yeah it does. But attrition pays off. Don't you dare give up now, sister. We need more women like you!

  7. Thanks for this. I am going through the exact same thing right now. Went out with a pilot a few months ago. Manager brought it to a producer, producer loved it and brought it to a cable net, died. Now the manger is looking forward to my next one and I'm thinking about getting another rep. But since he's my third and I've been at it a while, I'm now having the same exact thoughts you so eloquently stated. It's so fucking demoralizing sometimes. And the longer it goes on without getting that first paying gig, the harder it gets to keep going. But for now, I am because I know it's not time yet. And I'm guessing that you feel the same way. Keep on it!

  8. Thanks for the support, everyone. It's kind of nice to know how many people are going through the same thing. I mean, not nice for us, because it sucks, but, you know, camaraderie and all of that. Good luck to all of you.

  9. The biggest thing that surprised me about the business was how many different ways a writer can get validated without actually being paid, as in cash in your hand, not a piece of paper that says if this option pans out you will be eating at Dan Tana's for the next week.

    Emily, I think you are in very good fact, I think you might just have pinpointed the very fear or cluster of fears that many feel. I had lunch with a friend that I see every now and then at functions....and he fessed up to having given up the dream (and I didn't even know he had been an aspiring screenwriter!). He went to USC film school, tried the screenwriting thing for several years and then went on to a corporate job. Even though he said he was happy, I can see it in his eyes a regret of what could have been. I think he rationalized that he would maybe write on his free time and still hammer out the next American Beauty.....but then there's that corporate job that sucks up most of his waking hours, his wife wants alone time and trips to the Bahamas, marketing his corporate career that he secretly hates and of course the chores (an unbelievable time suck). He hasn't written a word in 10-15 years. But, just like an ex addict, I could see a flicker of interest, cocaine licking of his lips for the action, the juice to get back in it when I was telling him about how I was really going to go for it, all in....

    I feel like it's several fears battling each other.... Do I secretly suck? ok, maybe not suck, I was really good in College, but am I not at this level...? Do I continue to chase the dream that would just be a life come true but there are no promises of getting it or do I settle for a solid existence of a job I don't totally love (ok, I hate it). If I quit now, will I regret it? Argh, compromise, I'll grab a nice dessert, watch some cool movie and put off thinking about it..... oh man, this movie is super cool... I think I just thought of a cool hook for my next movie. It's easily better than that ok premise that was scooped up for mid to high six figures this week.

  10. Coming in late, but I sympathize deeply with this. Things are so much easier at the start when we're blissfully ignorant of how far we have to go. Then, when we start to get closer, we have a much better grasp of the gap. Me, I had sworn off writing as a career when I landed my agent and sold my first book. A week before the offer of representation came, I was sitting in the break room at my awful job, a GRE study book open in front of me, and I was telling a co-worker "There has to be a better life."

    So, I think it's a good sign to be wrestling with these feelings.

    Good luck.

  11. Anonymous10:57 AM

    Hi Emily, long time lurker and admirer of your blog... I wanted to chime in because your sentiments are very familiar. I was aspiring for almost a decade until I sold a spec almost two years ago ago, and I'm now fortunate enough to pay my bills with the writing. Before I left my day job to write full time, I also had the self doubt, fear of failure, etc... not realizing how close I was to actually being a full time writer. Like you I had been repped, won contests, even had an indie film produced... but I was still at a day job. It was almost insurmountably frustrating. But I kept going because I love love love writing, I have since I was a kid, and as long as that love for writing was still there I knew it could overcome that frustration. So my advice is this... if you still enjoy the process of writing, the passion is still there... keep at it. Because even when you become pro, your excitement and passion are the only things you really have control over and that can help keep you going (and going "pro" has its own set of frustrations, trust me). It's only when you don't enjoy writing or it doesn't make you happy that you'll know its time to throw in the towel. Best of luck with everything... and you may be closer than you think ;)

  12. Anonymous1:38 PM

    This post got me back on the horse.

    Thank you.

  13. Thanks for the continuing support and comments. We're all just one big hopeful family. May all of you move forward this year.

  14. Emily:

    I'll bet that even fish sometimes get tired of
    swimming; walking on land starts to look
    pretty good.. :)

    In addition to full time script writing, I hope that
    you will also do substitute teaching. I remember
    when I first realized how much you loved your
    students: That anecdote about how you began
    to laugh uncontrollably, when an impromptu
    paper bat fight broke out during lunch hour!

    "nobody lives forever" --- cool title, as always.

  15. Writers don't succeed when they sell their work.

    They succeed when they do their work.

    That is the true moment of courage and as far as I am concerned, that courage and love makes a ripple in the pond of all humanity that somehow touches the edges of the universe through a part of it we never see that is completely interconnected - it's what people interface when they pray.

    And the writer can never be the same after the process.

    Surely that is success in the only valid form in which success can and has ever existed - in the form of self-determination.

    Success isn't what they do - companies buying my script - it is what I do.

  16. Excellent post, Emily. As a hobbyist who is just starting out I appreciate your sharing this. Screenwriting is a tough job and getting an actual check to deposit in the bank is an event many screenwriters will never experience due to the nature of business in Hollywood. We have to love writing and celebrate the completion of each script as a great success. Eventually, a sale or two will be completed and an actual check will be deposited to help pay the rent. In the meantime we need to keep writing and use a decent Plan B to keep food in the fridge and a roof over our head.

  17. Anonymous6:35 AM

    Emily, if it makes you feel any better. You're way ahead of a lot of people, such as myself. You're in L.A., I am not. I don't think I could be bold enough to pack up my bags and move there without a job lined up. You've been repped, and placed in competitions.

    I haven't achieved half your accomplishments.

    You're doing well. Keep it up.


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