Craig Van Sickle has written, produced and directed hundreds of hours of television and film. His decades of work have covered a broad imaginative spectrum; collaborations with George Lucas, Stephen King and Stephen J. Cannell - the creation and show-running of his favorite series, The Pretender - his Emmy-nominated Wizard of Oz reimagining, Tin Man and two published novels, among many others. In 2016 he completed a pilot reboot of Friday The 13th for the CW Network and has just finished his latest original pilot drama, Whisprz. Twitter: @CraigVanSickle1
I’ve always believed in the concept of destiny - that power or agency that determines the course of events. As writers, one of the things we relish most is controlling the destinies of our characters and the story paths we take them down. I think you’d agree there’s nothing more empowering than that. Especially when trying to control our destiny in real life is like shuffling cards while wearing a catcher’s mitt. Not unlike the difficulty of maintaining a writing career.
Which is why I’d wager my next residual that every writer has had more than their share of frustrating moments questioning the very notion of their writing and career. Hounding questions like – “Why the hell do I keep doing this” – or more likely – “Why the hell did I ever choose to do this in the first place?”
It’s only natural since more than any other profession, writing requires us to constantly analyze, solve and dramatize the human condition. For every writer that means contemplating their own human condition – a challenge that can easily stop the best of us in our creative tracks.
So the next time it stops you, or you ask yourself, “Why the hell do I do this?” – I’d like to offer up something that has always helped me through the discouragement; taking a quiet moment to ponder your own destiny instead of that of your protagonist.
For me, looking back at my writing roots and origins, recalling my writing destiny, always brings me back to a place of joyful purpose and gratitude for the love I have for writing. It’s a great avenue for inner renewal in those times when the writing life begins to feel hopeless.
I believe there’s a moment or a series of moments in every writer’s life when there was the conscious or unconscious decision made to become a writer. I’d like to share the writer destiny I’ve been blessed with in the hope that my story will inform or, best case, inspire you all to take a look at your own path of writing destiny.
My first destiny moment happened without even being aware of it. In watching Rob Petrie, Sally Rogers and Buddy Sorrell write scripts all day and having so much fun doing it, I intrinsically knew that television writing was the job for me. My six year-old heart had just tripped head first over the creative ottoman of The Dick Van Dyke Show.
The behind-the-scenes world of The Alan Brady Show was my first glimpse into the world of show biz and writing. With it came the realization that people could actually make their living that way and could get paid to be kid-like and kooky all day long doing it. And who wouldn't want The Petries’ idyllic home life; fabulous dinner parties with snazzy show-biz friends singing, dancing and laughing. It was after one such episode featuring a glitzy Petrie 60's soirees that I turned to my mom to inform her I too was going to be a television writer. Thank you for inspiring my destiny, Mr. Reiner.
But the path of my writing destiny soon took a darker, more ironic turn as I approached my pre-teen years. Hearing Rod Serling enigmatically intone - “You unlock this door with the key of imagination" for the first time, every writing possibility within me was unleashed. I was convinced he was speaking directly to me – about writing – about observing and recreating life around me. I was sure of it. As I continued to devour his brilliant work – stepping into his fifth dimension of sight and sound – the idea of my becoming a writer was now a fait accompli.
With no disrespect to comedy writing, the lark of writing jokes for Alan Brady had quickly taken a step “into a land of both shadow and substance.” Suddenly being a writer meant saying something profound about the world. From that point on, writing took up residence in the deepest part of my heart and soul. Wish I had known you, Mr. Serling.
In the years that followed I was blessed to have a teacher like Richard Amacher who turned me on to novels and short stories that enlightened and inspired. With Mr. A’s encouragement, I naturally gravitated to the ironic storytelling twists of O. Henry and the darker recesses of Edgar Allen Poe. These were glorious treasures I was unearthing – like discovering road maps guiding me to take strange journeys with my own words. You mean – actually write stories of my own? Wow, now there's a twist ending I didn't see coming, Mr. Amacher.
To say writing saved my life during junior high is not hyperbole. Just prior to eighth grade, leaving life-long friends behind, my family moved from the Midwest to the east coast. No matter how hard I tried, I just never fit into our new town. For the first time I felt profoundly alone in the world. That is, until the refrain of Mr. Amacher’s creative voice played back in my mind, encouraging me to create worlds of my own. I picked up a spiral notebook, my Bic pen and wrote my first ‘once upon a time.’ Instantly, the loneliness of the real world seemed a million pages away.
Returning to the Midwest for high school, I applied my new love of writing to the stage, creating comedy sketches my best friend and I would perform for student shows. My inner Rob Petrie resurfaced while my inner Rod Serling continued to search for deeper meaning and the ultimate plot twist. Soon I was blessed with another great teacher, Jay Hinga. His nurturing helped me develop my writing to a more profound level. Iambic pentameter right back at’cha, Mr. Hinga.
A common scene throughout my life’s script was Dad walking into a room as I watched TV. I constantly devoured every genre, every day – Star Trek, The Bob Newhart Show, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, The Night Gallery (thank you again, Rod), Kolchak, The Night Stalker and on and on. My Dad would stare at me sitting inches from the glow of our TV screen. He'd ask - “You can’t watch TV all the time – what’re you ever going to do with that?” Uh well, how about I get a college degree in scriptwriting?
Landing at Indiana University one of my professors, Fred Brewer, saw a protégé in me. In the final years of college my major credits came from writing spec scripts under his independent study. You mean I can actually transform my classroom into writing scripts? I was no longer just watching TV, I was now a student of it via the process of creating it. God bless you, Mr. Brewer, for turning on my power switch. Fade in.
Okay, but ace-ing my Rockford Files spec script was one thing, making a career of writing in Hollywood was something else entirely. I needed more validation to traipse across country to chase my dream. I found it in a spec M*A*S*H script I wrote and then entered into the nationwide Danny Arnold Television Writing Scholarship competition. Arnold was the creator of Barney Miller, one of the great sitcoms of all time. In a world now chock-full of festivals and writing competitions, Arnold's Scholarships was one of the first.
In that pre-internet age and I remember running to the mailbox every day when I got home from my summer job pumping gas to see if there was any news from that glorious land of milk and honey known as Hollywood. It finally came; my M*A*S*H script finished as a runner-up. In the entire nation! Second place never felt so good. You mean – I might really have what it takes to become Rob Petrie? I will never forget you or your scholarship, Mr. Arnold.
Against all odds and not knowing a soul west of the Mississippi, I ventured to Hollywood with the motivation and companionship of my best buddy, Mark Beyer. I can safely say I probably never would’ve moved to California without his nudge. After five days on I-80 in a Chevy Monte Carlo, we arrived. That dumpy first apartment in North Hollywood seemed like paradise. Here's to you, Mr. Beyer!
Six years later, I was making a living as a writer in Hollywood and I haven't stopped since.
Was it my destiny to become a professional writer? Well yes, I’m a grateful believer that it was - and yet to me, destiny is really just another way of saying I had a lot of help, guidance and encouragement from many wonderful people. I also worked extremely hard. Still do. But now more than ever I allow myself to reflect on my path - to take that occasional glance back at the people and influences who helped get me here. Even to this day those beacons of my destiny still help me overcome my toughest times of doubt - help me navigate the inevitable highs and lows of a career in writing and infuse me with hope instead of despair.
Are you stuck on page one? Having trouble paying your rent? Can’t find an agent who wants to sign you but you know deep in your heart you have what it takes? Put your pen down. Take a deep breath and flashback to your story – the one Mr. Serling taught us is unlocked with the key of imagination – the one about how you were meant to be a writer. Trust me, it’s in your soul somewhere if you just take a moment to listen. Can you hear it? That’s your destiny calling.
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