When considering the answer to the question, "Why do I write?" Tim Schildberger offers these basic truths about writing, and the quest for ‘success’ that will better inform the answer to why you do what you do.
Why do I write? It seems like a simple question, right? But it’s worth exploring, because some of the answers we tell ourselves risk making this whole thing harder than it needs to be, and some answers can be surprisingly helpful…even liberating.
Why do I write? Why do I sacrifice at the very least time, and at the very most, long-term financial security, to chase something potentially unattainable? Why do I risk plunging my psyche into waves of insecurity and self doubt? Why spend half my life justifying my seemingly ridiculous decision to those who love and care about me? Why subject myself to the often hurtful opinions of people I don’t even know? Do I really have something to say that hasn’t been said, or am I just blindly self involved?
The question is clearly not as simple as it appears. Before you get lost down an existential rabbit hole, consider these basic truths about writing, and the quest for ‘success’ that will better inform the answer to why you do what you do.
Writing is Hard Work
It doesn’t matter if you have dreams of being a Hollywood phenomenon, or someone who tells solid stories well. No one, and I mean nobody in the history of human beings, stumbled upon being a genius writer. So please, for your peace of mind, throw away the fantasy of a 48-hour, caffeine-fueled, sleep-deprived creative burst that will deliver your opus. IT WILL NOT HAPPEN. Hemingway had an editor who often helped turn alcohol-fueled drivel into classic literature.
This notion that great art is generated on a whim, in an afternoon, by someone with almost no actual training or experience – may as well be alcohol-fueled drivel. It’s a lie.
Writing, like every single activity humans do, requires practice to be good. It just does. The quicker you understand and surrender to the concept that becoming a good writer takes time, hard work, more hard work, and genuine grind, the sooner you’ll make genuine progress. It’s more like a job than a burst of creative fantasy.
So…potential answer one…I write to become a better writer.
Writing Requires Humility
‘But you don’t understand’ is a phrase no writer should ever utter. If someone reads your work, and tells you they don’t get it – then either you have failed in your efforts, or that person is an idiot. In both cases – ‘but you don’t understand’ is wasted breath.
If you have made a commitment to actually show your words to other people, then you are signing an unwritten contract, that you are open to receiving opinions and feedback. And if you genuinely want to do the hard work, and improve as a writer, you MUST make that commitment. Fighting back against opinions is a waste of time. None of us know everything, even about our own project. To be a truly exceptional writer, you have to strap in for all the feedback bumps along the way.
If you’re too proud, stubborn, defensive or insecure to handle what comes back at you, then stop showing scripts to anyone and move onto another dream.
That doesn’t mean you have to suffer fools, or implement everyone’s half-assed thoughts. Your work is your work. It’s easy for some uninformed stranger to trash talk, offer useless pitches, or insert their own insecurities in some weird power play by making you feel stupid. That doesn’t mean you should stop. Who quits anything because a random stranger said you were no good?
Potential answer two – I write to get noticed, which means I accept not everyone will love my words. But in every piece of feedback, I will learn something about my craft, and confront my own insecurities. Writing is a path to personal growth, if nothing else.
Let It Go
Every single agent, manager, producer and paid writer will tell you this simple truth. Never put all your eggs in one basket. Don’t squirrel away for 5 years fine-tuning one script. Write another one. Take mental breaks from your autobiographical musical comedy, and try something else.
We’re talking about words on a page – nothing more. If you laser focus on one script you waste opportunities to learn and grow by exploring several other potentially terrible scripts.
If your script isn’t coming together, is bombing in competitions, getting universally poor feedback from your relatives, and you have no idea how to ‘fix’ it – then let it go. Put it on a shelf, and see how you feel in a year. No project ever needs to completely die, and there is no timetable. Be smart enough and detached enough to recognize your situation. And don’t you dare stop writing because you’re waiting for inspiration to fix your one script.
Potential answer three – I write to forge a career and I understand I must assemble a solid body of work that will make me better equipped when Hollywood comes calling. Or…I write because I really want to tell one particular story and I know that means I won’t have a career. But I may sell one script. Maybe.
Gatekeepers are Not the Problem
I’ve been lucky enough to chat with all sorts or working professionals in this business – and here’s what they want you to know – there’s room for EVERY SINGLE good script. Now more than ever, thanks to technology. So if you’re not getting anywhere with agents/managers, I promise it’s not because they’re jerks. It’s because for whatever reasons, your script isn’t good enough. Or timely enough. Or they’re not looking for the script you’ve written. But mostly, it’s because your script isn’t good enough.
That’s okay – at least you tried. Now either go back and make it better, or move onto another idea that’s caught your eye.
Trust me on this. If/when you write a great script – it will find it’s way into the world. Now it may not get made, or win an Oscar, but it will attract attention. And then people will ask ‘what else ya got’, which leads back to the previous point about eggs and baskets.
And please – meetings are meaningless if your material isn’t ready. So stop blaming the ‘lack of opportunity’, or ‘if I just had the right rep, I’d be famous’. You’re wasting your emotional energy. The gatekeepers are reading 100 scripts a week hoping to open the doors to the next big thing – so they are not standing in your way. You are. Sure, some writers don’t deserve success, and make it through other, weird reasons – but that’s not worth stressing about. Control what you can control – and you have total control of the words you put on the page.
Potential answer four – I write because I want a career, and that career will only be possible if I have good scripts. Nothing stands in my way apart from the quality of my own work, which I can work hard to improve.
You Probably Won’t Make Money
Here’s why we all secretly chase this unicorn. Money. Oh sure, we tell ourselves we’re artists and we want to touch lives – but we all want to get paid doing it. If we’re going to spend hours in a coffee shop, ignoring friends, procrastinating and dealing with all the self hate – then we want that large check at the end of the journey, right? It’s okay – money isn’t a bad thing.
The only problem is – you probably won’t make anything from all of this hard work. The odds are really small that you’ll have an actual ‘career.’
The people I’ve seen who’ve ‘made it’ – worked their butts off to get noticed, continue to work their butts off after being noticed, treat their craft like a business, and do whatever it takes to always improve. Just like pro athletes, top lawyers, doctors, or shoe designers. Relentless pursuit of their craft. And even then, there are no guarantees of success.
So free yourself of the money chase. Spend less time worrying about what will sell, and more on improving your own craft, and command of structure, characters, dialogue and story.
Potential answer five – I write to make money and show all those losers in High School that I really am clever. Pick this answer and you will fail. Unless you work harder than everyone else – in which case you’re actually writing for all the other reasons previously mentioned.
Do It Anyway
The real answer to this question is kinda easy to those devoted to this pursuit. ‘Because I have too.’
You write because of an inner compulsion to explore storytelling, or examine the human condition, or because there’s this awesome story no-one has heard, or because there is a feeling in your gut that if you don’t do this, life has less meaning. You write because you can’t imagine not writing, and you can’t really explain it any better than that.
If that’s true – and I suspect if you really look deep down inside, it will be – then the rest is entirely up to you. Let go of the fantasies. Surrender to the work, the journey, the bad scripts, the insecurities and the agonizingly slow progress. Because that’s the reality. And even though some days it feels utterly pointless, just imagine not doing it.
Remember, the only writers guaranteed not to sell anything, or have a career, are those who stop writing.
All of the obstacles mentioned above have no power, no meaning. You have total control over how good a writer you can be. Don’t let anyone or anything stop you. Especially you.
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