Category: career

Age Ain’t Nothin’ but a Number

Look, I get that I can be kind of cynical and downright panicky sometimes, even if I do always find that little bit of hope that helps me to keep going. I spent all of my last post complaining about feeling old and several posts recently lamenting the inherent risk of choosing a subjective art form as my preferred career. I feel badly about that. To be honest, even though these are all feelings I (and I would imagine, many others) struggle with as we get older and the chances of success seem more slim, becoming a writer typically takes a long time.

This post is dedicated to those people who didn’t let their age deter them from following their dreams. The ones that spent years working their craft and made a modest career doing what they loved. The ones who struggled but kept the dream alive. The ones who maybe should have given up, but didn’t.

Let’s begin with the Nicholl Fellowship. This is the highest amateur competition around. Notice the word I italicized in the hopes of drawing your attention to it? It’s a great honor to be selected as a Nicholl Fellow and will surely lead to at least a little success, but I think you’ll find many Nicholl Fellows don’t go on to become world-famous writers. That being said, what’s the average age of a Nicholl Fellow?

36 years old, according to their Frequently Asked Questions.

Now, that doesn’t mean all of the Nicholl Fellows have been writing since they were 16 years old and took twenty years to gain even that modest bit of success. But it does mean most success stories (if not all) are not overnight.

Another example: What is the median age of writers in the WGA? The 2014 Hollywood Writers Report* states that the highest-earning writers – and the most employed – are between 41 and 50 years old. Not to say they’ve just gotten their start, but it’s taken them that long to earn their place at the top of the food chain – so to speak. You’ll also notice that only 5% of writers working in film are under the age of 31. That goes to show that those working in film, especially as writers, tend to be a bit older.

*If you read the Hollywood Writers Report, you’ll find the majority of its content is about the rather wide gap between white male writers and minority and women writers in Hollywood. That is an important topic to discuss (and broken down well in the report) but it’s way outside the purview of this particular post and maybe even this blog.

And, finally, there is this post from the Writer’s Store about relatively famous writers who didn’t succeed until much later in life. Did you know Raymond Chandler, he of the hard-boiled detective novels, didn’t publish his first novel until he was 51? That’s nearly 25 years older than I am right now!

Even though I often wonder what I’m doing as a 27 year old who wants to pursue a career as a screenwriter from Virginia of all places, I think it’s important to understand that these things don’t happen overnight. I’ve been writing for a long time, sure, but it’s only been a really serious pursuit for about two years. That’s nothing in the grand scheme of things. Now, if I’m still on this blog when I’m 47 complaining that I feel old I give any of my readers permission to tell me to quit.

Not that I will, of course.

The Ceaseless Onslaught of Adulthood or Pretension and the Act of Leaving Childhood Dreams to Children

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be an adult. I am an adult by any legal or biological definition, but I don’t necessarily feel like an adult. I’m not sure I think like an adult. I don’t particularly live the way a stereotypical adult may live. In most ways, I’m not sure I live up to the expectation of what an adult should be. Part of this feeling is the fact that I’m holding on to goals and ideals that I developed in childhood, either unable or unwilling to let them evolve into something different – like being a writer.

In a few months I’ll be turning 28 years old. In those 28 years, barring some sort of feverish inspiration or the miracle of being “discovered,” I’ll be able to point to a lot of minor successes. Black belt in a martial art that most view as more of a hobby than a threat, college degree I’ve never really used, regional dodgeball championship, writing and assistant directing an independent film, working as a “professional” – even if I was fired twice.

When I try to think of my life in those terms, it doesn’t seem so uneventful. My ambition has led me to some cool places and I’ve accomplished some unique things. But most of those accomplishments aren’t directly related to what I’ve always wanted to do, which is to write. Not to say I’ve failed, because I don’t think you can fail at something that is A.) completely subjective and B.) never given up on. If you never give up, the match is never over. You can’t call a winner until the match ends.

Still, I decided I wanted to be a writer and/or a filmmaker when I was young. I remember when writing first became a major thing for me. It was third grade. I wrote a story about a toy that turns out to be a time machine. The time machine and I go back to prehistoric times, where it loses a bolt (which was obviously the source of its time traveling powers) and we’re stranded. It was fun. It gave me a way to inhabit a world that was better than the one I’m forced to occupy day-to-day. I’ve never looked back.

But I’ve also never really figured it out. Maybe it’s because I hadn’t taken it seriously enough as a field of study until recently. So I think, “Gee, maybe I’m a late bloomer and I should focus on not being a starving artist well into my 40s or 50s.” I enter the adult world a toe at a time, always keeping an eye on my aspirations because if I don’t, they might disintegrate in the sunlight. First I move away from everything I love. Then I get a job in an office. I still write, more seriously than before, but don’t manage many steps forward. Eventually my priorities shift and things like a family, a career, and full independence seep their way into my skull, pushing the (perceived) glitz and glamor of becoming a screenwriter and working in Hollywood to the far periphery of my vision. It dawns on me that maybe it’s not as important as it once was. Maybe, just maybe, childhood dreams should be left in childhood.

Adults are supposed to live and die by routine. Adults are supposed to be responsible and hedge their bets – plan for the future while mitigating the risks that inherently presents. Adults are supposed to contribute to society in small but meaningful ways. Adults are supposed to be doing things I most definitely do not do.

The problem, in my eyes, anyway, is that being nearly 28 years old and still telling people that I want to be a writer reeks of pretension. It conjures images of people with fake glasses (“C’mon man, those fucking things don’t even have lenses.”) sitting in a coffee shop working in their own criticism-free bubble because they can’t afford an internet connection. It feels like showing off something I haven’t actually earned because to say you’re a writer automatically gives people the impression that you are, in some way, learned and disciplined and intellectual when that is rarely the actual case. It feels like I can say I want to be a writer instead of a carpenter or plumber because I have reached the pique of humanity and no longer need to develop the necessary skills to survive. Like the greek philosophers before me, my contribution to humanity will be in the form of thoughts that no one else has had. That, my friends, is not something I feel good about.

But then I pick up Bradbury. My hero. My idol. And, as it may very well turn out, my savior.

I’ve been reading his Zen in the Art of Writing and he speaks of writing as never growing up. It’s how he kept himself young until the day he died at age 91. He held onto his childhood fears and explored them as an adult. He viewed the world through the curious and giddy eyes of a child and used that constant inspiration to fuel his imagination. He didn’t let the pressures and expectations of a typical adult seep in and poison what he knew to be his creative lifeline.

The world places pressure on us to be a certain way. In childhood, it’s to conform to the latest trends – to fit in. We’re taught to follow direction, walk in line, be complacent. In adulthood, we can more easily let go of those things as we grow comfortable in our skin. We stop caring so much about fitting in. We totally ignore trends. We get better at choosing when to follow direction and when to improvise. We break out of the line. Our ambition ensures we’re never complacent. Instead, adulthood leads to new tics and commands. We’re told to be responsible. Start a family. Pay your bills. Keep out of trouble.

It’s not that I don’t agree with these lessons and commands. My problem, then, is the question of whether they can be separate from the creative life that is necessarily stuck in childhood or if there is a way to intertwine the two without undue stresses? Can I work a professional job to pay my bills while balancing a family and live half of my life in a fantasy world driven by my imagination and fears?

A better question, then: Is there a choice? Writing is what makes me happy. Over the past year and a half or so, I’ve found the chances of success as a writer of any kind slowly seeming slimmer and slimmer as my ego takes its beatings like a good soldier. Money and success are becoming less of a motivator to keep going. It has to be that way because, as I’ve learned and have had to accept, 95% of people that call themselves “artists” either hold other jobs to make ends meet or barely eke out a living in their art form. Plain and simple, that’s the reality of pursuing this sort of dream. Artists, by and by, are contractors and contractors work job-to-job with no guarantee that the one they’re working now won’t be the last one they ever work.

There has to be more to keep going. For me, it may come down to the fact that I don’t want to let go of childhood. I have the same friends I’ve had since I was a kid, why can’t I have the same ambitions? Not only does it feel safe, it makes me happy. In a world where every day can be a struggle to please someone or to get by, my friends and my ambitions help me to look forward to the next day.

Ultimately, then, maybe becoming an adult isn’t about letting go of the things we held so dearly as children. Maybe being an adult is fulfilling those responsibilities while holding on to a youthful exuberance. Maybe the act of retreating into my childhood aspirations and letting them act as a reprieve and solution to the pressures of adult life is a good thing.

Maybe, like Bradbury, writing will keep me as young as I wish I still were.

Passion of the Career

Get it? Passion of the Christ? Passion of the Career? Fuck. I know. I’m leaving.

I realized something over my last stint of unemployment. You know, when I made a push to become more than an unknown, amateur screenwriter screaming into the void. I realized that for any career, at least any that doesn’t require back surgery at middle age or the classic phrase, “Would you like fries with that?” (probably more accurately updated as, “For 25 cents more would you like to make that a large?”), that those who are the best at their jobs, who go further in their careers than others, don’t look at what they do as a 40-hour week. For them, it’s a way of life.

I realized this as I was screenwriting because that’s exactly what it became for me.

I didn’t stop at the writing. I didn’t stop at the brainstorming. I didn’t stop at the outlining. I didn’t stop at the research. I didn’t stop at the forums. I didn’t stop at the blogs.

Screenwriting, for better or worse, seeped into every area of my life. And I didn’t mind one bit. I thought of other professions; did proposal writers seek read about proposal writing in their downtime? I know books and forums and magazines exist, so I would imagine so. I can confirm that my architect brother-in-law reads about architecture and watches documentaries about architecture and talks about architecture outside of work. Doctors do the same. As a matter of fact, it would surprise me if there wasn’t a profession out there that someone was able to be successful at their job while keeping it separated from their lives outside of work.

What this realization really means, though, is that if I fail as a screenwriter I need to be passionate about something else. Something that I care about and don’t mind dedicating my life to, 40 hours or more per week. Is that proposal writing/business development/government contracting for me?

I’m not sure, yet. I’ve been with three companies now and I can’t say I’ve ever loved what I do. However, the first two companies I worked for I didn’t like not because of the work but because I thought management was awful (if you want to argue that my attitude is a bigger problem, I’ll gladly listen to what you have to say – I have an anti-establishment streak in me but, more importantly, don’t respect people that I feel are incompetent. Do with that what you will). This new company I actually like quite a bit. They treat me well and I want to work hard for them.

But that’s still not the work.

I’ve found myself thinking more deeply about what it is I do. Thinking about ways to innovate. That may be because I’m bored with the box they put me in, or it may be because I’m becoming legitimately interested in improving. I may be interested in improving because I’m scared if I don’t I’ll never make money and feel secure because I’ll never keep a job. It’s all a bit unclear.

Regardless, knowing that to make a career there needs to be a willingness to let it seep into the cracks of your life has added perspective to my search to find something fulfilling. If I do eventually figure out that I’m more interested in proposal writing because, on a deep level, I want to be great at it like I want to be great at screenwriting then I’ll know that I’m safe.

I think that’s an important moment for anyone. We can’t all be writers/dancers/actors/athletes – all of these “fun” professions that are difficult to gain and even more difficult to maintain. The world needs proposal writers and architects and sewer maintenance people otherwise everything would go to shit (literally in that last case – ha! Ok, ok, I’m leaving…). But those people need to be passionate about what they do, otherwise their responsibilities will be shirked and they’ll find themselves in the strange limbo of joblessness I’ve lived in for the past few years.

Some of the idealists and romantics out there might cry out, “But how can you truly love more than one thing? How can you truly succeed if you’re splitting your passion between careers?” I think it’s possible. In my case, proposal writing and screenwriting are somewhat related. Not closely, but enough that I can use them to feed one another (and, on the flip side, my energies can be drained doing one and not the other). I also think that closing yourself off to opportunity by being so focused on one narrow band of opportunity is short-sighted. What if I were to have a producer call me right now, tell me there is $500,000 with my name on it for The Inhabitors, and then I hated the entire process? Would I go back to machining? Unlikely. Burger King? Never again. Proposal writing is a somewhat safe bet to ensure security for myself and, maybe someday, my family.

Because at the end of my life, when I’m able to contextualize my silly life, as important as it is to me that I tried as hard as I could to realize my literary dreams it’s more important that I don’t overlook the ones I love in doing so. I’ve spent quite a few days and nights already not being with the people I love because in my ambition I’m locked in my room striving for something bigger. That’s all well and good, but it’s no way to live my entire life. I want a family. I might even know who I want that family with. The opportunity to become a writer will be there until I take my last breath. Starting a family and actually being able to provide for them will pass me by.

This was a long post of rambling and trying to rationalize my priorities. I’m sorry for that. It’s just food for thought and a reminder to myself that ambition and dreams aren’t the be-all, end-all in one’s life. There are other things that are more important.

Career vs Hobby

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently started a new job. As I was going through the interview process, and giving the standard answers that explain why I was looking for a professional job as opposed to following through with my education/”dream” and doing media. The answer I always give, and one that is true in life if not intent, is that creative writing and film is a hobby.

The main distinction I make, and the reason making that statement is basically true, is that I’ve never been paid for my writing. Until I get paid, hell, until I get paid to work at screenwriting/prose the majority of my time, I can’t look at it as anything than a hobby. A time-consuming, draining, rejection-filled hobby.

Many successful creatives, when asked if they ever considered anything else, say the only thing they ever worked toward is whatever they are. Quentin Tarantino is a good example. The way he talks you might expect that he would be homeless or dead if he had never succeeded. I would love to say that about myself, but it’s just not realistic.

For one, I don’t have that single-minded focus. It’s true that there is nothing I want to be doing for the rest of my life more than writing, but at the same time I don’t feel an overwhelming urge to chase the money, either. To me, being able to sustain myself off of it is an aspiration in the same way that earning bonuses is an aspiration. I want it. I’ll work toward it. But at the end of the day it’s a perk.

Basically, I need a guarantee that I’ll be able to make money consistently for a long time outside of writing. I’m getting older, my needs are changing, scary things like “marriage” and “children” and “home-owning” may be on the horizon. The distant horizon, sure, but I’m beginning to hear their beck and call. Coupled with my admitted focus-philandering with extra projects, freelancing, and volunteerism as well as any sort of a social life (which has, unfortunately, waned since I moved out of Buffalo) creative writing may take something of a back seat. I hesitate to say that, because I don’t want it to be true, but I’m nothing if not realistic (some would say pessimistic) and I’m a firm believer that there are several routes to happiness and a life well-lived.

It sounds like a choice and in a lot of ways it is. I’ve talked about it before. But the way I see it is that there is no me but the present me and present me should have the best life possible. Present me should have learned everything he knows from past me and should definitely be looking out for future me, but present me is where it’s at. Plus, I mean, people become famous writers as a hobby all the time.

Just ask Stephanie Meyers.

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