I had a long discussion with a fellow recently, a refugee from screenwriting. According to him, he graduated from college, worked hard for a number of years writing scripts, and networked his way deeply into the heart of Hollywood. Nevertheless, despite years of hard work, he couldn’t get arrested. Never sold anything; never got taken seriously as a writer. At the age of 37, he abandoned the effort, went to law school and became a lawyer, which is what he still does twenty years later. Now embittered, he expressed the opinion that Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Dante have already written better work than any screenwriter will ever do, so there’s no point in writing anything. He also said there are only five working screenwriters today who actually make a living. He couldn’t name any of them. It was a dark conversation with a man who is, in my opinion, a victim of his own mind. I left our meeting with a screaming headache. Unfortunately, the conversation stuck, not based on its merits, but in the same way that the image of Anthony Hopkins sticks – the one where he is eating Ray Liotta’s brain. It is unnecessarily disturbing without providing any possibility for constructive insight.

Ever since that unfortunate conversation, I’ve been feeling the need to reiterate why we write. I’m no Frank Capra, but I still have something to say.

In the thirties and forties under the studio system, writers fell into camps – socialists on one side and conservatives on the other. Despite studio wishes to the contrary, each camp worked hard to imbue their scripts with their core values. Because the resulting pictures set the archetypes, we often don’t realize what they stood for when they first came out. In its day, “Stagecoach” was highly subversive. “Sahara” was a very sneaky antiwar picture. “Casablanca” was an incredibly effective propaganda piece. Writing was an important extension of the social and political process.

Today, writers still fall into camps. Many of us just don’t realize it. Underneath each of our works lie arguments for core values. Competing values from competing writers. We don’t all agree – but we all agree that storytelling is our best means of argument. We want to make a difference.

And that, in a nutshell, is why we write.

Contrary views welcomed….

11 thoughts on “WHY WE FIGHT”

  1. well, there seem to be two points – that this writer (now lawyer) failed, and the implied question ‘why’, and that we write to express core values.

    i have no argument with the second thing. but, would like to suggest that this lawyer failed because he didn’t have the talent needed (to express his core values in a way that would put asses in seats).

    agree – i write to make the world a better place by creating stories that express basic, positive, core values

  2. He did not share his writing with me, so I don’t know if it was good or bad, but I have always believed (and it has always been my experience) that quality writing finds a home and that, with intense effort, quality writers develop careers.

  3. tw

    yes. agree. good writing gets noticed. don’t think there are any brilliant screenwriters out there who are unable to put together a career (except for freaks and hermits [and lazy slobs]). does not make sense. look at the industry – making movie after movie that lose money because they suck. it makes no sense that hollywood is rejectinig genius writer(s)

    sorry, i don’t want to hear the bitching. if you’re failing, there is a reason. usually, it’s a talent thing – rarely, it’s a discipline thing. sorry, but 99 out of 100 wannabe writers must fail. otherwise, tens of thousands of brilliant writers would set up shop in la every year. simply not logical.

    sorry. so sorry. if it’s a hobby, fine – do what you want, enjoy yourself. if you’re going to go for the brass ring, make sure you got what it takes (or pay a price years later).

    wannabes complain (and complain and complain) that it’s a closed system. the talented (hard working) writer delivers beautiful stories, and is embraced by the industry. so so sorry. it’s survival of the very best

  4. Interesting. I’d reverse those ‘numbers.’ I think failure is due more to lack of discipline and less to a lack of talent.

  5. Based on my own experience, there are three factors in a writer’s career: talent, commitment, and luck. If you have two out of three, you will probably have a career. After all, if you are talented and lucky, you’ll get a break early enough that your lack of commitment won’t matter. And if you are talented and committed, you will probably make your own luck. But unless you have all three, there are no guarantees.

    I got my first lucky break pretty soon after moving to LA, and I now have a writing career. But I know other people at least as talented and hard-working as I who just never got that lucky break, and ultimately left showbusiness to pursue a career where their talent and hard work would be rewarded.

    The simple fact is that there are more talented people than there are jobs for talented people. That gives talented and committed people an edge–but even then, there are too many of them, and luck comes into play.

  6. jacob

    i don’t buy that. from what i see, most of the working writers in la are not (really) that talented. there’s a lot of bad writers (who, i guess, got lucky) that are working in hollywood. lots.

    maybe it’s semantics. when i say talented, i mean brilliant – not good enough to put together a properly structured 3-act story. i’m sticking by my guns. a writer on this level has nothing to worry about (aside from personal pitfalls). they work

    i’ll refer to my earlier point. it doesn’t make sense that hollywood would reject talented (brilliant) writers. pick any 5 movies that grossed big $$ in the last few years. if, hypothetically, a newbie writer had all these scripts in his portfolio, he would have a career – nobody who read this guy’s work would reject him. this is the level of writing i refer to when i say talented.

    if, on the other hand, same newbie had 5 well-structured scripts that had little commercial appeal in his bag, well, nice, but so what? that writer could easily find himself pounding the pavement for years, then giving up and moving to another gig. i wouldn’t blame him.

    luck is not an issue. this gig is for the very best (or those that are really, really close). if you’re on that high a level, you work. if not, you struggle

  7. I don’t really see a lot of bad writers who have real writing careers. Smarter minds than me have pointed out that you can’t really tell anything about the script from the completed movie. I’m more of the opinion that most working writers are pretty good. You really can’t do this work at all if you don’t care a lot. It’s much too hard. If you care a lot, you tend to get better. The movie making process tends to corrupt the storytelling process and that corrupted work often ends up as the final production draft. Once in a while, though, it works out very well. You work for those rare moments when writing, producing, directing and acting line up just right to create something special.

  8. tw

    yes, the process tends to corrupt the original source. i have seen a lot of clunky writing from working pros, though. could not comment on whether they have real careers. would guess they do not

    if only it were easy, perfect, nice. it’s not, of course. it’s tap dancing on thin ice

  9. Also, what is represented on the screen isn’t necessarily a writer’s work 100%. A movie may suck or the writing deemed sub-par, but that may be because someone uncredited went in and butchered it or did ‘last minute changes’. So bad writing can be attributed to good writers.

  10. Right now, I’, doing my living with writing. Before, I lived from acting for over a decade. If I don’t know what to do with my hands, I paint.

    From time to time, I challenge myself with the ‘why’-question (although it’s not one of my high-priority activities). At the end of the day, the answer is more or less always the same. It’s not about values. It’s about one value:

    Inventing myself.

    Bringing a unknown piece of myself to reality. Save a little bit more of my inner truth and bring it to life. And there it is, right on the stage, on the paper, in front of you, and nobody can prevent it any more from being there. It’s real, it’s there, it’s truth.

    Sounds quite egocentric, I know. But you know, the paradox thing is: the closer something is to me, normally the more it touches the aduience, too.

    Me and my brother, we grew up in a little village in the heart of Europe. A boring village. We felt very soon that this couldn’t be everything, that in books and pictures and movies, we found much more about what we felt life is really about then on the dustily streets of this desert village. So my definition for fiction would be: Reality the everyday life often refuses to reveal.

    The thrilling, compelling, terrifying and amusing reality within us, that’s the main thing, I think. And of course, then, there are a lot of other reasons, fame, girls, money, moral, politics, whatever.

    I suggest a bet: Whenever you created something where you really thought ‘Damn. Unbelievable. That’s it.’ you weren’t just thrilled because you knew you’ll sell this immediately or the girls will love you for your wit or whatever, but you were thrilled because you found something new of yourself; and, as Rilke would put it, were changed forever.

    For me, that’s the kick.


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