Once you reach a certain age the milestones in your life take on something of a mythic quality, not so much for what those milestones are but for when they happened. Once you start measuring those moments in multiples of five, ten, twenty years and more you realize “man I have really been at this a while.” I mean look at 2014 on a purely cultural level. Kurt Cobain, gone 20 years ago this April, Green Day’s “Dookie”, Oasis’ “Definitely Maybe”, Soundgarden’s “Superunknown” all turn 20 this year, as do Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump and The Lion King. Friends, ER and My So-Called Life debuted in 1994. Heck, even 2004 was ten years ago.
In related news it’s been fifteen years since I said goodbye to the world of dragging myself from the bed to the shower to the outdoors to commute to a day job for the sole purpose of keeping a roof over my head. Because it was the 3rd of February 1999 that I became a full-time writer.
I’ve related the story of how that happened here, but the number of years it had been were this vague, amorphous blob to me until scribe Ally Malinenko asked how long I’d been writing full time. And when I realized it was actually 15 years I really didn’t know how to feel. It certainly feels like 15 years; I’ve been a writer longer than I held any day job, and those 15 years nearly equal my Elementary, Secondary, and post-secondary education in length. If my career were a person it’d be the age where it’s sneaking booze from the liquor cabinet.
So I have a career. And while it’s been great (I can’t imagine doing anything else because I don’t think I can do anything else) I’d like to take the occasion to burst some bubbles on how glamorous a career it is because it isn’t glamorous. Let me walk you through it …
1. It’s really hard
Okay, say you’ve “made it” and you’ve got the call and are now writing full time, seven days a week, three sixty five days a year, or however you wish to. You rise when you want to, you write however much you need or want to, you call it a day. And yes, that’s the basic core structure of my day. But that’s just the writing part of it. You also have to figure out how you’re going to live on what you make as a writer. And unless you have many jobs lined up – what we call work for hire – guess what? You’re going to be spending nearly as much time hustling for work as you are doing the actual work. Emails, phonecalls, face-to-face sitdowns, pitching – the actual work part of your job that basically forces you to clean yourself up, put on your nice clothes, and go to these meetings and events and networking opportunities and be seen. Because as long as you’re locked away in your writin’ hole you’re pretty much invisible. And even if you do land the job, there’s going to be months of contracting and back and forth and notes and meetings and maybe at some point you even get paid. So make sure you have an adequate cushion of money to live off of while working for others. Oh, and you can pretty much kiss the idea of “retirement savings” good-bye. There is no retirement; there is only death.
2. It takes a physical toll
The first year of professional writerhood was and remains my best year financially. I had a big job on my plate that was financed and funded, and had a deadline for the start of production. So all I did for 7 months was wake up, make coffee, go to my basement office, write, then come upstairs, dinner, watch movies, go to bed, repeat the process. There were week-long stretches where I barely ventured outside. And know what happened? I got fat. Not huge, but my muscles atrophied from lack of use, and my belly and my ass multiplied because I was basically sitting and eating and not exercising. And it was late in that first year that I realized how bad it had gotten; I wasn’t looking good and I was feeling worse. So on New Year’s Eve 1999 I resolved that I was going to get into shape. And on January 1, 2000 I started doing just that. Beginning with simple walks in my neighborhood, the depth of my inactivity revealed itself with shins screaming in pain and my elevated heart rate. I barely managed 30 minutes of just plain walking that first day, but the next day I went out again, I walked longer, I walked further, and it didn’t hurt so much. And onward, and within a relatively short time I found those walks easier. I walked longer, and farther and faster each time. And it’s the one New Year’s resolution I actually have managed to keep to this day where I make sure to get outside at least once every day and get in a good long walk at the very minimum. So there’s a positive. Now back to despair.
3. You’re constantly judged/categorized/dismissed
Every job you get is the first job you get. Because every job is different and unless you’re blessed to have employers with deep pockets who love you and want you to work for them exclusively, everybody you work for is a blank slate and you’re a blank page. They may know you by your work or your reputaion, but when you come to them angling for a job or they consider taking one of your original works on, every word you write, every word you speak is under intense scruitiny. That’s assuming you get to the point of them offering you a job. They may hate your work – work that other people love. They’ll want to know why it’s been so long since your last produced credit (because you worked for years on projects that never got made, went into turnaround, got sucked into an interdimensional vortex), they’ll want to pigeonhole you as a certain type of writer (because I’ve most notably done horror and sci fi that’s apparently the only thing I can write), and if they do hire you they’ll negotiate down, not up, so by the end of the job you’ve basically broken even if you’re lucky. And while they say they’ll pay you more the next time there usually isn’t a next time because they’ve gone with someone they can pay less than they paid you the first time. Glamorous, right?
4. It’s hand to mouth
Vacations? If you can afford them take them, because you won’t be able to afford them – not where you’re going.. When you have the time you don’t have the money and when you have the money you don’t have the time because you’re working on the thing they’re paying you for. Unless you’re one of that 1% of writers considered to be “A” list, you’re scrounging for work along with everybody else. If you’re so lucky to land the job and get paid a decent wage, hold off on buying that champagne to celebrate, or heaven forbid buying yourself a new TV or computer or Playstation, that money gets banked, and you dole it out bit by bit to cover bills and life stuff and make it last as long as possible before your next job which is barely on the horizon. I’ve had maybe one case where I segued from one paid gig into another. The rest of the time you’re waiting for contacts to be signed and watching your bank acount drain like a rusting chevy’s leaky gas tank.
On a positive note if you do have the money and the time for a vacation, for God’s sake TAKE IT. getting out of your cave and experiencing actual life stuff is the fuel that keeps your creativity going. Without the experience of different places, people, or cultures you’re writing to the room you’re in, not to any larger human experience, and that’s when your writing takes a turn for the worse.
5. Benefits? What benefits?
Forget retirement savings plans, forget health benefits paid by your employer. Also, banks and credit card companies LOVE self-employed people on Bizarro Earth, so if you live there, great. But if you live here, they laugh at you like those kids laughed at Carrie on prom night. The government laughs at you also, epecially around tax-time. If you aren’t setting aside money from each payday to pay your tax bill guess what? Those “savings” you were putting away to weather slow periods? Uncle Sam and or Revenue Canada thank you for the foldin’ money. Yes you get to write off a good amount of your expenses – supplies, percentage of your rent or mortgage, travel for work etc. but those expenses get the fine tooth comb treatment. I can’t recall a time where I didn’t have to supply receipts and other info to the taxman to verify income and expenses, which delay any refund you may get. Also, you won’t get any refunds. Now, there are benefits; working from home, working in your pajamas, rising from bed when you want to, but they realy don’t even out when you bust a crown and need to empty your bank account to pay for it because the third rate insurance you pay into doesn’t cover dental.
6. There’s always a bigger fish
I’m extremely fortunate that there’s a core group of people and companies that still call me up to offer me work on a fairly consistent basis. I’m lucky people still want to meet with me. I’m lucky to have people consider themselves fans of my work. But in the words of a wise Jedi spoken fifteen years ago there’s always a bigger fish. Take your average film school. Every year your average film school graduates 40 students. All looking for the same thing you are; to work, gainfully, and steadily. Now multiply those 40 by every year since you graduated. Now multiply that by every film school on earth. And multiply that by everybody who graduated before you. Add in the ones who never studied your craft who made their own movies anyway and scored big and that’s your competition. Good luck!
7. You’re at constant risk of being devoured
At some point the work is going to dry up and you can’t help it. You reach your “best before” date, people stop returning those phone calls, someone younger, fresher, more dynamic who “speaks the lingo” has moved in on your turf and you’re shuffled off to the corner. If you’re smart you’ve diversified and nabbed work in different mediums – media, advertising, etc – and disciplines that can help keep a roof over your head, or you’ve been lucky enough to work on some big projects that pay you residuals and dividends for years to come. If you’re really smart you’ve taken your years of contacts, experiences and so forth and branched out into producing or developing your own projects with others. But unless you’re SOMEBODY, unless you have a readership or an audience or a fan base that supports you because you are writing something, it’s going to be rough. That never changes. It was always rough, and with each year it gets rougher.
So why do it? Why go down this path? Why quit your day job, that steady paycheck, that structure and that order in your life? Why walk away from security and safety and embrace the unknown?
8. It’s worth it
Years ago – more than fifteen, closer probably to twenty-five, we gave my grandfather a book for Christmas. We got him books every Christmas but this one was different. It was blank – just empty pages with a leather bound embossed cover called “Things I learned” by R. S. Abraham. It was a book for him to write down his thoughts, his stories. A man who fought in WW2 as a midship gunner in a Lancaster bomber, flying raids over enemy territory with a 1 in 3 chance of survival. A man who was only 22 years old, leaving behind a new wife and young daughter he wouldn’t see for years. A man who returned to Canada, raised a family, worked hard, lived to see his children have children, and lived to see his home at Christmastime filled with his extended family.
Years after he died, while browsing the shelves at my dad’s house I saw that book, “Things I Learned”, filed away. I pulled it out and opened it, wondering what he’d written inside it.
Every page was blank.
He never wrote a thing down. His life, his experiences — all of it was lost. I would never know what his stories were. In time everybody who knew my grandfather will be gone and his stories will be gone with the rest of us.
All lives end. That’s a fact, and it’s what makes life worth living. Because everybody has stories. They may be short, they may be lengthy, they may be books or poems or paragraphs jotted down on a scrap of paper. But they’re all comprised of experience. Death robs us of loved ones, and robs us of their memories and experiences and the lives they lived. That’s sad, but it is what it is. The natural order of things.
But a story untold and a story forgotten? That’s a tragedy.
And that’s why we do it. That’s why it’s worth it.
[The above are my experiences as a screenwriter. Judging by the responses they're pretty much a given no matter what part of the creative arts/self-employment grind you find yourself in]