Crazy Rat

I’m writing this post from Cambridge Massachusetts.  I spent a chunk of my youth here, my adolescent and teen years (I most definitely did NOT go to Harvard or MIT.). I loved the flavor of the place, the sense of freedom, the sight of people reading and writing in cafés, with books and papers piled around them. I always imagined that they were grinding away at dissertations about their recent discoveries in some highly specific aspect of genetics or insights into obscure 18th century poets. Later I moved to New York City, and was equally taken with the sight of people writing, at first in notebooks and later on notebooks. I imagined they were all writing novels, deeply felt tomes of startling emotional resonance.

Then, when I got into the business, I started spending a lot of time in LA. I would walk into a Leaf & Bean or a cafe in Venice and see people working away at screenplays. And I felt none of the admiration that I experienced in Cambridge or New York.  My thought was something closer to: Those poor, deluded saps. Of course, I was a screenwriter myself, but I was pretty sure I wasn’t one of those saps. I felt that I was close, very close, on the verge. They were slaving away over too many lattes, and I had just come from a “big meeting" at DreamWorks.

I pulled out my MacBook Pro, booted up Screenwriter, and pitied them.

Is there anything less rewarding than being an unproduced screenwriter? The PhD candidates’ dissertations will be read by their peers and advisers. They may not in fact be groundbreaking, but they will be fully realized. They will find their intended audience and will exist as the academic works they are.

And the novels being written in New York? Most will never be finished, let alone published, but they too will exist as the “novel in a drawer” or “noble failure” or some form that bestows a measure of respect upon the author.

But screenplays?  Poor saps.

Many years ago, when I was a journalist working on my second book, I went to LA to do some research.  I stayed with a friend in Santa Monica, and when we were out in social situations, he introduced me like this: “This is my friend Michael from New York. He’s a real writer.”  I liked it then. I cringe when I think about it now, because it’s made me wonder, am I still a real writer?

The unproduced screenplay is nothing. It won’t be read, because nobody reads screenplays for entertainment. It is unfulfilled.  It is meaningless, and its author is a quixotic dreamer. Can’t get no respect.

No respect because the industry does not value the effort. It values only the success and the laurels it bestows upon itself.  Example:  A writer wins an Oscar for a script that everyone in the biz knows he didn’t really write. He’s gotten credit because he wrote a barely serviceable first draft of a high-concept idea that was rewritten by a half a dozen other writers. Still, the guy with the award is going to be a star for a while, have projects thrown at him and even some films produced.

It’s hard for a self-respecting screenwriter to stomach. And I’ve come to dread the words “I love this script” from a studio exec. I know what’s coming next. “But...”

You get just enough encouragement to keep going. Keep plugging away at a new script.  It’s called intermittent reinforcement. The animal (usually a rat) is conditioned with just enough reinforcement to keep doing the same thing over and over again. But soon that reinforcement is removed and the animal continues the same behavior with very little reward at all. It can eventually make for a crazy rat.

So, I quit--at least for now.  A Short History of Decay is my attempt to get off the wheel, to stop holding on to little bits of praise and encouragement. To stop chasing the market, and believing that the occasional paycheck is enough while my soul gets slowly eroded.  Like the folks writing their dissertations and novels, I’m taking control of my work and trying to make something singular and real, out of my own idiosyncratic, particular vision.  Every day now, I take a few steps towards actually making this film.  And for now, that’s good enough for me.

Go to the first post in this series.

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