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“The Truth and the God Awful Truth”

The Truth and the God Awful Truth

Cynthia’s Column Oct. 2006

I have been struggling lately, trying to stay on my feet as I straddle the gap between faith, optimism and positive thinking on one side, with the other foot trying to stay grounded in the reality of changing markets and lack of work in my writing field, long form television.  I need to look carefully at the situation or I could fall into a pretty big hole here.

This past summer marks my 30th anniversary as a professional writer.  I have said for years, “I’ve been making my living as a writer for X number of years.”  The truth is, for the last couple of years less than half my income has been made from writing.  This year, so far, I’ve only had two T.V. writing gigs.  Happily one of them included a TV movie being filmed and aired, but still, it’s not quite a living.  I have taught for years because I love to teach.  Now I also need the supplemental income.  Oh, and I’m refinancing my house.

Should I be ashamed of this?  That I can’t make a living as a writer at the moment?  That I don’t make now what I did ten years ago?  I’m trying not to be ashamed.  There are brilliant, heroic writers in this country who do incredible work for far less than minimum wage over years to give us their novels.  As a society it is scandalous how we underpay our novelists and poets on the whole.

I had a disagreement at the conference with Larry Brooks whose attitude in his luncheon speech was to be brutally frank about how tough it is for novelists in the marketplace now.  I have always been of the “pump them up” school of teaching writing or speaking to writers.  I tell the truth, but as Mark Twain said, “not the God awful truth.”  I have used inspiring quotes my whole life to keep me going.  If I had known the God Awful Truth, or believed it, as a young writer I’m not sure I could have kept going long enough to break through and create a successful career that could support my family for (almost) thirty years.

I don’t mean to pick on Larry.  His point of view is completely valid, but as a writer with a successful career, even I felt flattened by “the whole truth.”  We writers are a pretty tough group.  Most of us understand that it’s not the fast and easy road to riches.  It’s a slow and steep climb, but the process itself is so endlessly interesting and satisfying that it makes the journey worthwhile, whatever the outcome.  But still, would we make the effort if we thought there was no chance of success?  Probably not many of us.  We don’t mind delayed gratification.  But we’re not thrilled by the idea of posthumous gratification.

Let me try to find the balance here.  Thanks for being my therapists, friends.

On one of the screenwriting panels at the Willamette Writers Conference I sat beside an executive from TNT, one of our more successful cable TV networks.  I asked her how many movies TNT was making per year.  She said four.  Four.  I just read the TV Guide’s new season schedule.  No movie nights.  No scheduled TV movies.  Lifetime is the only network that seems to be making more than a handful.

The Emmy for best writer of a TV Movie this year was just won by Richard Curtis.  My favorite screenwriter.  Writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral.  Notting Hill.  Love, Actually.  I love Richard, but I can’t compete with him.  If you were a network T.V. exec and could choose between RC and any other writer in the world, you’d pick Richard.  Hell, I’d pick Richard.  What chance do the rest of us mortals have?

In June I flew to L.A. and had 11 pitch meetings in 3 days.  At those meetings I pitched 19 projects.  All those meetings went well.  I followed up on all of them with pitch pages, and threw in a couple more ideas by email and phone.  Of those 21 projects, none has led to work so far.  Two or three are still under consideration, but the others came to nothing.  So what’s a freelance writer to do?

I’m flying back to L.A. in October to teach at the Screenwriting Expo (this will cover the cost of a plane ticket, but I do NOT make my living as a teacher.  I think.  I’ll do the math and get back to you on that.)  And while I’m in L.A., I’ll do four days of pitch meetings.  For which I’ll come up with a dozen new ideas and work out the stories.  And roll the dice again and see what happens.  It’s like a flashback to the seventies when I’d pitch my butt off for a few jobs.  Then I figured it was twelve pitches for every job I landed.  Now it’s double that apparently.

And how do I stay happy and sane during these stressful writing months?  By writing.  It’s the only method I’ve ever found, other than the first few months being in love or giving birth to a child.  I’m writing a children’s book.  I have trouble saying this without embarrassment, so let me practice one more time.  I’m writing a children’s book.  The reason I find it embarrassing to say this is that I have good friends who are serious, brilliant lifelong children’s book writers, and I find it hard not to feel like a dilettante who only came late to this genre because I can’t find work in TV.

Actually, I’m not in it for the money.  Over the years many of the scripts I’ve written have not been filmed, even though they’ve sold.  About half are unfilmed.  And some of those stories are so good, it’s a terrible shame they are on the shelf.  The true story that I’m writing as a children’s book is about two women who were spies during the Civil War.  Children should know their story, so I’m writing it for children.

When my students tell me they have several ideas and ask which one they should write first, I say, “Think of them as pots on a stove.  Lift the lids and look inside.  One of your ideas is always closest to being soup.  Write that one first.  Let the others keep bubbling until they’re ready.”  That’s what this one is for me.  The idea that’s ready to be written.  And I’m a writer.  It’s what I do.  And it makes me happy.

Even if I have a bad day in which I’ve had to juggle bills and re-fi guys from the bank, I can hold my head high and say to myself, “Yeah?  Well, I burned Richmond, Virginia to the ground this morning.”  And you know, there’s some satisfaction in that.

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