Rut-Stuck — But Can’t Blame Covid
I’ve hit a really embarrassing block.
Had a decade of getting paid for scripts. Festivals, commissions, theatre shows, R&Ds, residencies, coaching, mentoring, more. Great places; fantastic people. Short film out soon, audio play in post-production, big new play off to London and I’m narrative consultant on two documentaries. So why the heck do I feel stuck?
I’ve been gifted with a great mentor through ScreenSkills, and agreed to some simple steps. They’ve been on my To Do list a month. I said it was embarrassing. Even this article’s procrastination — right? So welcome to my navel. Help me poke about for an exit sign, some insight, a light to guide me — and perhaps you — through the stinky darkness of feeling stuck.
Alice, Dorothy, and the Danger of Faith
Like a warped Alice in Wonderland, I’ve chugged down much “writing advice” but it doesn’t say “DRINK ME” on the label. It instructs: if I want to succeed I must, over almost all else, “BE HUNGRY”.
Be hungry to be exceptional, to get that meeting, to pitch brilliantly: to sell, sell sell. SELL SELL SELL. I hear it in chatrooms, on podcasts, costly competitions and lists of writers’ “life-hacks”: wake hours before your family, write after kids’ bedtime, write all the time, read this book, buy that course. Because the creed says, “If you want it enough, you will get it”. It is exhausting.
Another popular one is, “If you are good, you’ll be seen and progress.” A successful writer said this at an early lockdown event. She told her tale of smooth progression: family in the industry, got spotted in a youth competition, got an agent and a pair of Dorothy’s magic slippers (she’s had flying monkeys, too, to be fair). At the end she said encouragingly to the hundreds on the call, “Persist. If you’re good, you will be seen.” Genuinely — I almost wept. She meant to motivate, but I do not think this motto is true.
I think, perhaps it is dangerous.
Behind the Narratives
If you hang out in the online spaces I do, you might recognise this. And if you are successful, it’s an understandable angle: success goes fairly to those with talent and persistence, like me. Others can do what I did. This was not luck; it was ‘natural’. Hard work pays off.
It’s uncomfortable to think otherwise. But I suspect it’s a flawed, if well-meaning, logic. And beyond the problems of industry equity — for producers who want variety as well as writers — and systemic, unwitting and downright deliberate discrimination, isn’t there something fundamentally dysfunctional with a narrative that insists that quality and a driving lack that needs filling (be hungry) is what’s going to get you through the gate?
Let’s break this carrot down some more:
- If you are good and are hungry enough you’ll find success
- You can do something about “good enough” (tho’ that can be subjective)
- But what’s “hungry enough” to satisfy producers and commissioners?
- And what’s “success”? Years of professional screenwriting commissions, growing reputation and increasing financial reward?
Now, pause with me a mo. I am not slagging off the entertainment industry. This is not about the writing, publishing, TV, or film worlds. This is the narrative (you probably already spotted this) that pervades much of our current work ethic. It’s extreme sports-meets-life-coaching. I won’t push the point, but LinkedIn, Netflix, the self-help shelves heave with their words. So let’s get back to writing. Churchill allegedly said, “when you find yourself in the shit, keep going.” So — come, on, let’s get through this Shawshank Redemption tunnel of sewage and out into the light.
“This Is Hell; Nor Am I Out of It”
When a child says it wants to be a writer, do they really mean, “I want to write commissions — often of other people’s ideas — for increasing amounts of money and acclaim”? It sounds more like a Faustian yearning, doesn’t it, born of desperation? It sounds like a dream surrendered. Does any human start out with goals like this?
That’s why, when Mephistopheles offers Faust his heart’s desires in exchange for his immortal soul, can be 100% confident that even though he has his feet firmly in Faust’s laboratory, this place of disappointed, razor-wire hedged yearning is definitely hell.
Child writers — which most of us once were — just want to write stuff for the sake of writing stuff. To make worlds, lose themselves, explore, learn, and adventure. And then maybe, after doing all that fantastic stuff for loads of time, maybe they’ll want to throw the door wide open and welcome others in.
Maybe they’ll want to share what they made. But that isn’t the point of it. That comes later, for all kinds of reasons. Wanting to share it doesn’t mean you want to be rich and famous, or even well thought of and make a decent living. But too often, that stuff comes first in how we talk — and perhaps think — about writing. When we fall in love with the idea of “being a writer”….
I wonder, then: are there two worlds that get called “writing”? Maybe I have been missing this all along and it’s really obvious to everyone else. Maybe I’m way-off beam here. But I can feel myself coming a little unstuck, so stay with me if you fancy finding out.
First of all, World One: the creative world of writing, where stories emerge and grow in the imagination. Then, World Two. The sharing place — for our purposes here, The Entertainment Business, stage, screen, gaming or print. And this is, and usually needs to be, a business.
World One: Imagination; World Two: Business. Not the same place. Both often called “Writing”. When neither really is.
The Necessary World of Business
Let’s look down the telescope at World Two: the business. What is it?
- It has to be commercial — I can’t be the only one who doesn’t want the State as the only commissioner in town.
- To be a successful business, paying well and always improving, it needs quality “content” that people want to engage with.
- To function, its choices have to be largely self-interested and support what’s best for the business. That means considering a genuinely complex blend of past, present and anticipated audience taste, competitive intelligence, the global picture and channels of consumption, as well as what’s happening for other entertainments, from games to novels to toys.
How an artist engages with that world is a choice. There is no mandate.
But I have always interpreted what I heard about this “writing world” as an edict (“be hungry! sell!”). But of course (Homer Simpson DOH! moment), I didn’t have to listen, did I? I could have used my own judgement. Better late than never. Yes, perhaps there is too great a focus on selling work. But that helps people who want that. I repeat:
How an artist engages with that world is a choice. There is no mandate.
I just thought it was all there was to the scriptwriting world and of course, — DOH.
The Grail Quest
Now to poke World One: the writers’ world of imagination. I’ll describe what I believe it to be. Yours might be very different and you might know of worlds Three, Four, and many more.
- This is a place where — first of all — a writer listens.
- Where “a writer” is called this only because writing is something they will do later if they need to share (through writing) what they find. They could be called a wonderer, a wanderer or a typist for all it matters, because in World One, there is no cachet or romance around the name of this job or person.
- Because no-one else is here. No-one cares.
- When you first arrive, World One is made entirely of exploration and questions. Full of distorting mirrors and magic potions, here there is nothing but fantastic, back-brain magic and the physics of fantasy.
- If you try to get about with your ego in this space, using a plan or front-brain know-how, the whole universe starts crumbling to dust, crashes and burns, or vanishes in a puff of smoke; your marvellous phoenix turns out to be nowt but a warty witch.
- World One is just listening, receiving, wondering, asking. World One is not-knowing. It’s where artists once listened to the Muses.
Is this ringing any bells? To use the old hero’s journey template, in World One, it’s where you’ve crossed the threshold into an unknown world. You are unarmed, an innocent abroad.
You have to be lost. No — not your character; I mean YOU. And that is why your ego is not only useless here, but it’s the last thing you want to have with you. Your ego is a ball and chain, tying you to the upper world and will not let you progress. To advance in World One, You have to let go all your World Two intentions. Not forever. But genuinely. For now. You are here to find. You are on a quest.
7. And the grail may not be what you think it is.
(I love that).
Someone’s Tearing Open My Flesh. Oh. It’s Me.
Because I was so busy wringing my hands at all the sales talk I was taking in, I started to drown. Paying attention to all the sales talk was what was making me feel stuck! As if by magic, a wise philosopher I know nudged me gently to shore.
First of all, he listened. “It hurts,” I said. “I feel like I am being judged as a failure. That I am not hungry enough and hunger is how my worth is measured. But I don’t want to be hungry. I want to make work that I feel is beautiful in its own way, that resonates with audiences because I’m part of a team who made it something really good.”
He smiled. I couldn’t stop.
“I feel my behaviour — not my writing — is being judged by this; that my hunger levels are the passport. It feels Kafka-esque. And elitist.” His gentle eyebrow lifted a little. “I’m a freelancing single parent of a primary school child. Ten years’ writing and decades in other worlds, too. If there’s time, I write and rewrite. Sometimes time for an article — and a wink through the fourth wall. At night, reading, TV, films, radio, more writing. I am ravenous — to explore, absorb and make, but not sell! But I have to sell, and so I feel like a failure.”
The philosopher smiled and told me about duhkha. It’s Best translated as ‘unsatisfactoriness’, it ranges from the pain you get from a punch in the face and stretches across boredom and pining to agonised yearning and existential angst. “Toothache of the soul,” he called it (don’t nick that — call me and book him!). I think of it as the “ouch” felt on having to let go of something you’re attached to. Like an ivy’s roots being yanked out of the brick wall. It’s loss. It’s wanting. Not getting. Not having. Longing. It’s caused by craving. By THE HUNGER.
And there is no escape. Duhkha is life. It is what life is about. All you fellow ex-Goths out can pat yourselves on the back. It’s what any seasoned writer, politician, athlete, lover — in fact, anyone with any desire, ambition or aspiration knows: the wanting, getting and losing is what life is all about. It’s what we put every character through, after all. It is the human condition.
What does this mean for my selling block? Do I have to just accept the rut and get on with the the sell sell sell? No. Why not? Because if an artist lives too much in World 2, what do they have to sell? Nothing but fumes — and those might well be coming from your own burnout.
Marketeers Call It ‘Purpose’; LinkedIn Calls It ‘Authenticity’
Anyone who spend enough time in their own World One has a genuine reason to do what they need to do when it comes to engaging with the outside world. The politician feels compelled to persuade people, on the doorsteps, town hall or Parliament. The athlete is compelled to turn up on race day. And the writer is compelled to make that story sing and get it to someone who will help them share it with audiences the best way they can.
Their action is purposeful and authentic. Not because they decide “I’m going to be purposeful and authentic”, but because their engine is based in World One, and that is what turns the wheels. The energy to operate in World Two comes from what you absorb when you listen, play, create, question and reflect. The desire to go to World Two is natural; not forced by any desire for fame, wealth or reputation. You have to go there because World One sends you there when you’re ready.
World Two is not supposed to be a treasure trove where you get stuff; it’s not even a market place. It’s where others come to listen. It’s merely the outside world. The gateway to others’ imaginations. World Two is — I think — where you give stuff.
And so if World Two is where you give stuff, then as far as the heroic journey model goes, it’s not another world at all. It’s the final Act (before you start all over again, of course). Not a quest in its own right, but a part of the road, the artist’s return home with the elixir they found by going deeply into World One. The blood and guts have been washed from your body, you’ve gained mastery, and you carry back what you found to share with the others.
It now seems obvious that you can’t go into World Two, the sharing place, empty-handed. Obvious that you had to go very naked into World One first. Sometimes I feel people “succeed” (in World Two), without that much to offer. But seeing things this way, I think that’s their business and I no longer have a personal problem with it; it doesn’t hurt because I don’t think they have been hungrier; I’m not interested. What matters for me is spending all the time I need in World One. Because that’s where the treasure is.
Oh, yes, My selling block. Sorted? Yes. Because I don’t feel I have to sell anything — I just — when I am ready — have to tell.