A pal of mine who got his MFA in screenwriting from UCLA talks more about one lecture than any other when he reminisces about his time in the program. Apparently, it’s a lecture that legendary UCLA screenwriting professor Howard Suber gave every year, and students present and past—some A-list writers—crowded into the classroom to hear it again and again. To be reminded.
The subject of the lecture was “Despair.” The upshot: it’s the number one killer of a writing career, budding or blossomed. Here’s the other thing: it happens to everyone. All writers experience despair over their writing, their careers, their writing life. At times, they’re crippled by it. The trick, of course, is to not succumb to it.
I guess the solution really is that straightforward. But if my time and experience on this earth have taught me one thing, it’s that just because something is simple, it doesn’t mean it’s easy.
If you’re looking for a quick guide to avoiding or overcoming despair in this blog post, I’m afraid you’ll be sorely disappointed. I don’t know how to avoid it, and I think the process of overcoming it is as personal as writing, itself. This post is about acknowledging it.
I appreciate Suber’s lecture not only because he feels despair is so prevalent in a writer’s life it deserves an entire lecture dedicated to it, but also because writers of all stripes and at all levels of achievement flock to the lecture. On a related note, one of the few things I appreciate about Twitter is other writers—especially working writers—who are courageous enough to acknowledge and talk about their feelings of despair. It lends credence to my own feelings. It gives me solace. It reminds me that I’m not alone or abnormal or a failure because I experience despair. In fact, it shines a light on a fundamental truth about writing that evaded for years and freakin’ years.
Despair isn’t a breakdown in the writing process. Despair is part of the writing process.
Here’s a weird thing about my own despair. Yes, it tends to show up when I am already sad about something, and yes, it often sneaks up on me when I am exhausted. But for me, despair most often shows up in what seems to me a very strange time…when I am on the verge. When I’m about to step up to the next level. It’s the meeting or the sending off the script and then the waiting to hear what comes of it. It’s not all the time, though. It’s the big moments that really get me. It’s stronger the closer I get to a real breakthrough. I remember telling my UCLA pal last year—literally in the same conversation I told him we’d just attached a kick-ass star to a TV pilot I wrote, and our target cable network was interested in the project—that I’d thought about quitting writing more over the course of that year than I ever had before. At a time when most people would say all I had was “good problems.”
I know, for me, the feeling is partly the product of time. And by “time” I mean the long haul.
I’m very fortunate in that I’ve made a living at writing for going on fourteen years now. It’s officially the longest career I’ve ever had. In that time, I’ve kept a roof over my family’s head, kept cars in the driveway, paid my bills, and sent kids through college. I’ve developed lots of cool projects with lots of cool people. I know how blessed I am to be able to even say that because I also know countless others who have striven longer and harder than I have aren’t so lucky. But to date I’ve only had one thing (in the narrative space, at least) produced. To top it off, nearly five years ago, at an age that would be considered quite sub-optimal to make a radical shift in one’s writing career and just as I was really getting my feet under me in the features arena, I abandon features to focus full time on breaking into writing for TV. I feel great about that decision because the dream was always to write for TV. The move, however, kicked the goalpost out farther for me. What I’m trying to say is, though I’ve had breaks as a writer and have been lucky enough to make a living as a screenwriter for awhile now, I would not classify myself as someone who’s “broken through.” Someone once told me that anyone can be an overnight success in Hollywood…and it takes about 10-15 years. If that’s the case, I’m still a late bloomer.
I know about the long haul and the all-too-familiar so-close-yet-so-far cycle of elation followed by deflation when the thing you’re certain will push you over the line either a.) doesn’t come to fruition, or b.) doesn’t push you over the line after all. A couple years ago, I was having lunch with a producer who said to me, “Wow…you’re, like, one Deadline headline away from really breaking through.” I know he meant that as a compliment, but the statement kind of gutted me. It reminded me of how much time I’d been pushing this rock up the hill, only to have it roll back down again. How much life force I’d given to the endeavor. How much I’d given up over years and years to keep in the game. I’m not gonna lie…after the meeting, I sat in my car and cried for nearly an hour. It all felt so…futile.
I mean, it’s embarrassing. Yes, I know it takes a long time, if it ever happens at all. But damn! To have been at it this long, when so many others have broken through much faster than—
Okay…that’s one thing I knew I had to shut down ASAP. Yes, I can’t help feeling the emotion of embarrassment. I can’t even help feeling a little jealous for my friends and colleagues—even as I cheer them on and genuinely congratulate them—when they succeed. I’m human. And I guess I’m going to worry that I got too late a start and I’m too old to be only as far as I am no matter what my better angels have to say on the matter. But letting it get to me was going to kill me as a writer.
That’s when I realized talking about despair was so important. Giving voice to it. Getting it out. Exorcising it. Giving it over to the collective. Listening. Hearing them as they give voice to their own doubts, to their own despair. This is when I understood the value of speaking out about it. Not to grouse, but to look at it. To acknowledge it. To friends and to the world. To do so without worry that others will think you’re weak, or that it will somehow turn people off and derail progress you’ve worked so hard to make.
Because giving voice to it is the only way you learn the truth. Everyone. Feels. It. Everyone struggles with it. That’s when you realize you’re not the exception. You’re the rule. Working through despair is part of all writers’ journeys.
Of course, knowing that isn’t a magic bullet, but it’s something. It sure took the edge of for me this past year.
On top of that, reading tweets from Eric Heisserer in a moment when he was struggling with his own despair last year (after winning an Oscar, no less!). Reading a response from Paul Feig to an aspiring writer who asked for advice for someone that feels like giving up, when Paul responded, “Don’t. Never. Never give up. Don’t even consider it. Don’t let negativity win.” And finally, from one of my fave TV writers, Gennifer Hutchinson, when she reminded everyone to “Run your own race.” Seeing that these writers, all of whom I respect greatly, struggled or understood the struggle helped give me strength. And something else happened. My despair transformed from a defect in my own personality to a something of a badge of honor. “If I’m feeling it, I’m part of the club.” In a strange, upside-down way, it made me feel more “real” as a writer. Because writing is hard. Even more, if you subscribe to Thomas Mann’s view, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
And here’s an interesting tidbit. This past year, as I spent much of that time as a writer in despair… When all the hurdles seemed so big, when I was exhausted from working two full time jobs (I also teach screenwriting), when I (like many of us) felt disheartened and discouraged at the direction our country and culture was headed. When getting up and sitting in front of my keyboard was an act of will. When actually tapping keys was even more arduous. …it was also one of my most productive years as a writer.
Why? I think it’s because during that time, one thought kept running through my mind. It showed up nearly every day, and it would often find its way to my lips and out into the world. I kept saying, “I must really love writing.” Each time I said it, it surprised me. It was something of a revelation. After awhile, though, I understood the real message underneath the message. When everything else was stripped away. When I set aside my hopes and expectations about my writing “career,” and when all there was left was the singular act of creation, I still enjoyed it. That was the thing that got me up in the morning. And when I got to the end of something…a line, an exchange, a scene, a script…I was reminded that these are moments when I feel most alive. Most in tune with humanity. Most plugged into the Universe. Awash in gratitude for this thing I get to do.
This is a good thing to remember.
And here’s the kicker. I don’t think I would have gotten there without my despair. The darkness was a pathway to the light.
Over the past few weeks (and this weekend especially), I’ve have been revisited by despair. It hasn’t been overwhelming, but it made for a rocky road yesterday. Then again, I am tired. Life’s been a little over-the-top lately. And I’m a little sad over the death of my best friend a few weeks ago. And, of course, I’m waiting to hear back on a couple big things I’ve got brewing. All of this, I’ve come to accept, makes fertile ground for despair to take root. I get that now, and I’m not shocked when I find myself wallowing in it.
In fact, yesterday that made me feel a little…relieved..? Right. My old pal, despair, reminding me that I am, above all, a writer. So okay…maybe I’m not gonna write Shakespeare because I am not feeling too hot today, but dammit…I’m a writer. So let’s do something. I sat down in front of my computer and pulled up a script I’d written awhile back and wasn’t so sure about. I’d pretty much given up on it. Within the hour, I’d printed out a copy and was editing. Madly. By late afternoon, I got to the end and realized, “Wait! I think I have something here.” By the end of the day, I emailed it off to my manager to get his feedback. This thing I thought I’d never show anyone.
So here is my take on despair: I’ve learned to neither avoid it nor try to overcome it. I welcome it. I feel gratitude for it, even though it doesn’t feel too great in the moment. And so, to my despair, I say, thank you for being part of the process and for helping me feel the import of this work I do. Thank you for being the reminder that I am making progress, and thank you for being a beacon that helps me find the way to the other side when worry and insecurity takes hold. And thank you for your presence in my writing life.
3 thoughts on “On despair and writing”
I LOVE reading what’s on your mind Bill. Bravo!
Thank you, my friend. Hope all is well in the Lisa-verse!
Wow, this post and the Make A Promise post was so good for one main reason. It was so honest. It has stayed with me and has me realizing the weight I put on things that make task seem garguatious. I am going to take a different approach.