Hollywood on the Couch

The inside scoop on Tinseltown, USA.

Memo to a Successful Writer

How to keep making it after you've made it

I’ve heard from a number of my Hollywood writing patients who are new to the business, as well as some successful veterans, ask me to write a column about them. People who are doing well, having their TV scripts and screenplays produced, being offered good deals.

So here goes.

It doesn’t suck. When they option your work, when your film is opening or your pilot is picked up, it can be very sweet indeed.

There are still challenges, of course. Like keeping your focus on the writing, and not getting caught up in just having meetings and developing pitches. Not to mention the effort it takes, in the midst of all the business concerns, to remember why you wanted to write in the first place.

Success in the industry can be as terrifying as it is exciting, as complicated as it is gratifying. But it’s worth it. Seeing your words transformed into feature films and TV episodes, getting to communicate what’s in your mind and heart to countless others, is a profound joy.

That said, here are some things to remember to help keep you grounded...and keep you writing.

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YOU ARE ENOUGH. You have everything you need—right now—to be the writer you want to be. As Emerson said, “To know that what is true for you in your private heart is true for everyone—that is genius.” Which means each writer has within him or her the entire range of human experience. If you feel it and think it, pretty much everyone else does, too. So keep mining your own particular thoughts and feelings, what excites or worries or intrigues you, and you’ll have an inexhaustible supply of things to write about.

STAY CURIOUS. One of the great gifts that creative people tend to share is a sense of wonder. The best way to keep your writing fresh and your ideas unique is to be open to new experiences, concepts and situations. Moreover, smart writers are always reading new things, discovering new films or innovative TV programs—in other words, keeping their eyes and ears open to what else is going on around them creatively.

BE IN THE WORLD. I don’t mean you have to watch CNN 24/7, but an understanding of the issues and stresses confronting the people around you is crucial to keeping your writing relevant. Whether you write the broadest of comedies or the most sober of dramas, the best writing is informed by the context in which it is created. Our own culture—political, social, economic—is and has always been the well-spring for the most creative story-telling. It’s what makes a narrative or a collection of characters—and their concerns—relatable to the audience.

DON’T PANIC IF YOU GET STUCK. What does it mean if, in the midst of a script or treatment, you get stuck? It means you’re a writer—and that’s all it means. Writing is hard (and good writing is harder!), so getting stuck, or having doubts about which direction to take the narrative, is just part of the job. Writers only get in trouble when they give their writing problems a personal meaning—when they think it’s evidence of some defect or inadequacy in themselves. It isn’t. In my experience, once I help patients challenge the notion that a writing problem indicates something deficient in them, they tend to be better able to grapple with the actual problem itself—and work through it.

TRUST YOURSELF. Your talent, instincts and hard work have gotten you this far, so it’s unlikely that this skill set will abandon you. No matter how things are going, trust yourself. Every writer, regardless of success, has to navigate the ups and downs of the business. This is a lot easier to do if you can trust yourself—creatively, professionally and personally. You’re the one knows best how to tell a story, craft compelling characters, build to a suspenseful moment or the pay-off to a joke. You know best how to thrill an audience, how to make them laugh and cry and think.

Which means, no matter what, remember who you are and what you can do

Dennis Palumbo is a former Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter) turned licensed psychotherapist and mystery author.

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