Title might be a bit of a misnomer, because I’m one who would love to argue that going insane is a right of passage for any high-functioning artist, but I want to be a promoter of mental health and well-being. Because, for real, these industries will drive you insane.
I say this now from what would be considered an envious position to my college-aged self, and to many aspiring creatives, in that I’ve made decent freelance money as a creative throughout my 20s. I’m close with writers who have been paid a lot of money for a script, who’ve seen several of their ideas get optioned. I know people with Master’s Degrees from the biggest film schools, and placements in all the big contests and websites, webinars, and seminars. Blah, blah, etc., etc.
Me, I went to Penn State, majored in Film Theory and minored in English, graduated and went straight to being a music consultant learning under major label producers. Studios and rappers and singers and rockers, the rebel kids, home of the wild child. Whole time I’m like, life-changing money is inevitable.
Dear reader, it was not.
The most valuable skills you can have are resiliency and discipline. You simply cannot control anything else. You are still on planet earth, dealing with human beings, after all.
And I give this (hopefully) useful advice to you, because I would’ve wanted it.
I’ve been in a room with a music executive, playing an album that took years to create, and having that exec be mind-blown. Something we made in our aunt’s basement, now playing on an ABC show. Everyone excited. Some of the most famous acts in the world adorning the office walls. The contract comes back, it’s not nearly enough to change people’s lives. 50 grand, 100 grand, to be split amongst four people. Some who have wives, kids even. We’re close, we’re right there.
But no cause for celebration yet.
I’ve been in rooms where this revelation crushed the artist, and years of hard work went down the drain as they retreated into bitterness. I’ve seen screenwriters who made hundreds of thousands on a single sale, being asked to write on spec, being lowballed for complete and total rights to their work. Producers hanging up right in their face when they pushed back on a note. Triggering endless cycles of self-doubt.
A tough and dangerous game, this one.
Having been around enough people who inevitably do sign a respectful record deal, I’ve become the jaded A&R consultant, even without the major-label salary. I’m arguing to the artist, the work doesn’t stop after you get the deal. That’s the easy part. The hard part is not letting the work drive you insane, because it will, if you let it.
I argue that if you prove that you have the work ethic to match the talent, we can start from there and get where we need to go. I argue to musicians every day, you’re in a place where your skillset can really be a driving force, and you need to cultivate it and trust it. And not lose your mind in the process.
And then I turn around with a bunch of scripts and enter an industry that does not view the writer as a driving force. A songwriter, a novelist, there’s a more streamlined way to get money into the pocket of the artist. I’m trying to argue that I am in fact one of the most talented people in the room, I’m trying to make everyone here money. Enough for you and your people. The spouse and the kids. I’m talking like the rap star, the R&B crooner, the pop producer. Because I’ve showed up right next to that person, with music I helped work on, and it turned into a contract.
To be an artist that makes any money, this is a thing that always requires a component of graciousness. But it also requires a component of audacity.
This type of behavior from a screenwriter is sacrilege, which I find endlessly fascinating. Screenwriters are a forlorn bunch, I’d come to discover. Self-flagellating, self-deprecating, just happy to be here. Novelists, they go on book tours, they’re on the back and front of the whole thing. You may not have ever heard of some of the biggest songwriters in the world, but their work permeates billboard charts all around the globe—the most famous people on the planet call them in for their talents.
The Screenwriter: often looked at as an afterthought.
Let’s get a bunch of them in a room and have them talk for a while and we’ll pull from there. A robotic monkey perhaps, someone who exists as a conduit for more powerful, influential elements of this creative process. This is why so many “traditional” writers avoid screenwriting—you’re not the one who runs the show.
How not to go insane, hmm. Have I answered that?
You have to accept the challenge of screenwriting. You have to love the prospect of having to convince so many people this is the right move. Of creating an end product that does the convincing FOR YOU, creating something that makes it obvious to everyone this is what we should do. You have to embrace the limits of the format, the page count. The fact that it has to go through other hands, be interpreted and reenacted.
This has to be the fun part for you.
If this isn’t the case, you are not in the correct medium for writing. In this place, you are tasked with creating an idea that’s meant to be let go, transformed, molded through many talents and lenses.
As the screenwriter, as an artist in general, all I’ve come to do is trust the process. Trust that if I’m incredibly efficient, if I display range and depth, if I can present the highest possible art in raw capitalistic terms, this will win out in the end. My ability to put a feeling into you, that stays and lingers and turns into things I could never imagine, this will win out in the end.
As I write this to you, I am an unrepped writer. I am a broke writer, as we are wont to be. I have a big, fancy meeting with a big, fancy studio in a month or so, and perhaps this changes things. I go in there and act like Kanye, argue that if they just get me to Paul Thomas Anderson, we’ll be banking off this art thing for decades, and it’s a beautiful story. I’m familiar with big, fancy meetings, however. I’m usually the one turning to the artist like, “The only thing that needs to impress us is the contract, it does not matter what’s being said.”
How not to go insane, have I answered that?
Yes, of course, make your process as efficient as possible. What do you need to feel inspired? What do you need to get it down on paper? How are you approaching the editing process so that it's in its best and most influential form, that maximizes both creative integrity and financial viability. Inform yourself on this spectrum. Find out where you care about landing on that particular spectrum. If you put in the time, the answers will come, inevitably. This is what you need to care about.
Why care about these things?
So that you can just leave it alone and not care about it and do all the other things you need to stay a well-adjusted human being while on planet earth. The process cannot save everything. The work can’t replace time, or relationships, or experiences. You work like a maniac because it allows you to turn it off when it’s not time to do that. And then when you’re tasked to perform, you know what it takes. You know how to flip the switch. You show up with the art. Fealty to the process can only guarantee you a quality end product that you are proud of and represents what you wanted to create.
That’s all it can do. Accepting this reality will help liberate you from being a slave to your own artistic ambitions.
I stay sane because the switch is not always on. I know when to rest. To be still. To be loud, to dance. To always be the student, to trust in resilience and discipline. If I can do this, of course you can do this. All I did was watch a bunch of TV shows and movies all the time. All I did was listen to a bunch of music all the time. And then I started being like, “I’m an A&R Consultant, I’m a screenwriter.” And then I showed them the work, and people were like, yeah, well, I guess he is.
So, if I can do that, why can’t you do that? If I got to the big fancy meeting and this blog post acting like this, being myself, why can’t you do that? Of course you can, you just need to show up with the work. Of course you can create work that moves people, resiliency and discipline is within you. The magic is in the process, as the great Coach Thibs would say.
And besides, if you’re going to go insane for the art powers as I did, at least MAKE THEM PAY YOU FOR IT.
*Feature Image: Cristina Bernazzani (Adobe)