Member Post: Writing Your Way To A (Paying) Career
I remember orientation vividly. A room full of strangers buzzed with excitement, still shocked and thrilled that we had actually gotten an acceptance letter and were now entering film school at USC. It was a dream. We imagined ourselves stepping up to the podium on Oscar night and making our acceptance speeches, or getting into Sundance and consequently having a fabulous and lucrative career trajectory that started immediately after graduation and never let up. One day we’d be laughing it up with Meryl Streep at the Vanity Fair Oscar party, or joking with George Clooney, the producer of our latest indie feature (it would be a total passion project for him, of course). As visions of artistic glory danced in my head, the speaker asked, “How many of you want to be directors?” Every single hand in the room shot up to the heavens. Seconds later, our ramrod-straight arms wilted back into our laps when we heard the words, “Well, a very small percentage of you will go on to become working directors.” Ouch.
It was a challenge – and a reality check. In truth, at least in the Production program, a small percentage of us have become working directors. That doesn’t mean we’re not working towards it, or that it won’t happen. My arm shot to the heavens on orientation day when we were asked that fateful question, and now, several years out of grad school, I’m not an Oscar-nominated director and I don’t think I’ve ever been within a mile of Meryl, but I am a working writer, and I’m paying the bills by being creative every single day. It’s pretty incredible. Do I have the itch to get an indie feature off the ground or sell a script? Absolutely. That dream isn’t dead, and I’m working on it – it’s just that my path to getting there is taking me in directions I never would have expected, which leads me to some of the most important career lessons I’ve learned so far:
Keep an open mind: During my last year in the M.F.A. program, a professor - who was also a successful, working television producer – said that we need to keep our minds open when it comes to our career path. It won’t be just like Spielberg’s or Bigelow’s or like that person who graduated two years ago and won Sundance. Maybe your path leads you to sound or producing or art direction. Maybe you surprise yourself by making docs instead of sci-fi blockbusters. Since graduation I worked as a development C.E. for two years, wrote two comic books that were published in 2013, started a comedic blog that was featured on NPR and AOL News and landed me a lit agent, got hired to write dialogue for a burlesque show (I tried to channel Bob Fosse – not an easy task), landed a few (small) screenwriting gigs, got interviewed on 20/20 because of an article I wrote, interviewed Martin Scorsese in front of about 300 people, and have seen my writing featured in Forbes, Glamour, Ask Men, IndieWire, The Hairpin and several other pubs. I’m not saying this to show you how fabulous things are. To get to the point where I could call myself a full-time, working writer I had to babysit (changing diapers for cash after getting an M.F.A. is enlightening, let me tell you), take random gigs like blogging for a lamp store (fun times), and talk myself off the, “This career is too hard I’ll just go be an accountant” ledge more than a few times. I really think that if you keep your goal fixed, but allow yourself to try different routes on the way you’ll realize that actually having a career as a director (or producer or D.P. or writer) isn’t only about the final moment of glory. It’s about pushing and working your way towards living a creative life, because that’s really what all of this is about. As long as you’re being creative and pushing every single day, you’re doing more than most.
Don’t take “no” for an answer: OK, obviously you don’t want to be a stalker or a pest. If an agent passes on your script or book proposal, you should thank them very much for taking the time to read it, pick yourself up off the floor, and try someone else. Rejection is an everyday part of this life, obviously. When I say don’t take “no” for an answer I mean don’t let that horrible little word stop you. I never would have expected to be writing comic books, but one day I read about a publisher whose sensibility seemed to mesh with mine (campy, comedic). Their website said that they weren’t looking for new writers, but I decided to try anyway. It wasn’t an outright “no,” but it was pretty close. I didn’t have anything to lose, so I wrote them. Emails led to phone calls, which then led to writing the books. Did I make a million dollars and get a bouquet of roses from George Clooney? No, but I loved doing it, it expanded my mind creatively, and I discovered a new medium. I don’t think I could have done it without applying everything I learned at USC – framing, storyboards, story, editing, etc. The point is – if the word “no” makes you paralyzed with fear, you might need to reassess your goals. If you have that insane (some might say psychotic) drive to keep pushing past rejection, you’ll get to where you need to go eventually. That ability to push past rejection is half the battle.
Accept that it’s a business: Some people can work creatively and also have a shrewd business sense. I am not one of those people. At least, I didn’t used to be. I used to think art would triumph and the “suits” were the enemy and you should be able to cast Mark Ruffalo as the lead in a film even though his name doesn’t mean anything in Germany. In school, you’re often told to write about what you’re passionate about, and to tell your intimate, personal stories. You should – if you’re not passionate about a project you will be incredibly miserable. Still, working as a development C.E. taught me to accept that as creative and cerebral as entertainment can be, it’s also a business, and the sooner you can reconcile to two, the happier (and more successful) you’ll be. I’m not saying you should sell out and only write 3D zombie Twilight scripts. If you want to raise money for an intimate, black and white, coming-of-age story set in the Adirondacks, staring unknown actors with minimal dialogue, don’t expect Paramount to swoop in and champion your passion project. Think about your audience, where you want your film or show to screen, and who you want to reach. Keep your artistic integrity, but also remember that it’s a business. Make it easy for them to say “yes” to you. Collaboration isn’t just about picking the color pallet for a scene or discussing how to frame a shot – you’ll have to collaborate with the business side of the industry as well. Thinking of them as the enemy won’t help your cause, or your career.
The 24-hour pity party: Like I said, you will face rejection. That C.E. job I told you about? I got laid off in 2010, lost my paycheck and my expense account, and found myself with no health insurance and a lot of free time (not a happy prospect when the term “unemployed” is involved). It ended up being a blessing since it motivated me to really pursue writing for the first time, but it was still scary. That experience, plus the experience of having a book proposal on submission (a fun adventure if you consider crippling, ulcer-inducing anxiety a blast) taught me the power of allowing yourself a finite time to stew and wallow in your misery. Say you don’t get into Sundance or you don’t make the Nicholl shortlist. Rather than mope around for a week or two cursing the universe and driving your friends and family to drink every time your name pops up on caller ID, give yourself 24 hours (or even five hours if you’re really into tough love) to mope. I started doing this when I realized that all that pouting meant I was wasting precious time that I could have been writing or brainstorming or working out a new pitch. If you do this often enough, you almost become like a machine (in a good way). Good producers often have 10 or 15 projects in various stages of development, and writers should do the same. Don’t spread yourself thin, but don’t put all your hopes and dreams on one project. Having more than one idea or script or short story makes it easier to stop obsessing over the “no” and move on to a potential “yes.”
Bio: Dina Gachman graduated in 2007 with an MFA in production. Her thesis film Archer House toured the fest circuit and won the Jury Award for Directing at the Sidewalk Film Festival. Her comedic blog about the economy, Bureaucracy for Breakfast, was featured on Marketplace on NPR, AOL News, and Huffington Post. It was picked by Chelsea Handler’s Borderline Amazing Comedy as a featured blog and named one of the “24 Top Blogs and Bloggers Who Deserve Academy Awards” alongside sites like People of Walmart, Huffington Post, and Funny or Die. She regularly contributes to Forbes, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Hairpin, and Ask Men, she’s a staff writer at Studio System News, and her writing has also appeared in Glamour, The Los Angeles Times, and The Chicago Tribune. She’s written comic books about Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, both published by Bluewater Comics in 2013. Playboy’s Kim Morgan called the Marilyn book a “sensitive, celebratory ode to Monroe.” In June 2013 Gachman was interviewed on ABC 20/20 for a segment called “Teen Confidential,” which explored the Rich Kids of Instagram phenomenon. She’s currently writing a comedy feature and is represented by Foundry Literary + Media.