"Do What You Love, and the Money Will Follow" - Complications Ensue
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Saturday, June 14, 2014

One of the standard bits of advice that the successful give to the aspiring is "write for yourself, and the money will follow." (Well, except for these guys.) It's a specific case of the broader platitude "Do what you love, and the money will follow."

It's wonderful advice for the successful to follow. Pretty much every breakout success happened because someone believed the world needed something only he or she had -- a personal computer, a better way to index the Web, a story to tell.

And for many people, it is excellent advice. Me, for example. I never really considered the odds against becoming a pro screenwriter. I just kept at it until I could support myself. (And I never had to be completely indifferent to the market; people encouraged me all along the way.) Took longer than I had planned, but now I look at my high school classmates who are doctors and lawyers and bankers, and a lot of them are trying to get out of their business. A friend of mine who's a surgeon is trying to put together a singing and acting career. On a larger scale, while I've made a good living (and sometimes a great one) for, let's say, 14 out of the past 15 years, so many of the businesses that were supposed to be safe turned out to be much sketchier. Who ever thought you could bust your butt for years to become partner at your law firm and then the partners could fire you in a downturn?

The problem with this bit of advice is that you almost never hear from the failures. For everyone who follows their bliss and makes it big -- or makes a living at it, at least -- there are uncounted numbers who follow their bliss and fail horribly. 

I get emails from people who have written all thirteen scripts for the first season of their TV series. Unfortunately, they have no credits, and that's not how you make a TV series. 

The truth is, "follow your bliss, and the money will follow ... if your bliss happens to be something that everyone turns out to want." 

See, the problem is, when Matt Weiner writes MAD MEN or Marc Cherry specs DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES or Sylvester Stallone turns down $100,000 for ROCKY after he's had to sell his dog -- they have something that, in retrospect, the market wanted. What they loved and believed in, other people came to love and believe in, too.

I bet, as well, that a lot of people told Stallone he had a pretty amazing script. And people worked with Marc Cherry to help him make his spec amazing. And Stephen King's wife encouraged him to keep writing, and rescued the manuscript of CARRIE from the fireplace. 

"Follow your bliss" is not a blueprint for monomania. The truth is, nobody succeeds alone. Creating something good and new is a tug-of-war between listening to yourself and listening to everybody else. 

I'm sure Marc Cherry had nine other ideas he would have loved to write in addition to DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. But he had a sense that DH would make it. I'm sure Matt Weiner has a folder full of ideas crazier than MAD MEN. Even Sylvester Stallone had another idea -- about a troubled vet in a small town with a mean sheriff -- that didn't get picked up till he was a star.

It is true that you have to write what you love. If you're not loving what you're writing, probably no one else will like it either. (Unless you're a neurotic genius who never likes their own work, but it's really good anyway. But that's rarer than you might think.) If you're bored, the audience will be, too. And life is too short to write stuff you're bored by. Why go through the trouble of being a writer if you're bored? I've never turned in something I hated. 

But I have sometimes had to figure out what I loved about a project. Most pro writers rarely turn down work. That doesn't mean we're whores or hacks. It means we have a talent for finding what we truly love in the material we're hired to work on. 

That's what I do when I consult on story: I try to find what I love in the other guy's work, and help him or her carve it out of what is ordinary and stale. It's not my job to say, "Well, I woulda done it this way." 

(And, by the way, "hack" isn't the insult you might think it is, not among pro writers. I think most of us respect the ability to hack it out -- to turn in something that's at least shootable, on time, regardless of whether the Muse is taking our calls.)

But you have to learn how to listen. As Rabbi Hillel said, "If I am not for me, who am I? If I am not for other people, what am I?"

4 Comments:

As a survivor of an MFA writing program, I would say this type of advice is not shared often enough.

By Blogger David, at 8:00 AM  

I think the following modification would constitute a more reliable piece of advice: "If you become absolutely brilliant and skillful at the thing you love, the probability of your success will be high". This is also true for the thing you don't love, but becoming outstandingly skillful will probably be more tolerable when doing what you love, because you will enjoy the process.

By OpenID neverhood88, at 7:20 PM  

Terrific advice, Alex.

By Blogger VLucas, at 10:51 AM  

great article... reminds me of the Bukowski quote, "find what you love and let it kill you."

Quick, small note... it's a tiny thing, but I feel I must point it out. Stallone never had the idea about a troubled 'Nam vet... that film was based on a novel by David Morrell (who was a professor at the U of Iowa at the time he wrote that).

By Blogger Joshua James, at 9:49 AM  

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