Glad You Asked Department 7/29/13
Been awhile since I’ve done the question-answer thing. But the other day Kate sent in what I think is a good one:
“People say you have to be tough as nails to make it out in LA in the television industry. I believe them. But many writers are, as I’m sure you’re aware, sensitive by nature. I know I am. It’s a part of me that I like – it lets me see things from different angles, empathize with others, and I think it helps inform my writing by allowing me to feel deeply. It must be possible to have a tough outer shell and a soft interior. Is that what most television writers are like? If so, how do they do it? If not, what can I do?”
This question made me think long and hard. Even do a little soul searching. Here’s how it came out:
On its face, your question sounds simple but this issue really is very complicated. Still, I’ll try to be brief:
I’m autistic. Obviously very mildly. Asperger’s was the diagnosis years ago (but not so many years ago that it helped me through my childhood/teenagehood/young adult years. The APA has officially decided Asperger’s doesn’t exist anymore, so I’m left with “autism,” which probably would get my insurance company to kick in if I were treated.
Anyway – I’ve always been very “introverted,” as my mother said, using that word as a pejorative, to shame me for being quiet, withdrawn, sensitive. The only worlds I felt comfortable in were the worlds created by books/films/TV. Interacting with people – even 1 “people” – caused and still causes physical pain. I’ve written in various places about how I survived being that kind of person: James Dean’s film persona became very big when I was in high school, and I kind of wrapped it around myself so I could be sensitive and withdrawn and yet also perceived as “cool.” I’ve since learned that the Brody-Dean character was so successful that I was kind of a high school god. Too bad I didn’t know it then. (Or maybe not.)
I decided very early in my life that I wanted to write. Both so I could give back the relief that other people’s writing had given me and also because what I thought was the writer’s life, solitary and therefore protected, was the only one I’d be able to endure. I wrote and sold dozens of short stories, mostly s-f, in college and immediately thereafter. But I realized that what I really loved was TV and that’s what I wanted to write.
At which point the situation you describe reared its fearsome head. My literary agent (whom I’d gotten via a contact of my then father-in-law’s because I couldn’t make such contacts) put me in touch with a William Morris agent in L.A. and I was forced to actually go to the west coast and meet her. Actually had to talk to her.
Luckily, the agent, the late Sylvia Hirsch, was a warm and understanding person who knew that of course all writers were sensitive and fucked up. Hell, she said, that’s why they all drank so much and so often seemed such experts at self-destruction. The discovery that I wasn’t unique opened a whole new world for me, which was further broadened when I moved to L.A. and interacted with other writers and found that they really did look at the world the way I did.
That’s when I learned the secret. Watching and listening to other TV writers I realized that the Jame Dean personality was a liability in this business. That I had to become someone else. Specifically, someone who could sell himself. Who could walk into a room and inspire other people’s confidence. Specifically, their confidence that I could make them a lot of money with my imagination and ability to communicate it via a script.
So I pushed myself to appear to be that way. Over time I actually became confident of not only my ability to write well but also of my ability to handle social situations. Hell, I became positively arrogant about it. No fear. Just pride that even though I always felt the pain that being with other people caused me I was able to push past it and become a leader of other people. I still couldn’t be one of them and had to remain apart, but it was quite a kick being apart by being at the top of the heap instead of at the bottom of it, or alongside.
What I learned throughout that process was that writing for TV and films isn’t just a matter of presenting a strong exterior while remaining sensitive inside, but of understanding and liking yourself well enough to recognize that the ability to do that actually proved something very, very cool: That at your you are very strong. Strong enough to overcome huge limitations and become a complex human being who can participate in life and yet see it from the outside at the same time. Perfect personality for a writer, no?
So it’s all about more than having a “tough outer shell and a soft interior.” It’s about having a tough outer shell, soft interior, and a powerful nucleus to fuel that whole thing. The most successful writers I’ve known have been like that, although lately, now that all media, including publication and performance media, have been corporatized, the ones who make it the biggest have yet another layer. They’re able to overlay the tough outer shell with a veneer of civility that enables the deep pocketed folks who pay them to feel that their pockets are still firmly in charge. (In other words, it used to be cool to be able to make your boss feel threatened by you. Now it’s the most total of no-nos.)
Whoa. Not as short as I’d intended. Sorry. Let me zip to the bottom line here: Success in the current creative world is all about staying in touch with your inner needs as an artist and being the kind of person who also needs to do everything, no matter how alien and frightening, to satisfy those needs. And I honestly don’t think that’s under anyone’s control. I didn’t know my own strengths until they appeared in response to the professional situation I found myself in. Then it was as though something within me said, “Hey, Larry. Move over, let the Brode out. I’ll take it from here.”
Or, as psychiatrist friend of mine who was the VP of the Freudian Institute in L.A. has said many: “Everybody should be proud of themselves all the time. Because everybody does their best all the time. There’s no way we can stop ourselves from that.”
So, hey, Kate, just do your best. And see if you can enjoy it along the way.
P.S. Hope you enjoy the three Freuds. Two are Freud frauds, of course. Couple more guys who like to adopt alternate personas.
My purpose here is to help as many undiscovered creative geniuses as possible. But I can’t answer if you don’t ask. So send your questions and make everyone’s day!