Dennis Palumbo, a screenwriter-turned-shrink, sent me an article he wrote for Psychotherapy Networker. For the most part, Palumbo makes fun of his clients — cartoonish caricatures of stereotypical Hollywood nutcases ("I love Gary, I really, really do…it’s just…he’s a set decorator and, well, I just don’t think I shuld marry below the line.") I was about to toss the article aside, when I came upon this bit of wisdom that should be required reading for anyone contemplating a career as a screenwriter:
In most professions, career success follows a more or less predictable trajectory. If you’re a lawyer, banker, computer programmer, doctor or the like, you spend a number of years learning your profession, then you generally ascend–if your job isn’t outsourced or your CEO indicted for fraud — to a reasonable level of security, seniority, and maybe even pretty decent pay.
For the creative professional navigating a show business career, there is no such path. Triumph and failure follow one another — in fact, feed one another — in a maddenly erratic way. Hollywood is a notoriously fickle industry, where you can earn vast sums for a few years, then face a sudden and inexplicable loss of marketability, followed immediately by a severe cash drought. Not surprisingly, creative professionals spend an inordinate amount of time in therapy discussing whether to ditch the whole thing and start over.
Of course, many people in their forties and fifties go through midlife crises during which they wonder if they, too, shouldn’t leave their boring law partnerships or real estate businesses and try their hand at running a B&B in Vermont…
..the whole process is a one-time thing, with a more or less definable resolution at the end.
For Hollywood entertainment professionals, however, this "midlife" crisis afflicts them throughout their careers.
That is so very true. It is, perhaps, the most frustrating thing about this business… at least for most TV writers.
I got some good advice early in my career from an enormously successful showrunner saddled with enormous debts and going through a vicious divorce (his second…or third..it was hard to keep track). He had a huge mansion, half-a-dozen fancy cars, vacation homes, yachts, the whole fantasy.
He warned me that it’s easy to get seduced by the money and glamour of television. That you think when you’re on a series, that you will always make that kind of money. But television can be cruel. Your show could be canceled after a handful of episodes. Or it can run for five years…but when it’s over, instead of Hollywood embracing you, you’ll struggle for script assignments for two or three years before, if you’re lucky, landing on another series. Which could get canceled after three episodes.
His advice was simple: live below your means. Never assume you will always make the money you are making now. In fact, assume that you won’t, that disaster is only a year away (because it usually is). And, whatever you do, don’t get divorced. Work as hard on your marraige as you do on your career. He didn’t follow his own advice and ended up losing everything.
Like any TV writer who isn’t John Wells, Steven Bochco or David E. Kelly, I’ve had my career ups-and-downs. Exhilirating highs and terrifying lows. But I followed the showrunner’s sage advice. I’ve always lived below my means, saved my money for a rainy day (and there are many of them) and have been happily married for 15 years. I’ve managed to stay afloat…and I credit a lot of that to his advice very early on in my career.
Do I wish I’d picked a career with more financial stability? Sure. But is there anything I’d rather be doing? Hell no.