A Career of Mid-Life Crises

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.

20 thoughts on “A Career of Mid-Life Crises”

  1. As anyone who lives in flyover country will attest, that’s good advice for EVERYONE. That’s the same advice my family has doled out for generations.
    As to the job market … Sudden unemployment happens in all sectors. A friend of ours was fired after 23 years with his company (plant manager level). The company had just relocated him and his family (3 kids) into another city in a big home with a big mortgage. They thought that the relocation was a good sign, but 18 days later the company fired this 54-yr-old man. It really wasn’t personal, it was strictly business. He was one of a boatload of high level management types, including PhDs, who got the ax.

  2. Excellent advice. It applies to novelists as well. Stay out of debt. Pay cash for cars (save toward a new one rather than making payments). Avoid all time payments. Pay down mortgages or get rid of them during the fat times so you won’t sweat during the lean ones. Jam all you can into IRAs or retirement programs. Keep ample cash reserves on hand. I have often gone five or six months without seeing a dime. The trick is to be able to weather long droughts, and that means serious financial planning, especially when the dough is rolling in. And run a lean household: do you really need or use all those extra cable options? The extra phone options? Last I knew, there were only about 300 people making a full living from fiction; unless you’re one in a million, don’t count on a living from novels.

  3. In this case, do what he says, not what he did. But good advice, nonetheless. I’m a fulltime freelancer–mostly magazines and trade journals, but some commercial writing and editing and the novels–and this still seems like excellent advice. As the month of July has proven, you’re gonna have some lows. I believe I made $1300 this month, not because I haven’t been working, but because apparently all the accounting folks are on vacation. Last month was hot! If I made that much every month I’d be in the $100,000 range. Feast or famine, roller coaster, pick your metaphor. It’s the writer’s life.
    Mark Terry

  4. Then there’s this from the Bulwer-Lytton literary parody contest: “Inside his cardboard box, Greg heated a dented can of Spaghetti-O’s over a small fire made from discarded newspapers, then cracked open his last can of shoplifted generic beer to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his embarkation on a career as a freelance writer.” Dan McKay–Fargo N.D.
    If I tried to make a living writing it’d be. ” Buurrp..Whad’ya mean you’re overstocked on type AB negative?”

  5. I got a notice from the library that my reserve for Dennis Palumbo’s book Writing From The Inside Out had come in. I excitedly hoofed it down to retrieve it, as it was recommended, but when I got there they could not find it. So, besides being a psychologist and an author, he is also evidently, a magician

  6. I went four years between science jobs, but earned a degree in that time. In Hollywood I lived on extra work for four years, had the medical plan my first year in SAG and then never worked again. The now defunct Burbank agent never produced one dime in income for me in two and a half years of trying. All paths are tough these days. The key as has been said is low overhead, and own a trailer.

  7. I’m going to be on a panel at Bouchercon, moderated by Duane Swierczynski, called “Crime Can Pay in a Big Way!” that’s supposed to be a discussion of markets and marketing and how you can get rich being a wordsmith.
    I write short fiction. 10 cents a word, tops. Not even enough for Spaghetti-O’s, but probably enough for Science Diet. (Alpo is way too salty, as the Nolte character in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” noted.) My advice is going to be, “Marry rich.”

  8. Yes, there have been some minor cosmetic changes. I’ll be replacing the banner, too. All these changes are being done so the blog will look more like my all-new, redesigned website, which launches later this week.

  9. The nice thing about being a novelist is that you can do it while you still have a day job. It might not always be fun, but you can do it.
    There’s gotta be more than 300 people making a living from writing fiction, though. Are you counting screenwriters, Richard?

  10. In the early nineties, I gather, there was a NY Times piece on earnings from fiction. I didn’t see it but several of my friends did. They arbitrarily defined a full income from writing fiction at $30K, and then set out to see who was making that much writing novels (not screenplays). They came up with 300. I don’t imagine that has changed much. (There is an off chance that this is urban legend; I have not plumbed the Times archives.) I don’t believe any research has been done on this topic since then. I’ve heard this so many times, from so many sources, that it’s as good as a legend, even if it isn’t.

  11. Leaving out screenwriters seems a little arbitary, as a lot of novelists (like Lee) also make money that way, but it does make the number more plausible.
    Even so, just scrolling through my email address book, I see at least 50 people who I’m sure meet that criteria.
    Being a novelist is far from a great way to make money. But, that being said, there are a lot of people making a lot of money writing.

  12. I’m a relatively successful novelist…I have written a dozen or so books, seven of them are in print right now with four more coming in the next nine months. That said, I couldn’t make a living off what I earn from publishing alone.

  13. Lee, not to get into specifics, but I assume you made a lot more money as a screenwriter than as a novelist?
    If you had a preference, would you return to that, or do you prefer the greater freedom that writing novels gives you?

  14. The main reason to prospect in screenwriting is the money. It’s much more than books. The odds however, may be even longer. Both are highly unlikely ways to make a living, thus only a handful pull it off. As an aside, authors are much more recognizable than screenwriters. I doubt the average joe could name one.

  15. Another aside: I just got my notice from the WGA, my screenplay registraion is almost up. It’s been five years already and no sale. I’m waiting for the book version to sell now and that’s much closer to being a reality than the spec is. Or will be.

  16. David,
    I haven’t left screenwriting. I write novels and work as a screenwriter simultaneously. But I make a lot more as a screenwriter — there’s simply no comparison.
    But if I could make the same money writing books that I do as a screenwriter, I could see leaving the TV biz behind.


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