The Young Wannabe Writer Moves West, Now What?
Continuing My Journey in Writing
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, right? Not in Hollywood. If landing your dream job were as easy as showing up at a studio and announcing "I'm here, you can hire me now!" there would be no need for internships, mentorships, or even this article. Not even a priceless master's degree from a prestigious university can guarantee success, especially if you do not pay attention and accept pearls of wisdom from those who have come before you. Packing your bags and trading in your hometown for the illustrious Los Angeles is just the first step to your real-life education.
This was advice I followed all the way to Southern California to obtain my dream career as a screenwriter. Upon arrival, I noticed that there was no welcoming party or map with a yellow brick road to success. Even with the hours of class lecture and advice from scores of guest speakers, professors, and alumni, I still wondered where are the keys into the golden gate of Hollywood? More importantly, how do I get my little hands on them?
Luckily, I was not at a complete loss, since I had a mentorship lined up to help guide me through my first weeks as a starving artist while sleeping on the floor of my Burbank apartment. Acclaimed television writer, Norm Gunzenhauser, decided to take time out of his busy schedule to meet with a little fresh-eyed wannabe writer and give me priceless advice on writing and life in general. He was there to jingle the keys in front of my eyes and challenge me to ask myself how badly I really wanted them.
Meeting Norm for the first time was like meeting an old friend for breakfast. This was not going to be a once-a-week lecture on how he is the greatest writer of all time and I am shark chum. He was the least intimidating person I have encountered in my life. That may have something to do with the fact that he looks like a taller, less hairy Robin Williams.
During our first meeting, he asked me about my plan of attack. I was wavering at the time between industry jobs, and pay-the-bills type of employment. This was partially out of fear and partially out of practicality. As sages are wont to do, he told me about his experience breaking in. Of course, his story was as unique as his fingerprint, and was wrought with gems of advice disguised as entertaining banter.
After graduating from the Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University, Norm went home for a few months to Cortland, New York. All of his small-town friends began to ask Mr. College Degree what he was going to do with his life. In a panic one night, he randomly started telling these nay-sayers that he was moving to New York City to become a page for NBC. He would do that for a year and then would be hired as a staff writer on a sitcom and become the biggest television writer since Rob Petri. Somehow, this actually worked...sort of. He packed his bags and headed south to try his hand at the entertainment industry. He had apparently sent out some special karma because just as he had predicted, he landed a job as an NBC page. However, the writing job offers were not flying at him left and right. After eighteen months as a page, he packed his sunscreen and headed west to the City of Angels.
Norm's arrival in Los Angeles also lacked the welcoming committee that was noticeably absent from my arrival. Through his former college roommate, Norm found a writing partner, Tom Seeley. They began shopping around some material in an attempt to get their big break. This is when he learned one of the biggest lessons of his career. Patience and perseverance are key because even the most talented writers rarely get work right away.
Almost six years later, Norm started to rethink the dream. His father, a sensible family man, told Norm it was time to grow up. A writing career just was not going to happen for him. He was selling cowboy boots to support his pregnant wife and daughter while also studying for his real estate license. On a whim, he and Tom decided to give it one last shot and write a spec script for the popular sitcom, Cheers. Norm felt he had to roll the dice one more time. If he failed, he vowed to his family to finally enter the real world. Like Charlie finding the golden ticket in the sewer, Norm's big day finally arrived. This last ditch effort led to a writing gig on the show, Newhart and eventually he scored his Emmy-winning position at Murphy Brown. Patience and perseverance had gotten him where he wanted to go.
That was just the first week of meeting with Norm. The proceeding meetings involved Norm reading pages of my screenplay, some weeks offering a little advice, other weeks ripping my story apart. I had to persevere through the weeks when nothing but complete garbage was coming from my fingertips onto the page. He had to have patience with a novice writer. However, I started to notice what a symbiotic relationship we had developed. He helped me as a mentor, but I would also listen to him talk about his projects and allow him to work out his story out loud. Even the most decorated writers still need a sounding board, I was just lucky enough to be the one sitting across from Norm at these times.
This also led to many discussions about the changing industry, and a lesson Norm has learned over his long career about adaptability and the ability to reinvent yourself. This industry is full of starts and restarts. Even once you are established, there are still no guarantees. There is no one way to go, and the only way to survive is to have plenty of tricks up your sleeve.
Norm's early success was in a genre that is arguably dead. In the past several years, sitcoms have taken a backseat to hour-long dramas like CSI, Lost, and Grey's Anatomy. Reality shows like American Idol and Survivor have also dominated the ratings and require a different kind of writer. There are fewer sitcoms being produced, and therefore there are fewer jobs, even for a seasoned writer like Norm. He has handled this transition by reinventing himself. Norm moved from traditional sitcoms to family-friendly shows. This included the Rugrats spinoff, All Grown Up, and the enormously popular Hannah Montana. His lesson from this transition can also be applied to someone just starting out: be flexible.
Cruising into Hollywood with the dream of being a sitcom writer and refusing to compromise is the fastest way to find yourself back at home living in your parents' basement. The industry is ever-changing, and if you unable to change, there will always be a hundred other people willing to do what you will not. Versatility is also a testament to the writer's ability, and the goal is to be a great writer, not just an employed one.
Not only are genres mixing, but mediums are as well. Currently, television, film, and the Internet are converging into one large entertainment stage. It is always beneficial to have the ability to cross these mediums with ease, so you can follow the jobs. In discussing with Norm my desire to become a feature writer, he asked me if I had any ideas for television scripts. I told him I had thought about writing a 30 Rock spec script, but that I really wanted to focus on writing for film first. He suggested that I pursue this even if television was not my ideal choice, because it shows versatility in this current fluid environment. It demonstrates that I can write for my own characters as well as those created by other professional writers.
Norm also took my ideas for film and talked about how to change them into a series. The world of cable has opened doors for more out-of-the-box scripts. This freedom has provided even more of a crossover for feature writers to enter the world of television. Diablo Cody is an example of this with her upcoming series for Showtime with Steven Spielberg as the executive producer.
After discussing the future, Norm turned to the present. He offered me advice about how to handle my new living situation on the west coast. We discussed the types of employment I was considering while completing my first feature-length screenplay. My friends were spending their time on industry websites scouring for any production position they could possibly find. I, however, had started out the same way, but then started mixing random part-time jobs from Craigslist. I had applied to jobs that varied from coffee delivery to substitute teaching. Norm latched onto this and gave me a unique piece of advice: work outside the industry if you want to be taken seriously as a writer inside the industry.
Norm then related a story to me about a friend of his who was secretary at a studio in her early days. This woman was a phenomenal writer, but no one would take her seriously. She was often dismissed as "just the secretary." This continued even once she was successful and had left her phone-answering days behind her. The fact that his friend had a stereotypical women's job, probably also contributed to her being so quickly dismissed. Every woman in the industry has her own struggle due to additional obstacles of working in a male-dominated world. Women who can minimize the factors working against them increase their chances of success. He suggested that I look into how writers I admired had broken into the industry, since no two stories are the same.
As it turns out, Norm's unconventional path is just one example of cowboy boots to Emmy gold. According to the Internet Movie Database, Tina Fey worked at a YMCA while honing her comedy skills with Second City. She went onto become a pioneer and an inspiration for female writers. Once Tina Fey broke into the industry through her Second City connections, she has also crossed mediums. She has leant her writing talents to both film and television, thus showing her flexibility. She has also crossed from sketch comedy to rejuvenating the sitcom with her critically acclaimed show, 30 Rock. She encompasses both the need to be flexible in an ever-changing industry, as well as being an example of how humble beginnings can lead to being one of the most important people in the entertainment industry. As it turns out, Tina Fey is another example of all the lessons Norm had been passing onto me.
Diablo Cody, of Juno fame, is notorious for having been a stripper before earning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. However, before her excursion into the world of gentlemen's clubs, she was a law clerk a firm in Chicago. According to her memoirs, she later moved onto proofreading radio advertisements before starting her own blog, which paved her way into writing columns for newspapers and magazines like Jane.She also honed her craft on several different stages, and continues to cross mediums. Cody has worked in print, radio, Internet, feature, and now television. Being able to cross such broad mediums is a testament to her raw talent. This is a desirable trait that will help her to continue as a female force in a male-dominated profession. Her journey to stardom has been untraditional, to say the least, but in the end she has been able to succeed by being flexible and by melding her talent in various forms. She is a stellar example of being versatile while still remaining true to her own personal style.
John Hughes continues to be one of the most influential writers of the last thirty years, even though his involvement in the industry is now minimal. His journey to becoming the King of the 80's Teen Movies also did not follow a traditional path. He dropped out of college after his junior year and ended up in Chicago working as an advertising copywriter. According to his biography in Variety, great ads for Edge shaving cream and Johnson Floor Wax owe their genius to the future Mr. Teen Comedy himself. He did not allow himself to be trapped in the world of advertising, instead he continued to hone his storytelling skills. In his off time, he penned short stories and magazine articles which garnered him the attention of National Lampoon Magazine. As the editor there, his screenplays were put into production in the company's movie and television division. Once again, he crossed mediums and his flexibility gave him the ability to tell entertaining stories and to speak for a generation on various platforms.
There are millions of people who try to break into the entertainment industry every year. Some people get in by working their way up from the mailroom at a studio, others work at the YMCA, while others simply give up and head home without succeeding. Each person has a different story to tell, and many will offer advice to those who will listen. However, as the writer William Goldman has been quoted innumerable times as saying "Nobody knows anything." This can be applied to any specific instructions on how to get from obscurity to a writing dream job. What worked for one person, may never work for anyone else ever. However, the fundamentals can be applied to everyone. Work hard at your craft and do not get discouraged easily.
Everywhere I have turned, I have received different advice on how to achieve my goal of becoming a screenwriter. It is the simple fact that there are no two stories alike and all the roads are the ones less traveled. The valuable advice that Norm has passed on about adaptability, patience, perseverance is echoed in other success stories. These matter more than the details. I have to work those out for myself. In the end, these qualities will weigh more than if I start out as a production assistant on a Lifetime original series or as a part-time flower delivery girl. Great writers put a piece of themselves into every piece of work they produce no matter what the form, and do not get discouraged easily. Anyone who is able to do that, is more likely to succeed.
Danny McBride, a recent breakout actor from my native state of North Carolina, was asked by Entertainment Weekly to pass on advice on how to break into the industry. He had a journey of his own which involved working at a hotel to pay his bills while auditioning for roles. For some reason, if you are even mildly successful, you become the expert on how to break into your profession. As I have found, there is no formula, and luckily Danny McBride recognizes the oddity of this as obvious by his reply. He said "Nothing really applies, go work at the Holiday Inn in Burbank, I guess". I just might, Danny, I just might.