When I was young, I never envisioned a career as a writer – let alone a writer in the entertainment industry. Admittedly, I had a rough start, primarily because, early on, when participating in a creative writing class in high school, I was told I was incapable of following direction. Successful writing, it seemed, was accomplished by following a strict, preordained outline – and any wandering from the path would result in failure. Here were the basic ground rules:
- Don’t try to funny. Funny is frivolous.
- Satire is snarky. No one likes a smart aleck.
- Say what you have to say as uninterestingly as possible, cite some examples of something or other, throw in a quote, use similes and a metaphor or two and then move on.
One day we were asked to write an autobiography. I filled my pages with a random array of fantastical Candide-like adventures, and proudly handed it in – expecting my teacher to pass it right along to her “Hollywood uncle” who, she said, had connections because he’d been in several Laurel and Hardy shorts. While it should have been given a low grade due to its pedestrian attempt at humor, (more Mad Magazine than Voltaire), it was instead judged on its lack of footnotes and quotes from my grandmother. “This was NOT the assignment!” was smeared across the top of my story - right next to the C-. On page three, my teacher had clearly had enough and had angrily written “You were NEVER a narcoleptic used car salesman in Sarasota. This is NONSENSE!” So much for my writing career.
At the time, I had no idea that film and television shows required writers. Like most people, I assumed that actors just made it up as they went along. So it never occurred to me that I could forge a career out of script writing. I happened into writing by accident – or at least by necessity. As a kid I’d written funny sketches – mostly ideas stolen from Mel Brooks or the Carol Burnett Show. At 11 or 12, I thought they were pretty clever – but they didn’t require much thought or planning – and they never seemed to impress my target audience – which was anyone I could get to read them.
But then I went off to acting school, where you were always being called on to perform monologues. It seemed as though there were only six or seven monologues floating around at that time – and classmates were incredibly possessive of them. “You can’t do that monologue – that’s Bill’s! Bill does that one.” So, since I couldn’t hope to compete with Bill, I started writing my own monologues – which I’m pretty sure were terrible. When performing them, I’d say they were from a little-known Off Broadway play – and I’d assign them fancy Off Broadway play titles such as Hero’s Welcome, The Blossoms are Gone or The Milwaukee Trilogy. I’d invent playwrights with fancy Off Broadway names like Everett Sinclair, Tansy Langford or Pepper Covington. It was all pretty ridiculous, but in fairly short order, I discovered that I actually began to enjoy writing more that I enjoyed performing. Perhaps it was because, when writing, you can get up and make cinnamon toast or stop and watch kitchen gadget infomercials. You can’t do that as an actor.
After college, when I was trying to find work as an actor in Chicago, I came to the realization that it was easier for me to write and create my own material to perform – especially since no one seemed particularly interested in casting me in any of their shows. What began as a whim, quickly became a passion. I spent more and more time fussing over a script and less and less time worrying about auditions, callbacks or monologues.
When one of my early stage projects became cult hit in Chicago, I shifted gears once and for all and focused exclusively on writing. It was then that I discovered what opportunities existed for writers in the entertainment industry. Everyone, it seemed, needed a writer. And no one cared if you used quotes, similes or footnotes. The qualities that failed me so miserably in my high school creative writing class were the same qualities that made me unique and original.
Now I’m not saying you should ignore your teachers. They must know something because they have books and desks and lesson plans and most of them seem very organized. But I truly believe there’s a greater power in following your own instincts – and that sometimes you don’t know what you’re looking for until you’ve found it. I’ve been lucky enough to have spent my entire career working in the arts - though I still having trouble following directions and completing a project as assigned. And who knows, if I keep it up, maybe I’ll one day be as successful as a Tansy Langford or a Pepper Covington.