Today’s piece is written by Greg Berlanti, Executive Producer of Dirty Sexy Money and Brothers and Sisters.
I’ve never considered myself much of a writer. I’m not particularly great at it. On my best day I don’t have half the talent of many people I’ve been lucky enough to hire and to work with. And this is not false humility. Ask any writer who works with me, they’ll tell you how much I rely on their abilities, how often I struggle to craft the simplest of scenes. I know a lot of other writers feel like they suck too, but that doesn’t make it easier (I know this because a large part of my day is convincing other writers they don’t suck. Once finished, I go back into my office and convince myself I do suck all over again). The problem is, regardless of my limited writing talent, I love telling stories. Creating a character, a world, a whole universe out of nothing. That part I can’t get enough of. I think about myself and storytelling the way Bill Clinton described himself and the Presidency, and I’m paraphrasing here, “There are guys who have done it better, but there’s no one who’s enjoyed it more.”
As a kid, the first storyteller I wanted to be was Jim Henson. I designed and built puppets and had a business performing for birthday parties. If you’re curious what the rock bottom of the middle school caste system is, it’s The Kids Who Play With Puppets. Seriously, The Kids Who Played With Magic used to beat the crap out of me. Anyway, a day or so before the birthday party (even then I needed a deadline), I would sit and design a story based on the little facts of the birthday boy or girl’s life. Each time I sat down to do this, staring at the blank page in my Trapper Keeper, I would grumble to myself, “I hate this… stupid birthday… I’m never gonna think of anything. I’m the WORST BIRTHDAY PARTY PUPPET GUY EVER!” And then inevitably, I’d get some small idea that would lead to the next idea, and to the one after that, and in a few hours I had a story. At which point I would think to myself, “I love this! I’m a genius! I’m the best BIRTHDAY PARTY PUPPET GUY EVER!” Eventually, because I liked the idea of having sex in this lifetime, I dropped the puppets. But the internal monologue and its cycle from self loathing to self fellating is still pretty much the same.
Okay, so now let’s fast forward to 1996. It was about a year after I moved to Los Angeles and I was paying my bills working as a phone operator at the prestigious Sherman Oaks Galleria Center. The girl that trained me was leaving for junior college to study “hotels and stuff” and because she knew I wanted to be a writer she promised to introduce me to her high school friend, Ricky Schroeder, as soon as she got back. At night I would drive home to the studio apartment I rented in Beachwood Canyon, beneath the Hollywood Sign, and think to myself, “I’ve never been further from Hollywood in my whole life.” But the worst part about this time? I had stopped writing. And I had never stopped writing before. From middle school to college, puppets had let to plays, which lead to screenplays. But after having my first few masterpieces resoundingly rejected by every studio and agency in town (I was one of those dudes who thought a color script cover would make a difference) I had let my discouragement consume me. A good friend of mine from college named Julie Plec (now a writer herself on the show Kyle XY) took me out for lunch where she read me the riot act for giving up on my dream before I even had a chance to fail at it. I tried to offer up some lame excuses, “I’m tinkering with a new idea, I’ve got a meeting with Ricky Schroeder, etc.” But she knew it was all bullshit. I finally opened up about how Hollywood had confirmed my own instincts about my lack of talent. Julie reminded me that there was a time in my life when I never cared about how successful I was at writing, just how much I loved it. I went home that day and began work on my fourth script, which was… also resoundingly rejected. As were my fifth thru ninth scripts. But my tenth script, my tenth script I wrote in Los Angeles got me a lawyer, an agent, and my first job as a paid writer.
What’s the rest of the story? How did I get here from there? Writing. See, that’s why I write. Not because I’m great at it. As I mentioned above, most days I feel barely passable. I write because I love telling stories. And as I share my stories with the world, my own story gets better and better. Writing has been responsible for almost every amazing thing that has ever happened to me. I’ve met thousands of people, made hundreds of friends, had my scripts shot all around the country, worked with stars I grew up admiring, and seen other actors go from oblivion to household names. I’ve had crew on shows I’ve created meet, get married and have children all because I had an idea one day while I was driving and had the fortitude to see that vision through. When I think about my life now, all thanks to writing, I think about that classic exchange from Broadcast News between William Hurt and Albert Brooks, courtesy of everyone’s writing hero Mr. James Brooks,
“What do you do when your life exceeds your dreams?”
“Keep it to yourself.”
I guess that’s the other reason I write. One day, if I’m lucky enough, I hope to write a line half that good.
Installment #5 of WHY WE WRITE is a series of short essays by prominent television and film writers and conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John. (Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org). I have asked the AMPTP to give me original content expressing its side of the current strike, but the group has declined to date.
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