"Mirror Image" (Poisoned Pen Press) now at your bookseller's.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

F. Scott Fitzgerald Was Wrong

The great American author F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, "There are no second acts in the American life." I think he was wrong.

To that point, here's a piece that ran last year in Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America. Though it's primarily about ageism in the entertainment industry, I think it speaks to the broader issue of ageism in general, especially in these difficult economic times.

What do you think?


"Now what?" says the 50-year-old TV writer, sitting opposite me in my therapy office. In the past two staffing seasons, she hasn't even gotten a meeting with a show-runner, let alone a job. As her bills mount up, and her teenager enters an expensive private school, this single mother feels she's beginning to run out of options.

"Now what?" says the 56-year-old screenwriter, whose phone has pretty much stopped ringing. His agent dodges his own phone calls and emails, and his network of contacts keeps dwindling, as former friends and colleagues either struggle with their own career problems or leave the business altogether.

"Now what?...a pretty constant question nowadays from veteran TV and film writers in my practice, sturdy craftsmen who've had the poor taste to get older in an industry that worships youth. Ageism, it seems, has joined death and taxes as an inevitability of Hollywood life. (Though it has spread, like a contagion, to most other careers as well: business, law, advertising, technology.)

Ageism. It's a pervasive issue among the writers that I treat. Wedded with the uncertainty wrought by changing technology and the nation-wide economic meltdown, ageism can seem like just another nail in the coffin of a veteran writer's career. The problem with complaining about ageism is that, like the weather, complaining about it and doing something about it are two different things. Perhaps, as our distinguished cover model Larry Gelbart once said, "The only way to defeat ageism is to die young."

Of course, everyone knows that the marketplace's preoccuptation with youth is ridiculous. Even a cursory look at who spends how much, on what, and where, reveals that catering solely to the young as consumers is financially short-sighted, artistically bankrupt, and morally suspect.

But aside from marketplace concerns, the really insidious aspect of ageism is that it's based on certain "givens" that rarely hold up under examination. To most people, "youth" implies a more imaginative, more subversive, less rule-bound approach to creative work. Yet the facts say otherwise. Most young (or new) artists are often quite conservative, retro, and derivative. The way an artist learns craft is by apprenticeship, by using earlier artists as models. We admire Neil Simon, so our first efforts are very Neil Simon-ish. We love Wilder and Diamond, so our early scripts reflect their same wry, dubious view of the human condition.

It's my belief that the more mature, confident and experienced a writer is, the more likely he or she is to break with convention, to explore more deeply the difficult and idiosyncratic nature of narrative and character. A brief overview of history's most accomplished artists reveals that the majority of their best work was done during their middle-age years.

That said, what can writers do about the reality of ageism in the current market atmosphere? My guess is, not much, at least in terms of affecting the way the powers-that-be operate. After all, myths die hard.

Do I wish things were different? Sure. But as philosopher Stephen Levine reminds us, "Suffering is caused by wanting things to be otherwise."

Do I yearn for a return to an earlier time, when creative artists weren't judged by how much hair (and how few wrinkles) they had, but instead by the depth and relevance of their work? You bet. But, as novelist John Fowles reminds us, "All pasts are like poems. You can derive a thousand things, but you can't live in them."

Am I outraged that studios, networks and production companies cravenly pander to what they think the young consumer wants, instead of promoting writing that takes advantage of a wide range of talents, ages and points of view--meanwhile, ignoring the incontrovertible fact that good stories, well told, appeal to a cross-section of audience types? Yes, I am. But as author and psychiatrist Thomas Szasz reminds us, "You can't build a big business on truth."

In other words, there's no cure for ageism. It's a fact of life. So then the question becomes: what can you do about it?

Right now, writers in my practice seem to be exploring three paths: in the first instance, he or she can accept the rigged rules of the game and write anyway. Truly. About the issues, people and events that inspire the writer. Maybe the marketplace will respond. Maybe it won't. Maybe the writer has to investigate markets that hadn't been considered before—the Internet, the theater, independent films. Maybe the writer tries a new medium: novels, short stories, even non-fiction. Or finds work developing video games, or writing gaming guides. Which suggests casting even a wider net, checking out things like desktop publishing, self-publishing, blogs and newsletters. Not exactly a development deal from Sony, granted, but some writers just need to have their work read. Seen. Communicated.

The second path is one that takes him or her away from writing, as they've usually understood it. They teach, or run workshops. They design software. They work for makers of industrial films, or educational foundations. One former TV writer/producer patient of mine now does videologues for a major hospital chain. One produces promotional material for a large charity. In these kinds of endeavors, they've found a way to use their narrative talents in the service of different forms of story-telling, albeit not in entertainment in the traditional sense.

The third path, much less common, is the path that angles the furthest away from a writer's prior career. In this case, the writer will simply choose to go into a totally different kind of work, unrelated to creative endeavor. The family retail business. The law. One writer joined his brother in a huge import-export concern. But even then, the creative itch can still demand to be scratched. "Maybe," this writer confided to me soon after making this decision, "I'll get to write the company brochure."

But whether writers choose to keep writing in the face of ageism, write in different forms because of it, or find other ways to survive and thrive, they'll manage to keep going. They will. I know. I've seen it, in my practice and elsewhere.

Despite conventional wisdom about the emotional fragility of the artist, most of the ones I know are made of pretty stern stuff, despite---if not because of---the difficulties they contend with daily. Not only do they wrestle with the demands of a fickle and arbitrary marketplace, they have to wrestle with their own demons as well, their own fears and doubts. Yet they do it every day. Scripts get written. TV shows and films get made. Mortgages get paid. Kids get sent to their orthodontists.

I was reminded of this fact recently, in a keynote address given by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Shultz to an audience of dispirited, increasingly-unemployed journalists, most of whom are reeling from the quickening collapse of newspapers and magazines. She urged her audience to remember that they were first and foremost story-tellers, and that society would always need them. Speaking of the journalism industry itself, she said, "The business model may be broken, but you are not broken."

I think her words are equally fitting for Hollywood writers, whether working in film, TV, or online. Story-tellers all, they may be working in an industry whose business model is changing, but they will survive.

Fitzgerald may have said "There are no second acts in the American life," but I believe he was wrong. Hell, this country was built on second acts. And so, by the way, is show business itself. As the country seeks to re-invent itself in the wake of our current economic crisis, so does--and will--the entertainment industry.

Let's face it, every other story we tell is a comeback story. Hopefully, in the end, the struggle to outwit ageism will be a comeback story, too.


nashbill said...

Very true and well said. Once a writer or even a wroter, always a wantawriter be.

Bettina said...

This, of course, is the great big pink elephant in the room.

Maybe as baby boomers, as we have always done, we will change things by sheer force of numbers, so perhaps this will be an area where we have some kind of effect because it is not only writers that are getting older but viewers and as there is a shift somewhat from the stranglehold that the mainstream concept of "boxoffice" has on content creation - meaning that with the many other content delivery systems, stories must be found for them too, then maybe there will be less of a fear factor around older writers (or maybe I'm being hideously optimistic).

In my MFA program in professional screenwriting at National University (which I run), I am finding I have students of all ages, some in thier 40's -50's. Does this mean that more stories that appeal to more mature adults will filter out into the zeitgeist because more older writers are feeling inspired to try their hand at screenwriting? And would this appeal to the movers and shakers who greenlight projects? The jury is out but how will we know if we don't continue to persevere with our stories?

As for reinvention -- established writers with produced credits who are looking for a little reinvention can always contact me about teaching in my program! (bmoss@nu.edu). I worked in development at HBO Films for 9 years and have made the transition. There are second acts...