Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Sunday, March 28, 2010
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.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Friday, March 12, 2010
In case you might be interested, here's a Q&A I did a couple years back with Wendy Burt, who runs a very nice site for writers. It was in conjunction with my PR efforts for my then-new collection of mystery short stories, From Crime to Crime. But it serves as a nice intro to those of you who don't know me (and, probably, an irritating self-serving puff piece to those who do!).
Regardless, here it is:
Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), I'm now a licensed psychotherapist in private practice, specializing in creative issues. My patients are primarily TV and film writers, actors, directors, novelists, journalists and nonfiction book authors. My office is in Sherman Oaks, California, not far from where I live.
Currently, I write articles and reviews for such publications as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Lancet and others. I also blog on The Huffington Post, do Commentary for NPR's All Things Considered, and frequently guest on radio and TV interview shows.
My short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, The Strand and elsewhere. My latest book, From Crime to Crime (TallFellow Press), is a collection of such mystery stories. Prior to that, I published a nonfiction book, Writing From the Inside Out (John Wiley), as well as a sci-fi novel, City Wars (Bantam Books).
1. Tell us about your latest book.
It's a collection of mystery short stories, as I said, but somewhat unique in that most of the stories feature a group of amateur sleuths based on real people—a California therapist (me) and three of my friends. I like to describe it as Desperate Husbands Meets Columbo.
There are also three stand-alone stories in the collection, one of which features a female police psychologist as protagonist. There's also a story involving a serial killer in Switzerland in 1904, whose path crosses that of a penniless patent clerk named Albert Einstein…
2. How did you get started as a writer?
Many years ago, in the early 70s, soon after I arrived in LA from the East Coast, I started writing spec TV scripts with another, much funnier guy named Mark Evanier. I'd also been writing jokes for Gabe Kaplan's stand-up act, so when his show Welcome Back, Kotter was looking for a new, young (read "cheap ") writing team, we were lucky enough to get the gig. Mark and I split up amiably after a couple years, and I went on to work on other TV series, and also started writing films.
After a good, successful run as a Hollywood writer, I went through a kind of mid-life crisis, which took me all the way to the Himilayas…yes, cliché that it is, I did the whole Razor's Edge thing and lived in Nepal for months, trekking with sherpas, staying in huts and temples…Really an amazing experience. When I returned to LA, I went back to grad school at night (while still writing TV and film scripts by day), until, six years later, I got licensed as a psychotherapist and retired from show biz. I've been in private practice ever since (about 19 years).
Funnily enough, I write as much (if not more) now than I ever did—books, articles, reviews, etc.—and enjoy it much more, too.
3. What does a typical day look like for you?
Simple. I see patients from 9 AM to 6 PM, but write every day at lunch. If I'm on deadline, I write for a few hours in the evening. But mostly it's a daily task, at lunch, so I don't have time for procrastination! And as the saying goes, if you just write a page a day, at the end of the year you have a book.
4. Describe your desk/workspace.
I write at the same desk I've written on since I started as a young TV writer. It's an old public school teacher's desk, which I bought at a used furniture store in the early 70's for $100. It used to be in my house, but when I went into private practice I had it moved to my therapy office. I'm pretty superstitious about it…everything from My Favorite Year to articles for The New York Times to my mystery short stories have been written on it.
My office itself overlooks the intersection of Ventura Boulevard and Sepulveda Boulevard (right across the street from the Sherman Oaks Galleria, made famous by such "Valley Girls" as Moon Unit Zappa). Four stories up, with a whole wall of picture windows, I have a great view of LA smog most days…though after a rain, I can see all the way to the mountains.
5. Favorite books (especially for writers)
So many, it's hard to pick any five (or ten, or a hundred). So I'll just stick with good books for writers. Off the top of my head, The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, On Moral Fiction by John Gardner, and Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman. Plus Life Work by Donald Hall, Mastery by George Leonard, and The Courage to Create by Rollo May. I also think every writer should re-read The Great Gatsby once a year, for its clarity of language and exquisite tone. 60,000 perfect words, as far as I'm concerned.
6. Tell us 3 interesting/crazy things about you
1) Well, as I mentioned, I lived in the Nepal for a while…but prior to that I went to mountain-climbing school and ended up climbing Mt. Rainier and the Grand Tetons. Technical climbs, with ropes and pitons and the possibility of actually falling to my death. That's one.
2) I didn't know a soul in show biz when I got to LA, so I figured the only way to let people know I could write humorous material was to become a stand-up comic. Which I did. I became a regular performer at the famed Comedy Store, where I met, among others, Garry Shandling and David Letterman. (I don't know whatever happened to those two guys, though I hear they've gone on to do pretty well for themselves.) I was a lousy stand-up, by the way, but luckily Gabe Kaplan saw my act and hired me to go on the road and write material for him. He hired me with the encouraging words, "You're a crappy comic, but you write funny stuff." But, hey, it got me started…
3) The fact that I left a successful career as a TV and film writer to become a psychotherapist. It's either interesting or crazy, or maybe both, but either way I'm glad I did.
7. Favorite quote
Novelist Peter DeVries: "I only write when I'm inspired, so I see to it that I'm inspired every morning at 9 AM."
8. Best and worst part of being a writer
Best? You get to communicate what's in your mind and heart to others. It's a way to combat the existential loneliness at the heart of the human condition.
Worst: The above-mentioned loneliness.
9. Advice for other writers
The same advice I was given by a veteran show business friend about any creative endeavor: Don't try to follow trends, or change what you write because you believe it will sell. Just keep giving them you, until you is what they want.
10. Tell us a story about your writing experience.
I went with my producer to a meeting, to pitch a film idea to a couple executives at a major Hollywood studio. It was a Friday afternoon, always a bad sign, but I gamely went ahead and started pitching to the two suits, one a male, one a female. After a few minutes, the woman excused herself to go to the ladies' room. I went on pitching. A few minutes later, the guy got up to return a phone call. Neither one ever came back.
Finally, after about 20 minutes of sitting anxiously and waiting, the producer and I got up and sort of wandered the now-abandoned hallways and cubicles (it was now after 5:30 PM). Turns out, we were literally the only ones left in the entire building.
Later, of course, we were told that each exec had just assumed the other would return and hear the rest of the pitch. But at the time, the producer and I just figured they'd skipped out. As we drove out of the empty studio lot, I said to the producer, "Gee, they missed the best part of my pitch…" But I said it a lot more colorfully…
Where can people buy your book?
For more info on me and my work, including my earlier book, Writing From the Inside Out, I invite you to visit my website, www.dennispalumbo.com. There you'll find blurbs about both books, numerous articles and interviews, and a link to my personal blog.
I also write a regular column for The Huffington Post, on issues relating to creativity, the media, and where both intersect with psychology. Just go to www.huffingtonpost.com and type in my name in the search box.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Thursday, March 4, 2010
For those who are new to this blog, here's my one-line bio: Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (the film My Favorite Year; the TV series Welcome Back, Kotter, among others), I'm now a licensed psychotherapist in private practice, specializing in working with creative people.
But I also still write. My work has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, The Strand and elsewhere, and just last year a collection of my stories, From Crime to Crime, was published. My first mystery novel, Mirror Image, will be out in August from Poisoned Pen Press.
The point is, whatever creative concern you're struggling with, I guarantee I've been there, done that. I've been stymied by writers' block, grappled with procrastination and been brought low by rejection. As well as most other thorny issues writers deal with on a daily basis.
Take, as mentioned above, envy. I'm thinking about a patient of mine, a novelist, that I've been seeing for some months. Despite the gains he'd made in therapy, he felt his work was continually undermined by his envy of other writers.
He told me he had to stop reading his Author's Guild bulletin, as well as publishing websites, because seeing the deals being made by other writers angered and deflated him. He'd grown increasingly self-critical about his work habits--normally a source of pride and satisfaction--since hearing rumors about a best-selling author's penchant for "knocking out a new thriller" every six months. It had reached a point where learning of a friend's having lunch with a potential new agent could trigger a depression.
None of these feelings were unfamiliar to me. During my former career as a screenwriter, it seemed as though envy was the unspoken constant in almost every conversation with other writers. The dirty little secret of the writing life. And, as I said, the worst kept.
For some, of course, hearing of another's success can be a spur to greater efforts. For others, the result can be a crippling paralysis.
It took me a long time to understand, and to accept, that envy is a natural by-product of the achieving life. Throughout our childhood experiences in our families, and then our schools, and ultimately in the adult world, we strive to achieve in a matrix of others who strive to achieve--such that comparison is not only inevitable, but often the only standard by which to measure that achievement.
With time and maturity, we hopefully develop the self-awareness (and self-acceptance) to measure ourselves by more internal monitors; to enjoy the expression of our creative talents for their own sake.
But we also live in the real world and need the validation of that world. For a writer in a commercial marketplace, that means enduring intense competition and the almost daily spectacle of others enjoying extravagant rewards in fame and money, all while negotiating the often gut-wrenching peaks and valleys of one's own career.
In other words, that means living with envy.
The key to surviving envy, as is the case with all feelings, is to acknowledge it. By that, I'm not referring merely to the fact that you're envious, but also the meaning that you give to it.
For example, if a writer sees envy as a sign of some kind of moral weakness or character failing--a view possibly engendered and reinforced in childhood--the effect on his or her work can be quite debilitating.
Equally harmful is seeing your envy as a disparaging comment on your work, a confirmation of a lack of faith in your own writing. "If I let myself feel envy," one patient told me, "it means I don't believe in the possibility of my own success."
Another patient bravely insisted that "envy is counter-productive." So terrified of anything that might derail his firmly held belief in "positive thinking," the meaning he gave to envy--as well as any other "negative" emotion--was of an insidious obstacle on the tracks of his forward momentum.
Only by investigating what envy means to us can we risk acknowledging it. The plain fact is, it's just a feeling, like other feelings---which means it's simply information, data about what's going on inside of us.
If nothing else, envy informs us of how important our goals are. It reminds us of the reasons we undertook the creative life in the first place, and challenges us to commit once more to its rigors and rewards.
Moreover, in my own case, I find that I'm rarely troubled by envy if I'm writing well, if I'm truly engaged with my current project. When I'm fully "caught" by what I'm working on, intrusive thoughts about the creative and/or career triumphs of others usually don't enter my mind. Usually.
So the choice is yours. You can deny your envy, or use it to re-double your efforts. You can talk it to death among your friends (also a great procrastination ploy, by the way), or you can suffer in silence. Or, hopefully, you can accept it with humor and self-acknowledgment, and perhaps explore what its meaning is for you.
But one thing I know. For a writer, to coin a phrase, nothing's certain except death and taxes. And envy.
Then again, that's just my opinion. I'd love to hear yours.