You Are Not Your Screenplay

In a coaching session a few days ago, an emerging writer I work with was telling me about the pilot script that he’s recently rewritten with guidance and input from highly regarded industry mentors, which he was now getting ready to submit to a few upcoming competitions, fellowships and writing lab opportunities. As we talked about these upcoming submissions, I sensed trepidation in the writer and asked him about it. Why did the choice to submit make him so immediately uneasy?

Now, just to clarify (if clarification is needed): this writer is, without a doubt, a talented writer who has proven to be a hard worker to boot. In my mind, it’s just a matter of time until he breaks in. Not only did he rewrite the pilot in question (which was his first); he has another pilot that he’s rewriting, and another that he’s in early development on in a writing class with a teacher he’s beyond excited to learn from. The writer is always learning, always open to feedback, always seeking ways to challenge himself and better his craft. Even when it’s hard. 

But make no mistake… When it comes to getting a new or newly revised screenplay or pilot out there, I understand the nerves. When any writer works hard on a screenplay or pilot, it’s challenging to think about putting it out there and it not being received the way that the writer had hoped. No matter how hard the writer has worked to make sure that the material was landing with mentors and readers when vetting his work prior to submitting it for opportunities or potential reps, putting a script out there can feel incredibly vulnerable. So… Yeah. I get it.

And there was no question that this writer was feeling this vulnerability, this exposure when we talked. The “what if they all hate it” of it all. 

And the more we talked, the more I wanted to make one thing clear: 

You are not any one pilot or screenplay. And your career is not any one pilot or screenplay, either.

What did I mean?

When approaching screenwriting, writers will usually come at it from one of these approaches:

First, there are those who don’t feel particularly invested in the writing itself. Writing is not their happy place. They are not compelled to figure things out, both creatively and personally, on the page. They’re not those who were writing stories since they were kids, who found the written word to be their best avenue for expressing themselves. Instead, they’ve come to screenwriting because they have a specific story they feel the need to tell. This one story means the world to them, and they are determined to see it make it to the big or small screen. They may not be writers inherently, but they are learning the craft in order to get said meaningful story on the page. And… they are usually willing and eager to produce the thing if they have to, whatever it takes to tell the story that’s burning inside of them.  They have no desire to be career screenwriters, to “meet the industry” through generals or pitch their takes for Open Writing Assignments; they have this one story that they are passionate about, and that’s what brought them to the game. For it, they have learned the craft, they’ve gotten notes, they’ve talked to people who might know people. All for this one meaningful story, but without intention of ever doing it again. And just to make it clear: There’s nothing wrong with being that type of writer who has that one all-important story they care to tell. But this blogpost is not for them.

This blogpost, and by extension that statement, You are not your screenplay, is for those writers who are in this for the long run. Not for one screenplay or one pilot but rather for a career. While every story is important to the writer pursuing its realization, this type of writer will develop a number of original screenplays and/or pilots over the span of their journey to break in and then as a professional in the industry, as well as a myriad of pitches and “takes,” along the way to screenwriting success. Of course they would love nothing more than for each such project, pitch or “take” to find a home, be well received and go all the way. While one screenplay may get them signed, and the next may get them a seat in a writer’s room or an invitation to pitch their take on a coveted writing assignment, their career will be derived from the sum of their work, the pitch that lead to a pilot sale, the open writing assignment that opened doors for their latest spec, rather than depend entirely on a single pilot or screenplay, and nothing else. 

If you are seeking to be a career writer, as in, someone who seeks to develop many scripts, many stories, then no one screenplay or pilot bares all the responsibility, hope and promise of your screenwriting career. Over time, you will write more scripts, tell more stories. Some will not come as quickly as you want. Others will not be as strong as you had hoped. But every screenplay, every pilot will represent the promise of the path that you are paving for yourself.

A showrunner I’ve been fortunate to work with for nearly a decade has been known to say that every hour written is an hour earned. And he should know! Because he is incredibly prolific, not every screenplay, pitch or pilot that he writes goes on to become a “thing.” Some do get to go out to buyers, go into development, even get greenlit. Others get set aside, because that’s part of the reality of it. And my showrunner friend understands that his career is the accumulation of all the pages, all the experiences, all the stories, rather than a single stack of pages, a single story, a single script.

It’s been said that writing is a blue-collar job, which is one of the things I love about it: In the end, if screenwriting success is what you’re after, you have to roll back your sleeves and put in the work. The blank page is all that stands between a screenwriter and the career for which he is aiming.

With that in mind, remember this:

You are not that one screenplay. That one pilot. Unless it’s the last and only one you’re planning on writing, the fate of your screenwriting career doesn’t rest entirely on how the world responds to it. And that one screenplay or pilot, no matter how challenging or brilliant, is not the entirety of your career, a career that will build over many years, many pages and many scripts.

For most writers, every screenplay or pilot begins with the unwavering belief in what it can be. That belief is pursued on the page as the writer brings all that he knows in order to make that script what it deserves to be. Every hour written is an hour earned in the great pursuit of mastery. And you, the writer, get to build your screenwriting career idea by idea, page by page, script by script. You get to be about all of it. All that you’ve learned, all that you’ve mastered, all the screenplays and pilots that didn’t quite click, all the pieces you’ve written successfully. So while it’s true that it will likely be one screenplay or one pilot that catapults your career to the next level, every time you are looking at the blank page, you are creating meaningful opportunity for your screenwriting career.