Cycle of the Screenwriter


Those of us who write are plagued and blessed at once by an overexposure to cycles. No, I don’t believe in reincarnation or the divinity of Jesus or some of the hippie notions about how we’re all one with Gaia, etc. I do, however, believe that all human experiences begin then progress and then end.

I’m a writer. I’m soaking in that. And because I write, I find myself constantly beginning stories, places, ideas, people and moments… then experiencing them progress… and then watching them end. And when they end, they end as finally as anything can. I do not know what Keyser Söze did after he got into the car with his lawyer at the end of The Usual Suspects, and I’m pretty sure I never will.

Just like that—poof—he’s gone.

All this beginning and ending stuff can start playing with your head. Like mathematicians who started noticing small recursive fractals as compositional blocks of larger recursive fractals, you begin to see the cycles in your own life on multiple levels. There’s breakfast, lunch and dinner. Then there are multiyear arcs, like movements of a symphony.

Maybe you don’t see this, but I do. Curiously, my cycles seem to take on four-year spans.

I won’t bore you with childhood, but high school was an interesting four years. College—four years. After college, I spent four years trying to make my way toward something I could do as a career—a search for permanency, perhaps—and I found it.

I spent the next four years establishing myself as a working screenwriter as well as a husband and the next four years establishing myself as a solo working screenwriter, as well as a father.

I’ve spent these last four years establishing myself as, for lack of a better phrase, a successful screenwriter.

Ding! Four years are up.

And now?

Last week, I had lunch with a friend. Another writer. I look up to him in a very pure way; there’s no creepy jealousy or competitiveness or resentment to infect my relationship with him. I’m not particularly prone to those things, but I’m not inhuman either. I’m lucky that circumstances are such that I can admire someone as cleanly as I admire this guy.

So we sat at lunch and this guy lectured me. He actually said, “I want to lecture you about something,” and then he did.

Best lecture ever.

In fact, it was such a good lecture, it sent me hurtling toward my therapist, but in a good way. What this guy said to me was something I really needed to hear, and I really needed to hear it from him. It was the best compliment I’ve ever received, and almost certainly the scariest, too. In fact, his lecture may very well be the thing that sets the table and defines my next four-year cycle.

What was it about? Trust me, this advice was custom, for me. But what I can tell you with certainty is that you’re in a cycle right now, whether you like it or not. And unless a friend does it for you, you need to take the initiative, take a step back and take an honest look. Do you understand the cycle you’re in? Is there a rhythm to it? Are you at the beginning? Lost in the desert of your own second act? Nearing the end (that’s the scary one)?

Most characters are blissfully unaware that they’re in the stories we write, so why should we torture ourselves by getting recursive with the narrative of our own lives? I only dabble with the recursion myself. I’m sure Pirandello would think of me as a self-oblivious dolt. Still, birthdays tend to do this to me. And today is my 36th. So I think I’ll give some of you a gift.

This gift is for the struggling. Particularly, it’s for the struggling young. This gift is for the people who have begun the “set out on my own” cycle. Maybe you’re in a new city. You’re trying to make it in a new business. You have no experience. You have no connections. That was me… beginning of Cycle 3.

I don’t archive much of my life, but there’s one piece of paper I’ve saved all these years. I finally scanned it and laminated it, because it’s so important to me. When I arrived in Los Angeles in July of 1992, all I knew is that before anything good could happen to me I needed to get a job.

I stood out on the corner of La Cienega and Pico, leafed through a pay phone Yellow Pages (ahhhh, the pre-cell, pre-Net days) and started cold-calling temp agencies.
I had a pen, which ran out of ink… and a pencil.

Today, I’m a rich guy with a hot wife, two great kids and a nice house—and I do what I love for a living. But 15 years ago, I was this piece of paper.

Note the boxed note in the top middle. The one where I set a meeting with Louise at The Friedman Agency for 2:30 on Wednesday, July 29, 1992. That’s the meeting that got me my first couple of temp jobs, one of which became a permanent job, which became a writing job, which got me a marketing job at Disney, which lead to my career as a screenwriter.

I’m particularly fond of the question mark floating above it. I have no idea why it’s there, but I love that it is.

This paper is not some trophy or something. It’s my reverse Ozymandias. Know what I mean? Look upon my Beginning, Ye Mighty, and smile!

I’m not saying you’re going to be rich and happy and famous. What I’m saying is treasure your beginnings. That’s where all the fun is. That’s what I’m doing right now. Because I’m beginning a new cycle. And I can’t wait to see where it goes.

Craig Mazin is a screenwriter who counts Rocket Man, Senseless and the Scary Movie franchise among his credits. He blogs at www.artfulwriter.com.

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