So You're Thinking About a Creative Career
By Marty Nemko
One of the nation’s leading screenwriting teachers encouraged me to write a screenplay.
2 ½ screenplays later, I don’t know if I should thank her or blame her. But I’ve certainly learned some lessons about preparing for a creative career.
I was flattered that a big-time professor encouraged me, so I went whole hog. I put aside the next book I was planning to write--“America’s Most Overrated Product: Higher Education,”—and instead, devoured a half-dozen books on screenwriting and started on the screenplay, most nights until midnight.
I sent The Big Professor the first draft and she gave me the worst feedback possible: “Good first script! Most writers have to write four to six scripts before they’re any good. Oliver Stone wrote 20.” Write another script!!.”
So because The Big Professor encouraged me and I found the process fun, I wrote another script. She read it and said, “Great!! Write another.” So, I’m writing my third script. My book, “America’s Most Overrated Product,” still sits unstarted.
But I also sent my second script to a screenplay reviewer for hire: Lynne Pembroke. She reviews scripts for major film studios and makes a few extra bucks doing it for screenwriters. She promises to give an honest appraisal and suggestions for a modest fee. I sent her my script and her basic message: It sucks. I have since gotten similar feedback from other non-teachers.
Lesson 1: Always take encouragement with a grain of salt, especially from teachers. Teachers like to give encouragement—they have nothing to lose and your appreciation to gain.
They say that Hollywood is the only city where you can be encouraged to death. I suspect that’s also true outside Hollywood.
Corollary to Lesson 1: Especially if you’re getting feedback on something you find fun to produce (music, art, acting, etc), you’re subject to being encouraged unduly. Listen between the lines for hints that your potential isn’t that great. In retrospect, I only let the positive comments penetrate. I didn’t really take in “Your characters need more character.” Similarly, when I was one of two guests at a screenwriting class, The Big Professor introduced the first guest as a “fabulous screenwriter.” I was introduced as “passionate and working to get better.”
I sent The Big Professor a few ideas for my third screenplay. One was for a sci-fi film called “Smarter” about a person genetically engineered to have Einstein’s intelligence. She said, “Only a stupid Hollywood exec would like this.” One week later, I was sitting in her class and she asked me to pitch some film ideas to the class. I pitched “Smarter” and she said she loved it.
Lesson 2: We hang on experts’ words as if they were from God. There’s more randomness in the system that we like to believe.
While sitting in on the class, I listened to The Big Professor explain the classic three-act screenplay structure. Even though she’s been teaching it for years, her explanation was unclear. Worse, she went off on tangents that—looking at the other students--only she found interesting.
The students didn’t help make the class more worthwhile. Even though this film school admits fewer than 10% of applicants, the students were passive. They rarely asked questions, let alone challenging ones. Their comments were tentative, perhaps hiding the real questions they were too afraid to ask.
Lesson 3: Save yourself time and money: buy the book; pass on the class. On screenwriting, I recommend Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434, David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible, and Robert McKee’s Story.
© Marty Nemko 2004-2018. Usage Rights