I had an interesting experience earlier this week. I read a TV pilot I’d written for reasons still not fully understood — I’m not a TV writer and don’t truly aspire to be (but more about that downstream). When I was done, I got up from my chair and thought “meh.” It was “okay“. It was “good enough.” With some time and rewrite work, it could be better, maybe even sellable, though the odds of selling any TV pilot, even for an established TV writer, which I am not, are quite slim. I could invest the time in my long shot mediocre pilot, or I could invest my time in the things I’m really good at and that seems to suit my life right now: writing a novel (my first) and exploring ways to get more involved in making a better world. These are my passions, really, writing and change-making, and TV isn’t really the place for that. At least not for me.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m really good at and passionate about. I’ve started a novel and I’ve begun to explore ways that I can make a difference in the world. I am retooling myself as a writer and change maker and am still sussing out what that means. What I know, though, is that I’m good at writing prose and that I love it in a way that I never loved writing screenplays, even in my heyday, and that I certainly don’t love writing TV.
The “meh” TV pilot was the third script of mine that I’d read in recent months. The other two were screenplays for feature films, one of which had gotten me a lot of attention and been developed with some hot shot producers. My reaction to both of those screenplays was also “meh.” Both had their merits, both were arguably better than a good chunk of what’s floating around, but they weren’t amazing feats of artistry either.
Oddly enough, I don’t feel bad about any of this. I think I’m a good screenwriter. I don’t think I’ll ever be a great one, in part because I don’t really want to be, but also because I think my natural talents, my true greatness, such as it is, lies somewhere else.
I think I’m a natural novelist. I have no illusions that it will be easy and expect to write trillions of drafts before I have a great novel, but I do believe I have a great novel or two in me. If I applied the same energy to a screenplay, I don’t think it would be half as good, and I know it wouldn’t be half as satisfying. I am philosophical in nature and a little overwrought. I’m interested in themes, and excited about the controlled meanderings and internal exploration that literary fiction allows. I also know how to structure things well, thanks to my background in film. Writing this novel I’ve begun is a joy, whereas just thinking about reworking on of my screenplays or pilot makes me blah. I’m full of ideas and I want to put them on the page in a way that you can only do with fiction or essay. I also want to connect my ideas with the world. I want to use my sharp mind and my big heart to contribute to the conversation that’s happening everywhere you look these days about how we can make a better world. The question of how I can get a movie made pales in comparison and, honestly, knowing what it requires, it just isn’t worth it to me unless it arises organically from the passion projects I’m committing myself to. I can’t keep chasing that film crack, because a film badass is not the sort of badass I am.
It’s a good question: “What sort of badass are you? I don’t mean what have you succeed at. I have enough super successful friends to know that success that’s divorced from some sense of meaning or calling can feel empty, even if it does keep fear at bay. I mean, who are you really? What have you come here to do? What is the true best use of your considerable talents and gifts.
I think of it the way I think about ingredients for a recipe. There are a lot of things you can do with cauliflower, so knowing that you’re a cauliflower (or a lawyer, or a evolutionary anthropologist, or a writer) doesn’t really tell you very much. That’s just an ingredient with which you could do many different things. The kind of badass you are will determine what you cook up with the ingredients you have.