There’s a famous story about a statistician during World War II. The Army wanted to figure out how to optimally place armor on their bombers in order to both maximize fuel efficiency and preserve maneuverability. They’d noticed a large percentage of the bullet holes on returning planes were in the fuselage and so decided to armor there. Only when they did, it didn’t reduce the number being shot down over Europe.
The answer came from Abraham Wald, an Austrian-Jewish refugee who was teaching at Colombia and helping with the war effort. To paraphrase his observation —— you want to look at the planes that don’t make it back, not the planes that do. A bomber returning was proof it could withstand hits to the fuselage. The relevant information was embedded in the bombers they never saw... Because they’d been shot in the engines.
This month is my tenth anniversary in Los Angeles (Thai Town). I’ve listened to a lot of stories from writers and screenwriters who’ve “made it” and most are some variant on “I wrote something and gave to someone with power who liked it.” While that’s true, it’s not particularly helpful, so here are a few things I could have done better and a few I think I did right.
Invest in Relationships. For the first five years I lived here, I rarely left the house unless I went to a coffee shop or to work. I didn’t develop any real friendships or take chances to get to know different people. It was mostly social anxiety and money issues. Luckily I’ve been able to reconcile this since and have developed a few close friends, but it’s something I wish I would have done sooner.
Get your work in front of people. And I don’t mean people who can “help” your career. I mean people who want to consume it as an audience. My guess is the only way to write for people is to write for people, see how they respond. Like a stand up telling jokes or an actor doing theatre or improve. The craft seems to be learned by doing. I spent a lot of time writing in coffee shops, but wasn’t getting the feedback I would if I’d put up a bad play, done a table read, made a short film or started a blog (though I’ve done that now). It also forces you out of your head and lets you see through the audiences eyes.
Stay out of debt. Los Angeles is expensive and when you move here you want to have as little baggage as possible. Most of my debt was acquired during college, both because of student loans and being generally irresponsible with credit cards. If I were going to do it again, I’d have skipped college (or maybe just done two years in community college), then started working in the industry. It would have been a good way to invest in relationships and really start doing the thing I want to do. Not to say I regret going to college, I learned a few things and met some good friends, but I think the cost to value ratio is lower now, especially for this industry... Also, library cards are free.
Find a mentor. This goes with the previous suggestions. It’d have been nice to have someone to learn from. Someone who would have been able to point out where the pitfalls are. There is a lot of this info online now with different podcasts, books and blogs by actual working writers. Working with people more experienced is a good way to learn, but it’s also a good way to figure out what you don’t want to be. And arguably, that may be more valuable.
Be honest with yourself. It’s hard to develop objectivity with your work. You invest a lot of your ego in it and it’s hard to see what you don’t see. This is part and parcel with getting the work in front of an audience. If they don’t laugh, it’s not funny. If they don’t jump, it’s not scary.
Go to therapy. From what I’ve seen, most people come to Hollywood because they’re trying to work something out. Therapy is a good way to work on and uncover that stuff. If you’re smart, you’ll do it before you hit a brick wall and blow up your life. If you’re like me, you’ll do it after. Either way, anytime you start is a good time to start.
Read and write all the time. This is one of the things I did right. I spent a lot of time writing in coffee shops and I used the free time I had to read. The only way to clock the hours is by clocking the hours. Read scripts. Write script. Break apart shows and movies you like. Take things and put them back together. Also...
Follow your curiosity. You’re gonna be interested in certain things and you won’t know why. Trust that process. I used to work next to a large chain bookstore. I spent my lunch hours pulling books off the shelf and reading till I got bored. This is a great way to keep learning. Some of my favorite ideas came from stuff I read on those lunch breaks.
Understand nothing is certain. "Nobody knows anything" is the famous William Goldman quote and, it is in fact true. You don’t know where you’re going or what will happen so don’t try to. Life isn’t on a track. I’ve spent a lot of time obsessing over scripts because I thought I could control the process. Doing it again, I’d work on something and get it out there and learn the lesson. By balancing a focus on quality and quantity I could have taken the lessons and improve faster. Fail-fast, fail early (pretty sure that’s a Steve Jobs quote).
Move toward the hard stuff. Is something scary to write? Is there a place you think you should be or a person you should talk to or something you need to face but don’t want to. Move toward that. This was the hardest lesson I had to learn and probably the most valuable. It’s also the one I continually suck at. But it does have compounding effects. Once you face something, you can move on to something harder.
Over all it’s been a hard, but good ten years in LA. I’ve learned a lot. I've made a ton of mistakes and I'm excited to see where the next ten years take me. I'm sure I’ll have a different set of lessons by then. With any luck, I can salvaged this wreck and put the armor in the right place.