A few years ago, music industry blogger and critic, Bob Lefsetz asked “why does everyone think they can write?” He then went on to conclude “just because you know how to type and speak, please don’t believe you can do the same.”
Lefsetz’s piece still strikes a nerve with me today because he said what few are willing to: you probably won’t make it. It is a harsh truth for most, even for myself. While some of us may indeed still defy the odds, most of us won’t.
Unlike many other creative mediums, the accessibility of writing software and tools makes anyone think they can do it. The reality is that few can actually do it well — or at least well enough to be paid to do so. Instead of tempering the expectations of young aspiring writers, an entire cottage industry has popped up to say “you’ll make it — here’s how!”*
* for a small fee of course.
Snake oil salesmen preying on the hopes and aspirations of writers is nothing new. Much has been said about it. Their services have no demonstrable track record of success. If they were such brilliant writers and had it all figured out, wouldn’t they be working in the industry themselves?
Screenwriter John Gary coined the term “hope machine” to refer to this cottage industry of script gurus, consultants and virtual pitch-fests. He went on to say the only reason these snake oil salesmen exist is to feed the hopes of young writers who would rather laugh in the face of Lefsetz’s conclusion: you probably won’t make it.
Everyone thinks they will defy the odds. While I think the “hope machine” term partly explains why this is, I think “participation trophy culture” is also to blame.
Millennials (myself included) have been made to feel like special little snow flakes from the moment they could walk and talk. A new emphasis on self-esteem building in the 90s resulted in everyone winning trophies, getting “A-for-effort” stickers and being made to feel a winner — even the losers. In fact, my 3rd grade soccer team won a fourth place plaque.
When adulthood hits, these Millennials aren’t winning awards any more. The bare minimum effort no longer nets you a place in the win column. Instead of working harder, many shout “it’s just not fair.” They’re already convinced of their own brilliance and ability. So it is the system’s fault, not theirs.
Participation trophy culture has given way to a generation of entitlement. Everyone was made to feel as if their point of view counted. So it is natural to imagine that if everyone’s POV counts, then they should be able to write that POV and be paid for it. The overemphasis on individualism has led to an absolutism of personal opinion: that you can never be wrong. It is the feeling that your opinion is just as important as an expert on the matter, or someone who’s put countless amount of hours into a craft.
Those who think this way cannot even consider that a) their POV is not equally regarded and b) they can be wrong.
Just this past week on the Scriptnotes podcast, John August was interviewing a literary agent from UTA. The agent noted “everyone is a Nicholl semifinalist…it only matters to us if you win.” The Nicholl, the Motion Picture Academy’s writing fellowship is perhaps the most prestigious accolade you could be given as an aspiring screenwriter. While there are thousands of Nicholl semi-finalists, there are very few finalists and even fewer winners. So what this agent is saying is that he is not interested in reading work from people who won a bronze medal.
Sure these semi-finalists may be decent writers, but they’re not there yet. In my experience as a script reader, even the scripts we get from writers with representation tend to be pretty mediocre (passes, in industry parlance). Those without representation? Provided they don’t go right into the unsolicited materials shredder, 90+% of the time their samples are too awful to read beyond ten pages.
Just as many athletes can be talented, only a select few will ever make it to the pros. You can be good, but not good enough. In fact, this is where most people actually wind up.
So you’re probably not going to make it. I am probably not going to make it. The best we can do is continue working on our craft in the hopes we may. It’s important we temper our expectations and understand that even if we put in “10,000 hours,” we still may not be good enough. And for those who are beyond help, it’s time we tell them to move on to something else instead of taking their money and promising them “you can do it!”
There is nothing more unhelpful than to give someone the false hope that they’re good enough when they so obviously are not. We all have limitations. We all have a ceiling as far as progress goes. It is time that we acknowledge that and stop feeding the bloated egos of those who can’t put in the work, along with the snake oil salesmen that cater to them.