At sixty years old, I finally know what I want to be when I grow up. A writer.
This is actually the second time in my life I have realized this. The first was when I was in my twenties struggling to be an actress. I was probably struggling because I never really wanted to be an actress. I had always wanted to be a model, having been a huge fan of “Millie the Model” comic books as a child and, after a few years of getting side-tracked in various other jobs, I actually did become a model. About this time, a friend told me about a commercial acting workshop she was taking. A nationally-run commercial can make an actor several thousand dollars. I signed up. My interest in becoming a commercial actress led to my thinking that it might also be cool to become a “serious” actress so, despite my extreme discomfort in actually standing up in front of anyone and performing, I moved to Hollywood to pursue this career.
Some small successes in a few commercials and bit parts notwithstanding, the truth is, I sucked. I would shake so badly when auditioning, it’s a wonder anyone ever hired me and then, of course, I actually had to do the job once I got it. As luck would have it, I was enrolled in an acting school that required we pour through plays in search of scenes to perform in the class. This was about the same time that Sylvester Stallone was achieving his “overnight” success as writer and star of the first “Rocky.” I figured if he could write, how hard could it be and I started writing my own scenes for class. To my great surprise, they were very well-received and I suddenly went from being the worst actress in the class who nobody wanted to hang out with to someone regarded with respect and even, dare I say, a certain amount of awe. And it felt good.
When I think about who were the greatest influences in my life, I am chagrined to have to admit they were “Millie the Model” and Sylvester Stallone. “Millie” led me to modeling, which led me to acting, and Sly led me from acting to writing.
I soon began writing screenplays while earning my living typing the screenplays of others. I became exposed to literally hundreds of scripts this way—some exceptionally good, like those by Alvin Sargent and Fay Kanin, and some exceptionally bad by writers never to be heard from again. I learned from all of them. Eventually, my work was recognized with options and agents and, finally, with actual jobs. My forté became the realm of the TV-Movie. This was during the ’80s and ’90s when lots of them were being made, but even more of them were being “developed.” This meant you would either pitch an idea which, if sold, they would pay you to write or you would get an assignment to write a script from someone else’s idea, or from a true-life story, or adapt a book. The great thing about working on assignment or from a pitch is you get paid whether the movie gets made or not—and if it gets made, you actually get a bonus payment. The bad thing is, the odds of it getting made are poor at best and the reasons rarely, if ever, have anything to do with the quality of the writing, but rather the capriciousness of network executives—many of whom hated you for being able to do what they could not and tortured you with endless notes on how they thought you could make the script “better.” Except it never did. My career as a TV writer spanned almost two decades and although I was fortunate to have several of my scripts made into movies, by the time they actually went to film, more often than not they had been altered so much by the whims of others, they barely resembled my initial vision. We who were lucky enough to actually have a career as working writers back then had a saying: “Being a writer in Hollywood is like being a bricklayer in Beirut. The work’s steady, but there’s not much job satisfaction.”
My initial love for the writing process, my initial excitement over its discovery, eventually was worn and beaten down. As my frustration grew, I began being visited more and more often by the Three Riders of Doom to creativity: Anger and his sidekicks, Cynicism, and Bitterness. It became not about the work and all about the money, because if the bastards were going to put me through hell they were damn well going to pay for the privilege. Eventually, my anger spillith over until I could no longer make even a pretense of politeness in story meetings and, wonder of wonders, people stopped wanting to work with me. Which was fine, because I no longer wanted to write—anything—for anyone, including, sadly, myself. It had become just too painful.
Which brings me to now. I am five years out of the business and other than a few blistering letters-to-the-editor of my local paper, I’ve written nothing. Nada. Zip. So imagine my surprise when my muse began peeking over my shoulder lately, inquiring softly if it was safe to come out. It started with the discovery of a few new authors and the re-discovery of some old favorites. Their voices inspired me and I heard my own voice saying, “Hey! I want to play, too.” “Play” seems to be the operative word here. Since I am no longer completely dependent on writing for a living, I am once again free to write for the pure pleasure and love of it. And I had forgotten how much I truly do love it. Not that I would turn money down. I’d love to sell something, just not my soul. Not again. Second chances are rare. At my age, I figure with luck I’ve got maybe another twenty years or so before all brain cells betray me and chronic drool sets in to do what I believe I was born to do. Write. And when it’s my time to go, you can bet I’ll be taking my soul with me.