By Matthew Sawczyn
I don’t think I will ever forget that phone call. It came at an awkward and unexpected time, as most changes seem to. I had been in California for five years, and Los Angeles for three. I had worked tirelessly, networked endlessly, and dreamed longingly. I had acquired that strange cocktail of jaded and pragmatic that creatives gain after some time… hopeful, yes, but never allowing oneself too much excitement. After all, excitement leads to disappointment, and it’s better to play the arts loose and cool, rather than emotional and possibly wounded. It’s a thick skin mentality. That was the comfortable rut I had settled into: perhaps, in a few years time, after much more hard work, I might have a bit of screentime to call my own.
And then that phone call came. A friend (it’s always a friend) was moving to Iowa to work on a newly forming writer’s team. And he asked if I would join them.
I swear, those life-changing moments come at the strangest times.
Two months later, my bags packed and my car stuffed to overflowing with books, I drove away from Hollywood of all places, and into a screenwriting job. The irony was not lost on me. And here, from the snow-laden fields of Northern Iowa, are a few tricks I’ve learned since. Some are obvious, and some are ‘Google-able’; but all were learned, tried, and tested by yours truly. I hope they help, whether you’re a fresh faced student or a lifelong creative of any field. Here are six tips from a novice staff writer.
1. Be Open
The most important thing in a writers’ room is story, but the means to that very important end is “The Room”, in quotes and capitalized. It’s the team: the creative mind generating ideas, working on a shared vision. Be respectful, courteous, and good-humored. Do your part to foster an environment of inspiration and generation, where ideas are proposed and tested and stretched. And the first step to this is to be a true listener. Everyone in that room is smart and capable, and their idea deserves to be heard; put your ego aside and always be open to a new direction or insight. And foremost, absolutely never use the word “stupid”, unless it’s to humbly pitch your own wild idea.
2. Be Humble
Continuing that point, be humble. Everyone starts at the bottom, and every once in a while the showrunner will simply have to pull rank and make the decision on a storyline or character direction. Know your place, and be a good sport about it. A writing room is a team; nothing aids creativity more than harmony and peacemaking amongst the players. Some of your ideas will be picked, many won’t. Learn to let things go, and don’t cling to one viewpoint above all else. Stories development twists and turns, going places you never would have imagined; this is only possible if the team allows itself to be guided by the best emerging direction, even if it’s not one’s own.
3. Be Firm
With that said, don’t be afraid to make yourself heard. If you deeply believe in or object to an idea, voice that. Your concerns are real; if you really feel a certain way, it’s a good sign your writer-instinct is reacting to a buried truth. And even if your exact idea or objection isn’t directly picked up, the very act of tackling and wrestling with that something you feel in your gut will help strengthen the story.
4. Be Patient
It’s Day One, and you’re bursting from the seams with great ideas and wonderful stories. And that’s a good thing: you’re so excited to create! Then it’s Month Two, and you’re still mapping out the pilot beats… and you want to die. But save that for your characters! Remember, breaking story is hard. It takes time, and it should take time, because more often than not incredible ideas don’t sprout overnight. They must mature and develop. Allow those seeds the days they need to grow. Managing the day’s tasks mostly falls on the showrunner, so staff writers don’t have to worry too much about the roadmap to finished scripts. For your part, practice patience when the clock creeps at a glacial pace. Trust your showrunner. You’ll get to those late night drafting sprints sooner than you think!
5. Be Healthy
A very small tip here, but try to keep yourself as physically, mentally, and spiritually healthy as possible. As always, balance is key. Days can run long in a writer’s room, and are mentally taxing, so personal wellness is often the first thing tossed aside. Instead, make it a priority. Resist all the goodies in the snack room (sometimes), exercise regularly, and speak up if you feel the situation turning sour (or worse, abusive). A healthy environment is a creative environment.
6. Be Grateful
Creativity and challenging go hand in hand. Hours will go long, tensions will run high, and even the best days will be tough. Whenever you find yourself hitting your head against the wall or bordering on despair, take a step back and remind yourself of where you are, and how blessed you’ve been. Be thankful. You’re in a creative space, doing creative tasks, and making a living of it: this is amazing! You’ve hit the jackpot. Keep pushing your stories, keep creating, and embrace your art.
That’s all I’ve got for you creative types. I hope they help. Remember: keep working, keep smiling, and keep making beautiful things. God will do the rest, through your open disposition and one unlikely phone call.
About the Author
Matthew Sawczyn is a staff writer at Renovo Media Group, and an alumnus of JPCatholic (MBA in Film Producing – Class of 2017). He loves hiking, HBO, and cuddly cats.”
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