Why We Write

December 28, 2007

Why We Write – Number 5: Greg Berlanti

  Number 5

Today’s piece is written by Greg Berlanti, Executive Producer of “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Brothers and Sisters.”

 

I’ve never considered myself much of a writer.  I’m not particularly great at it.  On my best day I don’t have half the talent of many people I’ve been lucky enough to hire and to work with.  And this is not false humility.  Ask any writer who works with me, they’ll tell you how much I rely on their abilities, how often I struggle to craft the simplest of scenes.  I know a lot of other writers feel like they suck too, but that doesn’t make it easier (I know this because a large part of my day is convincing other writers they don’t suck.  Once finished, I go back into my office and convince myself I do suck all over again).  The problem is, regardless of my limited writing talent, I love telling stories.   Creating a character, a world, a whole universe out of nothing.  That part I can’t get enough of.  I think about myself and storytelling the way Bill Clinton described himself and the Presidency, and I’m paraphrasing here, “There are guys who have done it better, but there’s no one who’s enjoyed it more.”

As a kid, the first storyteller I wanted to be was Jim Henson.  I designed and built puppets and had a business performing for birthday parties.  If you’re curious what the rock bottom of the middle school caste system is, it’s The Kids Who Play With Puppets.  Seriously, The Kids Who Played With Magic used to beat the crap out of me.  Anyway, a day or so before the birthday party (even then I needed a deadline), I would sit and design a story based on the little facts of the birthday boy or girl’s life.  Each time I sat down to do this, staring at the blank page in my Trapper Keeper, I would grumble to myself, “I hate this… stupid birthday… I’m never gonna think of anything.  I’m the WORST BIRTHDAY PARTY PUPPET GUY EVER!”  And then inevitably, I’d get some small idea that would lead to the next idea, and to the one after that, and in a few hours I had a story.  At which point I would think to myself, “I love this!  I’m a genius!  I’m the best BIRTHDAY PARTY PUPPET GUY EVER!”  Eventually,  because I liked the idea of having sex in this lifetime, I dropped the puppets.  But the internal monologue and its cycle from self loathing to self fellating is still pretty much the same. 

Okay, so now let’s fast forward to 1996.  It was about a year after I moved to Los Angeles and I was paying my bills working as a phone operator at the prestigious Sherman Oaks Galleria Business Center.  The girl that trained me was leaving for junior college to study “hotels and stuff” and because she knew I wanted to be a writer she promised to introduce me to her high school friend, Ricky Schroeder, as soon as she got back.  At night I would drive home to the studio apartment I rented in Beachwood Canyon, beneath the Hollywood Sign, and think to myself, “I’ve never been further from Hollywood in my whole life.”  But the worst part about this time?  I had stopped writing.   And I had never stopped writing before.  From middle school to college, puppets had let to plays, which lead to screenplays.  But after having my first few masterpieces resoundingly rejected by every studio and agency in town  (I was one of those dudes who thought a color script cover would make a difference) I had let my discouragement consume me.  A good friend of mine from college named Julie Plec (now a writer herself on the show Kyle XY) took me out for lunch where she read me the riot act for giving up on my dream before I even had a chance to fail at it.  I tried to offer up some lame excuses, “I’m tinkering with a new idea, I’ve got a meeting with Ricky Schroeder, etc.”  But she knew it was all bullshit.  I finally opened up about how Hollywood had confirmed my own instincts about my lack of talent.  Julie reminded me that there was a time in my life when I never cared about how successful I was at writing, just how much I loved it.  I went home that day and began work on my fourth script, which was… also resoundingly rejected.  As were my fifth thru ninth scripts.  But my tenth script, my tenth script I wrote in Los Angeles got me a lawyer, an agent, and my first job as a paid writer.

What’s the rest of the story?  How did I get here from there?  Writing.   See, that’s why I write.  Not because I’m great at it.  As I mentioned above, most days I feel barely passable.  I write because I love telling stories.  And as I share my stories with the world, my own story gets better and better.   Writing has been responsible for almost every amazing thing that has ever happened to me.  I’ve met thousands of people, made hundreds of friends, had my scripts shot all around the country, worked with stars I grew up admiring,  and seen other actors go from oblivion to household names.  I’ve had crew on shows I’ve created meet,  get married and have children all because I had an idea one day while I was driving and had the fortitude to see that vision through.  When I think about my life now, all thanks to writing,  I think about that classic exchange from “Broadcast News” between William Hurt and Albert Brooks, courtesy of everyone’s writing hero Mr. James Brooks, 

“What do you do when your life exceeds your dreams?”  

“Keep it to yourself.”

I guess that’s the other reason I write.  One day, if I’m lucky enough, I hope to write a line half that good. 

 

WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers during the strike, and perhaps beyond.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.

17 Comments »

  1. Greg,

    You just gave me the fuel I needed to keep writing. I love ya!

    And by the way, the stories you tell on one of my favorite shows, B&S, are incredible. I was hooked on the Walkers from the very first episode. I’m still hooked on them. What GREAT characters!

    Thanks for sharing what I feel most of the time when I write. That my writing is barely passable. Which is why haven’t written my own essay yet. But now…I can. Thanks to you!

    Comment by roobaby44 — December 28, 2007 @ 9:58 am | Reply

  2. Greg,
    Thank you for a personal glimpse into your own reasons for writing. I believe this is a question every writer has asked themselves at some point or several points as the case may be. I have tortured myself over this very question many times. Why, oh why, did the ‘writing bug’ have to bite me? You made me go a bit deeper than usual and now I might even understand. I believe it started with the fact that I used to be left-handed. In the first grade my teacher slapped my palms with a ruler to stop that cursed affliction before it became permanent. So I had to ‘write’ a lot to become ‘right-handed’. Even more so to have a cursive handwriting that was legible. This flowed into poetry in later years. A mother that teared up over my poetry, teachers that appreciated the effort spent on ten pages of a report instead of the usual one page, and school buddies that loved my horror stories fed the flames of this unreasonable desire to write. The silliest part of the whole senario is that it doesn’t matter what I write, just that I feed that burning flame of creativity in some manner. When I am not writing there is an empty place that can only be filled with words…

    Comment by nene1155 — December 28, 2007 @ 10:44 am | Reply

  3. Funny, I stopped writing and your “riot act” thing has me wondering. I even made it into Best Women Monologues of 1998 and had a play produced. But I stopped after I couldn’t get my novel-that-took-almost-ten-years to write published. Now I’m creating a blog for NYC and maybe that’ll get me writing again coz I sure as hell feel like it. Thanks and Happy New Year.

    Comment by VictoiseC — December 28, 2007 @ 12:58 pm | Reply

  4. What a wonderful gift, that this series is inspiring (and re-inspiring) so many writers-to-be (and writers-who-once-were) to create (again)!

    Just lovely.

    Thank you.

    Comment by Bon — December 28, 2007 @ 8:00 pm | Reply

  5. Great essay. Not only is he a much better writer than he gives himself credit for, but he sounds like the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with.

    Also, this essay reminds me of a story Ron Moore told in an interview. The interviewer (Pam Douglas) asks him if there’s anything he’d like to say to aspiring writers. He responds,

    ***
    Two things: One is the apocryphal story I was told when I started on staff on Star Trek. Someone told me about Heifitz, the great concert violinist, standing in the wings ready to go on at Carnegie Hall. This young kid comes up to him and says “Please, please will you listen to me play the violin?” “No, kid, I don’t have time.” “Please, please, thirty seconds. I just don’t know if I have it, do I have it? Will you just listen to me?” The kid plays. And Heifitz says, No,” and goes on stage and performs. The kid leaves and never plays again. He has a whole career, a family, and many years later he runs into Heifitz at a charity, and says “You don’t remember me, but when I was a kid I came up to you and asked if I had it. Now I’m successful and I’m happy but I have to ask how could you do that? How could you listen to me play for thirty seconds when I was just this young kid and tell me I had no talent?” And Heifitz says, “That’s what I tell everybody because it’s the kind of business where if you can be discouraged, it will discourage you.”

    The other piece of advice comes from when I was on a panel of TV writers and they were asking what we would tell young writers. Harlan Ellison, the great science fiction writer, was sitting next to me. He grabbed the microphone and leaned forward and said “Don’t be a whore.” That pretty much summarizes it.
    ***

    I think Greg’s story, like the one Ron Moore told in the interview, is about remaining impervious to discouragement, even if it comes from yourself. If you’re in it for the money or critical acclaim, odds are very much against you. No matter how good you are, you’ll hit dry spells, fall out of favor, lose your mojo, whatever. But if you’re in it for love of the process, no matter how talented you think you really are, your passion will make you tenacious. And tenacious is what you need to be in order to write and send ten (ten! that’s what… 1200 pages?) scripts around before ever getting a bite.

    Comment by Heather — December 30, 2007 @ 6:15 pm | Reply

  6. Beautifully said….I had the pleasure of working as a guest star on Eli Stone and I can say that you run a top notch show as well! It was a pleasure to spend the week with that group. My experiance has been that the quality of the people on set is a direct reflection of the people at the top. I wish you all the best.

    Comment by Blake Robbins — January 4, 2008 @ 1:14 am | Reply

  7. thank you. keep it up.

    Comment by kelly — January 12, 2008 @ 10:22 pm | Reply

  8. [...] but I know he’s a highly regarded TV showrunner and writer. But he wrote an outstanding essay for the “Why We Write” blog in which TV writers, currently on strike, talk about what [...]

    Pingback by And…I’m back. « The Pop Culture Diet — January 13, 2008 @ 3:13 pm | Reply

  9. [...] are unemployed and write for no up front money most of the time, just like us literary types. This one by Greg Berlanti is particularly funny and inspiring, and the comments are good too. Don’t be discouraged, [...]

    Pingback by Those who keep working « Let’s Shall — January 14, 2008 @ 6:59 am | Reply

  10. Ah, Jim Henson was where it all started for me too.

    Thanks for a wonderful essay. Made my day.

    Comment by Cais — January 14, 2008 @ 10:26 am | Reply

  11. Greg,

    I suck, too. Often. And I do it brilliantly. But I keep at it anyway because it’s the only thing I know with 100% certainty I want to do. I may never be a published author, but if I didn’t try then there wouldn’t be much point to my existence outside of my family.

    Keep it up, my man!

    -Mark
    http://www.writedamnnow.com

    Comment by Mark — January 16, 2008 @ 12:52 pm | Reply

  12. Greg,

    My jealousy of your success is muted by the honest description of your path to expert status. You speak of writing as the cause of success rather than the immodest notion you are the root cause of this success.

    Paul

    Comment by Paul Miles — January 26, 2008 @ 6:03 pm | Reply

  13. As in many of the posts above, your comments are a shot in the arm. After years of writing tech for the phone company, followed by layoff and years of caring for my parents, I’d given up on the dream. I’d become burnt out and desolate. But I guess for a writer, there’s always hope! Even if nobody reads it, the act of creation itself is joy in itself.

    BTW, I really liked Broken Hearts Club, tho I didn’t like T.O. in the lead – seemed rather “one-note”. (I used to act, too.) And why no note in the commentary about the costuming (colors) in the last scene? But really, a 4* movie – I’d never have guessed a first time director.

    Comment by Dale — March 7, 2008 @ 6:43 pm | Reply

  14. PS: Also a Carpenters fan – only partially because Karen sang in the same key that I do.

    Comment by Dale — March 7, 2008 @ 6:47 pm | Reply

  15. KEEP ON SUCKING BECAUSE YOU’RE REALLY GOOD AT IT! GRAZIE PER LE STORIE MERAVIGLIOSE CHE CI TENGONO INCOLLATI ALLO SCHERMO.
    STEFANIA

    Comment by Stefania Girolami — December 27, 2008 @ 6:34 pm | Reply

  16. mfYFJt Excellent article, I will take note. Many thanks for the story!

    Comment by Cialis — March 6, 2010 @ 11:14 am | Reply

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