Today’s piece is written by Cindy Chupack, Executive Producer and Writer of “Sex and the City.”
This might sound hokey, but I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since my third grade teacher declared, based on some poetry assignments I turned in, that I was a writer.
There were a lot of things you could be called in the third grade. “You’re a fag!” one boy wrote in my autograph book, before we had yearbooks, before either of us knew what a “fag” was. We were ten, so this was not so much politically incorrect as it was factually incorrect, but the point is, of all the things I’d been called and would be called growing up in Oklahoma, writer was definitely my favorite.
Thus (that’s the other thing that appealed to me: writers got to use words like thus!) from a very young age, I didn’t think I wanted to be a writer. I thought I was a writer.
I wrote all the time, even on family vacations. My sister would come home with a tan, and I’d come home with a poem. I’m not saying anything I wrote was great. It wasn’t even good. I thought it was good, though, and my parents thought it was good, but with parents, you have to remember these are the same people who once praised you for pooping. It’s their job to be encouraging. Some parents retire from that job, some tell you everything you do is crap (ironically), but mine never did.
Anyhow, in the fifth grade, after two long years of honing my craft, I got my big break. One of my poems won a contest and earned a place in a book called “The World of Poetry.” My parents had to pay something like $50 for our copy of the book, and when it arrived, based on the number of pages (maybe 3000?) and the microscopic print (is there such a thing as .5?), and the fact that you could pay extra to have your picture included (to their credit, my parents did not pony up for a picture), it became clear that I had not been discovered, I had been scammed.
In fact, as I browsed through the 8 million other “winning” poems, I realized I wasn’t a great writer. I was one of 8 million people who wanted to write, and that was just the people in this edition. I hadn’t “won” anything, and I probably wasn’t going to win that “Draw Tony the Tiger” contest either. The world – The World of Poetry – was suddenly a much darker place, run by people who took art, or at least someone’s dream of being an artist, and turned it into a business.
The fact that I’ve been completely blindsided by the lack of caring on the other side of the negotiating table during this strike shows just how little I’ve learned since the fifth grade.
But for me, writing was never a business. I once said to my agent when we were discussing my next career move, “Let’s take the money out of it,” and he looked at me as if I’d said, “Let’s take gravity out of it.” (I’m no longer with that agent.) I once left a hit network show that I loved to work for less money with a lesser title on an intriguing new cable show that spoke to me (and to millions of other women around the world, apparently). I’ve said no to high-paying development deals in exchange for no-paying, no-strings-attached opportunities to write what I wanted rather than what someone wanted from me. I quit a secure advertising job when I first moved to LA so I could read a pile of spec scripts for Disney TV animation. It was there I learned that Hollywood, for all its flaws, is a meritocracy when it comes to writing. A great script takes on a life of its own. A great script (like a great book), you can’t wait to pass around. A great script gets the writer work, even if the writer is a naive kid from Oklahoma.
I understand, by the way, what a luxury it is to be able to turn jobs down. It’s a luxury our residuals – combined with our ability to live on Ramen noodles – buy us. It’s a luxury that’s a necessity, because sometimes as a writer, what you want/need to write is not going to make you rich, but it’s going to make you happy. And it’s going to reach people in a way that other writing won’t because it’s from the heart. It’s something only you could write. It’s what you’re supposed to be writing.
I once heard Joe Mantegna tell a roomful of aspiring writers and actors that if you don’t love doing a community theater play that pays nothing, you won’t love the job any more when you’re making a million dollars. His point was that acting is acting. Writing is writing. Ideally, you do it because you love it. You do it when it barely pays the rent, because you can’t imagine doing anything else.
That doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t get compensated fairly for what we do, because what we do, as I sensed in the third grade, is special. What we create creates hundreds of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue for the corporations who claim they can’t pay us pennies more. We face the blank page daily and infuse it with life, which infuses this industry with life.
This strike has been a frustrating reminder that TV and film, in the eyes of the corporations, is just business, but it will never be just business for writers. It will always be something we feel lucky to do. Writers are some of the funniest, smartest, most creative, darkest, best people I know. Writers’ rooms have given me amazing, hilarious memories and amazing, hilarious friends. That’s why I’m proud, all of these years and scripts and reality checks later, to continue learning, and earning the title: Writer.
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. If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.