For years, I mistakenly thought I was paying my dues: I wrote a lot of screenplays, first ones that were terrible and later ones that were better, and I did odd jobs for big-time screenwriters, like organizing an Emmy winner’s library, and editing banquet-dinner videos for an Academy Award nominee... But then I realized that actual dues-paying has nothing to do with learning your craft or impressing potential employers.
Aspiring screenwriters often think: “I’ll write a dozen screenplays, on my own, behind closed doors, then, one lucky day, my talent will be spotted by someone on the ‘inside’, who will read my work and love it. Some calls will be made, and by the end of the day, I will suddenly have an agent, a studio contract, and a check for a million dollars. Then I’ll decide whether or not I ever want to work again.”
We somehow think that the day we make our first sale is the day our dues paying ends. This is utterly backwards. “Paying dues” actually refers to doing excellent work in your chosen profession that pleases your boss but does not please yourself. Doing paid work of the kind you want to do, but working on projects you don’t really believe in.
Writers are constantly fed fairy-tale stories of writers like Quentin Tarantino, J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Diablo Cody, etc., who supposedly hit it out of the park their first time at bat. Those stories may or may not be lies, but they are certainly not typical. Note that you get far fewer profiles or writers like Suzanne Collins, who published a lot of semi-successful books before she finally hit it big with “The Hunger Games”. Stories like hers, while far more common, don’t sound like fairy tales, so they don’t get repeated.
Most screenwriters have to pay their dues for years after they start making money, but before they can do the personally-fulfilling work they were born to do. Matthew Weiner was a staff writer on “Becker”! Charlie Kaufman was a staff writer on “Ned and Stacey”! And they didn’t contemptuously dash off a few scripts that were far beneath their skill level. They worked hard. That’s real dues paying. And it starts after you’ve supposedly “made it.”
Wow! Things look bleak for our heroes! Will it get any worse before it gets better? Find out tomorrow?