Sometimes I feel like a failure. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to suffocate under the weight of how much I’ve failed, and I have to inject some healthy delusion back into my self-perception just to keep doing what I do. I feel like I have to justify my every decision and action to a world of people who are judging me.
I talk a lot about winning the Ustinov on this blog. This isn’t an attempt at a humble brag, but rather an ongoing process of working out what that award meant to me. Before winning that award I was desperate and despondent; the truth I’d kept at bay, that I had nobody’s word but my own that I was a good writer, was starting to come home and it was terrifying. Because when you devote yourself to one thing and the possibility arrives that maybe you’re not as good as you thought you were at that thing, it’s horrible. The value of winning the Ustinov, then, can’t really be measured in the opportunities it afforded me, but rather in the fact that, when I needed it the most, it gave me proof that I wasn’t barking up the wrong tree.
But if I’m being honest? I wish it had led to more. Sometimes I lie awake at night and wonder if I squandered the heat from the award, if I screwed up how I should have leveraged that validation into more of a career. It’s easy to blame other factors and people for this, but, like anything, it’s complicated and I have to wonder if I am fundamentally to blame for the fact that I haven’t sold a feature or become the showrunner of a TV show yet.
It always surprises me when people tell me how impressed they are with what I’ve done. Please don’t read that as false modesty, I’ve just never really been someone who knows how to process praise and as such I tend to awkwardly shuffle and try to smile without looking smug or constipated. Part of this is due to the fact that being told I’m amazing or whatever is so at odds with how I see myself. But then I remember that old truth; people never pay as much attention to you as you do to yourself. They see what you choose to show, and you’re hardly going to air all of your terrible insecurities to the world (unless you’re writing a blog like this).
Crucially, however, the fact that you don’t feel like the person people see doesn’t mean that they’re wrong. It’s the reason that biographies and autobiographies are both valuable; one is told from the inside, with all the biases that come with that, while the other can be more impartial, albeit without the same access and insight. Nobody will ever know us as well as we know ourselves, but conversely, we don’t always see ourselves that clearly, for better or worse. Self-awareness can only go so far.
On paper, I look like a success. At 26 I have two published novels, one of which was shortlisted for a major award, I have a production company that has been behind a whole bunch of very well received plays, I’ve won a screenwriting award from the International Emmys, and I’m the host of a podcast that has thousands of listeners worldwide. I work now exclusively as a writer and several of my stories have very exciting things going on that I can’t yet talk about.
I’m still broke and in debt. I still struggle to figure out how to make ends meet. I regularly see stories of writers my age or younger who have hit the big time and go on to bigger and better successes. And slowly, that old panic starts to creep back in. What if I’m wrong? What if I’m not good enough? What if the best of my career has already been and gone and I missed the chance to really make a go of it?
There isn’t any easy answer to these doubts, because they could be right. But I’m starting to see it as an ‘innocent until proven guilty’ thing, because I’m still very young. Sure, some writers find major success young, but most don’t achieve anything close to it until their thirties, forties or even later. Some never achieve any at all despite unquestionably deserving it. There’s no perfect or even obvious way to embark on a creative career because there are so many variables and the very question of your ability is subjective. As is the question of your success. Does working exclusively as a writer make you successful? It certainly puts you in the minority. What about having awards to your name? It looks good but it doesn’t mean much when you’re still figuring out how the hell you’re gonna pay rent this month. Being published? You try eating out on two dollars per book. Being on a popular podcast? Might cause more harm than good when you want to get into the industry but literally get paid to claim, without much to your name, that you can write better movies than the people you want to work for.
But in this industry you kind of have to take what you can get, because beggars can’t be choosers and unless you’re either absurdly lucky or absurdly talented, pursuing a creative career means consigning yourself to being a beggar for an indefinite amount of time. It doesn’t matter how much you might think you deserve something; that old problem of perspective will always trip you up. You might think you’re brilliant, but that doesn’t mean for a second that anyone else has to, and that’s a tough lesson to learn. The opposite could be just as true. The question then is how you decide to respond to that discrepancy of perspectives.
I get contacted a lot by young writers who listen to Movie Maintenance, often wanting advice or feedback. While I don’t give feedback on people’s writing (unless I’m getting paid for it, sorry) I’m always happy to give advice and that advice always amounts to the same thing; almost none of us know what we’re doing and success, if it ever comes, is an imperfect cocktail of luck, talent, inhuman persistence and lots of hard work. And as hopeless as it might seem sometimes, remember that you will almost always be your own harshest critic. Because where you see a failure, somebody else might just see an inspiration.
Writing words about writing words.