I hate when people tell me I need to be passionate about my writing. As if the only way for a script or story or post to work is if I’m DYING to tell it.
As my Canadian friend would say, Americans (especially TV writer types) don’t struggle with being passionate because they believe whatever they’re saying is the most important thing in the world.
I grew up in San Diego but I may as well be from Ottawa. I’m just not Capital-P PASSIONATE about my ideas the way many of my TV brothers and sisters are. And yet passion, or rather access to passion, is a vital component to a successful career in this biz.
A TV Writer’s Job
Your job as a TV writer is twofold. The first first fold, Fold A if you will, is to write. Duh, bro. You generate ideas and create material — screenplays, TV pilots, jokes and funny Tweets that everyone says are good for your brand. Chances are if you’re a TV writer or want to be one, this is the fold, Fold A, that you enjoy.
The second fold, Fold B, is to pitch. This is where you tell people about your ideas — why they’re great, why you want to make them and why they should make them. Also, why they’re going to make everyone a lot of money. Like enough bills to stack up into a money throne.
Writing is communicating on the page. Pitching is communicating in the air with your hands and voice and props maybe if it’s that kind of show.
Pitching is the part of being a TV writer that nobody talks about until you’re in the biz. I mean, nobody told me. It’s the part that many writers (i.e. non-sadists) hate and avoid. But you can’t.
You have to put your ideas out there, be it jokes or story pitches in the writers’ room or your passion project for an exec more interested in doom scrolling Instagram.
When you’re pitching a project or script or anything you want to get made, you are trying to engage that person in something that presumably you yourself are engaged in. If you’re not engaged in it, stop now and go find something that you are engaged in.
Because take it from me, it will be un uphill battle and one that you will not win.
Fight Me, Mel Brooks
In this interview Gene Wilder tells the story about the only argument he ever had with long-time collaborator Mel Brooks.
He was in the midst of writing Young Frankenstein and Mel was reviewing the pages for the day. Gene had written a scene where he wanted to tap dance in top hat and tails to Irving Berlin’s “Putting on the Ritz” but Mel balked, thinking the whole thing was too frivolous.
Gene didn’t back down and went to the mat for his idea until Mel relented. Bewildered, Gene questioned his friend for putting him through this ordeal if he was just going to agree to keep the bit.
Mel explained he wasn’t sure if the idea was right but knew if he said no and Gene dropped it, then the scene wasn’t right. But if Gene really fought for it, then it was the right choice to keep it.
It got me thinking. What project of mine would I be passionate enough to keep fighting for? Is my lack of passion the reason I can’t seem to gain traction pitching? Is it because I’m ready to let my ideas go the minute someone questions them (or worse) ignores them?
Perhaps I should have more confidence in my ideas. Perhaps I should approach every pitch like I’m going to browbeat Mel Brooks into liking it. Or perhaps this is simply a personality thing. I know that I’m passionate about my ideas but I don’t necessarily express it or think about them in such exuberant terms.
I just try to focus on ideas that I naturally want to talk about. If I have an idea that I know is super niche or weird and probably won’t sell but I still think about it and want to do it and talk about it, then I’m passionate on some level for that idea.
If there’s a big time project or job that I’m up for that isn’t my idea, I try to find the piece of it that engages me. Sometimes it’s the job itself, just getting to write and be paid. I’m passionate about that. Sometimes the job sucks but the people are amazing. I’m passionate about seeing them and getting to work together.
Finally, I encourage people to work on ideas and things that they’re not entirely passionate about. I think you need to feel the difference more than a few times to get it. I know I do.
It’s a lesson I keep needing to hear because I’m still learning to trust my gut. But I know if everyone tells me not to do an idea and I still want to do it, that’s a thing I’m passionate about.
That’s an idea worth fighting Mel Brooks for.