Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Starving screenwriter tip: How to find an extra $1000 -- and more importantly, some peace

How often have you come up with your best ideas while in the shower, or taking a drive by yourself, or practicing a relaxing hobby? Your subconscious is working on story ideas and plot twists all the time, but it needs a chance to communicate with you. That requires long blocks of protected peace and quiet. You never know quite when you're going to slip into this meditative, daydream state.

Now, isn't it really frustrating when you're having an elaborate dream, and you can't wait to see how it all turns out -- and then you're jarred awake by, say, the yammering of morning DJs, causing the dream to slip irretrievably out of reach?

In the same way, phones invade your mental space, shattering the dream-like state of "flow." A few times when I've forgotten to shut the ringer off on my phone, I've lost entire paragraphs, scenes, and dialogue exchanges, because some telemarketer called -- literally, a day's worth of work that could never be recovered. Non-writers don't understand why these interruptions are so devastating, because they think writing is pretty much just "typing" -- when in actuality, it's hours of contemplation punctuated by bursts of transcription. They think if you're interrupted, you can just recover your train of thought some other time. But you can't, any more than you can recover an elaborate dream once the alarm clock has intruded. So why on earth would a writer want to risk this intrusion 24/7, everywhere he goes?

The solution: ditch your cell phone.

Getting rid of your cell phone is enormously freeing. First of all, starving writers should avoid buying anything that requires an expensive long-term contract, such as a cell phone. You may be able to afford it this month, but three months from now you might dearly wish you were free of that financial obligation. Even a minimal cell phone plan costs you many hundreds of dollars per year, and some people even spend well over a thousand dollars a year on a fancy cell phone, unlimited minutes, texting, etc. I suppose this might make sense for a few occupations, such as ER doctor, or perhaps "celebutante." But why would a writer willingly sign up for indentured servitude to a device that has a devastating effect on his work? That's just plain crazy.

You'll be amazed how much more creative you'll be, how much clearer your thinking will be, if you ditch the infernal device. Whenever you're alone on the bus, or you're sitting in the park with your dog, or you're early for a meeting, you can read a book or jot down some free-associative ideas. I know it's a totally "retro" idea that anyone should actually be alone with his own thoughts for a few minutes, instead of having a vapid conversation and/or text dialogue about every inane thing that happens throughout the day -- but try it. (By the way, if you hate being alone, and are easily "bored" by contemplation, then a writing career is probably not right for you.)

Okay, so...how do people get in touch with you?

Ah. Well. There's email, of course, which is both convenient and free. And there's this old-fashioned thingy called a "land line," which can be surprisingly adequate as a telecommunication device. Chances are if you live in an apartment building you're going to need to get one anyway, because the front door intercom (err...if you're lucky enough to find a building in which this device isn't broken) usually connects to your phone line. You can get a bare-bones land line for about $10-$12 a month -- but, note that this doesn't include long distance, which can be expensive with a bare-bones plan. To make long distance calls you might want to get a pre-paid phone card (it's still cheaper than a monthly cell phone service), or, arrange for family and friends who have fancy cell phone plans to call you back during their "free nights and weekends."

I definitely recommend spending the extra few dollars a month (+ annoying set-up fee) for voice mail; it's a bargain. I have a land line, but the ringer is frequently turned off; with voice mail I can check messages when it's convenient for me and won't interrupt my writing. When I won the Nicholl and was suddenly deluged with calls from reps and producers, I made the small investment to get voice mail service, and have been satisfied with it ever since. It allows people to leave messages if I have the phone turned off, or if I'm on the internet (by the way, I have free dial-up, and you can get it too -- but I'll talk about that in an upcoming post). When people leave a voice mail they have no way of knowing they aren't reaching a cell phone, so if for some reason you want to maintain the illusion that you're one of the cell-phone-owning masses, voice mail will help you keep up the facade.

Now...maybe you're worried that you'd feel vulnerable without a cell phone, afraid that you might get stranded somewhere and be unable to call for help. This is a totally understandable concern, and perhaps a good reason to get one of those temporary, pay-as-you-go cell phones that are for sale in grocery stores. But -- don't give anyone the number; it's only for an emergency!

Money saved by ditching your cell phone: Varies; many hundreds of dollars per year.
Daydreams saved from oblivion: priceless.


  1. Well ... now you got me thinking about it.
    I'm pretty much a social recluse anyway- however answering e-mails can be a hit and miss endevor for me. I have a cluter problem. You know ... writers associations and anything remotely affiliated with the craft viing for my attention ... and involvement. I should scrap them all and concentrate on reading screenplays exclusively, since I'm trying to write them. Yes?

  2. Yeah...it can be tough to be ruthless about which emails are worth responding to and which are really an excuse for procrastination. Every now and then I give myself a "holiday" from emails by setting my email auto-responder to say that I'm out of town for a week. After the week's over, it's easier to determine which of the emails no longer need your attention. ;-)

    Reading tons of screenplays is absolutely the best way to get better (along with practice)! But make sure you're also feeding your creative side with stuff you read just 'cuz. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in reading for "a purpose" that I forget to read for the pure joy of reading...and the muse will get pissed off after a while. :-)