I was flipping channels last night and The Big Chill was on cable. Though younger audiences primarily know Lawrence Kasdan as the original writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back, and co-writer of the latest Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he broke out as a major writer-director with The Big Chill. In that film he told the story, along with co-writer Barbara Benedek, of a group of baby boomer friends who come together for a weekend after the suicide of perhaps their most idealistic member.
The Big Chill still has its charms, particularly its sixties style soundtrack. But what kept popping into my mind while I was watching it was a personal experience I had with Mr. Kasdan in the late eighties when I worked in publicity on a film he was producing.
Since I’ve written about my not so great times with him once before I won’t belabor it. But suffice it to say that what specifically came to mind this time was the one moment I mistakenly happened to share with Mr. Kasdan my aspirations to be a screenwriter and the fact that I was working on a script.
After a small silence, he looked up at me through his small, wire-rimed glasses and, dripping with condescension, directly met my gaze.
And I bet you never finished it, right?
In fact, I had finished a script and was working on another one at the time. But so taken aback by his response was I that I blurted out, probably a little too snidely:
Yeah, how did you know?
I think I feared he would actually ask me to read it and he’d take it and me apart piece by piece to such an extent that I’d never have the nerve to pick up my pen again. That must be the reason I lied. Because that’s how sure I was that he would hate it on principle.
Since I was a fan of his work and respected him this experience hurt – I can’t lie about that part, even now. Because to this day I don’t quite understand why any successful and clearly talented writer would go so far out of his way to clip the wings of a neophyte. Certainly, he couldn’t have felt threatened. Did he hate me? But what did I ever do to him?
Maybe I should have kept in my place and not mentioned anything, even thought we were in the midst of an interesting discussion about Hollywood and writing and he seemed to be intellectually engaged. Maybe all of the above… or none of it? Or maybe he was just having a bad day. Or maybe, just maybe, he was (is?) a jerk?
Well, we’ll never know. Because I won’t be asking and neither will you – though even if we could I doubt he’d remember. But I did, do – clearly. Yet in all honesty I can’t say his not so subtle cut-down of me didn’t spur me on to keep working and do even better out of some perverse personal revenge.
Most pros don’t react this way. In fact, it’s usually quite the opposite. But make no mistake about it, each and every one of us in the biz of a certain age has a story or two like the one I’ve just told. We either use them as fuel or as a reason NOT to work.
Early on one has to make the decision about whether to cave or to persevere. It’s not easy and is a lifelong challenge. One can have all the success in the world for decades but at some point there is bound to be failure. Or self-doubt. Or life getting in the way. How do you get beyond it? How do you keep going forward without “caving in?”
There are all kinds of reasons not to work. The house is dirty. Laundry needs to get done. There is no chance you can ever make it in such a competitive field. Your girlfriend or boyfriend broke up with you or you will be alone for the rest of your life because you don’t even have a boyfriend or girlfriend. Or prospects of a date. Not a nibble.
Your goals are unrealistic and you don’t fit into the commercial paradigm, whatever that is. Your friends are doing better than you are. Or your friends are more talented than you are – or less and they’re getting paid for doing a worse version of the work you can no longer bring yourself to do. Perhaps your family doesn’t understand you or your choices and never has. Though perhaps they used to and no longer feel that way anymore. Not to mention, who has the time for all of this anyway? Why be a dreamer in a soberingly real world?
The cruel irony is that a career in the arts – any art – is not for the faint of heart. Nor is it for everyone. But when it is for you it is something that you know deep down. It’s a type of calling. An undeniable itch. And in reality, career is probably the wrong word. Devoting oneself to the arts but not making money or having a day job in no way means it is not your career. Because here’s the broadest definition I could find:
A career is an individual’s journey through learning, work and other aspects of life. There are a number of ways to define a career and the term is used in a variety of ways.
This is what I know about working at your craft, your art, your career: You will feel A LOT better working at it than not working at it. On your worst day, you will be a lot more exhilarated doing it than on all the other days you don’t do it and chastise yourself for not working and feeling like a failure. The truly good feeling is not something you can ever get from others. It is only the simple elation you can feel within yourself that day for a job well done. When you know you’ve tried and put in the time. Whether you’re done, on the road to something, or just simply persevered.
I’ve been teaching for 15 years and lately I’ve seen too many students get too discouraged with the journey or stop themselves before they really gave themselves the chance to get started. Yeah, we live in a particularly unstable world these days with no end in sight to the bad stuff. All the more reason to put in the time for yourself and work at what pleases you. This doesn’t mean starving in a garret. It simply means looking at what you want your life and career to be over the long haul and doing what pleases you.
Some people call this following your destiny. But that feels like way too heavy a burden to lug around. Instead, consider it simply putting in the time and doing the work you want to do so you can get better, learn more, and improve that much more without preoccupying or fixating solely on result.
The truth is for every naysayer there’s a cheerleader. Five years before I met Kasdan I was a journalist and had a similar writing conversation with James L. Brooks. Younger people know him as one of the creators of TV’s The Simpsons but when I met him he was about to direct a movie he wrote that would put him on the map, Terms of Endearment. And had not yet written one of the best original screenplays of the eighties (or ever) – Broadcast News. Shyly sharing my ambitions with Mr. Brooks I received nothing but encouragement and questions and more encouragement. So naturally, I thought everyone would be that way. Well, they’re not. But it doesn’t matter.
The only thing that does is to persevere.