The Screenwriters’ Survival Guide 101: How Do You Make It When You Don’t Have A Steady Gig?

When you enter a field as amorphous and unpredictable as writing, having a “flexible hustle” is near mandatory. And by “flexible hustle” I mean never marrying yourself to one job, path or idea that is supposed to carry you into success.

It doesn’t matter what horse you ride there on. You just need to have one. Or in this case – several – at your disposal. Horses, like jobs, paths and ideas, can come up short, come up lame, get shot and end up dead.

I’ve never bet my whole career on there only being one way to make it work. It’s Hollywood – not The Highlander.

Even before I started my writing career, I often had more than one job. Most were physical, as I was almost seven-feet-tall and ventured towards gigs that took advantage of my size. I was a bouncer, security guard and lumberyard manager. Having a lot of checks (even when they were small) made me feel I had options. If one job ended, it didn’t break me, and I liked having lots of places where I could make money.

The same pretty much fits for the writing world.

When I arrived in Hollywood in my mid-20s, I was a lost soul. I knew virtually no one and was ignorant to the lay of the land, but what I did have was a work ethic, rooted in knowing my survival depended on that confluence between flexibility and hustle. I was sometimes a production assistant on as many as three movies at a time. From there I built relationships and learned the trade – all while paying my rent and taking care of my son as I searched for that infamous “big break.”

But a “Big Break” is no promise. It’s not an invitation to kick back. I’d known and heard stories of many writers who’d had great jobs on shows and never, ever worked in the industry again.

And I knew I didn’t want to be one of them.

These writers who struggled to find work were often talented and good people. But for whatever reason they had an incredibly short run in the business.  Possibly because they didn’t get that they were working in a “business.” Writing is a creative and often emotional process.  It can be hard to understand how something that comes from a place so personal can be dispensed, dismissed and reproduced in an often heartless and commercial matter.

In our effort to develop our creative talents and get at the hearts’ of our creations, we can lose sight of the more mechanical parts of film and TV production. There’s a budget and a bottom line – and very little time for the personal.

Writers are often independent contractors.  We get jobs, but they are temporary in nature.  Think of how many television shows last more than three seasons, and how most last even less than that.  With this in mind, I’ve always operated from the assumption that sooner rather than later I will be unemployed. When that break writing for television came for me, I continued to utilize the same principles I’d always had. Even though I was a writer on “My Wife and Kids” I kept networking, planting seeds for future work.

I’ve been fortunate to have a quality team of agents, a manager and a lawyer who share my perspective on the business and are diligent in getting contracts and studios to work within my philosophy.  But even I have to navigate those times when a TV show might not be enough.

This is why I’ve never called myself a “TV writer.”

Sure, I write television shows, but I also write movies, commercials, music videos, books, documentaries, reality shows, magazine articles, web blogs, graphic novels, motion comics, web series … whatever.  Give me a subject line and a title and I’ll get you something out of it. I’m a writer.

It makes little sense to limit myself to one aspect of the business. To place all my bets on that one “TV writer” horse when she could get cancelled at any time, for any reason.

I also don’t label myself as purely a “black writer.” That may be controversial to some and the industry may attempt to define me as such, but what does race have to do with the ability to tell a story? I write material rooted in human behavior – not “black” behavior. While I love and care about my culture, I’m equally attached to the fact that I am a human being. Creative writing is about moving beyond limitations. Why bound yourself to a label when we’re all so much more than that?

It’s up to each of us to define how we want to shape our careers, but when we’re staring out, we also shouldn’t be too overly committed to one kind of shape. We have to find a balance. We have to be open to what opportunities are afforded to us. One break may get you in the door, but it’s your malleability and business-sense that keeps you there.

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