For three decades now, I have had parallel careers as a professional writer and a graduate teacher as well as leading writing workshops both here and abroad.
For some years, I taught playwriting at The New School University in New York City then graduate screenwriting at U.S.C. Film Dept. in Los Angeles. Eager to become a working writer in Hollywood, most of the students would try and copy the latest trend in popular movies – usually thrillers. They were in their twenties and their screenplays were derivative of what they believed would sell. During this time, I was invited by the actor, Ed Asner (Mary Tyler Moore Show and others) to sit on a panel and discuss the theme of creative censorship. Others on the panel spoke of censorship in communist countries. I surprised myself and others when spontaneously I spoke of being a working screenwriter in Hollywood, and that in America, screenwriters censor themselves due to commercial pressures. One of my best efforts was cancelled on NBC due to pressure from the sponsor, a pharmaceutical company. Many writers write to sell and to earn their living so censor themselves. After I raised this issue, no one spoke for a while yet afterwards, Ed Asner thanked me for raising this vital point, as it reminded all of us of what is true.
So, when I observe my film graduate students doing the same, it makes me sad. I also reminded them that when they wrote what sold today, this might change in two years when they had completed their scripts and were trying to sell them. Trends change. And when an original film comes out, wins awards, and is popular, Hollywood – as publishers – look for more of the same.
There’s a saying in Hollywood, “We want something like what has worked before – only a little bit different.” However, at twenty-something, if you’re not writing original stories, where will you be at forty-something? To be true to yourself, if not at twenty, then when?
I began my writing life, writing for myself. Luckily, others responded to the stories, plays, screenplays, and books. And many awards confirmed this for me, encouraging me to continue. It is my experience that when I write with integrity from myself, the work finds its audience. And, more importantly, I have kept faith with my soul.
The only journey is the one within.
Rainer Maria Rilke
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