I happened to be driving by M.I.T. one day and stopped in for lunch. There were a half dozen professors at the table next to me. I overheard their conversation, andtried to write it down as best I could...
"I got a call from my nephew this morning."
"The one out in California."
"The one trying to become a screenwriter."
(annoyed tone) "Clearly this conversational gambit of yours will soon become pertinent to something, and evidently you will not be quiet until such is revealed, so please do continue without the artifice of waiting for a prompting response."
"Thanks! See, my nephew asked what seemed like a simple question, but I couldn't figure it out. He wanted to know, in selling a screenplay, what percentage of success comes from hard work -- and what percentage comes from talent?"
"Since there are two variables, the answer is simple. Fifty percent hard work and fifty percent talent."
(various sounds of choking and sputtering)
"Come now. There is no reason to suppose the presence of two variables should indicate the relative weight of each variable!"
"Of course not. But clearly both hard work and talent are required to write a screenplay that sells. Therefore, in a manner of speaking, each aspect is equally necessary. One might just as well cite the numbers fifty-fifty and be done with it."
"Excellent... use the vagaries of word meanings to describe a truth more accurately than the precision of formulae."
"I see a paper, here."
"Worthless speculation. I won't have it."
"But can it be proved that each aspect is not of equal value? Is it even possible for such aspects to be quantified? And are you finished with those fries?"
"The ones with ketchup I intend to eat. Consider this: often people with high talent succeed without working hard. Conversely, many people with no talent work very hard and do not succeed; in retrospect, it might be said they had no chance from the start. Therefore, talent is, quite clearly, the more controlling variable."
"You err, and you err so very profoundly. You overlook the many examples of the exceptionally talented who do not succeed under any circumstances. As Calvin Coolidge observed, 'Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.'"
"A wretched thought."
"Professors, we have not yet defined our terms. 'Hard work' is simple enough; a comparative quantification will do. But what, precisely, is 'talent?'"
"There is a nut that is difficult to shell."
"Oh! Me! Me! I've got it!"
"I yield the floor to the Junior Senator from Wisconsin."
"Talent is a misnomer for accuracy which is the ability to make observations that have proper correlation to the real world, which is to say that the more closely an artist gazes at the truth, unflinching, and finds understanding and insight and then transfers those insights via art effectively to an audience -- thus illumining the true nature of things regardless of prevailing fashionable thought -- the more 'talented' that artist is said to be!"
(an astonished pause)
"Odd, and yet ... somehow, that sounds right to me."
"Artist as observer, peering through the fog of common sense? Delightful."
"Are we of a mind? Then I submit we use this definition to figure the relative percentages of talent and hard work to achieve success, and thus form an answer to your nephew's question. Agreed?"
(murmurs of assent as leather-bound pads of graph paper are brought forth. Then silence, save for the soft scrape of mechanical pencils scribbling lines of complex symbols across pages, strings of numbers and letters blazing a trail toward truth. Finally, the pencils drop) "I get talent at eighty-two percent, hard work at eighteen percent."
"I get hard work at nineteen percent."
"Check your figures."
"I rounded up."
"You need to stop doing that."
(a new voice, deep and measured, isheard) "Neither of you are correct. You have all committed the inexcusable error of letting your questioner set the parameters of your answer. This is not even a two-variable problem. A pair of writers could have equal talent and work equally hard, and yet obtain vastly different results. Success is naturally dependent on factors external to both talent and effort. A third variable must be introduced."
"Bugger! You are correct."
"I'll allow that."
"Waitress? Check please."
"And just what is this third variable?"
"We might refer to it as local-phenomenon highly resistant unbounded non-predictable non-repeating macro scale wave interference patterns with irregular yet potentially solution-decisive influences, either positive or negative (but not neutral), indeterminate until measured against subjective experience and prevailing social context."
(a pause; the new speaker is eyed suspiciously)
"Or we could call it -- 'luck.'"
"Yes, luck will do."
"Luck... as usual, uncertainty cannot be eliminated from our work. Newton was blessed."
"Yes, allowances must be made ..."
(again the sound of pencils scribbling -- a bit louder, a bit faster. A pencil lead snaps, and tension mounts. But three quick clicks extend a new lead core, and work continues. Suddenly all the professors stop and stare at their pads in astonishment -- save for one, who keeps working.)
"I must admit I am shocked."
"Me too -- did you get this answer?"
"So... it turns out, luck accounts for only a two percent shift away from the nominal percentages."
(the last professor finally arrives at an answer)
"Two percent? How's that? I put luck at a stout twenty-eight percent!"
"That is correct, for any one instance of luck, after the luck event has occurred. But you must figure for all possible universes along the expanding cone-event timeline, as the luck events earlier in the timeline preclude possible later luck events, yet those also must be figured at the start as phantom possibilities."
"What the professor means is that for people who achieve success with luck, it is impossible for them to benefit from later luck events since they're already in a state of success. Early luck cancels later luck, throwing off the odds --"
"Exactly. Any one event of luck has the appearance of seeming absolute, after the fact, as if it didn't happen then no other luck even could appear; the end of a series, as it were. But taking the luck event away, for both talented and hard working writers, would create myriad opportunities for other luck events in their future --"
"-- as long as none of them actually happened --"
"-- which indicates that luck is far more common than commonly thought --"
"-- thereby diluting the impact of luck overall!"
"I see a paper, here."
"Two percent is only a rough figure. Since duration is now a concern -- do we have a time frame?"
"Twenty years then. Which means we must not overlook Pennington's Law, the so-called one-way theory... in that hard work can cause talent to increase, over time, yet the reverse is not so. Postulate an initial ratio and use a sliding scale, with periodic advances early, settling into a steady state climb later on ..."
(more scribbling; one could only imagine the numbers that danced and formulae that pranced in that assemblage of over-circuited brains) "Fascinating! Given luck, some people with zero talent will still be successful. We must estimate that will provide less opportunity for the merely talented --"
"But given luck, some people who don't work hard will also succeed, canceling the advantage --"
"Yet the negative effect is greater for the talented group as presumably more would have been successful, sans luck."
(a heavy sigh) "The talented are punished by chance."
"Indeed. Look here. The very hard workers can also influence their luck in a positive manner, whereas the talent-only group cannot. So some people with high talent, no luck, and no ability to create luck, will thus not succeed."
"Luck set at zero is equivalent to bad luck."
"Are you saying it's better to be lucky than good?"
"No, but that if you're merely good, you'd also better be lucky."
"Hey! The negative impact of bad luck on both the effort group and talent group can be figured precisely using an imaginary number matrix --"
"Dear Lord, he's talking imaginary number matrices again --"
"Does somebody have a problem with imaginary number matrices?"
"Please you two, don't start."
"Here it comes, the bosom argument again."
"There is no argument! As my paper last quarter clearly explains, an extensive review of world art, including movie stills of Uma Thurman from the motion picture DANGEROUS LIAISONS, shows the perfect bosom to be --"
"Nonsense! As my paper of last quarter convincingly argues, the theoretically perfect bosom is theoretical by definition, and so can only be defined using an imaginary number matrix, specifically a parabolic matrix that --"
"I prefer my ideal bosoms to be neither theoretical nor imaginary, thank you!"
(the sound of a chair pushed back)
"I have been challenged. I shall fetch my graphs and charts."
(several voices at once)
"NO!" "Don't!" "Not the graphs and charts!"
"Please, everyone, may we stay focused? Look at this. It appears that luck's influential power on success increases as a factor over time for the individual hard worker, yet diminishes over time for the hard-worker group as a whole!"
"Counter-intuitive, but not without precedent. Luck acts as a particle for the individual, yet as a wave for the group --"
" -- creating the classic observer paradox. To those who have no luck at all, luck will appear to be quite significant, but to those who experience luck directly it will appear to be relatively small --"
"This is news?"
"Please, I reached that conclusion over a hundred and twenty three seconds ago. Now will you all stop thinking out loud and let's figure an answer?"
(a long silence) "Hmn. In addition to evoking a variety and range of emotions, all great and lasting art evinces a common feeling: unabashed joy of achievement regarding the artwork itself."
"And that is apropos of -- ?"
"Just making a simple observation."
(a longer silence. Finally --)
"Here it is! Do these numbers check with you?"
"Just a moment... yes."
"All right then. We have it. Over time, luck is reduced to a mere two-point-two-eight percent influence. Talent accounts for fifty-nine point three-two percent of success in selling a screenplay. And hard work comes out to thirty eight point four-oh percent, with an error factor of point- two-five percent either way."
"My figures concur."
"I see a paper, here."
"You may phone your nephew."
"If I do say so -- some excellent work here, from a very talented group!"
"Indeed. Now, who ordered the egg-salad?"
44 NEVER WAIT
It's not my job to tell you only good news.
Sometimes the news is bad. So it follows that sometimes you and I will have to discuss unpleasant things.
Such as... life is short, and then you die. Case in point: sitting here now, I happen to be around 42 years old. That means I have maybe 18 years left before my train steams into that strange land of 'Where People Drop Dead for No Good Reason.' (Sadly, that's around the age where death is accepted. Younger than sixty we at least pretend to be shocked when someone croaks.)
Now, no one is granted any day after today, of course. But for the moment let's presume I'm granted those 18 years, before the little bouncing lotto ball of death gets caught in my throat. Multiply 18 by the total number of days in the year... a quick calculation brings me to... 6,570 days.
Holy shit what a distressingly finite number.
And of those 6,570 days, how many will be lost to illness, filling out tax forms, dentist appointments, boring travel, dealing with customer support, reading studio notes, or any number of other moderately worthless activities?
Bottom line -- life is even shorter than you thought.
What can you do about it?
Hey, I saw you blink there, and I heard your brain snap shut. You think this idea is something you already know and because you know it you don't have to pay attention to it, you can maybe go get started on the laundry, or surf the Web for porn, or boil some pasta.
Stick with me, here.
Life is short.
You think you know it. But you don't act like you know it. And since you don't act like you know it, it means you in fact don't know it. Because if you did know it, you would go ahead and act like you knew it.
Here's how you're not acting like you know it.
But you shouldn't wait.
Not for anything.
Commit these two words to heart, now:
Before we go further, I should explain the genesis of this column. It's a reaction to the seemingly innocuous question writers ask, "I just sent my screenplay off to an agent. How long should I wait before I can expect a reply?"
Most answers to this are along the lines of, "Make a follow up call after two weeks to make sure it's arrived, and then if you don't hear anything back in six weeks, they're probably not interested, so..."
My reaction to the question I've always held back.
What I want to do is jump out of my chair and yell "How long do you wait? What the fuck are you doing waiting? Waiting is death! Waiting is screwing up on a cosmological scale! If you spend even the tiniest fraction of a glorious, invaluable second with your attention on where you last sent your screenplay and you're actually waiting for a response, then you've already lost the whole damn game already, you might as well go back and complete the seventh level of Legend of Zelda over again!"
But that response is harsh, sounds crazy and would probably not be understood, or much appreciated.
The shorter, Yoda-inspired version, "You must do, never wait, and fuck hope," isn't much better.
So instead, you get this column.
More bad news. There is not only the right thing to do, there is also the single best right time to do it.
I remember a time when simply having a car stereo that worked would have put me in a state of nirvana. Today I've got one -- and it's really cool, I do love it -- but having it does not make for the religious life-altering experience that it should, not like it would have when I was sixteen. (I still recall the glorious summer day I got that custom-mounted eight-track tape player hooked up in my '63 Chevy Nova, blasting Neil Diamond's "Holly Holy" out the two wood-panel speakers mounted on the shelf behind the back seat. Lord bless clear speaker wire and electrical tape, and those bright plastic twisty caps, rock on!)
Anyway, the glorious and terrible truth is, the right thing needs to happen at the right time for it to be the best thing.
You need to get the date when you're infatuated. Take the trip while you're burning to go. Win the award when the award impresses even you. Hug grandma while she's here. Get drunk, dance and get wasted with your friends when they want to get drunk, dance and get wasted, too. See your kid try to walk when she can't and hear her talk the moment she can. To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season --
Okay, I'm singing now, and that has to stop. Bottom line -- not only is life short, windows of opportunity are shorter.
What can you do about it?
It gets worse. Recently, in the news: several long-standing experimental discrepancies in physics have been solved with the astonishing discovery that the speed of light is not a constant. That's the tsunami roaring through the scientific community right now, and really, who cares?
Because when light doesn't behave properly, you pay. Measurements taken over the last thirty years show a gradual slowing down of speed of light... only there isn't really such a thing as speed independent of space; what you have is a combination called spacetime, and when one changes so does the whole, and so when the light constant changes, reality itself undergoes a shift as well.
What this means is the 'fabric of spacetime' (as it is grandly called) has changed, but within it, we haven't. All our familiar macro physical measurements are the same (the turning earth, and its hours, minutes, and seconds) but we experience less subjective time; we have, literally, 'less thoughts in a day.'
Result? The world appears, subjectively, to be sped up.
I should have guessed it; I remember asking my daughter a few years ago what she thought of fourth grade. "It was a lot like third grade," she said earnestly, "Except it went by so much faster!"
Bottom line: Not only is life short, it's actually getting shorter.
What can we do about it?
You got it --
Okay, I admit: I totally made up that last one. Except for the changing speed of light, and that part about my daughter and fourth grade and all. Had you going for a second, didn't I?
Just trying to pound the point home.
But -- even if it takes a few more years for science to catch up with me and prove my speculations correct, the thing is, the effect is still there: life sure does seem to go by faster the further on down the road you get.
Ever write something really good and then forget what you wrote? I got this instant message from an fellow writer the other day...
"Say, you need to write a column on what you used to tell me all the time -- about the hill and how the strugglers climb incessantly up one side, intent upon struggling, while the winners are shuttling down the other side, doing, doing, doing. It was so good. I've been reading the script forum a lot the last month or so and I think the timing would be great. Just a thought."
Sounds great. I'm sure my advice was brilliant.
If only I could remember it.
The way I would put it now is: successful people don't wait. They don't get stalled on one step, one issue, one project. They continuously go about the problem of creating value. They're not interested in struggling and waiting, they're focused on doing.
Jeffrey Katzenberg, Stephen King, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, James Cameron, the Coen brothers, Cameron Crowe, Steven Spielberg, FrankDarabont... We know these names because they took action. They either got permission or gave themselves permission, but they didn't wait for permission.
I don't think Jeffrey Katzenberg has ever started a sentence with: "I'm waiting for..." "We're waiting to hear back..." "After two weeks we'll check..." "I had to wait all day for..." etc.
Of course, it's not likely Katzenberg would put up with being a screenwriter. As designed by the system, screenwriting is a brutal test of patience. You need to get the right screenplay or pitch to the right person at the right company at the right time, with just the right combination of talent... screenwriting is like getting in a line with ten thousand people in front of you, shuffling forward occasionally, and waving your script madly at anyone who passes by, hoping someone will do something for you --
Katzenberg wouldn't put up with that. Not for a second.
So do what he would do.
Get out of line.
So -- am I crazy?
Aren't there some times when waiting is necessary? When you have to wait?
Am I saying to never wait? Any time -- ever?
That's exactly what I'm saying.
When you finish this column, I expect you to never wait for anything in your life, ever again.
A story: once I was supposed to hook up with my girlfriend and our daughter in San Bernadino. We were going to meet at a restaurant and then continue on up to a cabin in Running Springs to spend the weekend skiing. As usual, something had to be finished and faxed before I could leave the house. I phoned the pair, finished the work as quickly as I could, and hopped on the freeway... on a Friday afternoon, hah. I was outpaced by a guy walking along the breakdown lane with an empty gas can.
By the time I got to the meeting place, my girlfriend was fuming. "We had to wait here in this parking lot for two hours!" She painted a picture of her standing by the car, checking her watch, and endlessly searching the street for my arrival...
My gaze happened to wander over to the other stores around the parking lot... and right in the center there was a huge antique mall.
I had to bite my tongue. We both love antique stores. All it took was a little imagination and an impromptu chance of plans: she could have left a note on the car and gone browsing for two hours.
Instead, she waited.
Instead, she could have been doing.
Next time you're sitting at a traffic light, see if you can find a new, interesting radio station. You'll be surprised how quickly the light changes --
Next time you're stuck on hold, make a list of ten people you haven't spoken to in too long (starting with Mom) and you'll be annoyed when the service technician interrupts you -- you weren't waiting, you were doing something.
Now, this is not the same as becoming Mr. Frenetic Guy, a cell phone plastered to your ear, doing the Hollywood Hustle, screaming about contracts, option payments and scheduling an appointment with your stress reduction specialist. Many good and pleasant things can happen in that space formerly allocated to waiting --
Memories. When was the last time you took some time to go over a few favorite memories?
Meditation. Intentionally let the mind wander, give it time to reorder your thoughts.
Writing. You're a writer, go ahead and dive into the world of your latest story.
Hey, you own a cell phone. Right now -- don't you know someone who deserves flowers?
Or... look at the sky. That thing up there is a continuously changing spectacular work of art, and it just doesn't get enough attention. You're not waiting when you stop to smell the roses.
Sorry for the New Age term, but waiting less isn't about becoming more intense, or rushed; it's about finding an optimum flow. Consider this excerpt from Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land," describing the Martian attitude toward waiting:
"But he was not in a hurry, 'hurry' being one human concept he had failed to grok at all. He was sensitively aware of the key importance of timing in all acts -- but with a Martian approach: correct timing was accomplished by waiting. He had noticed, of course, that his human brothers lacked his own fine discrimination of time and often were forced to wait a little faster than a Martian would -- but he did not hold their innocent awkwardness against them; he simply learned to wait faster himself to cover their lack.
"In fact, he sometimes waited faster so efficiently that a human would have concluded he was hurrying at breakneck speed."
People think doing is stressful -- but waiting is even more so (as anyone prepping for mid-terms or getting ready for a blind date can attest). Instead, go ahead and indulge in the refreshing relief of glorious action!
Hah. People who know me will look at this column with some amusement. I'm notorious for arriving late to appointments. And the dates on the various screenplays I've promised to read reach back to a previous millennium.
Am I saying to never wait -- even for me?
You bet. I'm especially saying that!
Why am I so ridiculously fervent on this topic?
What do we mean when we talk about waiting? Waiting implies marking a passage of time, holding back on an action until a cue or event; or possibly being in a period of stasis, deciding to allow time to pass with no action at all.
Waiting -- the innocent little sucker is a tiny little bundle of death.
Please don't be one of those writers who 'hope.'
Hopeful writers white knuckle their way along on an emotional rollercoaster. You feel good and high when your work is approved. And then terrible and down if your work is rejected or ignored.
Many writers, it seems, waste too much energy being hopeful, worrying, waiting for a response. If the assistant likes it, yay! There's hope! Good news, she passed it along to her boss! It'll get read this weekend! Just found out, the boss likes it, yay, cool! So now it's on to the studio head -- oh no, she didn't like it, alas! hope is gone. But - - it's still out to three other places, so there's still hope --
I don't ever want to be a hopeful, I want to be a professional. The work will do what the work is supposed to do, more often than not, if the work is right. The time to celebrate, emotionally, is with the victory of a sale, and then beyond that, the victory of a green light -- and beyond that, whatever successes or awards that might come.
Hey, is it okay to feel good if some agent or executive or actor tells you how much they love your screenplay? Sure, feel a little good, and use that energy to keep going. But to get a project made is a marathon, and to have a career is like running a series of marathons end to end. You can't thrill or despair every few yards; another few minutes and the entire landscape will change completely, anyway.
Don't live on hope.
Hoping is way too much like waiting --
And you know the rule on that.
More bad news.
Another reason you can't afford to wait: the one-thing-leads-to-another effect.
For Ted and me, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN is the first live-action film that has been a truly great experience, the kind of experience you imagine when you think about working on a feature. (Basically -- you write it, they get it, help make it better, and they shoot it.) It was the first time for us where everyone involved seemed to believe in what we were doing, right from the start.
Hey, all it took to get that was 10 produced features, three #1 films of the summer, $4 billion in overall worldwide sales, and an Academy Award® nomination.
Your first project is likely only the start of the journey. You won't get to the top without climbing the foothills, and that takes time. Delay the start of the journey and you might limit how high you can go.
On that point... here's an excerpt that has long haunted me. From the novel "Methuselah's Children," by Robert Heinlein. The story posits a secret group of long-lived people living among us; the scene is the President of the Federated Nations (Ford) speaking to the head of that group (Zack Barstow). Ford tries to explain the dismay and hate that grips the country, now that the public has learned of their existence:
"Death has always been tolerable to me only because Death has been the Great Democrat, treating all alike. But now Death plays favorites. Zaccur Barstow, can you understand the bitter, bitter jealousy of the ordinary man of -- oh, say 'fifty' -- who looks on one of your sort? Fifty years... twenty of them he is a child, he is well past thirty before he is skilled in his profession. He is forty before he is established and respected. For not more than the last ten years of his fifty he has really amounted to something."
Ford leaned forward in the screen and spoke with sober emphasis: "And now, when he has reached his goal what is his prize? His eyes are failing him, his bright young strength is gone, his heart and wind are 'not what they used to be.' He is not senile yet... but he feels the chill of the first frost. He knows what is in store for him. He knows -- he knows!"
"But it was inevitable and each man learned to be resigned to it."
"Now you come along," Ford went on bitterly. "You shame him in his weakness, you humble him before his children. He dares not plan for the future; you blithely undertake plans that will not mature for fifty years -- for a hundred. No matter what success he has achieved, what excellence he has attained, you will catch up with him, pass him -- outlive him. In his weakness you are kind to him."
"Is it any wonder that he hates you?"
It's an excellent work of fiction, using the premise of a long-lived people to put in sharp relief the ephemeral nature of our lives.
Age 40 to age 50, those are our peak years, and only if we've built up our expertise in time to take advantage of them.
Like I said, sometimes we have to talk about unpleasant things.
"Don't let the things you can't do get in the way of the things you can." -- John Wooden.
I'd like to suggest the phrase 'independent film' is the wrong name for independent films. A better name would be to call them 'no permission films' and the process of getting them made 'no permission filmmaking.'
Because that's what you do. You decide to make something happen without waiting, or hoping; you don't look for someone to give you permission.
I bring it up as an example of a mindset to put in place of the mindset of waiting. This wouldn't be much of a column if I didn't try to give some suggestions on what to do instead of wait. So how about --
Produce an award-winning short film. Learn stop-motion animation. Write a short story. Hook up with an artist and create a comic book. Write a play. Stage a play. Attend a seminar. Better yet, put on a seminar. Create a special effects company. Learn theatrical combat. Become an assistant to a director or writer or producer or studio executive. Option a book, play, article or short story. Study acting. Sneak onto a studio lot and pretend to be part of an apprentice director program that doesn't exist. Write a novel. Send your script out to production companies. Borrow some letterhead from an agency, write your own cover letter and send your script out to production companies. Interview a screenwriter. Create an entertainment industry newsletter so you can go interview a screenwriter. Become a reader. Direct a commercial. Do temp work at a studio or production company. Start a website devoted to screenwriting and write a bunch of articles to help yourself learn how it's done. Produce a 'no permission' feature film. Then produce another one. Put on a film festival. Create a film production group. Make a music video for a hot local band. Hook up with a special effects wizard and make a kick-ass short film where a jetliner lands on the freeway.
All of these paths, at one time or another, have worked to get people into the film business. For most of them, you don't have to wait to get started.
And there's always -- write another great screenplay. And another one after that. I will ask you to endure a final excerpt. This is Don Juan talking to Carlos Castaneda in the book "A Separate Reality":
At one point it occurred to me that the car was gaining on us. It was definitely closing in. The lights were bigger and brighter. I deliberately stepped on the gas pedal. I had a sensation of uneasiness. Don Juan seemed to notice my concern... 'Those are the lights on the head of death,' he said softly. 'Death puts them on like a hat and then shoots off on a gallop. Those are the lights of death on a gallop gaining on us, getting closer and closer.'
A chill ran up my back. After a while I looked in the rear view mirror again, but the lights were not there anymore. I told Don Juan that the car must have stopped or turned off the road. He did not look back; he just stretched his arms and yawned.
'No,' he said. 'Death never stops. Sometimes it turns off its lights, that's all.'
Maybe you can't quite catch death's bony grin out of the corner of your eye, following you around to help you make tough decisions and get your ass moving. If not, I'll repeat his favorite bit of advice, the one he often whispers in my ear: