One morning in late 2007, I was out walking the picket line (along with about 1,000 other members of the Writers Guild of America) when something occurred to me: I didn’t know any of these people! I’d been a professional screenwriter in Los Angeles for over fifteen years and hardly knew anyone else who wrote movies for a living. Although I’d been churning out modestly budgeted comedies for studios for years, I mostly perceived myself as a fringe member of the Hollywood community at best. Like many people in the business, I was still waiting for something to happen that would confirm that I had finally crossed over into safe territory; that I’d landed on that magical list of people who could expect to remain employed (at hefty salaries) for the rest of their natural lives. Of course, I knew that no such list existed, but Hollywood is a town largely fueled by vague and far-reaching dreams. That’s when I asked myself the big question: Had my dream come true? Was I already living it?
After a fair amount of nail biting, I decided to take a stab at writing a weekly blog about this seemingly taboo subject: being middle class in Hollywood. Since I’d recently picked up a second career as a character actor (thank you, “Boston Legal”), I decided to call my new blog, “Parts and Labor.” It debuted on February 16, 2008 with a short essay about the conclusion of the strike that I called “The Absence of the Joke.” Initially, I didn’t really have a game plan in mind other than to tell a few war stories and pontificate a little now and then. My biggest concern was how the hell I would churn out one wholly original piece of writing each week. Finishing is often a sticky subject for writers. It means you’ve opened yourself up to hearing somebody’s verdict on whatever piece of your soul you’ve just laid bare. Having been a free-lance screenwriter and playwright for a while, I was acquainted with deadlines, but was also used to being able to buy myself a little extra time when I needed it. This was different. Monday would actually roll around every seven days. Could I do it? Intrigued, I decided to try it for six weeks.
I started to get email from readers almost immediately. Amazingly, most of them were not friends, but total strangers. They were other writers, directors and actors who’d had similar experiences to mine and were encouraging me to keep going; to finally pay a little tribute to those of us who work just outside the spotlight. In another life, I should've probably been a lounge singer since there’s nothing I like better than having requests shouted at me. I was spurred on and decided to commit to a full six months of writing the blog.
Amazingly, the weekly essays started bringing me small magazine-writing gigs and I even picked up a book agent. I got emails from studio executives thanking me for writing compassionately about their profession and a depressed housewife in Nebraska even wrote to say she felt comforted to learn that my life was almost as pointless as hers. A couple of alcoholics wrote to say that my stories of overcoming writers’ block paralleled their struggle to stay sober. Despite my fear that I'd soon run out of entertaining stories, I decided to commit for a year. It was scary. Many Sundays, I’d find myself staring at my laptop with nothing to say; certainly nothing funny or wise. Not willing to risk embarrassment, I'd just start typing; already dreading that moment in a few short hours when (like it or not) I’d have to press the “publish” button. It was a great exercise in “finishing” and also a great exercise in faith – a subject I always drill into my writing students.
Silly as this sounds, becoming a writer is a little like declaring to the world that you “see dead people”; that those spectral images; those wisps of story, memory and feeling darting in and out of our consciousness are in fact, real and have meaning. But it is only when you become relentlessly committed to the idea; when you choose to believe in the ghost; that it slowly but surely materializes. Pulitzer Prize winning author, Richard Rhodes, tells a funny story in his book, “How to Write” about how, as a college student, he approached his literature professor seeking a formula that would insure his success as a writer. The professor sternly replied that it wasn’t really that hard. “Apply ass to chair” he said.
Imagine my surprise, when last week I glanced at the calendar and realized that I’d actually managed to publish “Parts and Labor” (without interruption) for over a year. Writing this blog has sometimes been great fun; sometimes a bit of a chore. Some pieces that I thought were brilliant and anticipated would get a great response, didn’t. Others that I thought were mediocre, generated tons of “funniest thing I’ve ever read” email. Who knows? Not me. I guess that’s why I keep doing it. I’d like to thank all of you who have continue to read P&L and also apologize for some of the less-than-stellar pieces you've politely weathered. Having recently committed to an ambitious slate of writing projects for 2009, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to keep up my prolific output of “Parts and Labor” but I’ll do what I can. If I start missing Mondays, I hope you’ll bear with me. A guy’s gotta eat.
Given all the chaos that’s going on in the world, I suppose writing about the creative struggles of people in Hollywood might seem sort of trivial now. But what can I say? I love show business and continue to feel amazed when all the forces collide and somehow deliver a project that not only doesn’t suck, but is actually gripping or funny or innovative. And then there are the people. It’s true. There are no people like show people and personally, I think the most valuable thing we have to offer the world (aside from our talent) is our inherent knowledge of how to laugh, roll with life’s punches and survive your own game plan. Hopefully, as we all wade out of this swamp together, sharing our stories will keep us awake and alert on the journey. Thanks again for all of your loyalty and enthusiasm. Gotta go. I’ve got a treatment to finish. Have a great week, Hollywood!
Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv