The starving artist

There was a flurry of posts on Shooting People this week, sparked by a guy who was wondering if he should give up if he hasn’t achieved success by a certain age.

Naturally, the flood of responses told him not to be silly, keep pushing for the dream, never give in, never give up … etc, etc, etc.

Personally I had to fight the urge to tell him to quit now – part of my ongoing project to eliminate all the competition.

All well and good.

Although a couple of people posted replies along the lines of:

“Scriptwriting is my life. My wife has left me, my kids have been taken away, I’m being kicked out of my flat, I’ve been on the dole for years and I feed myself on one tin of beans a week. I’m starving, I’m impoverished and I’m bitterly depressed, but it’s worth it because I’m pursuing my dream and I’ll never give up.”

This struck me as … fucking stupid.

Scriptwriting is your life?


My life is my friends and my family. It’s experiencing new things, meeting new people, going to new places. It’s hard work, it’s laughter, it’s learning to cope with the knock backs. It’s loving and being loved in return.

Screenwriting is sitting in a room on your own hunched over a keyboard.

I’m not saying I don’t enjoy it and spend a large proportion of my life doing it; but it’s not a life. And given those two descriptions – who sounds most likely to have something to write about?

Um … obviously, I’m talking about the definition of a life versus the definition of screenwriting. Anyone who’s had all the wife leaving, being made homeless, starving issues probably has quite a lot to write about. You’d probably slit your own throat whilst doing it, but there’s a lot of meat there. What I’m talking about here is people who deliberately let their obsession put them in that situation, not people who are unfortunate through no fault of their own.

Writing is a job, just like any other. Yes it can be fun, and yes I enjoy it more than any other job I’ve ever had – but it’s frustrating, depressing and chock full of stupid office politics. Imagine the worst office you’ve worked in – or better yet, take the worst people from every office you’ve ever worked in, imagine them all suddenly becoming famous, highly strung, deeply unsure of themselves and sporting an ego the size of Africa.

Now multiply it by a thousand and you’ve still nowhere near the egg-shell treading nature of the job.

The point is that whereas people dream of becoming a writer – once you’re getting paid and having to do it on demand it quickly becomes work-a-day and tiresome. Why do you think writers procrastinate so much? Not because it’s such a wonderful experience that you can’t wait to immerse yourself in it time and time again – but because there’s frequently more interesting things going on around you.

Like washing the dishes, or cutting the grass, or even reorganising your sock drawer.

It’s the same as any job – bits of it are more fun than others, there are days when you can’t wait to throw yourself into your work and days where you can’t wait to give up and go and watch TV.

I decided a long time ago that I would never, ever be a struggling artist. I don’t see the advantage of staying at home all day every day trying to write when no one wants to read it, starving yourself in pursuit of a fantasy job which you may never achieve.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t try – but for god’s sake: be sensible.

No job is worth losing your lover over. No job is worth becoming homeless or losing access to your kids or starving yourself. These are not the actions of a well balanced individual.

And I can guarantee no one who refuses to work and stays at home all day does any more writing than anyone else. Honestly, I can guarantee that. People who have all day to write do exactly the same as people who only write in the evenings or weekends: spend most of their time browsing the net for porn.

Writing is one of those careers which may never happen – you have to be realistic. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try, you should. I also don’t advocate setting yourself a deadline – there’s no reason why you can’t keep writing until the day you die. If you enjoy it, keep doing it – but for fuck’s sake don’t starve yourself to do it.

You need a plan, a strategy. Find a day job which allows you the time to write and pays you enough to live on. Comfortably.

With this in mind, here’s my quick guide to finding an ideal, writing friendly, day job.

  1. You need a job which pays you enough to live on. This is important, you don’t have to struggle and it doesn’t make you a better writer. Yes experience is good; but if I wanted to write about being homeless I would pick someone off the streets, buy them a meal, ask them some questions and then use my fucking imagination. That’s what it’s there for. Most of the people you’re writing for don’t know what it’s like to be homeless either – they won’t know the difference.
  2. Make sure your job doesn’t take up too much time. 9-5 is okay, but try to find one without a massive commute. Adding two hours to the beginning and end of each day is not a good idea.
  3. Find a job with no homework. Don’t pick something where you have to spend four hours a night filling in paperwork – what’s the point? That’s writing time.
  4. Find a job which requires little or no thought. If the job isn’t mentally demanding, you can spend your working day thinking about Vampires and explosions and shit.
  5. Don’t work on your own. You need to meet lots of people so you can steal their life stories and their speech patterns. Characters are so much easier to create when someone else does it for you.
  6. If possible, avoid working with computers. You don’t want to be staring at a computer screen all day and again all night. Plus, computers are complicated and you have to think about them. See point 4. The only exception to this is if your job consists of sitting at a desk with a computer and you have no work to do. Brilliant, you’re now getting paid to write.
  7. Avoid responsibility. Only accept promotions if it means doing less work for more money. The goal here is not to get too involved in your day job, just go in, do it, come home. Don’t get involved. Satisfaction comes from writing, this is just to pay the bills.
  8. Consider shiftwork. If you don’t have a family and you don’t mind missing the odd Saturday night, try working odd hours. That way, when you do start having meetings you’ll be able to take them midday, mid-week without having to phone in sick.
  9. This is very important, find a job which is tolerable. You don’t have to love it, but you do have to like it. A boring, depressing job makes you … guess what? Boring and depressed. Find something which is a bit of a laugh and doesn’t make you want to kill yourself and others. Remember, you may be doing it for the rest of your life.

There, simple isn’t it?

At the end of the day, becoming a scriptwriter costs money. You need a computer, software, a printer, stamps, envelopes, paper, ink, competition entry fees, travel fare for meetings, attending festivals, courses …


Being a full time writer might be your dream, but it shouldn’t be your life. You may never make it … don’t waste your life in pursuit of something which may be forever out of reach. Again, I’m not advocating NOT trying. Try your hardest, be dedicated, write as often as you can without losing touch with friends or loved ones; but be realistic. You need to look after yourself, physically and emotionally. For that you need money and you need love.

Get your priorities right, it’s just another job.

Categories: My Way, Random Witterings | 17 Comments

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17 thoughts on “The starving artist

  1. It’s odd, the ones that REALLY get dejected and think about giving up are usually the ones who are good I find – lost count of the number of times I’ve had to talk very talented people out of jacking it in (and I’ve not always succeeded), yet over the years I’ve noticed it’s usually those with NO talent who would never dream of giving in and doing what they’re *meant* to. It’s sad, really.

  2. “Most of the people you’re writing for don’t know what it’s like to be homeless either – they won’t know the difference.”

    That might be my new favourite writing maxim.

  3. Lucy: never talk talented people out of giving up, it’s for your own good. Competition is not a good thing.

    Oli: I’m big on the bare minimum of research. I make a vague effort and then fall back on the old standby: it’s set in an alternative universe.

  4. Eleanor

    And even if you make it and have stuff made, you still might be earning diddly-squat. So enjoy life! It’s kinda important, I think.

  5. By-the-by, I’ve just been informed I’m gonna become a published author early next year – if my evil plan to take over the world isn’t thwarted. Bwa-ha-ha!

    And no, I am not going to give up on my screenwriting dreams, Mr Barron. I will write books and screenplays, and get paid for both (eventually).

    I am still one of the competition. 😉

    I have a publisher! *manic giggling*

    Um … Yay. and Hoorah!

  6. Congratulations, Eleanor – good for you!

  7. Eleanor

    It’s only taken about 33 years. 😉

  8. Interesting post. One that I’m going to think about over the next couple of days.

    I’ve done both sides of this coin: I’ve done the writing/film-making whilst holding down a full-time job; I’ve also done the starving artist routine. I’ve experienced two divorces and a bankruptcy since getting into film, which I can lay at least partly to my twelve year relationship with the industry… but only partly! LOL

    The truth is it takes time to learn the craft of screen writing and the struggle that people really have isn’t to do with whether you have an income or not… that’s just life. The thing that drags people down is the sheer isolation of working at your craft, without any support or encouragement. On top of that the internalised fears about whether you’re actually making progress or just deluding yourself.

    Now, in relationship a person who works all day and then comes home to write at night is just as vulnerable as someone who spends all day working at something, for year after year with no outward evidence of success.

    This isolation and lack of feedback is one of the reasons I’ve always encouraged developing screenwriters to make micro-budget movies. A strategy that was made clear for me this year at Cannes, when in a workshop full of about fifty screenwriter I was the only one who had anything produced.

    Where I’m sure you’re right is in seeing that screenwriters need to have a viable means of support for the ten to twelve years it takes to get competent.

    However, I also think there is a fine line between plodding away part-time and never taking the leap into the market.

    It’s a tricky call… most people go in too early and get their confidence knocked… then retreat into part-time screenwriting, where they never really expect to get the breaks.

  9. I guess it’s all about balance and taking risks that are appropriate to the rewards. Having a full-time job and writing every night and weekend is just as much a short cut to divorce as writing all day everyday with no income.

    It doesn’t seem wrong to try your hand at full time writing as long as you can afford to live and you’re realistic about how long you can do it for – the beauty of writing is you can fit it around other things if you need to.

    We all need to work, rest and play – it’s just finding the right balance.

  10. As someone who’s had several stints of writing full-time, I’d say don’t be afraid to take a few months off from the day job to progress your preferred career, but plan it carefully. If you won’t have a job to go back to, start looking for one *before* your money runs out. Well before.

    On a related note, I had a nice existence for a while as an IT contractor. I’d have a few months’ office work, then the project would end and I’d have a few months of writing before the next project started. Pity that job dried up.

  11. Yeah, sounds perfect.

  12. Faith

    Very well-written but sadly for me writing IS my life – not through choice: I don’t lack love or friendships because I’m a writer, but simply because I’ve never managed to get a life. My friends all moved away and settled down, and love is something which has always eluded me. So all I have left is my writing. No social life, no love life, no money….but after 10 years of rejections I am starting to wonder if I am deluded.

    At the moment, writing is the most depressing job in the world – because it’s a job you’re not recognised for or paid for. It sucks. I’d say to anyone wanting to be a writer, don’t – unless you can be an overnight success.

    • It’s never too late for any of those things, Faith. Writing can be, and frequently is, depressing – that’s why you need the other things around you to help balance you out. When it’s not your whole world, rejection is easier to take.

      Deluded or not, you shouldn’t give up – but maybe it’s worth finding a few more baskets for those eggs?

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  14. I work part time for the money and write between the cracks of spare time I have – breaks, lunchtime etc – I even write on the bus on the way to and from work. I hear loads of stories to pilfer and I work on a college reception desk, so loads of gossip and plenty of downtime when the kids are off, so I effectively am getting paid to write so long as I don’t get caught!

    None the less, it’s hard going when you’re not getting anything published.

    I blog about movies too as I’ve got a passion for them. I have to say I’m enjoying this more than writing ‘real’ stuff at the moment. It’s a community and not just stuck-in-a-room with no encouragement or feedback.

    I don’t know if I want to write anymore, it gets me mad, gets me depressed and I wonder if it’s worth it. I just worry about what I’ll do to fill the gap.

    • Maybe you should take a break for a while? See how much you miss it?

      You might find, after a week or two you’re so desperate to get back to writing you just have to get cracking. There’s no reason why you should see giving up as forever – it’s something you can always come back to at any age.

      To be honest, it doesn’t really get better. Even when you get encouragement or get something published/produced – that’s when the real criticism of your work begins. Certainly the reality of movie writing is frustrating, depressing and infuriating – it’s not for everyone; but if you think in stories all the time then you need an outlet somewhere.

      In an ideal world, we’d write with no other goal in sight – just to make ourselves happy. That way, if anyone buys your work it’s a bonus and not an unattainable goal. Of course, we all know we don’t really think like that. Rightly or wrongly, external validation is important – I hope it works out for you.

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