As ever, it’s been a while. And, as ever, that’s the subject of this post. It’s all been going on and, you know what, it’s getting slightly overwhelming. There are never enough hours in the day, we all know that, but for the self-employed writer trying to fight a war on many fronts, there are fewer hours than for most. The hard part comes in knowing what and how to prioritise.
Priority A, you would think, would probably be the job with the most pressing deadline. But what about Priority B, the job that will actually pay you a little bit of money, and sooner rather than later? And then there’s Priority C, the job that you really want to be doing, the one which will move you closer towards your ultimate goal (in my case, a sustainable career as a screenwriter) but which carries with it a higher risk, a higher chance of all your (very valuable) time and effort actually being wasted.
I won’t bore you with the specifics of what is weighing me down at the moment, suffice it to say that there’s a lot of A, B and C knocking about: paid screenplay jobs to deliver within a set period of time; unpaid screenplay rewrites that have been dragging on for months and months; a lot of treatments and proposals to write (some paid but mostly unpaid) which you hope are going to lead to something but might not; other paid work (non-screenplay) on a quicker turnaround, which you try to fit in because you never know where your next meal is coming from; films and books and scripts that you need to find time to watch and read; and on and on and on.
There was a not-so great Adam Sandler movie a while ago called, I think, Click. Yes, there it is. I’m not sure if I saw it or just the trailer but I remember he had a remote control and could pause time and do whatever he wanted when the rest of the world was held in limbo. I imagine Sandler did lots of hilarious romcom things like move a chair just as someone was about to sit on it or look up girls’ skirts or punch annoying cats in the face. But if I could press pause I would spend a week – okay, maybe I’ll take a month – to get properly up to date on all that work in my inbox, that Top 100 Films Of All Time list (shamefully, I’ve probably only watched 50-60 of them – sorry Harold and Maude, I will get to you one day I promise...), not to mention the bulbs that need fixing, batteries in children’s toys that need replacing, leaves that need raking etc.
I also remember reading once that Margaret Thatcher only need four hours’ sleep a night when she was PM. I’d love to be Maggie, but I need my eight hours.
And all of this is compounded by the pressure I’m feeling about the stage I’m at in my career. Chalet Girl was made! It came out! It did alright! We’re even making money out of North America, which not a lot of British movies can say. But I don’t want this to be my high water mark. That window of opportunity is open a crack, but it won’t be open for long. The iron is hot, and it must be struck. Every day counts, but have I been making them?
So what to do about this whole sorry state of affairs? Four things. I love a list.
One, I’ve started going to bed earlier. Who cares about the news, anyway? Euro crisis blah blah, deficit reduction blah blah. Better to get half an hour of good reading in (denting that pile), light off by half past ten so you can either get up a bit earlier (after your eight hours) or at least you won’t be quite as knackered as you usually are when you do get up.
Two, I’ve had to make those tough decisions about priorities, and stick to them. I’m trying to be like the old long distance runner – just to the next lamp post... Don’t be overwhelmed by everything that’s staring you in the face. Break it down, think sensibly about what really needs to be done, and by when. Strike a balance, set a plan, and then execute it. A couple of hours here, on one project. A day there, on something else. It not only makes life more manageable, it also has a good motivating effect. Look at it like an exam. If you’ve only got two hours to work on something (say, your passion project) before you set it aside and get back to earning money, then you’d better bloody concentrate on it, and do the best you can on it, in the time allowed. You might find you get more done in that quality two hours than you would have done in a whole day if left to your own devices. (By the same token, don’t be distraught if, after two hours, there is still a blank page staring back at you. Progress may yet have been made. Writing isn’t typing.)
There is a caveat here. Personally speaking, I only have so many ‘juicy’ hours of work in me, per day. I can’t go 100mph from 8am till 8pm, or only in exceptional circumstances and usually only when I know precisely where I’m going. The chewing-pencil, stroking beard stuff can’t be forced, and you can really feel it when you’re digging deep into your creative marrow. So I need a balance of different activities, to make up a full working day. Some outlining (the hard stuff). Some writing up (a bit easier). Some paid work. Some reading.
It’s also sometimes hard to shift your head from one project to a next – but it can also be liberating and energising, so you see it fresh every time you come to it. And if you’re blocked, work on something else, then come back to it. Like that annoying crossword clue, the answer might be staring you in the face when you get back.
Three (we’re back to the list), I’m also setting myself some more distant lamp posts, and figuring out how I’m going to make it to those. Looking back, in 2011 I have been too focussed on Priorities A and B. I haven’t properly backed myself to go after Priority C. It hasn’t been a retrograde year by any means – two script commissions, lots of other things-that-might-come-to-something, and a higher grade of meeting taken. But when I stare at myself in the mirror, which I try not to do because I invariably obsess on the hair loss, but when I do I have to accept that I have taken the easy route a couple of times, gone after the pay cheque rather than (gasp) maybe trying to spend less money and working on my Hey This Guy Can Actually Write screenplays. I went to LA in the summer, but I didn’t have my slam dunk script in my back pocket. So it was like, ‘yeah, I’ll send you something in the September, in December, in the New Year...’.
So now it’s time to deliver. I have a load of ‘tasks’ I need to tick off, to clear off my desk, in the near future – and Christmas is proving itself quite a natural deadline for these. And in the New Year, things will change. Priority C will move to the front of the queue. I will, to some extent, press pause on my remote control, and I will work towards the Bigger Picture (“the Greater Good”, as Hot Fuzz would have it). A month, three months, six months, who knows? Two days a week, three days a week on Priority C. Still earning money, of course, but shifting the focus. Backing myself.
A very close professional colleague – who is, I must say, a few years older than I am – and I have had this chat quite a few times – “stop, I want to get off” etc. We’ve been having the chat for the last ten years! His circumstances are different, but the principle remains the same. At some point, you’ve got to do it. Jump off. We’ve made a bit of a pact to hold the other to it. Maybe we all need a buddy, because it certainly isn’t easy.
Four, and notwithstanding everything that has gone before, I’m also going to stop being quite so hard on myself. I’ve got young kids to clothe, bills to pay, a wife to amuse. Looking back on 2011 from a less self-loathing perspective, it’s been another year where I’ve made a living as a self-employed writer, had two or three meals a day with my family, and done some work I’m proud of. The pressure to perform, to do something great, is still there, but I’m trying hard and a lot of it is out of my hands. I’ve got to make some smarter decisions, maybe some harder ones, but there is also a wider world out there to be enjoyed, and a life that needs to be lived. All work and no play, and so on.
So, anyway, I don’t really know where that’s got us. It’s a jungle out there, but there’s a path through it. And if there isn’t, get out your machete. And don’t forget and stop to smell the flowers once in a while. But watch out for the poisonous ones. And if you pick a paw paw etc. End of metaphor. End of blog.
And in case I don’t write again before Christmas (Priority C and all that), then Yo Ho Ho and don’t forget that the Chalet Girl DVD and Blue Ray will make a perfect seasonal surprise for loved one and loathed enemy alike.
And apologies if this has all sounded like a massive white whine – it is, a bit, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that nobody actually reads my blog, and that the intended audience is, ultimately, me. Thanks for letting me share.