The Slavery of Being a Professional

“It is the professional’s obsession with good taste that obliterates all creativity. It is actually this fear of life itself that forces the professional to become a neurotic expert and crush the intrepid amateur.” – Billy Childish – Artist, Writer and Musician

I’ve always been deeply suspicious of the term “professional writer.” Mainly because I know the word “professional” often gets in the way of good writing rather than creating it. At first glance that may seem like a ludicrous statement. Surely, professional behaviour is what all writers should strive for. Isn’t it the benchmark of the craft of screenwriting? A lot of people would argue this is the case. I’m just not one of them. For me, the word “professional” when attached to the word writer represents the twin evils of ego and mediocrity. It’s also a word writers need to understand if they are going to survive as meaningful creatives.

Writing is an insecure business. So, there are times when I make a good living from writing. For many years, I was a very well paid radio copywriter. I’ve also made money from writing film scripts. There have also been some fairly low points in my life, where I’ve made more money delivering pizzas than I have from writing. And, ironically, what I’ve discovered, after years of success and years of failure, is the less I earn from writing the better my writing tends to be. I’m not alone in this either. Pretty much every pro-writer I’ve ever met feels like their best work is gathering dust on a computer hard drive, and there is a very simple explanation for this. Screenwriters, despite what everyone will tell you, are artists, and the hallmark of an artist is to press the boundaries. Our job is to take risks. The film industry, conversely, is a business; a very risk-averse business. And, because it’s cheaper and safer to say no to things you don’t understand or recognise, the people who run the business side of the industry will always want to play by their rule-book. And, this is where we get to an understanding of what it means when we call ourselves “professionals.” Very simply, a professional writer is one who is prepared to ignore or suppress their own creative impulses in order to serve a non-writer’s best guess about the commercial needs of the movie. Or, in simpler terms, professional writers take notes and apply those notes, even when they know the notes are being given to them by a collection of idiots, dolts and dullards. This is the reason the industry prefers to talk about the “craft” of screenwriting rather than the art of screenwriting. If it’s a craft there are rules. If there are rules anyone can learn them. And, therefore, anyone can be an expert in storytelling without ever having to prove their abilities by actually writing anything. 

In the film and TV industries, there are very good reasons why professionalism in screenwriters is valued. Films are the very worst kind of product. They are ridiculously expensive to make and damn near impossible to market without spending millions. In many countries, the film industry only really works financially as a weird subset of the tax avoidance industry. Basically, a great deal of film money comes from people with massive tax liabilities. Someone once explained the maths to me, but I am a writer, so I glazed over two sentences into their explanation.  However, it isn’t all about ignorant and conservative producers/script-editors and commissioning editors, writers actually need people to rein them in. Good creatives tend to explore the limits of their art-form. This means, in terms of personal taste, good creatives also tend to appreciate things that most people don’t want to or can’t appreciate. In this sense, a conservative and dull producer can act as a much-needed set of brakes for a writer who is trying to drag the film away from the tastes of mainstream audiences. However, because there is always a disparity between the power of the producer/script-editor/commissioning-editor has to decide the fate of the production and the power of the writer, conventional, “craft-based” approaches to story-telling are really difficult to overcome. 

Where all of this takes me, in terms of my thinking, is to some quite strange places. First of all, the ambition of writers to become “professional” is often driven by a need for validation. I know how I felt when I got my first professional work as a writer and also how it feels to get validation from the industry. In terms of ego, being a professional feels good. If someone is paying us, that means we must be good at what we are doing. Yet, often, when we do achieve professional recognition, the burden of working for people whose job is to control our work undermines the very thing we prize about being creative. You don’t really appreciate the freedom to be fully creative without restrictions until you sell that freedom in order to put food on the table. In a very real sense, success can be a prison and, conversely, failure can be liberating. As I said earlier, like most writers, some of my best work has been done when the only person involved in the process was me. I suspect the reason there is a cliche´about the starving writer, whose work is only recognised after their sad death, is precisely because it is only those who genuinely fail to connect with the commercial world who are free enough to engage in the kind of creative work which may take decades to find its way to mainstream acceptability. And, sadly, for everyone whose work does find recognition later on, I suspect there are thousands whose work never find a way out of obscurity.

As creatives we make choices. To choose the professional path is to really make a decision to harness our creativity to mainstream thinking and commercial pressures. There is no shame in that decision. However, we may also decide that we can only really function as creatives if we have enough freedom to explore the things that really drive and motivate us. The cost of that decision will always be a huge gamble for the artist. You have to understand that creative freedom goes hand-in-hand with the risk of genuine obscurity. For a screenwriter, that is the understanding that the films you are creating on the page may never make it into production and if they do, they may struggle to ever find an audience. 

There is another way of looking at this, though. It is how I currently feel about being a writer. Basically, there will be times in my life when I am working professionally. During those times I will be grateful that I am able to put food on the table and that people like my work enough to pay me. And, then there will be times when no one is interested in what I’m writing. In those times, I will rejoice in the freedom that obscurity has given me. Or, in other words, regardless of how my career plays out, I can’t lose. 


For more techniques to improve your screenwriting Clive has written a ground-breaking book called The Process of Screenwriting.

There is a free sample and other useful handouts here.