We Need to Talk About Mental Health & Breaking into Screenwriting

If you listened to to my recent interview with Geoffrey on Ep22 of The Successful Screenwriter Podcast, you’ll see that we had an absolute blast. It was one of the most fun interviews I’ve recorded where I blew off a lot of steam and got a lot off my chest and when listening back to it, I found myself laughing at my own joke (so modest) when I finally signed off with “I’m British. I don’t know how to accept a compliment — or be happy”. You know, humor hits hardest when it’s at its driest and most truthful and laughter is fundamentally a fear-based response. What’s scary is how true that statement actually is and that’s probably why it caused me to snigger at my own words. Feeling happy, genuinely happy with an air of fulfillment, and not in a state of mania, is incredibly rare for me.

On the surface, I’m a screenwriter who is succeeding and, in some ways living the dream, but I lie awake worrying each night, constantly feel everything positive is going to turn catastrophic, live in a state of paranoia that everyone secretly hates me, and have to constantly busy myself so I don’t dwell and randomly burst into tears. The thing is, I know I’m not alone, I know so many consumed by similar demons, and can see we are heading into a mental health epidemic for aspiring screenwriters.

And I know I am far from the first to acknowledge it either. Thanks to a combination of late-stage capitalism, consumer culture, somatic narcism via social media, austerity, inequality and a host of other contributing factors, many would say we’re already there when it comes to mental health issues becoming worryingly widespread. That said, I still don’t see it being brought up much outside the odd forum thread where some poor soul is desperately reaching out for much-needed help and support. The fact is, whether we are talking about it or not, we are not talking about it enough.

Refuse to accept “harsh-feedback” as reasonable.

It was five years of trying to break-in pretty much full-time (around my freelance career at least) before I got my first “Hollywood” assignment where I got to write a feature film script for a well-established producer in LA. Those five years, triggered by a full mental breakdown in 2012, were pure hell. They must have been. People don’t decide they’re going to kill themselves unless they are in hell and agnostics don’t sit on the end of the bed and pray to any god they can find unless they have reached rock-bottom. I wasn’t a writer before my life crisis so I didn’t know what I was getting into. I had no experience of filmmaking either so was naive about that. Perhaps being a newcomer to it all has made me see things from outside and realize just how toxic the break-in side of screenwriting is. The creative arts is tough, we know that. The movie business is tough, we know what. What shocked me then and still shocks me now is how brutal the communities filled with our fellow struggling creatives often are and how predatory and unforgiving much of the cottage industry is that exploits them.

I mean, as if the constant rejection of submitting material and getting rejection after rejection isn’t enough as if getting scripts optioned only to wait years until the project flounders isn’t enough, we find ourselves facing snarks, trolls, narcissists, hucksters, frauds, and sociopaths within the very groups designed to support us and the very companies claiming to help us. I’m very open about the fact that, during my first year of writing, I received two Blacklist reviews the day after Christmas that was so damning in tone and damaging in the score, I spent the next 48 hours on suicide watch. That was just year one and the result of paying what I believed to be one of the best quality readers in the business what little savings I had. Through the years, I’ve had forum regulars tell me I can’t write and my scripts ripped apart in public. I was told you can’t make typos in a script when I first suspected I was dyslexic. I was informed I should give up if I couldn’t make it past the quarter-finals of a competition. One writer once decided to read the first page of my most popular script and messaged me to tell me I desperately needed professional consultation. When I got my first ever option and I made a post on a Facebook group about how proud I was, the people running the group laughed at me and told me it probably wasn’t even a $5,000 deal (it wasn’t, so it stung even more). This is all on top of the usual writer madness and the constant head-F***k that is the movie business. And here’s the thing, I’m a writer who was seeing a ton of small but positive things happen to keep me going. I was one of the lucky ones and I still needed therapy to get through it.

You cannot change the attitude of a community and trying to do so is like trying to reverse the flow of a river.

Things are better now that I’m writing and producing movies and my self-confidence gradually climbs up and compensates for a lot of the negative thoughts that run through my mind. The industry is mostly very kind I’ve found and being around people who are successful and optimistic is highly infectious. Yes, there are areas that can fuel paranoia and negative thinking but you can choose who you get close to, what you get involved with, and how realistic your expectations remain. What breaks my heart however is how the more success you have, the further you get pushed out of break-in communities like some sort of heretic — simply for sharing the truth and trying to help people believe in themselves.

Walking into a screenwriting community now, most of which are 99.9% writers trying to get their first major gig, is like entering The Upside Down in Stranger Things; an alternative dimension running in parallel but manifested into a dark and backward version of reality. It’s one thing to be exposed to toxic behavior but it’s a whole other to be exposed to it while being fed complete bulls***t. Watching people get given advice on screenwriting forums is like watching someone get gas-lit by a domestic abuser. It’s genuinely upsetting to witness an aspiring artist misled on their journey and have their self-worth sucked out of them at the same time. What deplores me is how everyone, including those looked on to moderate, just stand by and allow it to happen, even occasionally chiming in to defend the bullies as “giving valuable advice” and telling the victims to “grow a thick skin” if they want to work in the industry. Hey, about I keep my skin as it is and you grow a backbone, do your job, and call out your friends when they can’t play nicely?

This is what I see on nearly every forum I visit;

1. Constant fear-mongering about everything from how you format a script to how you talk at a networking event.

2. Ongoing promotion and legitimization of numerous predatory business models that sell false-hope and encourage gambling.

3. The belittling of a writer’s role within the film industry with a “don’t speak unless spoken to mindset”.

4. A self-appointed brain-trust of obsessive regulars who refuse to provide credits and cannot bear being called-out on their ignorance.

5. Bullies regularly being handed out free-passes and their victims silenced because others believe they are connected and can help them get ahead.

There is however light at the end of the tunnel. We do not have to accept this. Something I’ve come to learn is that you cannot change the attitude of a community and trying to do so is like trying to reverse the flow of a river. If the people running it refuses to police it or, as if often the case on places like Facebook, the people running it are the most toxic contributors, the group will always inevitably descend into a cesspit of snarky writers forming cliques akin to those in Mean Girls. You can, however, unlike the school canteen or the workplace office, chose to walk away and find the support you need elsewhere. That’s one of the benefits of being a writer working from home.

My top 5 tips to help you survive long enough to break-in:

1. Leave toxic communities: As said above. Do not accept how they are being run. Do not try to change it. It isn’t your crusade to make. Even if you have friends there, it’s not worth feeling bad about yourself or your opportunities. By contributing, you are only feeding the trolls. Let the cliques talk themselves in circles until they implode.

2. Find your mentors in books: We all want guidance from those that have made it. Many have shared that guidance in book form and many others have written detailed biographies on your heroes. Turn to the books and you will discover that those creatives who seem indestructible now went through a very long and tough journey to get there.

3. Focus on artistry over money: If you are desperate for money now, do not look to screenwriting as a get-rich-quick scheme. If you fantasize about red-carpets and Oscar award parties, come back to reality. It’s fine to want money and desire recognition but this is a marathon and you need to be fuelled at your core by a desire to speak to your audience.

4. Do your due-diligence: It is critical that, from day one, you know the context behind someone’s advice. You owe it to yourself to perform the searches needed. No, you can’t be expected to know how to conduct thorough research without experience but it starts with no-longer listening to those who refuse to share their name and credits.

5. Refuse to accept “harsh-feedback” as reasonable: If someone cannot treat you with basic kindness and courtesy, especially via the written word, then they most likely can’t offer quality feedback. My mum taught me “hollow vessels make the most noise” and take my word for it when I say the most obnoxious people in this business have the least to offer*.

Bonus tip! Avoid people who make screenwriting one big pissing contest too: You will never win with braggarts who want to make everything elitist. They will go as far as to try and beat your real-life achievements with the aspirations they have in their mind. I’ve literally seen writers boast about how expensive the watches they buy are in an attempt to make others feel smaller than them. I’ve seen writers try to invalidate the opinions of working filmmakers unless they can prove they earn over six figures in a year, all from the benefit of anonymity on their part. The creative arts isn’t a competition to see who can earn the most money; the winners will always be those who feel the most fulfilled by engaging with this craft.

And look, I’m side-stepping an obvious factor here that needs to acknowledged. If you‘re really struggling with your mental health and it’s not getting better, take action to address it now and stop fighting it alone. I’m not getting into detail because I’m not an expert but we can all do more to be mindful and kinder to ourselves – start here.

Writing is tough at the best of times, and breaking into a new career even tougher. Rather than knocking one-another down, we need to be building each other up and saying no to toxic communities that do more harm than good. We have to nurture ourselves and look to those who have genuinely achieved success for guidance while side-stepping the trolls trying to destroy our self-confidence and the scams designed to get at our wallets. If we chase individual fulfillment first via personal expression, we can find the long-term motivation needed to gradually climb the mountain with those who genuinely care about our happiness. Here’s my hand, friend, please take it and reach out to the person struggling behind you.

*Actually, don’t take my word for it on that one. Look me up and then decide for yourself if you should heed my advice.

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