I had been writing for Phyllis Diller for some time before I met her. She invited me to see her performance at the Latin Casino outside of Philadelphia. The first thing she said as I walked into her dressing room was, “You’re the best writer I’ve got.” I said, “Then how come I’m not in Hollywood?” She responded honestly, “Because you’re not ready yet.”
Naturally, I was delighted with her compliment, but disappointed that she felt I wasn’t yet prepared for the big time. It was confusing. How could I be so good on one hand and not good enough on the other? She was right, though, and since then I’ve come to learn what she meant.
Reaching a certain level of success—especially in the arts—requires more than ability. You have to convince others that you’re talented. That requires a lot of persistence and a touch of luck. There’s another phenomenon to consider—if you’re really good, sometimes the powers that be won’t recognize your sills. You’re too advance for them. I’m not claiming that happened to me, but it has happened to others. They were ahead of their time. I can remember as a television writer reviewing tapes of Steve Martin many years before he became a household name. He was so outlandish that no one would admit he was funny…until audiences forced us to.
It would be an ideal world if we could acquire a certain amount of proficiency in our profession and immediately be recognized for it and paid for it. It just doesn’t often happen that way.
However, I will go out on a limb and suggest that if you do learn your craft, be it speaking or writing, you will eventually earn the recognition you deserve. It does take some time, though.
There will be times when you deserve pay and don’t get any. There will be times when you deserve more than you get, but no one will give it to you. These are the times when the true professional invests in the future. You invest in yourself.
During one of our writer’s strikes I was walking a picket line outside of Universal Studios. A young man approached and began talking to us. We welcomed that. We welcomed anything that broke the monotony of walking in a circle. This gentleman was an aspiring writer who was studying TV scripting in a class taught by the Writer’s Guild. Many members volunteered to teach classes regularly to the underprivileged and this lad was one of the students.
We talked about the good and bad facets of the television writing. We all knew what was wrong with TV and how to cure those ills. We all knew that if only we were in power, the medium would be improved two hundredfold. There’s a word for what we were doing, but it doesn’t belong on the front page of a classy newsletter like this.
Then this aspiring writer told us that he had written a short presentation that his teacher felt had potential. He went to his car, brought back the document, and asked us to read it quickly. It was only one or two pages long. We all agreed that it was a workable idea that could possibly result in a sale.
This student told us that his teacher advised him to rewrite this premise into a full treatment, which might be ten to twenty pages. We thought that was good advice and were happy for him. The he said, “If he wants me to do that, he’s going to have to pay me for it.”
That was about 15 years ago and I doubt if that lad every became a TV writer. I doubt if he ever sold anything. In fact, I doubt if he ever completed that treatment.
Each aspiring writer or speaker reading this page can put the moral to this story in his or her own words. I know the lesson I learned from that day’s chance encounter struck me heavily…otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about it 15 years later.