Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Four Keys To Writing Success

In another posting, or post, whatever, I mentioned that my success as a writer seems to be the product of four key elements: talent, timing, determination and luck. I want to elaborate on that. Hopefully, it will be helpful.

Determination is simple.

Don’t quit.

My wife adds the element of having a thick skin. I think she’s right, but I’d categorize that under “determination.” If I didn’t, I’d have to make it The Five Keys to Writing Success, and four sounds better.

“The Four Keys To Writing Success.”


“The Five Keys To Writing Success.”


Okay, I just prefer “four.” Although, if I remember, someday I’ll talk about funny numbers. They actually exist.

All right, so that’s determination.

Now, luck.

Luck is the most important of the four keys to writing success. Try to have it, if you possibly can. Unfortunately, luck is not under our control. It comes and it goes. When you have it, it’s really, really helpful.

Consider my luck of having my brother, Hart, being Lorne Michaels’ writing partner, and how that fundamentally affected my career. Imagine if my brother, instead, had partnered up with Roy Shoichet, a Canadian comedy writer and full-time psychiatrist, who once raced breathlessly into a writers’ meeting, saying,

“I’m sorry I’m late. I had to talk a man in off of a ledge.”

Not as good, right? If I’d coveted a career in suicide prevention, Doctor Roy would have been the perfect contact. I happen to have wanted something else.

Consider the essential role luck played in getting my first job in Hollywood. Lorne had asked me to come down to write on a Lily Tomlin “special” and I’d turned him down, because I had a better paying job in Canada. Months later, in the week my Canadian job abruptly disappeared, Lorne called back; due to a postponement, the job was available again.


One last example, though I’m sure there are dozens. Early in my career, I had a female agent, who, being a woman, was able to connect with the male Executive Producer who gave me my first solo-writing sitcom assignment in a way that was unlikely to have been available to a male agent. There were almost no female agents back then.


You got it? Luck is really, really good.

Talent and Timing

What is talent? Are you born with talent or can talent be learned? What if you’re talented, but they haven’t invented the thing you’re talented at yet?

“The guy has a natural talent for skateboarding.”

What did he do before they invented skateboarding? Wait?

First of all, as far as talent is concerned, put me down for “You’re born with it.” Training can improve a less talented person and not training can make a naturally talented person fall short of their potential, but the raw material’s encoded in your DNA, along with height, which, as it turns out, I’m not talented at.

Beyond natural ability, however, there is always – I love this word – inextricably – the question of timing.

You know about those painters who went nuts, because they weren’t recognized as talented till after they were dead. How do you explain that, other than by the “too-late-to-matter-‘cause-you’re-dead” coming together of talent and timing?

“Talent” assessments can be a function not just of time but also of place. In Toronto, there were a people who thought I was no good. I know that, because once, after years of doing well in Hollywood, I ran into a major Canadian television executive who said to me, “I can’t tell you how surprised we all are by your success.” I never cared for that remark, but maybe he was right. Maybe you can be “talented” in one place and stink in another. Of course, it’s also the possible that the people making those assessments are idiots.

I guess I’m kind of sensitive about that “talented” label. So many elements play into that judgment, and the consequences, for the person being judged, are enormous.

Imagine, for example, the time before cable TV, a time when the three major networks were the only places you could go to pitch your series ideas. Now, imagine the two guys who created South Park, pitching their show to an executive of one of those networks.

The executive listens attentively, laughs in the right places. And then, he responds.

“Boys. Can I be honest with you? I’m crazy about the way your minds work. And I swear to God, if it were up to me, I’d “Green Light” South Park in a New York minute. Unfortunately, this isn’t about my taste, which – I’m leveling with you – is very much in synch with yours. You gotta understand something. You’re going to hate this, but you know it’s true.

“CBS/NBC/ABC (pick one) is a broad-based television network. We’re in the volume business. We need to reach everyone. That’s “The Law”, okay? “The Law.”

“Now, look at our Schedule Board. You see where I’m pointing? The Andy Williams Christmas Special. He’s singing with orphans. You see my problem, right? You guys just pitched a Christmas episode of South Park who’s featured character is Christmas “poo.” Don’t get me wrong. I love the “Christmas Poo” idea, it’s edgy, it’s never been done before, and it’s laugh-out-loud funny. But, fellas, let’s get real here, okay? How do I schedule Andy and the Orphans back-to-back with a show that ties in the holiest day of the year with, you know, excrement? You see what I’m saying?”

The same story in seven words?

“You’re brilliant. You’re crazy. You’re outta here.”

In a strange but definitive way, “talent” minus timing equals “No talent.” Even if you’re talented! In the pre-cable environment, South Park’s creators would have been perceived, by all three networks, as having no talent, “no talent” being defined as, “They’re bringing us something we can’t possibly do.”

Then there’s the other end of the spectrum. You’re seen as talented in one era, but when you stop being successful – meaning, you’re not selling anymore – you’re considered to have “lost” your talent. Can that be possible?

“He lost his talent.”

“Where did it go?”

Nowhere. Once again, it’s a question of timing. When you’re “hot”, you’re “talented”; when you’re not, as the Jerry Reed song says, you’re not. Being “objectively” talented? Maybe there’s no such thing.

On the other hand, we all know people who, by the most honest and compassionate of standards, are not talented in any era. So the concept must mean something. I need to think about it some more.

Here’s what I know. People who “make it” have every reason to be humble. “Determination” – that’s in your hands. But that’s it. The other three keys to writing success – talent, luck and timing – have nothing at all to do with you.

It's worth remembering.


Sally Roll said...

This is another terrific piece, Earl. Thanks!

Max Clarke said...

Maybe luck isn't random, maybe it's a reflection of something very creative inside us.

Saviana said...
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