Dispelling the Myth of Tortured Screenwriters / by Amanda Silberling

By Ariella Carmell, Blog Correspondent


Some say Hollywood swallowed F. Scott Fitzgerald up whole. Though the passage of time would crystallize the writer of The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night into a literary deity, Fitzgerald ended up submerged in alcoholism, marital troubles, and “hack” screenwriting jobs. This grisly end is, perhaps, allegorical, signifying the perception of Hollywood as the burial ground of The Artist.

I capitalize the term not because of the film of the same name (a 2011 pastiche of silent cinema that, while charming, is pallid compared to what it imitates) but because the term has become nothing less than a synecdoche for a way of being. The Artist is an ideal construed by the public but adopted by the psyches of creative types everywhere. The Artist can make tuberculosis look appealing. The Artist, as depicted in media, will not stand for her work to be tainted by commercialism—her vision will always be true to her aesthetic soul, and if her conviction falters she will have given in to the sin that encapsulates all seven of them: Making a Profit.

Here is where poets and novelists and playwrights turn to scoff at the screenwriter as a traitor to the pursuit of creative fulfillment. Since the screenwriter’s work is often heavily transmuted during the production process and revised to meet the standards of a studio, some naysayers have said the work is not even writing at all. Cultural icon (and personal hero) Joan Didion, who supplemented her literary journalism and novel work by writing films such as A Star is Born and The Panic in Needle Park, asserted, “[Screenwriting]’s not writing. You’re making notes for the director.”

Likewise, there’s a sense of cynicism toward the craft because it is, by far, the biggest moneymaker of all the forms of writing. “Real” writers like Fitzgerald only to turn to screenwriting to the pay the bills, and by this point, as the popular parable goes, they are riddled with debt once their cruel society has pushed them to their lowest points. As always, money conflicts with true artistic values.

This image is a myth. Screenwriting (and film itself) may be newer than the hallowed novel or poem, but that does not mean it is any less of an art form or should be derided by the literati. I know the minutiae of the process firsthand; A few summers ago, in my quest to acquaint myself with every form of writing that exists, I took a screenwriting class at USC (My graduate student classmates shot me worried glances whenever a curse word or a sex scene was read aloud). There, I learned that this type of writing required a specific language that required its own Rosetta Stone to decipher. There’s a certain rhythm to the format more akin to verse than prose, a sense of poetry thrumming below the surface, which often goes unnoticed until you actually sit down to write a script. I let my imagination gallop, but at the same time my teacher warned me that while writing a screenplay, I had to be aware of the limitations of the actors and director. While adhering to these constraints may seem stifling, I found that conjuring up the tangible possibilities of real people rehearsing these lines, mouthing these words, following these stage directions, was electrifying.

Though most people generally only know a film by its director, the idea still germinated in the mind of a writer and spilled out through her script software (I recommend Celtx or Final Draft, for the record). Residing in Los Angeles, I meet the people whose sole dreams are to weave stories for the cinema, who want nothing else than to be creatively stimulated with no thought to the monetary outcome. Much like the poets or playwrights, just with less bohemian garb. Screenwriting is not the final circle of hell for The Artist; the Screenwriter is an Artist of its own breed.

Ariella Carmell is a senior at Marlborough School in California, where she is Editor-in-Chief of the school literary magazine and Head Copy Editor of the newspaper. A Foyle Commended Poet of the Year and a recipient of Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, she has had work published in Cadaverine,Crack the SpineEunoia Review, and Canvas Literary Journal, among others. She has studied writing at the Center for Talented Youth, the USC School of Cinematic Arts, and Kenyon College, and hopes to pursue creative writing in all forms as much as she can in the future.