London Screenwriters' Festival

Who’s Driving Your Career? with Jo Calam

Posted on: October 29th, 2011 by nromanek No Comments


The London Screenwriters’ Festival is wall to wall with practical sessions on How To Do This, How To Make That Happen, and that is one of its great strengths, giving writers actionable steps they can take towards enhancing their craft or advancing their careers. But there can be a danger of overbalancing on the exterior side of our craft – forgetting that creativity is an internal process.

Jo Calam’s Friday session, Who’s Driving Your Career? Addressed that creature too often forgotten in the filmworld climb to success – the writers themselves. I believe it was Rilke who said “If you want to work on your writing, work on yourself.” Or it’s the kind of thing he might have said anyway. Go to as many seminars as you like, pump out as many screenplays as you can, if you neglect the component at the centre of it all – you – you’re just building a house of cards.

Jo is a creative coach and former development exec. Her session was the opposite of the “Here are some to do’s which will guarantee you success” information we all so desperately crave. The headline question asked, “Who’s driving your career?” is meant to direct writers toward themselves, to ask honestly “Why am I doing what I’m doing?”. Jo had participants answer on an index card the question “What is the most important thing about being a writer?” and then share the answer with the writer beside them, who then shared back what they heard. This was off-putting in the extreme to a person who sat beside me, his arms folded tightly across his chest. “I’m off,” he grumbled – and he was.

In my case, I wrote that I was in this game because I wanted to live in the world of my characters (to “dance with the gods” as Hubert Selby Jr. says) and to get paid a lot of money for it. When my “partner” in the exercise shared this back to me, I realized how bizarre this combination sounded – a bit like serving both God and Mammon. “Can I have transcendent spiritual experience and be filthy rich too?” Of course, it’s what a lot of us are in it for, I think. I do have a family, so the money is important. And it’s important – essential – for writers to get paid well. But after sharing that out loud, I couldn’t help but wonder if that deep desire for the money was really just fear that this path I’ve chosen just isn’t sustainable, and that I need a back-up plan – preferably in the form of a very large investment account. Whenever I start talking about needing lots & lots of money, you can bet I’m afraid of something that actually has nothing to do with money. So just that simple exercise inspired a lot of insight for me.

There were other exercises too. Assessing from 1 to 10 where we felt our writing careers were in several categories – in the central reason for writing we had previously stated, in money, in the support we were receiving as writers, in inspiration & ideas, in opportunities, in networking & contacts, in skills, and in time. The goal ultimately is to try to create a balance in these. But I, along with the rest of the people in the room – and you too, I expect – showed a wild-crazy variance across these categories. I’m big on inspiration & ideas and skills – a lot of us are – but low on networking. It was suggested we pick a particularly low scoring area and take one action that we promise to perform by the end of the Screenwriters’ Festival on Sunday. For me, I need to do more networking, so I’ve decided to do the Speed Pitching, which, for some self-sabotaging reason, I was avoiding. Oh, wait. I remember why. I hate pitching. Must, must get over that.

In another part of the session, Jo asked us to identify our personal creative Gremlins and what they say to us (mine say “You’re inept. You’re an idiot. You’re a barely verbal mental defective. You are fooling everyone. You’re a fraud…etc, etc, etc.). She invited us to get their voices down on paper and invent a physical form for the bastards, give them a name. This externalization is a therapeutic process as old as Freud – or Jung, at least – and it works. Dennis Potter named his fatal cancer Rupert (after Mr. Murdoch). It helps to give the things that are tripping us up a separate identity so when they show up and try to ruin our workday, we can tell them to have a jog around the block – or better yet, make themselves useful (I’ve found that that wretched, negative voice in my own writer’s head is often just a part of me that’s feeling a bit left out. He wants to be involved, wants to feel important. Sometimes I let him work on my structure.)

I’m from Los Angeles and so naturally have done a heap of Artist Way workshops and a hundred dozen other creative development courses. It’s what we do.  But it’s useful for an artist. Not to overgeneralize, but we writers are raving lunatics, any chance we have to get insight into ourselves, our process, our inner life is water in the creative desert.


Neal Romanek

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