contributing editors

Katherine Boutry, Ph.D.
West Los Angeles College

leeDr. Katherine Boutry got her Ph.D. in English from Harvard where she taught for five years. After moving to LA, she became a staff writer on the Lionsgate/Lifetime series “1 800 MISSING,” participated in the Warner Brothers TV Drama Writers Program, sold a pilot to Oxygen, and taught Screenwriting in the M.A. Humanities Program at Mount Saint Mary’s College.

Dr. Boutry is now a full-time professor of English and screenwriting at West Los Angeles College, and a writer on the television series THE HAUNTING HOUR. She is currently writing features and developing a new pilot for cable.

As an undergrad at Georgetown, she spent a semester at the Sorbonne in Paris. Later, she had a Fulbright Scholarship to the Czech Republic. She speaks French, Italian, and a little Czech, and lives in LA with her French husband, three children, and chocolate Labrador puppy, Violette.

When she was little, she spent every Saturday afternoon watching “Creature Double Feature” and “The Twilight Zone” with her dad. That’s where her love of storytelling started.

THE TWO-WEEK CHALLENGE’: or What Does It Mean to Be a Working Writer?”

Does being a “working writer” mean getting paid for your words? Maybe, eventually. But Samuel Beckett, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jane Austen among many others hardly made a dime off their writing. Nabokov and Dickens and the Romantic Poets were ridiculously poor at several points in their lives. Marc Cherry, the creator of the hit tv show Desperate Housewives was living in his mother’s basement before he sold the pilot that catapulted him to success. These writers all worked very hard whether paid or not.

So how do we define a “working writer” if money doesn’t seem to be the thing?

Well, the simple answer to that is that you have to put your fingers on a keyboard every now and again and actually turn out some pages. It’s not enough to tell people at parties that you’re “working on your screenplay” when you have never even drafted a title page. Writing, as the old saw goes, is a job like any other, for which you have to “show up.” Now the conditions don’t have to be perfect, mind you. If you’re waiting to be able to afford your own plush office with a big wooden desk, you’re missing the point. By his own account, Stephen King wrote a few bestsellers in a laundry room with a kid’s desk balanced on his knees. When he could finally afford the big oak desk, he discovered he didn’t need it.

I know writers who get fully dressed, complete with bras and make up (usually the women writers) and then sit, as if in an office cubicle, waiting for the Muse to punch in and blaze a path of illumination all over their monitors. For some writers, the opposite is true. They need to be comfortable and in a safe environment. That means different things for different writers: for some, it’s no distractions, all phones on mute and a note on the doorbell saying the “baby” (and by this they mean the Muse) is sleeping. For some it may be white noise, either a refrigerator or dishwasher hum, or the din of an anonymous mall food court. For others, it could be Jimmy Hendrix or Enya on continuous loop. Some need to get out of the house because they have roommates or children and go write in the library, park, car, school. It doesn’t matter what or where; what matters is that it works for them.

Notice, they’re waiting for the Muse, but not waiting for her to show up in front of the Lakers game, or while they’re partying with friends, or paying bills online. The Muse is not going to tap you on the shoulder while you lie down for a nap. You have to wait with your fingers poised over the keyboard and an ache in your heart. And you have to have the feeling that if you don’t write that day, you will have lost something precious. If you’re just as happy trolling the Internet shopping for Christmas presents in July, then you should embrace that. I’m not saying that we wouldn’t all rather be sitting on a roller coaster sometimes than at an uncomfortable desk with our butts going numb as that perfect line eludes us. I’m saying that if day after day, you wouldn’t miss writing and would hardly ever notice its absence, then you are lucky. And you may not be a true writer. Don’t get me wrong, true writers procrastinate plenty and check email accounts (three, here) obsessively. The difference is that the writer who can’t get it out of his or her soul, wakes up in a sweat in the middle of the night on those goof-off days and worries. So if you have that nagging feeling around you that says you haven’t been writing and you’d better be because no one’s getting any younger, then here are some tips to help you get your words on the page.

To be a productive working writer, you have to do some research. On yourself. Most writers have big egos, anyway, so this should be fun. In order to get the pages flowing consistently, you have to do a little reconnaissance on your own work habits. Are you a morning person at your dynamic best with a strong espresso and bunny slippers? Or are you a glass of wine, smooth jazz, evening writer? After my kids go to bed, and my husband’s snoring in front of Jon Stewart, I come alive. I finally have the house to myself and I can write until 2 or 3 am. Sometimes all night if I have a deadline. I’ve learned that mornings are also great, but between 2-4 pm, I’m comatose. I’ve tried forcing out words under those afternoon conditions and it’s painful. For me, and the reader. So get to know yourself and when your best work comes out so that you can best maximize the time you will start carving out for yourself.

With yourself. Once you’ve discovered your most productive times of the day, block some of them off for writing. Set your alarm, mark it in your day planner and schedule your life around writing for two weeks. Just two weeks. See how it feels. If writing really is a priority for you, I guarantee it’ll feel pretty good and you’ll be motivated to find ways to make it a part of your daily routine.

Let’s face it, there will always be something pressing that has to be done at home. Oil changes scheduled, cats brushed, teeth flossed. But if you allow these “pressing” things to happen in your writing time, you are saying to yourself and everyone else that writing is not a priority. But you’re a writer, so that isn’t right. Do you think you or your family is going to care that you ate take-out pizza for a few weeks when your screenplay hits the big screen? I guarantee you they’ll be jockeying for a position at the premiere, and they’ll be proud as peacocks of you. (If they have any other reaction, see below!) So keep the date.

Like any special date, you have to get ready. Whether it’s lighting a candle, checking email accounts, or emptying the dishwasher before you sit down, studies have shown that brief repetitive tasks that prepare your mind for the discipline of facing the computer are key. They signal to your mind that it needs to quiet and enter a space where it can be creative. Discover your ritual and stick to it for two weeks.

If you make it clear to everyone in your life through word and action that writing is your priority, then they will have no choice but to embrace it as a part of you. They may not like it at first, but they will have to accept it if they truly love you. If they can’t accept the you you were meant to be, no matter how patiently you try to explain, then tell them to move on. There’s nothing worse than readying your mind to sit down and write and being interrupted or having your writing space and time disrespected. You know, the prying roommate, spouse, sibling who leans over your shoulder just as inspiration has hit and says some version of “You’re still working on that??” “Did I get any messages?” “Where’s the …?” You get the picture.

These people may be “trainable.” They simply may not realize what writing takes, and we forgive them if they mend their ways. But it’s important that they be onboard the train. Surround yourself with people who support your goals. Look, it’s already hard enough, so don’t allow friends or family to derail you with questioning your “purpose” or wondering aloud if you have any talent and isn’t this all a big waste of time anyway? Worse yet are the “great” friends who in the guise of being supportive tell you not to feel bad that your latest book/screenplay/teleplay didn’t get bought because it’s not your fault. Run now! But you won’t. Your little ears will perk up and you’ll say, “Yeah, I thought it was good. I thought it would sell.” And then they’ll regale you with the statistics of just how hard it is to sell a screenplay “in the real world.” (As if you’ve been on Fantasy Island all this time, poor deluded you.) They’ll tell you it’s impossible, so “don’t beat yourself up.” (Why would you? They’ve already done a good job of that). By now you feel depressed and you’re starting to hate them, but what they’re saying seems to make sense. The key word here is “seems.”

Everything worth doing is risky and hard and lonely and a big leap of faith. Can you imagine if Van Gogh’s’s friends told him “Starry Night” was a bit of a “reach” and it would really be a lot easier for him to paint houses? “There’s always a market for that.” Can’t you just hear them now? Luckily, he never asked anyone’s permission. And neither should you.

Vow to write for two weeks. And as a rule, never break a promise to yourself. If you have to invent dentist appointments, call in sick, miss a few parties, carve out time for your craft. You’re worth it.

These people have already drunk the Kool-Aid, so they won’t be tempted to pee in yours. Also, having deadlines is imperative for some us. And here’s where writing groups and class assignments really help. They provide you with an “excuse” to get the work done NOW.

Certainly you’ve had the experience that when you first sit down to write it feels like jogging uphill in a rubber suit? But pretty soon, you’re on a roll, peeling off layers and laying down track all over the paper. You gain momentum as you write and the ideas really do loosen up and flow better after you stop thinking so hard, warm up, and “just do it.” It helps a lot if you start with something nonthreatening that you could do in your sleep. Just write one sentence. Five words. When you stop writing the session before, leave a sentence half finished. Anyone can finish a sentence. The hardest part of writing is putting down the first word.

The other miracle that happens when you get on a roll is you pretty much stop thinking at all. Often the best writing comes out when you’re not sitting at the keyboard saying “Hey, Ma! Look at me! I’m WRITING!” It’s like those fifty hoops you make and as soon as you notice “OMG! I made fifty shots in a row!!” the next one bounces off the rim. You become self-conscious. You need to shut that part of your brain off. Stop thinking about yourself and what you’re doing and just allow your fingers to transmit the ideas flowing through your brain. This is difficult to sustain for very long, but during those periods, often the best most creative work transpires.

Good luck and tell me how the “Two-Week Challenge” goes!!





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