The first thing we teach our screenwriting students at UCLA is to recite the question: “May I tell you about today’s specials?”
The fact is that while I’ve never driven a cab, years ago, before I was a writer, I did indeed carry a tray.
I was working my way through college as a waiter at a Catskills Mountain hotel north of New York City. On the floor were two classes of waiters: college kids like me for whom waiting tables was a necessary but temporary enterprise we had to do however reluctantly before going on to greater things; and there were older professionals, for whom this was their lifelong lot.
To my everlasting shame and discredit, for these wretched souls I experienced a palpable disrespect. Could they do no better with their professional lives?
At my hotel we waiters had to wash our own water goblets if the customer used them. A pitcher of ice water sat at the center of the table, and if a diner desired a glass she could pour one for herself. Not every guest wanted water, so it was never necessary to wash all the goblets.
One fellow who was among the more mature pros, however, used to greet his patrons warmly, with a broad smile, and he always poured them a glass of water when they sat down, even if they hadn’t requested it.
I thought this guy was some kind of schmuck. Didn’t it just mean that he had to wash extra goblets?
Halfway through the summer, however, I realized that he was right and I was wrong. It was proper to greet one’s guests generously and professionally, even to the point of pouring them a glass of water they might not consume. The point wasn’t that it led to better tips. though it certainly did that. The true lesson was that doing a job fully, wholly, considerately, thoroughly, and professionally not only gives the waiter a richer sense of fulfilling his purpose; somehow it also makes the job not harder but easier.
This may well appear to be a contradiction. Cutting corners and taking shortcuts, such as deciding deliberately not to pour water, would seem, if stingy and withholding, to reduce the workload, at least in so far as washing goblets was concerned.
Again, however, the opposite proved to be the case. Going the extra mile, by doing the whole job without stinting and resenting, engendered a sense of satisfaction that was breakthrough and priceless in its clarity and satisfaction. It rendered the otherwise mundane job more than merely bearable. Indeed, it provided a sweet and sweetly curious sense of fulfillment. It healed the soul and nourished the spirit.
I’m eternally grateful for having learned this early, and for having gotten over my arrogant snot-nosed college-kid sense of superiority. These men and women who were professional waiters were worthy not of my scorn but of my admiration. There is nothing the least bit dishonorable about carrying a tray. Moreover, to embrace the entire job is to make it not more difficult but easier.
This has informed my screenwriting since my earliest days as a writer. Attending to the petty stuff–punctuation and spelling and grammar and syntax and sentence structure and diction and all the nine-to-five, work-a-day paraphernalia that lies at the heart of writing–makes the writing not harder but easier.
The writer’s dream, of course, is to earn sufficient money so as to require no day job. But that often proves to be not so much as dream as a nightmare. As I argue in my book Essentials of Screenwriting and in lectures around the world, writers working alone in their cabin in the woods or cottage at the beach are just that: alone. After very little time they grow antsy and crave distractions such as calling 800 numbers for ski reports even though it’s August. The world of film is a collaborative one. Collaborate comes from ‘co’ and ‘labor’; it means to work with others. A day job keeps a writer more acutely attuned to this essential aspect of the art and the craft and the business.
That’s why the day job is the writer’s friend. It keeps him sane and solvent, which are two closely related enterprises. More important, it keeps writers in touch with the more important resource for their writing: the humanity around them.
Who has a better day job than I? Please don’t report this to the Regents, but I would teach my UCLA classes for free. Our writers butt heads with our faculty, they compete with us, they bob and weave and feint and keep their teachers from falling into the ruts and grooves and routines writers can all too easily fall into, especially within the confines of a freelance community such as the movie business.
Those with day jobs may think they have no time left over for their writing, but they’re wrong. If you go to sleep an hour later each night only five nights a week, that will liberate over a period of a year the equivalent of two entire months of forty-hour weeks. You’re already going to sleep too late? Go to sleep a half hour later. Or go to sleep fifteen minutes later and waken fifteen minutes earlier. Right there is an additional month that’s available to you right now during this year alone to devote exclusively to your writing.
Permit me to repeat a story told to me by the late Colin Higgins, a UCLA graduate who wrote and directed wonderful romantic comedies including such splendid features as FOUL PLAY and SILVER STREAK, among others.
When Colin was finishing up his degree at UCLA he prayed to win first place in the legendary Goldwyn dramatic writing competition, which would have provided enough money to enable him to do nothing but write for an entire year. Instead he won only second prize, and was compelled to support himself at least part time with a day job. He took the perfect actor’s or writer’s job: cleaning swimming pools.
His very first pool happened to be at an upscale home in the flats of Beverly Hills. As he vacuumed the bottom of the pool and adjusted the chlorine and acid-wash levels he noticed a man sitting in a chaise lounge on the deck at the end of the pool under a beach umbrella, reading a screenplay. He surmised correctly that this was the owner of the house and that he was a movie producer. He introduced himself and persuaded the man to read his Goldwyn-winning screenplay. The producer ended up buying and producing the script. It was called HAROLD AND MAUDE, and it launched Colin’s substantial career.
“Had my dream come true,” Colin told me years ago, “had I won not second but first prize, I’d be cleaning swimming pools today.”
About the Author:
Richard Walter is a celebrated storytelling guru, movie industry expert, and longtime chairman of UCLA’s legendary graduate program in screenwriting. A screenwriter and published novelist, his latest book, Essentials of Screenwriting, is available in stores now. Professor Walter lectures throughout North America and the world and serves as a court authorized expert in intellectual property litigation. For more information and to order the new Essentials of Screenwriting, visit www.richardwalter.com. Richard can be reached at email@example.com.