Monday, August 15, 2016

No Reply

Why hasn't she answered me? - Warren Beatty as John Reed

I think she HAS answered you. -- Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman (Reds, 1981)

Instead of any epic historical scene, the moment in Reds that has forever lodged itself in my brain is the above small, intimate exchange between Emma Goldman and John Reed near the end, when John is suffering and doesn't know why his wife hasn't written him back. The harsh lesson is, sometimes silence is the answer. 

I was reminded of the concept in a TV writers' room a few years ago when I was complaining to one of my colleagues about being besieged by people wanting to meet me for advice about TV writing.  

"Oh," he said. "When I get emails like that, I just never write back."
I was shocked. "What?" 
"That way, they never know if I read it, or even got it." 

Wow, I thought. That's harsh. 
But I am starting to see the wisdom of his approach. 
The latest one came this week via a LinkedIn email. With not so much as a how-d'ya-do, a complete stranger reached out with the subject line "Matt Santos meets Top Gun" (Santos is a West Wing character invented in the seasons after I left the show, but I doubt he clocked that).  

I have removed identifying details, but you'll get the gist. 
Good evening Mr. Handelman,
I am the Chairman of the Board of [redacted].
In addition, I have completed a novel that will be released next year - [title redacted].[Plot redacted]
It is a Tom Clancy-like techno-thriller. I think it is a great read -- but would appreciate your thoughts. 
If interested I would be happy to send you a copy of the manuscript -- as a pdf. It renders nicely on an iPad.
Thank you for your time -- I have enjoyed your work for a long time. 
Now, to my mind, if you're going to reach out to a complete stranger, you don't save the obligatory compliment of their work till the last line. And you don't shorten "Regards" to "Rds" because you're in a hurry. Does he want me to consider it as a screenplay to pitch? Or is he just looking for a free editorial consultation? But most of all, WHY ME? 

I composed several replies to him off the top of my head, the first being, 

Dear Sir: I have no experience in marketing but I happen to have completed a 400 page marketing proposal for a software company. It reads super easy on your phone. LMK if I can send it.
But then I realized -- I don't have to write back at all! 

Admittedly, his is an extreme version, but I get approached in similarly out-of-nowhere ways all the time.  It's the blessing and curse of having written for well-known publications and TV shows.

Don't get me wrong. I am not averse to helping others. In fact, I've tried to be a mentor to coworkers many times in my various jobs and careers. For example, at Vogue, I encouraged many underutilized editorial assistants - at least one of whom had a Masters in English - who were relegated to answering phones, fetching coffees and checking fashion product placements -- to pitch reviews and start writing. Several did and moved up the ranks; at least one went on to become one of New York's most long-tenured editors in chief. When a temporary ABC news job ended, I helped get my assistant her next gig. 

For a long time, I tried to be responsive to people who wanted to find out more about TV writing. Probably because I felt so guilty at my good fortune.  I got
in at a late date after almost two decades of journalism -- by writing a spec with an actor-comedian friend who was more famous than me, and being hired to co-write a freelance script with him by someone who I went to high school with who was running two TV shows. 

But over time I came to realize the very flukiness of my entrĂ©e is unreplicable. And I cannot provide those same "ins" to a stranger. And furthermore, part of my attractiveness as a hire was my life experience that had nothing to do with TV writing -- so many people trying to write for TV haven't lived yet, and you can tell the difference reading their writing samples. 

And TV writing is uniquely difficult. It's not just that the jobs are much fewer. It's also that the industry has changed drastically. Through the 90s, if you set your sights on it - and were talented - you could follow some sort of career ladder. You'd start as a writers’ assistant, freelance a script, and move up the ranks. These days, writers rooms are much smaller (fewer episodes per season), crowded with people who gravitated to TV when movie writing dwindled, and mostly "top-heavy" -- IE peopled with very experienced writers for efficiency's sake. I know script coordinators and writers' assistants who have had those entry level gigs for nearly a decade.

Also, I myself have bounced around quite a bit. In a couple of weeks I will be at my current gig for a full year -- the first time that's happened since I left
 Vogue 21 years ago.  
Over time, I realize, I have scaled back my response to hopefuls who reach out. From inviting hopefuls to my workplace, to just meeting them for coffee, to just writing them back an email, to, finally, in some cases, not writing back at all.  

Occasionally if someone really seems on the ball I will accede, but often I am amazed to find a lack of effort on their part, as I did recently with one college graduate who hadn't even tried to read a TV script to see what one looked like -- or think herself particularly funny -- she just was just a fan of comedy shows. 

One TV writer I know gave a young writer several rounds of notes on his first effort, then she was annoyed to learn he'd used the heavily edited version and been hired.  But he's become a successful writer in the ensuing years, so maybe the fact that he learned how to take notes was a good sign. 

Another veteran TV writer friend - who has decades more experience than me and has thus been fielding this kind of request for decades - recently decided he should just write a book of advice for new TV writers so that when he gets asked he an hand (or sell) them the book. But he keeps getting hired to actually write TV. Which should be the priority. 

There's a flip side to this: I myself have been on the receiving end of radio silence, from long-ago friends who say they want to get together but then disappear when I call them on it, or former co-workers who say "if you ever need anything" and then don't respond.

While I grouse about it, I have learned to understand it's not necessarily malicious or "about me." Sure, sometimes an email actually gets lost on a BlackBerry or in a spam folder, but oftentimes people just don't know how to handle delivering bad news, so they just go silent. People have their own shit going on, don't like admitting they have no power, can't deal with confrontation, and don't want to be the person who says "No." So instead they say nothing. 

Facebook has made us all seem accessible; I get friend requests all the time from complete strangers, some of whom "liked" a single comment I made on someone's page. That's okay for Twitter, but my standard for friendship is a little higher than that. (I do allow "Followers".)

I'm going to send a link to this blogpost to my writer friend who advised me never to reply, to show him I now agree.

I hope he writes back.

UPDATE: He wrote me back! 
I am honored.  I thought what you wrote was dead on but not nearly harsh enough.  If it were me I would advise anyone wanting to be a tv writer to reassess their aspirations.  They're not going to make it so just give up now.  If they have written something, it most likely sucks.  I recommend dental school.  
[Here's a link to the scene in Reds cued up:
 "I think she has answered you.']

The whole movie: (not a HQ version)


Shaun Eli Breidbart said...

Silence is becoming the de facto response lately, from companies whose HR departments and hiring managers don't have the decency to tell someone who got all dressed up for a job interview that someone else got the job,
to someone who goes on a few dates and then doesn't have the decency to return phone calls,
to rich celebrities who have whole publicity staffs that don't bother to write back to a fan.

So I imagine that if a stranger reaches out to you (a stranger, not someone you know) then it's less bad to just ignore a request for assistance.

But I still think it's nicer to respond, even if your response is no.

I'm a stand-up comedian and I book comedy shows. About two hours ago I got an email from someone who just finished taking a comedy class. He's at least a decade away from being ready to work for me.

And that was pretty much my response, although more polite than that.

Because I can remember when I started out, and did the same thing. Some people responded with some encouragement, and others ignored me.

Yeah, I've also gotten people who've never been on a stage writing to ask me to book them. In one case a guy sent me a video of him sitting at a desk reading jokes.
And I wrote back to him. I suggested he start with a comedy class.

Maybe he will take a class, and some day be a good comic.
And if not, it wasn't for my lack of encouragement.

David said...

There's nothing wrong with a polite "no," and sometimes even an impolite "no" is more appreciated than silence.

In fact, the line that always stuck with me from that movie can be seen as another way of dealing with unwanted requests. When Diane Keaton's Bryant turns away the romantic intentions of Jack Nicholson's Eugene O'Neill, she tells him she'd like to be friends. He responds: "I already have enough friends." Too bad there's no FB button for that ...

David Handelman said...

Yes, that's a great line. Thanks for the reminder. If there's some personal connection I usually write back something. But this latest one was beyond the pale. Write me first and strike up a conversation, at least. Flattery or knowledge. Not just salesmanship.

Shaun Eli Breidbart said...

If his novel is being released next year, wouldn't that mean it's already pretty much set?

I think that he's displaying not only a lack of respect for your time but a lack of knowledge of the industry. Unless by 'released' he means self-published.

Feel free to PM me this guy's company. Sounds like a stock for shorting.

Of course you could always write back to say you typically earn $250/hr. Friends' manuscripts you read free, for all others that's the price of your time.

Stuart Malina said...

Really good piece, David.
I try very hard to respond to all requests, but in the end it all comes down to timing. If I'm in a busy work period, the request goes into my "respond later" inbox (or pile). Generally, I discover these months later, and, because there are so many, I throw them away. It's not out of malice - I just don't have the time and energy.
I, too, have been many times on the other side, and it does suck getting the silent treatment. Now, when old friends say they want to get together, or someone promises to hire me, I nod my head, say "that would be great", and promptly forget about it. Sometimes I'm happily surprised.

David Handelman said...

Thanks Stuart! Let's get together soon! :)

Paul said...

This was very useful, David, and I enjoyed hearing about this world. I know a lot people in your line of work who give a polite and encouraging no, and move on. And like you said, if you know them personally, they get a little more time.

Anonymous said...

A LinkedIn message? ARE YOU KIDDING?!! LinkedIn is for dating trolls. You're a saint for reading the "Please do hours of work for me, for free," message itself, much less giving time away from family (and ya know, work) to someone like that. Gah. I'm normally in favor of responding to people, on the premise that passive-aggressivity is rampant and mostly about dominance... but not in such a case. No no no no no, I will not read your f-ing script. (Except for you, DH, for you, anything.)

Profesora said...

"For a long time, I tried to be responsive to people who wanted to find out more about TV writing." You certainly have done this for me, DH, and I truly appreciate it!