BALLS OF STEEL: What Makes a Writer Fail?

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Writers connect with films, scripts and their characters, but we often forget to connect with each other. Isolation is one guaranteed answer to what makes a writer fail, but there are many more.

We are placed on this earth to experience life in a way only human beings can. Unlike animals, we laugh, cry, hate, love, fill our hearts with envy, jealousy and anxiety. We don’t just project those emotions onto other people; we torture ourselves with self-loathing, insecurities and disappointment.

In a nutshell, people are messed up. Maybe artists, the most of all.

Let’s play a game of “what if?”

Many writers, myself included, set a character up in a situation and ask, “What if… I made her talk to that person in this scene? What if… I had her plane nosedive? What if… her ex-husband walked in and pointed a gun at her?

We’re all familiar with asking that question in our writing, but what if we asked it in our lives?

What if… you believed in yourself?

Sit with that thought for a moment. Close your eyes and visualize experiencing life fully committed to believing in yourself and your ability to succeed. That is a powerful intention. One I wish I had when I was in college, full of insecurities and pushing away my writing professor who begged me to leave Cornell’s Hotel School and major in Creative Writing.

A few years ago, I got to go back to college and crawl into the mind of my 19-year-old self.

Hendrix College’s Filmmakers Club generously invited me to lecture on Navigating the Industry Outside of Hollywood. As I flew into Little Rock, Arkansas, I prepared myself to answer all of their aspiring filmmaker questions. I told tales of my adventures, gave tips on building relationships by paying it forward, and shared my social media addiction prowess, proving how I have crafted a legitimate career from my country home in New York State. As I wrapped up, I asked if they at least got one helpful nugget of advice and what that golden bit was.

One student enthusiastically said, “Hope,” to which many voices echoed with heads nodding in agreement.

Mission accomplished.

After my talk, several students joined us to continue the discussion, their hungry minds picking my brain. Talking shop with these bright students made me envious of them. At their young age, they knew what their passion was and were going after it.

They gave me hope.

But it also made me wonder how many students of Hendrix secretly wanted to be filmmakers but didn’t come to the event or stay after to have a deeper conversation with me?

How many people are sidestepping their dreams because they don’t believe in themselves?

Dr. Rod Miller and Jeanne Veillette Bowerman

The next day, I went to Dr. Rod Miller’s Intro to Screenwriting class. The subject of the day was a chapter on ‘Problems and Solutions’ in Robert McKee’s famous book, Story. During the class, all the students got an opportunity to toss out a problem in their script they were wrestling with. It was a writer’s Think Tank.

The problems ranged from taking a courtroom drama outside of the courtroom, crafting a compelling and unpredictable climax for a Rom Com, getting bored with the hero in Act II, to having too many characters muddling up the story. The students enthusiastically brainstormed ways to combat each obstacle, and of course, I threw in my two cents.

The energy was amazing. How lucky they were, and I’m not sure they even knew it. The irony is, while they looked at me with envy, I regarded them the same way.

As a writer who works from home, isolated and unshowered, I crave the kind of contact and brainstorming these students are able to do on a daily basis. Every conversation lead to an ah-ha moment. I could see it in their faces as their brains burst with ideas.

It was a beautiful sight. I was in awe.

On my flights home, I pondered the future of these students. Would they find success in this crazy industry? Which ones would stick it out? Which would find another path?

The reality is, unlike most careers taught in college, there is absolutely nothing logical about this industry. Not one thing. I couldn’t map out a strategy for success that was guaranteed. Hard work, talent and determination aren’t necessarily going to get you produced. What a strange vocation to pursue.

Maybe it’s more effective for me to give advice on what definitely makes a writer fail since there are no absolutes about what makes one succeed:

  • You will fail if you don’t write every day.
  • You will fail if you don’t take feedback well.
  • You will fail if you’re selfish.
  • You will fail if you ruin your reputation by acting desperate.
  • You will fail if you don’t learn to love rewriting.
  • You will fail if you just talk about finishing a project but don’t actually take the time to do it.
  • You will fail if you don’t step outside of your comfort zone and push yourself.
  • You will fail if you don’t love what you’re doing.
  • You will fail if you can’t learn lessons from your mistakes.
  • You will fail… if you don’t believe in yourself.

Now I ask a question only you can answer, “What if… you failed as a writer?”

Please think about that. In fact, take the day off from writing today and make a list of what life would be like if you didn’t put words on a page. Can you even imagine it?

Now ask yourself, “What if… I gave it my all?”

Just the thought of you typing your fingers to the bone to succeed makes me smile.

Part of giving it your all isn’t just working hard, isolated in a writer cave. You need people to help you. Let them. Put yourself out there, put your words out there, even if only on a blog, and let people experience the way you can move them with your prose. Draw them in.

Believe in yourself so they will believe in you too.

All it takes is finding that one person to believe in you who can help you launch your career. One person. One yes. It’s the difference between aspiring and achieving.

I’ve written before about Hope vs. Faith, and if you are one of those who isn’t committed to believing in yourself, please read it.

Finally, a huge thank you to my new Hendrix family: Travis Peeples, Dr. Rod Miller, Michelle Polacinski, Rane Peerson, Lance St. Laurent, and all of those great students who I had the honor of spending the day with.

I believe in you.

P.S. That means to those of you who are dragging your feet in writing your papers, doing your thesis, and creating your short films for the Red Brick Film Festival, get off your asses and get the job done! You can thank Travis for that message.

Jeanne’s webinar for The Writers Store on Breaking in Outside of Hollywood is available on demand. 

Watch ScriptMag Editor Share Her Advice on Facing Your Writing Fears

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman shares her personal story of facing her fears in order to propel her writing and her career. Click on the image below to watch Jeanne’s advice. In just eight minutes, you might have a whole new perspective.


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31 thoughts on “BALLS OF STEEL: What Makes a Writer Fail?

  1. Leona Heraty

    Hi Jeanne,

    Thank you for your list. I too am very inspired by it. I tend to get distracted by doing busy work, chores, etc., but I know deep down inside I let myself be distracted by life because I’m afraid that what I write will not be good enough, and this keeps me from writing consistently everyday.

    But, you’re correct! Writers write EVERYDAY, whether they feel like it or not. Thank you Jeanne for your column…it is a refreshing breath of cool ocean air and so inspiring. You help me stay focused on my screenwriting goals, and I appreciate your honesty and humor too. 🙂

    I’d like to share a quote with everyone from one of my favorite writers, Agatha Christie, about the importance of getting started, and not putting off writing everyday:

    “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

    ? Agatha Christie

    I’d like to share another quote by Agatha Christie. It dovetails perfectly with your article, Jeanne, and reminds us that life is messy and hard, but we stick to our writing goals (and any other goals) because we love putting pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard) to share what’s in our hearts and souls and if we persist long enough, we will succeed! 🙂

    “I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow; but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.”

    ? Agatha Christie

  2. Basia Alexander

    This is just what I needed to hear today! How inspiring. Good encouragement. What good timing. I recently took the following stand: I am a prolific writer, a popular speaker in my own right, some of my books become successful movies, and that most of my writing is about people living in collaboration with the Beings and Spirit of Nature.

  3. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Perry, I am fine. Trust me. The life I have lived has taught me valuable lessons in survival. There’s very little that can rock me or my resolve. Some Guy is not going to hurt me. In fact, I’m delighted he commented, and I truly believe his comments were not at all intended to be insulting or dismissive. He was merely sharing some tough love and realities about this industry. I have no doubt his intentions were to help, not hurt.

    And remember, Perry, I’m a 3rd degree black belt. 🙂

  4. Perry Hall

    I sense that something is wrong, and hope you will be OK. I know Some Guy is not just some guy. He is a serial discourager, well connected, and I have seen his same spiel on other sites where we dreamers gather. This is the reason I made ridiculous statements in an effort to flush him out. I fear that he has no sense of humor and may try to hurt you. The truth is. He is correct. No writer has a wife who wants to read his script unless she is lying, and most of us would certainly be better off writing a book. I’m starting mine today.

  5. Pingback: Do I Have “Balls of Steel?” « courtney lee tomlinson

  6. Ismail Abdul

    Greetings, Jeanne such an encouraging article you wrote. Especially inspiring in a industry full of gate-keepers and haters, also known as ”readers” or assistants. I have a question for you my pretty lady Jeanne; There have not been many romantic action Body-Switch comedies produced, and I have crafted a Body-Switch screenplay that I put a lot of good ol creative and structured work into. My question is, in your expert opinion, what definitely should be included in a romantic action Body-Switch comedy as opposed to what should not?

  7. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman

    Perry, you prove chivalry is not dead. *curtsy*

    Geoff, I love that your wife enjoys your words, and like Perry, you enjoy sharing them with her. Many spouses not only don’t read the words of their writer mate, but they also resent them pursuing this odds-against-us dream. Kudos to both of your ladies for supporting you.

  8. Geoff Davis

    Hi Perry Hall,

    I am with you … my wife of 42 years is my biggest fan … and guess what, I actually know she would never hurt my feelings with even an ounce of harsh truth … “it could be shorter” …or “you have done better” is as tough as it gets.

    BUT … I LOVE it when she reads my writing and as long as she keeps reading … why the hell would I stop …

    Sometimes it is good to have someone who is always on your side. Helps you to keep trying.

  9. Geoff Davis

    Hi Jeanne … I always read and love your articles … thanks for another one. You continually address the issues that seem to be floating there in the back of my mind and there is alway something there in your writing that offers a solution … so thank you.

    And yes to “Some guy” the decks are probably stacked against you/us and we can try all we like and we probably will fail … so what do you do then … you seem to say “Just give up, you have no chance” … Jeanne is saying “Keep trying, try something different, have another go”.

    I’m with you Jeanne.

  10. Perry Hall

    We write because we write and we would be writing if our audience were fellow cavemen and our scripts were on the walls of the caves. We enter contest for ourselves and could care less if cynics like you see a stitch of our wit. I learned how to write on Jeanne’s Blog and my wife absolutely adores my writing. It’s embarrassing how she flutters anticipating the next page. Also I will give my e-mail address and you will see my name on a major movie in the next two years. You are a PUSSY, Some Guy for not revealing yourself, and probably also a TV weatherman.
    Oh I’m also 66 yeaRS OLD AND CAN WHIP YOUR ASS!

  11. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Amisha, Thanks so much for sharing my words with your readers. I admit, some commenters make the black belt in me want to come karate chopping out, but at the end of the day, what makes our country great is we are all allowed varying opinions. I’d be ignorant to be upset about those that differ from mine. Bring it on. I can handle a little friendly debate. 🙂

    Ben, writing every day is key. But it doesn’t just mean writing pages of a script or novel every day. It can also be a blog post, a journal entry… even a grocery list. Anything that keeps your brain moving. Don’t discount what constitutes “writing time.” Sometimes I do my best “writing” while I’m out for a run. It’s just as important to digest our words as it is to put them on paper. Good luck!

  12. Ben Greene

    Thank you so much for this article Jeanne! I had all this desire and energy to write a Screenplay and somewhere on the journey, I ran into the dreadful “writers’ block”. Now all of a sudden I’ve gotten the energy to write a book and so far, I’ve written 99 pages. But I still want to write the screenplay………I don’t want to fail!!! I was told by the writer of “A Soldier’s Story-Charles Fuller, “the hardest part about writing is you have to make yourself write every day”.
    Thank you again!!!

  13. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Racine, I am indeed an animal lover. As I write this, I have 5 animals surrounding me. Your point is taken. Thank you.

    Geno, Jonathan, MJ, Perry: Thank you. And all great points you make. I appreciate your continued support.

    Some Guy: First, I’m not a fan of hiding behind anonymity. I’d believe you truly felt this way more if you had actually used a real name. Second, I stand by everything I write for this column and for other publications. I am not at all bothered you presented a different viewpoint here. I applaud it, as I’m sure others feel the same way, and look forward to addressing your statement more thoroughly than I can in a comment section. In fact, I think I’ll take your comment and address it more thoroughly in a future Balls of Steel. I hope you visit the site again and continue to share your thoughts. Debate is a good thing, as there is more than one way to view this industry. I assure you, I’ve seen some of what you speak of. A lot in fact. But I still believe in myself and in many of my writer friends to be the ones who break the odds.

  14. Some Guy

    Sorry, folks. Unless you are from a well-connected Ivy League type background, you have basically zero chance of earning a living in Hollywood as a writer, despite whatever talents you’ve been blessed with.

    The publishers of these screenwriting magazines, however good-hearted aned well-meaning, are pushing a myth to make a buck. The film and TV industry could care less about what would be considered “good writing.” It’s all about perception and bright shiny objects– “Some of my good friends say you’re a good writer, therefore you are.”

    Your query letters and scripts are being read by 23-year-old interns, who by the way, also got that job because…. you guessed it… they know the right people… And everyone wants to hook up with (professionally speaking) those who are above them on the industry ladder.

    And if you don’t believe me, ask yourself this. If Hollywood cares so much about good writing, why doesn’t the industry go where the writers are– writers groups, screenwriting contests, colleges (not just the ones in LA and NYC). You would never catch any agent, manager or producer with real credits roaming the halls of Suchandsuch Screenwriting Contest in hopes of finding great writers.

    Good luck….

  15. Perry Hall

    Your, YOU WILL FAIL IF concepts apply also to football. Writing every day tops the list because you get writing muscles and have them to carry you through anything.

  16. Racine Hiet

    “We are placed on this earth to experience life in a way only human beings can. Unlike animals, we laugh, cry, hate, love, fill our hearts with envy, jealousy and anxiety”

    Please, can you make your point without stereotyping and continuing the negative myths about every other nonhuman animal that shares the planet with us. So many of us are trying to build compassion for all sentient beings. If you’ve ever spent time with other living beings, you’d know how false this statement above is. It’s not necessary to decompartmentalize humans and nonhumans, any more than it is to separate humans who are of different colours, cultures, gender, sexual orientations. Thank you for opening your mind and perception, as well as your heart to this issue. Racine Hiet

  17. Jonathan S.

    Great article Jeanne. When I was 21 I wrote a screenplays, which was truly awful, but at the time I thought was a masterpiece that would ignite a brutal bidding war. Of course, the exact opposite of that happened 😛 lol.

    “Failure” is not just a word or a mindset. It’s a way of life. After I got those bad reviews it completely destroyed my confidence in every other aspect of life. Or at least that’s what I thought was happening.

    In reality, I was just obsessing over that one failure and it quickly became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I started seeing myself as the REAL failure, not some poorly written screenplay. I let that one failure overshadow everything else that was positive in my life at the time until I reached the point where I could no longer write.

    I’m going to read your article once a day until it sinks in. Unfortunately, the voice in my head screaming “FAILURE!” is a lot louder than my voice of reason.

  18. Geno Scala

    Cool article, JVB. There is something to be said about immersing oneself in the “Fountain of Youts”, as Joe Pesci would say. I surround myself- electronically, at least, with young, naive, fresh-faced, naive, spirited- did I say naive?- writers and realize that hope, does indeed, springs eternal. Great ten points; will be sharing. Looking forward to tomorrow’s seminar, too.

  19. Patrick Mahon

    Thanks again, Jeanne. Always inspiring.

    Self-belief is a problem I struggle with.

    Difficult at times to separate a sense of self-worth from the (perceived) quality of the work I’m doing.

    I often take comfort from the Samuel Beckett quote: “Try again, fail again, fail better…”

    I’m a work in progress.

    Thanks for the support.

  20. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Gabriel, I’m in agreement regarding Twitter and blogs. We not only need one person to be our champion, but we also need a community of support. Raising a writer truly takes a village!

    Clive, you’re writing too fast for your editor! haha

    Princess, thank you, my dear friend. Your support means the world to me.

  21. Clive Davies-Frayne

    I’ll add that article suggestion to the list.
    I want to get through this series on working with alt-cinema producers first. So much I want to write on that subject. In fact I was working on one of the articles today, when I saw your link. 😉

  22. Gabriel Novo

    Great article and I love your list. Having a group of fellow creatives to bounce ideas off of is an invaluable resource. It’s been one of the hardest things for me to build because of my constant travels. If it weren’t for twitter and blogs I’d be completely solo.

    I especially like your mention of reputation. People forget that certain industries can be very small when it comes to those who matter. If you show your ass in a spectacular way it can haunt you for years or even be a career limiting move. Case in point, I’m surprised Tony Kaye is still making movies.

    I hope the nuggets of inspiration you picked up from this lecture stay with you for a long time. It sounds like it was an amazing experience.

  23. Clive Davies-Frayne

    Great article. You’re really rather good at this! x

    This is an interesting time to be a writer, simply because we can reach out to each other in ways that weren’t possible in the past, unless you moved to Paris, lived in a garret and shared your absinthe with a rag-tag mob of dubious types and bohemians.

    Now we have twitter and facebook… harder to make a post-modern musical about.

    There are huge upsides to this level of connection and huge downsides as well. I think the trick is getting a balance between reaching out and hunkering down. I still think there’s a lot to be said for locking myself away from the world and writing without distraction or influence.

    Anyway, that’s a different discussion. Well done, another inspiring piece.