Mad Men Series Creator Matthew Weiner, 50, Gives Solid Life Advice
"Artists frequently hide the steps that lead to their masterpieces. They want their work and their career to be shrouded in the mystery that it all came out at once. It’s called hiding the brushstrokes, and those who do it are doing a disservice to people who admire their work and seek to emulate them. If you don’t get to see the notes, the rewrites, and the steps, it’s easy to look at a finished product and be under the illusion that it just came pouring out of someone’s head like that. People who are young, or still struggling, can get easily discouraged, because they can’t do it like they thought it was done. An artwork is a finished product, and it should be, but I always swore to myself that I would not hide my brushstrokes.
While being battered always hurts, an important survival mechanism I’ve acquired over the years is to both thrive on rejection and hold on to compliments. Rejection enrages me, but that 'I’ll show you!' feeling is an extremely powerful motivator. I’m at a point now where I’m afraid that if I lose it I’ll stop working. On the flip side, there’s nothing like a meaningful compliment from someone you respect. In my youth I was a miserable student and rarely did my homework. My fourth grade teacher once pulled me aside and let me have it. She said, 'Talking to you is like talking down the drain; you don’t hear anything. You think you are going to make it through the rest of your life because you are charming. You think you don’t have to do all the work—but you do.' I remember looking up at her after this tirade and saying, 'You think I’m charming?'
It was my first paying job in show business and I was 30.
A friend of mine from college had a pilot in the works that needed punch-up. Punch-up is a bunch of comedy writers sitting around the room making a script funnier. I didn’t even know there was such a job, but I got to drive onto the Warner Bros. lot and sit in this room with all these professional writers. It turned out that I was pretty good at it. Everything I said was included in the script, and that felt great. The showrunner came up to me afterwards and offered me $600 if I could stay through the end of the pilot. I was like, 'Oh, my God. Yes. I’ll be here.' I would’ve done it for free just to be able to drive onto the lot again. That show quickly went off the air, but word had gotten out that I was funny. Another showrunner took me to lunch and hired me for his show. One job leads to another, but you have to start somewhere. It was my first paying job in show business and I was 30.
I sent it off to my agent and pitched it to everyone I could. I literally carried it in my bag wherever I went in case I ran into someone who might be useful. I wasn’t able to get meetings at the big networks, but I pitched it to small production companies. From them, I heard things like, 'You don’t know what you’re doing.' 'Are you aware of how uncommercial this is?' 'Are you pulling our leg?' But, honestly, the most stinging responses I heard were along the lines of, 'This is one of the most beautiful, well-executed, exciting things I’ve ever read, but I’m afraid that we just don’t do this kind of show.' Those comments made me feel as if I were alone in the universe.
But then along came AMC. They were trying to make a splash and wanted to do something new. They were also interested in making a show they wanted to watch, which is really the secret of success in everything artistic. They basically said, 'We love this thing and want to do it.' I was so excited—but at that time no one thought AMC was, in showbiz terms, a 'somebody.' Everybody felt sorry for me. I can’t even tell you the pity I got. It was as if I were taking my project and screening it in someone’s basement. No one even knew that channel. But AMC gave me complete creative control and all I remember thinking was, I’m going to live my dream.
It took seven years from the time I wrote Mad Men until it finally got on the screen. I lived every day with that script as if it were going to happen tomorrow. That’s the faith you have to have.
Hollywood is tough, but I do believe that if you are truly talented, get your material out there, put up with the rejection, and don’t set a time limit for yourself, someone will notice you.
The most defeatist thing I hear is, 'I’m going to give it a couple of years.' You can’t set a clock for yourself. If you do, you are not a writer. You should want it so badly that you don’t have a choice. You have to commit for the long haul. There’s no shame in being a starving artist. Get a day job, but don’t get too good at it. It will take you away from your writing.
The greatest regret I have is that, early in my career, I showed myself such cruelty for not having accomplished anything significant. I spent so much time trying to write, but was paralyzed by how behind I felt. Many years later I realized that if I had written only a couple of pages a day, I would’ve written 500 pages at the end of a year (and that’s not even working weekends). Any contribution you make on a daily basis is fantastic. I still happen to write almost everything at once, but I now cut myself slack on all of the thinking and procrastination time I use. I know that it’s all part of my creative process." - Matthew Weiner via Fast Company