Advice to Writers from the creator of Mad Men

If you’re a struggling writer attempting to get your first project off the ground, Matthew Weiner has some reassuring life advice
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Christina Hendricks and Matthew Weiner on the set of AMC’s Mad Men

I remember studying Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” in high school. According to Coleridge, upon waking from a deep, opium-induced reverie, he recalled a vision and immediately wrote the 54 famous lines. But when we started doing the poetic analysis, it became clear that there was no way this poem came out all at once. It has this amazing structure. We learned from letters and notes that had been discovered that it was likely Coleridge had not only worked on “Kubla Khan” for several months, but that he also sent it to friends for feedback.

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.

“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.

Writers were revered in my home and I wanted to be one since I was a kid, but when I went to college, I could not get into a writing class. I went to Wesleyan, a very small liberal arts school. The classes had only 12 to 15 people, and you had to submit writing samples to get in. Mine, apparently, were just not good enough. I was rejected from every writing class. I ended up convincing an English teacher to do a one-on-one independent poetry study with me. When I finished my thesis, I was extremely proud and wanted others to see it. I gave it to a humanities professor and he invited me to his house to read the work out loud. After the first poem, he told me to get out a pen and take notes. He began, “The infantile use of . . . The puerile . . . The childish use of . . . The cliché awkwardness . . . ” It was one humiliating cruelty after the next. And I had to write these insults down myself. I literally went through hours of this, poem after poem. He finally leaned over to me and said, “I think you know that you are not a poet.” I said, “I was not aware of that.”

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The cast of AMC’s Mad Men, created by Matthew Weiner

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?”

After college, I attended film school at the University of Southern California, where I finally started doing some narrative writing. There were contests for the films that the school would actually make, and my material was never selected. I finally said, “I am going to make a documentary,” and made one about the paparazzi. It stood out, and I became known for my editing skills and sense of humor. Upon graduation, I set up meetings everywhere in the hopes of getting a job. In three months I got nothing. I couldn’t even get a meeting with an agent.

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Jon Hamm as Don Draper in AMC’s Mad Men

So for the next three years I stayed home and wrote spec scripts. My friends had day jobs, but I didn’t. My wife, Linda, worked hard as an architect and supported us. I attempted to shop my material around, but nothing sold. I got very bitter, seeing people I didn’t think deserved it succeed. It was a dark time. Show business looked so impenetrable that I eventually stopped writing. I began watching TV all day and lying about it. My mother would call me to drive my brother-in-law to the airport. That’s the kind of crap I was doing instead of being a writer. I felt like the most useless, worthless person in the world.

Then one day I saw the low-budget movie Clerks. It inspired me to get off my ass and make my own independent film: a small, quirky comedy where I played myself—a failing screenwriter. I used my wife, my apartment, my car—basically everything I could to finish the film. Making that movie was a transformational experience. It had trouble getting into festivals and never sold, but I had set out to do something and had gotten it done. [Read More at Fast Company]


Excerpted from Getting There: A Book of Mentors, by Gillian Zoe Segal. Published by Abrams Image. © 2015 Gillian Zoe Segal.

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