A Hollywood Screenwriter

One of the very best things I ever received in the mail was issue 23 of n+1 Magazine.

When I opened the magazine and read the table of contents, I saw under Kristin Dombek’s Advice From The Help Desk an article titled: A Hollywood Screenwriter. Intrigued that one of my favorite contributors had written something about the entertainment industry, I turned to page 91 and began reading a letter to Kristin asking for advice. I didn’t immediately recognize the letter as my own, just an uncanny sense the words wer familiar…

“When I started reading the first installment of the Help Desk, I assumed its title and contents were ironic. Halfway through, I realized that much of what you wrote was breathtakingly sincere. By the end, I found that almost every sentence could be read as either ironic or sincere, in the same way an optical illusion can be seen as a young woman or an old hag, but not as both at once. Either way, you wrote so deeply and extensively about each question, I found myself wanting to ask for your help, perhaps just to have you think so attentively about me, too.”

“However, as I thought about a question to ask you, I felt anxious. I began to worry that my problem would seem neither cleverly ironic nor lyrically sincere. What if you brushed off my question with a dismissive remark? What if, because you have so many questions sent to you, I got no response at all? It was this fear of your indifference and my inconsequence that helped me finally settle on the right question.”

“I have shared writing credit on several relatively high-budget movies, all of which were critical and box-office failures. I’ve realized, in midlife, that despite earnest dedication to my craft, I am ashamed of the work I’ve been involved in. None of it represents what I value artistically or politically. None of it expresses anything I think or feel. Worse than that, I fear that I’ve spent most of my fifteen-year career empowering shallow and immoral people to create cruel and witless films.”

“I pine for the same wry but authentic connection you make with the people who ask for your help, and I envy your satisfaction (as I imagine it) in moving your readers the way I was moved while reading the Help Desk.”

“How, as an artist, do I shed my failures and begin again?

Sincerely, A Hollywood Screenwriter”

I had written that letter during a spell of panicked insomnia months earlier, sent it to the magazine, and promptly forgot about it.

Kristin Dombek answered my question in the form of a fifteen-page essay, one that I have read and reread at least a dozen times over the last three years. Recently, it has taken on special meaning.

She writes about a lot of things, about the novella Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanial West, about the difficulty of giving advice to depressed friends, about cruel optimism and “the place where friendship and love become acts of invention, even of art.” For me, the essay embodies an idea that inspired Undergrids, that in an age of overwhelming content, a single reader paying careful attention is more meaningful than a million views.

Kristin’s article helped me navigate that particular pit of depression, and it continues to inspire me.

You can read it here:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.