Book Review: The Writers: A History of American Screenwriters and Their Guild by Miranda J. Banks

After my six-week stint at Clarion West science fiction writing workshop in 1973, my epic hitchhiking journey down the West Coast, through Mexico and into Guatemala, my return to Seattle, and my abortive attempt to get normal jobs, I got it into my head to move down to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter. I packed up my typewriter and transferred it to an apartment in the San Fernando Valley where I hoped to be able to write gripping drama and win fame and fortune. Alas, life does not always follow the same scenarios as our dreams. I wasn’t ready to write yet. I didn’t know what I wanted to say. I had a few friends down there, but most of the time I was so damned lonely it almost paralyzed me. I smoked dope, took acid once or twice, and wrote one teleplay synopsis in collaboration with a Clarion buddy that got shopped around a bit and then cast aside. Seeing the futility of my endeavors, I followed the urgings prompted by Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, Jack London, and others, and hit the road in search of adventures and my literary voice. That is a summary of my brief attempt to knock at Hollywood’s golden doors.

There are, of course, people who make careers out of writing for film and television. This book is not about how they write their stories or how they get started. Instead, it tells about their attempts to unionize and wrest appreciation and suitable payment from the producers and studios. Without writers, everyone else in Tinsel Town would be sitting around twiddling their thumbs. (I was going to use another expression but decided to keep this family-friendly.) Writers fuel the machine. Writers provide the stories that the rest of the apparatus molds and shapes and puts into pictures and sound. But writers, traditionally, have been given short shrift in favor of directors, producers, and anyone else with the money and clout to take center stage.

The stories of the birth and growing pains of Writers Guild of America West and East is fascinating, although it may not appeal to film lovers as much as biographies of their favorite celebrities. As I mentioned, writers are unsung and unappreciated heroes. The value of this book is in its insight into the industry from a different perspective, from those who work in it behind the scenes. Anyone who contemplates a career as a writer of film or television should read this book. It reminds us that not all the streets are paved with gold and that most of the players who make visual entertainment media what it is have to work hard to achieve any measure of success, much less recognition.

I enjoyed this book immensely, but then, I already knew a lot of the background from other books, articles, and essays I’ve read over the years. It introduces a lot of writers, a lot of history, and a lot of struggles and strikes that the guild membership endured on the road to what it has become now, which is still a work in progress. If you have any ambitions at all to become a writer of stories for the silver screen, read this book.

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