As a banking consultant and former federal regulator, Jo Ann S. Barefoot has rubbed elbows with the elite in her industry, including Paul A. Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman.
But whatever joy she has found by reaching the pinnacle of the business world (she was once the Treasury Department’s deputy comptroller of the currency) cannot compare with the thrills she is now finding as an aspiring novelist.
“As a business person, I can’t describe the exhilaration of turning to this creative process,” said Ms. Barefoot, 56, whose first novel is a literary thriller with a character she hinted may have been modeled after Mr. Volcker. “I’ve always loved my work, but writing for me is ecstatic. It’s almost a forbidden pleasure.”
Despite the obvious difficulties of succeeding in a writing career, many people young and old still yearn to be novelists, writers of screenplays and television scripts, and magazine journalists. Writing professors, publishers and other experts cannot quantify the trend but say they have seen an increase in the numbers of people of all ages and from all walks of life who want to write the great American novel or, increasingly, the great American screenplay.
Through the years, Lewis Burke Frumkes, director of the writing center at the Division of Continuing Education at Marymount Manhattan College, has mentored a diverse group of students, ranging from a 93-year-old retired dentist to a dominatrix working on a book called “Whiplash.” The center’s annual writers’ conference attracts its share of middle-aged doctors and lawyers hoping that meeting Joyce Carol Oates or Lewis Lapham will awaken their inner author.
There’s no shortage of writing workshops nationwide; ShawGuides, a publisher of guides to creative career programs, lists 270 coming workshops and conferences in the United States in the next year.
But Mr. Frumkes, the author of seven books, said that anyone embarking on a writing career must possess three things to succeed: talent, perseverance and marketing savvy. And of course more than a little bit of luck. The writing guru promises that the feeling of success is incomparable.
“When you publish your first piece it will do more for your self-image than 20 years on a psychiatrist’s couch,” Mr. Frumkes said. “I’m not exhorting people to give up everything to pursue their dream. Don’t bet the farm on your first effort. Many people are attracted to writing as an ego thing. By writing you get attention. It’s like trying to buy a piece of immortality.”
Ms. Barefoot, the banking consultant and would-be novelist from Westerville, Ohio, is not ready to give up her day job just yet. But after six years of labor, Ms. Barefoot’s novel, called “Mayfly,” is being reviewed for publication by a New York literary agent she met at the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference in New Mexico. The novel integrates the disparate worlds of fly-fishing and international banking.
While Ms. Barefoot hopes to write a great novel someday (and would not mind seeing it adapted for the screen), Alyson Casey, 25, wants a career writing movies that “are worth $10 a ticket.” Ms. Casey, an ambitious Fordham University graduate and former New Line Cinema marketing assistant, says she believes that if she is successful she will make big money, be able to raise a family at home and “have a life beyond a desk and a BlackBerry.”
Ms. Casey, a Queens native, is enrolled in a five-month, $800 online screenwriting class (Scriptsforsale.com) and is writing a first draft of a political satire tentatively titled “President Siddhartha.”
She’ll have a lot of competition. The Screenwriters Guild registers 55,000 to 60,000 scripts a year, said a union spokesman — up from 40,000 several years ago. Erik Bauer, publisher of Creative Screenwriting magazine and director of the annual Screenwriting Expo in Los Angeles, said screenplay writers who sell their work to a major studio could earn $150,000 to $300,000 a year. Screenwriters whose films get produced can make high six-figure salaries and occasionally more. The only thing standing between Ms. Casey and her dream are thousands and thousands of others who want exactly the same thing.
“Everyone who is an assistant or coordinator at New Line wants to write a screenplay,” she observed. “The temp wants to write a screenplay, the person sitting behind me. The guy who had my position before me wants to write.”
Peter Mehlman, former executive producer of “Seinfeld” and a television and film writer, said it was not easy advising aspiring writers, because there was no single path to success. Those looking for Hollywood glamour, he said, might want to look elsewhere.
“ ‘Seinfeld’ was a pretty heady place to be writing,” he acknowledged. “But I don’t think there’s anything lower on the totem pole than writing a movie. Ninety-five percent of the people look at the screenwriter as a pain in the neck.”
While blogs, self-publishing and the Internet have opened up writing to more people than ever before, getting a novel published by a major imprint is a Herculean task.
While fiction is generally less lucrative than screenwriting, a novelist can receive an advance of anywhere from $3,000 to $300,000 and occasionally more, according to Elise Proulx, a San Francisco literary agent for the Frederick Hill/Bonnie Nadell agency.
“Publishers are looking for high-caliber writing when it comes to commercial fiction, more expertise when it comes to nonfiction and more plot when it comes to literary fiction,” she said. “I still get a lot of ‘This is the next Tom Clancy’ pitches — that stuff has to be really stellar to work without seeming tired.”
Aspiring playwrights face similar obstacles, perhaps even more imposing. Michael Winter, 38, has had six of his plays produced since 2002 but still can’t find an agent. Most agents have advised him to give up theater and try writing screenplays. Mr. Winter, a New Jersey native, said his work was influenced by comedians like Abbott and Costello and the Marx Brothers. “My work is like suppressed slapstick,” he said. “My characters are hitting each other verbally.”
Although his plays haven’t earned him much money to date, he’s still hoping to get his work produced in New York. He has some fantasies but no illusions about leaving his well-paying sales job.
Mr. Frumkes, of Marymount, has found that it is important to encourage the talented to pursue their dreams, despite rejection.
“Some people are looking at me to wave my hand and make them talented,” he said. “I can’t confer immortality on someone with no talent. Good teachers can improve your lot, teach skills and give advice. You can help shape what someone has and give them a better chance of getting where they want to go.”