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This is my old blog, which I no longer update. Feel free to browse around old posts and such, but the much more recent version of my ramblings are to be found at MarilynAnneCampbell.com

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A Bit Of Background

I thought long and hard today about quitting my job. On the one hand, it's everything I always said I wanted in a day job - part-time, a fifteen minute walk from my house, pays enough to make ends meet but leaves me time to write, and most importantly it leaves my brain free to ponder said writing. But that's the problem. It leaves my brain free because it's boring as all hell.

I was feeling grumpy and unhappy and was missing the feeling of actually doing something with my work days, when I suddenly remembered a time that I saw a very happy man engaged in very crappy work.

Shortly after graduating university I spent some time on film sets as an extra (or "background performer" as some people apparently preferred to be called). I had to go to very strange places at very odd hours in my least favourite clothes, and sit around on hard metal folding chairs in rooms that were too hot or too cold or too small or simply cavernous, and snack on cookies, coffee, bread and peanut butter while waiting for someone to ask me to do something. It was usually something like walking from one side of a street to the other. Or pretending to take someone's order at a vegan restaurant. Or, as on one landmark occasion, looking surprised when a stuntman smashed through the table in front of me. The job wasn't great, but it was ridiculously easy because, sadly, the expectations placed on us were very, very low.

But far worse off than any Background Performer in the history of a film, is the person charged with herding the Background Performers. One unlucky Assistant Director faced a day of complaints (about the chairs, the room, the temperature, the food, the waiting) from a group of people which inevitably contained at least one person who didn't understand that "quiet on the set" didn't mean "of course you can keep talking - just whisper!" and a select few who thought their job was to sign in, sneak out to run errands, and return in time to sign out, so the poor A.D. would always be a few bodies short. Throw in the occasional director who assumed background performers were mind readers and/or trained dogs, or a wardrobe person who hadn't kept track of what they'd given to whom, and suddenly the A.D. was getting flack from every which way.

Most of the A.D.s I encountered still managed to be personable, although I held nothing against the ones who had broken down to cranky. Then came my day on the set of Sounder. It was my first period piece, so having an actual costume was fun. But still my job for the day was to walk across a road (carrying a package! Huzzah!) so things were shaping up to be pretty hum-drum as we milled about in the large holding room.

Suddenly our A.D. climbed up on a chair and, in so doing, commanded attention (usually they just yelled). He introduced himself (also surprisingly rare) then did something I'd never seen done before and never saw again - he told the background performers what was happening. First he summarized the film's plot and told us who was playing who. Then he told us where the day's scene fit in the grand scheme of the story. He had done all of this in the light-hearted tone of a guy telling a story at a party. Finally, referring to the "sides" that tend to float around on set and include all the script pages that will be used that day, this jovial A.D. proceeded to read the scenes to us, complete with distinct character voices.

Really, it was a small thing. But it set the tone for the day and, four years later, is one of my most distinct memories from doing background work. I'm sure that A.D. didn't want to make a career of herding extras, and I certainly hope he's gone on to do whatever it was that day was supposed to be a stepping-stone towards.

So, what was my hokey conclusion? I've decided I can't quit my day job yet because my writing career is still in a wide-shot, and I need to fill in the space with a bit of mundane business. The focus will come eventually, but in the meantime I'll keep my mind on the big picture, and try to have some fun while I do.


  1. Anonymous1:34 pm

    Wow, interesting stuff about being a background performer! I've sometimes wondered what it would be like to be an "extra" in a film.

    Best of luck with your writing!

  2. Hi, Marilyn!

    I have a husband who's happy for me to stay home and write (I worked full-time while he went back to school to get another degree, so in his eyes it's my turn to do what I want...woo hoo!), but at the same time certain student loans are looming over my shoulder, and I keep thinking, Uhm, I should at least get a part-time job to help pay off these debts!

    But then I get really involved in my research and writing (and now I've added the bloody play!), and I remember all too well what it was like to work in a boring day job, and I resolve to myself that I'll just to write so well that I'll be offered a million-dollar-advance, and then we can pay all those debts off!

    Hang in there! Have you seen the book "Aunt Bessie's How to Survive A Day Job While Pursuing the Creative Life," by Joel Eisenberg? It's not worth buying (poorly edited), but if you can borrow a copy or buy one dirt-cheap, it does have some inspiring stories and insights into the two worlds most artists (and I include writers in that category) inhabit.


  3. It's a tough choice, but it takes time for writing to pay the bills and it's often good to have the extra stimulation that comes from doing a variety of activities as it "feeds" the writing.

    Good luck

  4. Hey everyone, thanks for visiting and posting your thoughts!

    thomma lyn, it can be great fun to be on the film sets too, although I didn't get into that too much. You certainly meet a wide variety of people.

    MRA, I haven't even heard of Eisenberg's book, but I'll be sure to keep an eye out for it (in the library or the bargain bins). That's wonderful that your husband supports you in the decision to commit totally to your writing. My boyfriend is the same way in spirit, but he's an actor so it's a case of both of us needing to hang onto the part time jobs for at least awhile longer.

    Indeed talia, it is good to have something to do outside the house to feed the writing. It's also handy to have the money to feed the body while it's writing. :)

    Cheers all!