Unless you’ve worked on the set of the 1990’s hit ABC television series NYPD Blue (or are obsessed with Fox’s Prison Break or A&E’s Breakout Kings), odds are you’re not familiar with Matt Olmstead.
In 1988, Matt Olmstead graduated from California State University, Chico, a school that, regrettably, is more known for its partying than its academics. I ought to know, having attended the university a decade later.
In 2001, when I was a junior, majoring in political science and aspiring to become a lawyer, Chico State honored Olmstead with the Distinguished Alumnus Award for his career as an accomplished screenwriter in Hollywood. He’s best known for his work on (you guessed it!) NYPD Blue.
Given Olmstead’s unique job, most universities also would have honored him. But at Chico, where professors often characterize the school as a training center for teachers and mid-level managers, Olmstead was a diamond in the rough. It was rare for Chico State to have a graduate who succeeded in Hollywood, even if it was behind the camera.
One day, while I was standing in the hallway with classmates, waiting for my professor to arrive, I noticed a flyer on the bulletin board. Hosted by the English Department, it was for a free event that evening featuring Olmstead.
Having been a NYPD Blue fan, I took the flyer from the board and planned on attending. Expecting it to be poorly attended—it was tough to compete against “buck night” at the bars—I was shocked there was not an empty seat. People were either standing in the back or sitting on the carpet at the front of the room. I opted for the floor.
What made this guest lecture different than others in in the past?
Matt Olmstead was not just another high-priced speaker from the entertainment industry. Chico State had sponsored plenty of those lecturers (e.g., writer Maya Angelou, musician Henry Rollins, and former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres). In the doting eyes of this audience, he was one of us!
No podium or lectern, Olmstead kept it informal. His premise was to focus on how he got to where he did and, conversely, why being a writer was not as glamorous as one might envision, even in Hollywood.
The number one mistake most aspiring writers make, he pointed out, was wasting a huge amount of time. Olmstead spent his first months in Los Angeles, for example, wearing black turtlenecks and smoking cigarettes all day at a street café while sharing ideas with fellow writers. Once he figured out he was going nowhere, he quit smoking and put away the turtlenecks. Over the next few years, while working odd jobs to help pay his rent, Olmstead made time to hone his craft. Like all writers, rewriting was what he spent the majority of his time doing.
Though he cloistered himself in his apartment, away from the beautiful beaches and the Sunset Strip, there were hardly any guarantees Olmstead was going to make a living as a full-time writer. Through hard work, cultivating relationships within the industry, and a little bit of luck, he persevered.
I had never thought of writing as a career for myself, but after that evening, the seed had been planted. I still focused on law (although that would eventually go by the wayside), but writing always remained within reach—I kept a journal, crafted short stories, and even penned a couple of unfinished screenplays.
Eventually, I found my niche, biography, and my subject, Alex Haley.
That’s my story of becoming a writer ….What’s yours?