Won a Gold REMI for screenwriting. Awards were given at the banquet Saturday night, but I didn’t think to check until today. It feels kinda nice.
Diggin' Story, Lovin' Language, Craving Fresh Thought
In thinking about this blog post, I came up with a grocery shopping list of why I’m leaving behind the game of writing prose and moving on to something else. The more I thought about it, the more I realized every reason was a story I told myself in hopes of making sense of a preference.
Just a preference. Nothing more.
As I waited for the new direction to take shape, I dawdled around with an online class about Human Irrational Thinking, thinking it would be something like one of the tens of books written for the general public. Not even close. The class was intense, academic, an overload of dense reading, and very Duke University. Not what I expected but still fun, and one of the first lectures validated my thoughts. We’re irrational by nature, and everything we think we know about what we do are stories we tell ourselves in hopes of making sense of our irrational nature. This seems to be particularly true in interpreting scientific data. Bummer, huh.
So off I go to the world of scriptwriting, leaving behind prose, and doing so just because.
This blog will stay and be the same, only different (a standard line in Hollywood).
As much as I’ve struggled with every single blog post I’ve made here and elsewhere, and as much as I’ve dreaded the thought of digging up something to blog about, I can’t wait to let her rip about what I see in films and TV. The depth of character, the insights into humanity, the power of storytelling, and magic of collaboration have started a fire in my head I’m anxious to share. But I’ll be doing that sharing in the form of questions rather than dictates. In the screenwriting workshops I’ve been busy taking, rather than blogging, the thing that’s struck me most is how projects are workshopped through questioning rather than pedantry. I like that style and I’ll stick with it.
Having said there’s nothing rational about this change, or human thinking, there are some inescapable facts. In making this change I’ve briefly considered the facts, as best I can understand them, and they are:
Every job is like a penny in that it has two sides. One side is shiny, the other is a mess. My counsel to the hundreds of my husband’s students dealing with the uncertainties of senior year and the transition into whatever is waiting for them is to take a hard look at the ugly side of their choices and decide which kind of ugly they can handle. What are the pitfalls of failure that come with every choice, and which of those failures bother them least?
It’s my turn in taking my own counsel. The downside of failing in this new world of prose writing and publishing would be devastating. I can’t explain why it would be devastating, especially since the rewards are so slender in comparison to other professions. I don’t feel the same about scriptwriting. If I try and try and try and fail, I’ll still feel great about having given it a shot. Talk about irrational. I don’t know, I could be dealing with burn out from all the happy posters about never giving up writers pass around. I don’t care. I’m willing to take the risk.
Now I’ve got to explain how this blog will remain the same only different.
I believe for writers to stay competitive, they’ll (we’ll?) need to come up to the bar set by visual storytelling. We’ll have to take big risks and reach for the impossible. Most of what I can currently see in visual storytelling (I’m banking on my perceptual abilities improving with increased exposure) will apply to all forms of storytelling. In short, I’ll continue to yammer on.
What will change is maintaining a second blog where I can dump strictly prose storytelling, triggered by explicating a film, TV episode, or principle of visual storytelling. I’ve got a grandfather in my lineage who hopped the boat for America from Ireland, and if the Human Genome Project is correct and every move of every ancestor is encoded in our DNA, I’m screwed by the gift of gab. I will always like telling stories without visual aids as a hobby. I have no intention of backing down on becoming a better at telling those stories. I don’t want to make a living out of it, nor do I need an audience. It is, once again, a preference, and I want to do it the best I can. That’s how this blog will remain the same only different (there are multiple levels of meaning in that sentence – take whichever one appeals to you).
I’m also moving this over to self-hosting, and that could take some time. After six months, my new smart phone bests me every single time. I was born in the wrong century.
And that, as they say, is that. I’m done with digging for the heart of prose and passing along whatever I find. We have a lot of writers right now who love blogging about the writing process, and it shows in their blogging and the books they write. Dig for the ones who trip your trigger.
But for this blog about writing and blogging, it’s a wrap.
For those in love with visual storytelling and digging it against their better judgment, I’ll see you when I get back from hiatus in Houston. I going to a festival there for six days of hanging with indie filmmakers.
Until I return with photos and a clue on the new blog….
Was there a moment when you knew that fantasy was the stuff of unformed childish thinking, unaware of the world as it is? Did you let go of that fantasy for the sake of something more realistic, more mature to match your great big kid self in his or her high single digits years and serious about becoming a grown-up? I did.
As adults we’re taught to never let go of our dreams, to chase them if they’re slipping through our grasp We’re told in cheerful posters with uplifting messages that our dreams, our passions, are the stuff of a great good life. We’ll never regret anything as much as letting go of our dreams.
I think most of those adventures and destinations we hold as our deepest dreams are the second dreams we adopt. Maybe the third or fourth as we mature into the double digit years and become ever more aware of limits imposed on us by reality. There is no stronger drive in the human animal than autonomy and creating something of ourselves, by ourselves, and for the naked pleasure of knowing we are our own creation. We do whatever it takes to reach that end.
You might think this is balderdash, but go back to when you were tiny, see yourself alone and acting out who you were going to be. Were you wearing a magic cape or have your mother’s dining room centerpiece on your head because it looked like the crown of a princess?
Did you have the finial of your four poster bed in your hand as you belted out every song Shirley Temple ever sang? Did you dance every dance she ever danced with your hair a frizzy mess because you demanded your grandmother set your hair with bobby pins in hopes of waking up with ringlets? I did. I was gonna be Shirley Temple, re-make every movie she ever made and star in them all. It was Shirley Temple or bust.
There was no heartbreak the day I stop mid-song, took a good long look at my second-grade self in the mirror, and knew the dream was over. No longer was I a cute little pre-schooler, and get a clue kid, I never had dimples, save for that annoying one on my chin that blew the entire illusion. Goodbye, Shirley, it was nice knowing you. Time to move along like a good kid.
Putting away childhood fantasies is easy. It’s part of growing up we all accept. Oprah Winfrey put hers away. She grew up an abused child who found comfort in reading. Books were her companions and her comfort. She read obsessively, and she “got” the bigger stories in the small books. You’d think someone with that kind of early addiction to books would dream of being a writer. Not Oprah. She wanted to be Barbara Walters. She chased that dream into broadcast journalism, eventually settling for becoming the richest, most powerful woman of the 20th Century. Poor girl. Poor little quitter.
But wait a minute. Who was it that landed the interview of the 21st Century with Lance Armstrong? Oprah Winfrey. For three hours, longer than any interview Barbara Walters ever achieved, Oprah grilled him directly and without mercy, just as Barbara Walters would have done, if she’d been able to land the interview, and if she’d had the stamina to prepare then endure such bold questioning. Poor little girl Oprah. Poor little quitter. When Armstrong was ready to come clean with himself and the public, he picked on Oprah as the one to whom he’d bear his shame and deceit (to the best of his ability).
I wondered how many others watched that interview focused on Oprah and the realization of her childhood dream as I did. How many were left saying, “What? Did Armstrong say something? Was it important?” as I did because they were cheering and crying through the realization of an unreachable childhood dream. A dream that slept through all those years of fame and fortune.
That was hot stuff, but probably something I saw because I wanted to see it. Nobody else seemed to be talking about it. Armstrong was the center of attention.
But then I had an experience a few weeks ago that whipped me back to Oprah’s interview and the importance of irrational, unrealizable childhood dreams. I was working with a development professional in my field and listening to her summarize my project in terms I’d never realized before. The more she talked about the strong parts of my work (after ripping apart the portions that weren’t working), a fog dropped over me, muffling her voice and obscuring all signs of direction. It was the surreal fog of awakening inside a dream set loose from a long buried treasure chest.
I had written a story exactly like a Shirley Temple movie. I thought I’d written about the love of a father and the healing power of paternal love, but I was wrong. At no time during the writing process was I ever aware I’d written what the coach was telling me I’d written. That project is doing fairly well at the moment, as did another project very much like it I’d written years earlier. That other story was about a little boy and his father, but as I sat in my fog listened to the distorted sounds of my thoughts in the mist, I realized it was just another Shirley Temple story done in drag.
Do we ever let go of irrational childhood fantasies? How much do they drive our work as creatives? Picasso once said at the age of eight he could draw like Raphael, but it took him a lifetime to see as a child. In our modern culture we spend big bucks digging for our authentic selves and uncovering our purpose and passions. The Romans, ever practical, made it easy. Their belief was our purpose was to be found in what we liked. Our likes as children were the voice of our daemon, that ethereal being sent by the gods to shape our destiny and stay with us until we die.
Could it be that simple? What we like as children is our destiny? Could it be that easy? Do we block our ability to resonate with others because we’ve blocked the resonance of our own irrational, uninformed, ill-conceived mysteries of childhood? We do speak of our inner child, but only in terms of how damaged they are and in need of healing. What about the perfect little child inside of us that dreams without boundaries?
Look around at the explosion within indie publishing. What dominates the explosion? Romance (ah, Prince Charming!), YA paranormal (I’m a magical princess with dragons asleep at my feet), SiFi creations (look at me! I can fly!), horror stories (tell me that scary story again!). Did you clean out kitchen cabinets of pots and pans and make mud pies all day long (bet you write a food and craft blog now), or play soldier (bet you’re in a corporate job these days)?
In real life I cuss like a sailor and walk like a honkey-tonk woman. I write with a clenched fist and eyes focused to the daggered tip of an editor’s red pencil. Every. Word. Is. Calculated. Every sentence is censored by craft. I’m never satisfied with what I’ve written. I’ve been to university, dontcha know, and learned all the tools of my trade, but I always seem to drop them. This past year I’ve written nearly a million words, but none of them caught fire until that sneaky little girl caught up with me, whispering the lyrics of Good Ship Lollipop in my dream-deaf ear.
Maybe we could all benefit from going back to the shapeless days of our childhoods and observing the perfect creations we once were. Watch the games we played before knowledge of games with rules took over. What games did you play when there was nobody to play with and you were the boss of you? What childish fantasies did you have of magic and pies made out of mud, or saving the world from the bad guys? Watch you in the rear view mirror and remember. Can you feel that little twerp tugging at your now?
You’ve got nothing to lose. You’re a grown-up. You know the patterns and problems of communication. You can bring that perfect wild child that is the soul of you back to the present.
You can sit together and tell each other silly stories, and your laughter will blast every roadblock in your path. That child can barely form letters of the alphabet with her un-trained hand, but that’s what grown-ups are for.
We craft our perfect selves and tell stories of our silliest dreams with form, style, purpose, value, and a voice as irresistible as a child’s tickled belly laugh, sailing the seas of imagination on the Good Ship Lollipop.
I’m a weather wimp. Growing up in sunny California, then spending most of my adult life in the heat of Nevada, I whimper like a pup when the seasons change and the cold settles in. This week I decided to butch up this former beach bunny and commit to my morning hikes, regardless of the temperature (which I check obsessively on my phone). I like to keep promises I make to myself. If I can’t keep those promises, how can I keep the promise I make to readers?
This is where I and the dogs go on weekdays, now that I’m no longer a wimp.
This year the city has added paved walking paths and hacked a trail through the woods around the lake. It looks fairly tame, but don’t be fooled (as I have been). There are rugged spots that challenge the heart, lungs, and every muscle of the butt, back, and legs. Little inclines like this one.
Going up and down these hills a few times leaves me bent over, hands on knees, gasping for breath, and unable to do much more than watch my tough little dogs at play. Like any creative, artists, or writer, all senses are alert and instruction on how things are done is found in every place we look, everything we do, and any sense that’s engaged.
As I watched my dogs, new lessons about writing emerged.
The first thing I noticed was their love of adventure. Toby is more of an auditory adventurer, while Molly is more a victim of her nose. Both of them check the turns of the car and the smells coming in the windows to determine if they’re going to the groomer, the lake, the creek, or on a senseless drive to the Fort for that yummy smelling coffee we won’t let them drink. Once they know where they’re going, once they’re assured they’re somewhere familiar and safe, they always fine something new to explore in the same old place.
Toby perks his ears and takes off at full thrust into thickets, flying over ditches and puddles like a gazelle, chasing down his curiosity about the distant sounds he hears. Nothing stops him, and new feats of body are expressed that often lead him exhausted for the rest of the day. He’s not thinking of the rest of the day when he’s on an adventure of discovery. He just goes.
What about you? What about me and my writing? Once I’m in the groove of a project and know what it’s about and have a fair map of the story’s terrain, am I failing to abandon myself to the adventure, follow the sounds and run? What am I afraid of if I’m following the rigid path of an outline and not exploring? I’ve got a great big delete key and a garbage can if the exploration turns out to be a dud, and the outline is always as a safe place of return.
What holds us back from finding adventure in the daily grind writing can often be? Sometimes I get stuck in the rules I’ve created for myself, the rules I’ve read from too many books and too many blogs, rules I’ve misunderstood or taken as gospel without testing them for myself.
Writing is who we are, not what we do. It’s the adventure of our life. It’s our point of safety we can always return to if we get tangled in the brambles of an adventure or lost in the woods of our own words. We need to exercise our imagination as often as if we can, build its muscle. The more muscle we give our imagination, the more imagination we’ll have to get ourselves out of whatever mess our adventures may end in, if a mess is where we’re headed. But we won’t know until we get there. And we won’t get there if we play it safe, stay on the paved and predictable road going around and around the same old path. Is that what you want to give your readers, a good spin while standing in place?
Didn’t think so.
Writing is who you are, not what you do, and who you are belongs to you and nobody else. Explore who you are on this adventure, test your limits, run after whatever voice or scent or sound you detect in the distance. Surprise yourself, define the surprises, refine them. Go.
Write like a dog following their instincts and curiosity. Write like a dog given over to the moment. Write like a dog with determination and loyalty to your purpose and destination. Write like a dog and scratch whatever itches. Why not? You’re alone in your private place. Run.
The leash and harness will come out soon enough when you edit, deal with critique, grow dissatisfied with the junk of the first draft, or face constructing a new project, which you will do because writing is who you are not what you do and you will always be writing again and again and again.
Go. Run. Play. Explore.
Write to the outer limits of your thoughts, your imagination. Write without boundaries. There are readers waiting for what only you can give them.
I’m tired, I’ve got a cold, I’ve had a really bad week, yet here I sit with coffee coming fast and strong and hammering out a blog post. Why? Because (cue up James Brown) I feel guuuud. Now, isn’t that an odd thing to say on the tail end of so many words of woe and such a sad title?
Yes and no (writers should always write with authority — uh-huh).
Being sick and/or dealing with sleep deprivation are part of a writer’s life, part of the writing process. Move along, little doggie. But bad weeks, weeks spent in a fugue state where one considers tossing this writing business in the gutter for the sake of something more invigorating, motivating, stimulating, and all sorts of other gerunds is just not right.
And that’s where I’ve been. Again. I’ve written before about my brother Daniel and the PTSD-type world I’d slipped into when he suddenly entered my life after disappearing 10 years earlier. I wrote about evil and how it walks this earth. Well, it happened again, but this time I caught it before it swallowed me whole. Thanks to Facebook, my journals, and the blessed calendar, I was able to go back and trace when I started starring at a void where my writing mojo should have been. It was Dorner and his eventual capture in Big Bear, California. The San Bernardino Mountains, the same mountains where Daniel lived, where the property was that brought him back into my life.
But this post isn’t about me. It’s about you. The writer. It’s about all of us in creative fields who find our creative natures turning around and hurting us.
If we’re creating anything of substance, really digging down in the dirt of our lives for a memoir (that’s one of my current WIPs) or the phantoms of our imaginations, we’re bound to step on something that bites. Something that hurts. Something with venom that makes us believe such a thing as writers block is a reality. It isn’t. I’ve never had zip-my-jeans block or tie-my-shoes block. I’ve never been blocked from being human, or a woman (the equipment is always there), or vulnerable. But those things do get stuck and knotted and scary.
Case in point:
Years ago, when Robert Stone was at the top of the literary heap, I had the opportunity of participating in an intimate Q&A with him. Questions about his inspiration and process and books flew around the room like paper airplanes, then I got my chance to ask the question I’d been wanting to ask a “real” writer for a long time: Have you learned anything unexpected about yourself through your writing that surprised you. I’d just finished my third major project and saw a reoccurring theme I never imagined was hidden in my psyche.
Stone flinched as if hit in the belly, hung his head, remained silent for a very long time, then looked up and said, “Yes. Next question.” Uh-oh, that hit a sore spot. At the time he was writing Damascus Gate, but it would be quite a few years before he published anything again. If you read the review I’ve linked to the book’s title, it’s impossible not to wonder just how deeply he was digging in 1997, or the internal turmoil he was going through at the time. It’s downright spooky where his writers mind had taken him before the rest of the world caught up. That had to be a rough and painful ride. His writing hasn’t been quite as powerful since that book.
The literary writer Darrelyn Saloom writes in her blog and on Cynthia Newberry Martin’s blog, Catching Days, about the stutter in her writing while she tended to her aging mother. Writing is not what we do, it’s who we are. Sometimes parts of who we are swell, dominate, and take on a life of their own.
So what are we do to when we dig down into the specifics of our lives or our stories in search of the universal, hit something and get hurt or overwhelmed. When we stop. When we spend compulsively on books and suck our local Starbucks dry?
I agree with all the tips and tricks to be found on the web, especially Rachel Thompson’s suggestion to step away. At the very least, we’re taking an active roll in an inevitable part of a writers life.
But sometimes that intense writing life folds and makes a glued envelope of that clean sheet of paper we’d intended to fill with words, and it stays that way despite our best efforts.
Get busy and do nothing. Roll in it. Wait. There’s something in that void, and eventually the light will come on and you can see it clearly. It will always play into your writing because, honey, there’s nothing in our life that isn’t part of of who we are, and we are writers.
This time around, I turned to Jung, the psychologist, and two of his quotes that rarely get passed around. He was asked when he determined a patient was cured, and answered, “When they run out of money.” In this writer’s life, time is my currency, and I can’t afford wasting any more of it on this stuff that hurts. So I went into it with another of Jung’s quotes tied around my waist so I wouldn’t get lost. He said nothing in our life is ever cured, but we do find greater life forces that pull us past the broken bits unharmed.
I took two days, on purpose, and watched a bunch of TV, played with the dogs, ate potato chips for breakfast, and set my unthinking mind to work on cultivating a greater life force to get me over this hump and any other hump like it that might come in the future. Tick-tock, wait it out, tick-tock, watch the dogs, tick-tock, so cute at play. Tick-tock, tick-tock.
Knock-knock, open the door. Open the next and the next and the next and keep walking the hallways of silence and places of fear. Scream and wake up the life force that’s sleeping. It’s needed. Now.
And it did. And it grew. And I remembered I would never go without a fight or buckle under any threat, not even a sentence or scene that would not behave. I had to back off and let who I am — in all four corners — wake up and come together.
That’s it. It’s that simple, and that hard. And you can sing along with James Brown if this is of any help to you. Or sing your own song, once you find it.
Wake up that writing part of you that’s bigger and tougher and stronger than any wicked witch that doesn’t belong in your story, that story you dug down so deep to find and tell, even if every single word of it is a truth that never happened.
In my world, manufactured holidays are like nails on a chalkboard. Kudos to Hallmark for inflicting us with this guilt and excuse for reckless spending and eating, but that’s where my appreciation of such things ends. More hearts are broken on Valentine’s Day than made happy from what I’ve seen.
Even the big holidays the world stands still for don’t trip my trigger. This year our family celebrated both Thanksgiving and Christmas in February, coming together with airfare the price of popcorn, exchanging a few small gifts we bought at after-holiday blow-out sales, and hanging out together nice and easy like old friends instead of relatives we were obligated to be with. Nobody had to do dishes afterwards.
As soon as the merchant’s shelves were cleared of Christmas goo-gawds, out came the Valentines. I told my husband if he gave me flowers on February 14, they’d better be the flowers he wanted on his grave. Yesterday he came home with one perfect rose, handed it to me and said, “I’ve decided on a single red rose below my tombstone.” I looked at it and thought of Dorothy Parker, wondering when I’d get my single, perfect limousine.
Romance, hot sex, rubbery knees, and that state of stupid psychologists call “luminance” is great stuff, and I dig it, but it’s not the stuff of great partnerships in the business of life. After my first marriage, my resolve was if I ever married again, it would be to a man small enough so I could “take” him if he dared hit me (yeah, the first one was beautiful and rich and big and had a mean left hook), and he’d have to take me as I am, which is moody and tempestuous on my best days. I knew the man I’m married to now would be my partner the night we were watching TV and I stood up for no particular reason, grabbed my car keys and headed for the door. He asked where I was going, I said, “Out,” and he told me to be careful, then turned back to watching TV. I waited for the questions to come, the suspicions and neediness, but they didn’t. He was steady enough in his own skin to let me have mine. I headed out for my drive down dark and dangerous valleys on my own, nodding my head now and again as I determined he was the one. Maybe. If it ever got that far.
During our 35 years of marriage, we’ve never volleyed terms of endearment at each other, but we’ve locked arms through every storm and shared the same spot of shelter without crowding each other. It’s been a good journey, and I can say without being maudlin or hokey that he’s won my heart. That SOB has gotten into my heart and changed me forever.
The economic crisis of ’07-’08 hit us like a meteor falling from the sky, as the one over Russia did this morning. I was knocked out of my mid-six-figure job without the door ever hitting me in the ass. There was no door. Like so many other doors in this shifting world, it had evaporated. For the next three years, my full-time job was searching for a job, with a second full-time job of squeezing a dollar out of a quarter. I kind of liked it. It fit with my belief if it’s not impossible, why bother. But after three years, it was getting boring. I wanted a job, so I learned to dumb down my CV and find gainful employment any way I could get it. When the manager of WalMart asked if I could start working in the photo department the following Monday, you would have thought I’d just been handed keys to a castle of gold. I was there the following Monday in starched khaki and blue, with a grin that pushed my ears to the back of my head.
Within a month of working the photo lab and electronics and selling cameras and carrying 50″ TVs down ladders and loading 300 lb. swimming pools on dollys and working shifts without a full 10 hours of rest in between, something inside me melted as I walked out the door one night, and I felt myself slipping away. I told myself I was just tired, maybe dehydrated, and started the long drive home. I made it two blocks before I knew I was a danger to others on the road and pulled into the hospital that was conveniently on my right. My chest hurt and I was struggling for breath, and I assume I was pale because without saying a word I felt a wheelchair hit me behind the knees and off I went past the haggard faces of those with bellyaches and coughs and flu and broken bones that filled the crowded ER.
It was after a blast of nitro under the tongue that I felt my Self ascend from the floor and reconnect with my body. Good God, but they had me hooked up to a multitude of machinery, and at the crook of my arm was a vampire draining my blood. I heard the words “rest” and “cardiac event,” then drifted in an out of sleep for the next 16 hours. The ER was on overload, and the sickest of the sick were stacked in hallways like holiday floats waiting their turn to enter the parade. The first normal feeling I had was hunger, the second was panic. My husband. Shit, he was probably freaking out wondering where I was.
I had to get to him and let him know everything was OK. I felt fine. I had to let him know so he wouldn’t worry.
I started tearing off needles and tape and plastic thingies that monitored my heart when a bulldog of a nurse pulled aside the curtain and said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hang on there a minute. Where do you think you’re going?” I told her I had to get to my husband, I was worried about him. She said just one word — “Understandable” — then placed her open palm on the middle of my chest and pushed me back on the bed.
“I’m Amy, a nurse practitioner,” she said, pulling up a chair next to my bed. “They called in back-up from other hospitals, and I called your husband when I read your chart and saw you were married. He’s in the waiting room. Now, let’s talk about you.”
On a blank piece of paper she drew a crude picture of the human heart and the nerves leading to it, explaining that I had something called Right Bundle Branch Blockage that stopped normal nerve conduction to the right half of my heart. She was quick to explain it wasn’t a big deal, very common and benign in most people because the left half of the heart nicely compensates. She showed me my EKG and ran her finger along the line where there should have been a bomp, then she pointed to the bomp-bomp where my left ventricle compensated. “For some reason,” she said, “the left bundle branch got overwhelmed for an extended time and couldn’t handle it. Have you been under unusual physical or emotional stress lately?”
I said, “WalMart,” and we both laughed, then got down to the business of me getting out AMA (Against Medical Advice), which I was determined to do because I knew how my husband would be cracking with so much distance between us and nobody there to tell him I was OK. My chest was starting to hurt again worrying about him worrying about me. I had to get out of there. I was also in desperate need of a bean burrito (extra onions and hot sauce, please) and maybe a big jug of orange juice to wash it all down, if he didn’t mind stopping at the grocery store, once he knew I was OK.
He cursed his allergies as he drove me home, dabbing at his watery eyes and swiping his dripping nose. I let him get away with the ruse. He cursed his allergies again the next day when we visited our long-time family doctor for a follow-up visit. Doc reviewed what the ER had sent, cursed the damned money-grabbers as he read off my normal cardiac enzymes, then grew red in the face when he saw they’d been holding me for a chemical stress test. “Was I right not feeling comfortable waiting for that,” I asked. “Damned straight,” he said, slamming closed the file. “No telling how they would have botched it and given you a major cardiac event.” He filled out a form for my employer that insisted I not return to the job for a week, then told me if this ever happened again I should quit.
“You’re fine,” he said, giving me a reassuring pat on the knee as he stood up. “It’s these damned employers running people into the ground and the medical system grabbing bucks wherever they can that’s sick, not you.” He gave me a friendly kiss on the cheek, left the room, then came skidding back in like Kramer on “Seinfeld.”
“Stay right there,” he said. “I want to check something,” and was gone.
My husband and I looked at each other with mirrored expressions of confusion and shrugged as if we’d rehearsed the move. Then we waited.
Doc skidded back into the room and threw two hefty files on his desk, sat down and looked them over quickly, page by flying page.
“You,” he said, pointing at my husband without looking up from the chart, “have had congenital Right Bundle Branch Blockage all along. It’s noted here from the first physical I gave you over 25 years ago.” He flipped through the other chart, my chart, checking and double checking something, then said, “But you, you never showed any sign of it until, yep, right here, your physical last year. Last year it turned up, barely perceptible, but I can see it now.” He looked up at me through thick glasses, turned and looked at my husband.
“How long have you two been married?”
He let the question hang on the fish hook he’d strung on the air in the room, looking back and forth between us until we bit the dopey, sentimental, heart-shaped candy-coated bait and groaned in perfect harmony.
“Ha-ha,” he said, picking up our files and hitting us on the head with them– just a friendly, gentle whack of affection. “You crazy kids,” he said, waving our files as he made his exit.
We sat in our places, me on the edge of the examination table, my husband in a chair by my side, as together we endured hearing Doc in the hallway call to his nurse and say, “You ever heard that old phrase, ‘Two hearts beating as one?’ Well, you’re not going to believe this one.”
photo credit: Foxtongue via photopin cc
There. Done. I finished the script and sent it off, but not with grace (as usual). This particular film festival is one of the oldest out there, and they like to do things the old way. They want a printed script, properly punched and held in place with brads, and sent to them by mail. I did as they asked. At the post office I paid my money, handed the package to the clerk, then had a little tug-of-war as she tried to take it from my hands and toss it into the bin for delivery. I had a hard time letting go. What do you mean you want to rip my baby from my hands? No! You can’t have it! There’s something to be said for digital delivery; it saves one from playing the fool.
In my defense, I’ll say that I was exhausted and a bit unstable from what I thought would be an easy task. It was a script my agent had placed at Zoetrope Studios long ago with a “rush green” put on it for quick release. Lauren Bacall had been contacted for the role of the grandmother, our friend Anthony Zerbe (who?) was eager for the role of Abbot, and the agent of that little cutie doing the Pepsi commercials was interested in the property for her client. Zoetrope, then Coppola’s family film division, folded a few weeks before we were to go into production.
Now I know why they collapsed.
If they were buying scripts like the one I just re-wrote to death, then they had no idea what they were doing. I thought once I’d found the script, it was all over but the typing. Holy geez, what a train wreck I found once I got to the first plot point. It’s a high concept story and the architecture was good, but getting through the bare bones was enough junk to qualify for an episode of “Hoarders.” A lot of little darlings were booted during the re-write. A lot of my life disappeared as I dug in and set about fixing a story I felt was worth telling. I also ran into problems with software and printers along the way that kept stalling the process. Every day spent with this script brought at least three declarations of giving up, walking away, and letting this deadline pass.
And every day spent with this script found me refreshing my coffee mug, heading towards bed for a nap, and finding myself at the computer hammering away.
Without drama I can say this has been the most difficult task I’ve undertaken in years. And I loved it.
Most of us have a motto or two we live by, and one of mine is: If It’s not impossible, why bother? Re-writing this script with such a tight deadline felt like an impossibility, but despite my exterior rants and histrionics, it was irresistible. It felt good working hard and reaching beyond my current abilities. It felt good looking at the snarling beast of defeat and saying, “Good morning. How are you today?” then walking past without any thought or fear. It felt good being consumed. It felt good sitting down to write with no clue as to how I’d get over the hurdle of the moment and stepping over it with surprising ease.
That ease has been further conviction of the thought with which I started this blog: Writing is not what we do, it’s who we are. We can be taken away from writing for any number of reasons, but we never stop honing our craft. After a walk around the house cussing like a sailor and eating cookies, I’d sit down and find the answer falling from my fingers. I wrote this script a long time ago, put it away a long time ago, but I don’t think I ever stopped working on it.
It’s unfortunate that the reticular activating system of our brains has fallen into the hands of the New Age group because it is real. It’s part of the so-called reptilian part of our brain at the base of our skull, and it will noodle on problems we’re unaware exist. It never stops working. The New Age movement calls it the Law Of Attraction, and in a sense it is — we’re attracting what we want through actions and thoughts working 24/7 in that part of our brain, with some of those thoughts urging us into action.
But the RAS isn’t a good communicator. It tells no stories. It wakes us up in the middle of the night with the name of that old actor we were trying to remember during a discussion with friends two days earlier, and causes us to yell, “Burt Lancaster!” as we wake those in bed with us and cause them concern about our sanity. David Allen claims the brain has a need to finish things and states that’s why snippets of songs loop through our minds — we’ve heard them in a store or while cruising radio channels, and our brain is determined to finish the song. OK, I’ll buy that, but it doesn’t explain why “My Baby Does The Hanky-Panky” is going through my mind at this moment. I assure you I’ve had no passing contact with that song in months, perhaps years. It has to be involved with something that will reveal itself at some later date.
Even though I could see paths out of the mess I had, it was still a whole bunch of demanding work. Screenwriting is all about communicating the story, the characters, the mood, the genre, the setting, the theme, and all the other elements of good writing, but you’re not allowed to write. It’s an excruciating exercise in show-don’t-tell. Character dialogue has to be so strong and distinct that it can be spoken with no doubt as to which character is saying those words. Narrative is limited to…Well, it’s limited to nothing. You have scene headings, action blocks, and dialogue. Make it work. Make it unique. Make it tell a story loud and clear.
Grab that first gatekeeper by the throat and keep them reading.
Yeah, good luck with that.
And good luck coming back to prose after spending time with a medium so heavily dependent on adverbs. I hadn’t realized how economical and concise adverbs could be until I went back to screenwriting where the demands for white space is huge and all forms of prose writing are forbidden. (This has not always been the case, and some of the best films written by our best screenwriters during the Golden Age of film wrote delicately crafted blocks of prose. I’ll have to test the changes in screenwriting to see if there’s been a return to that lost tradition as we enter a new Golden Age of film.)
There was a touch of self-discovery in this process as well. During this last year of jumping back into writing and reading the current books on the craft and keeping up with the top blogs, I’ve had a very hard time identifying with the most popular topics — fear of failure, fear success, difficulties with productivity, uncertainty, focus, and writers block. In the world of screenwriting, these are not options. You will fail over and over again, you will not stop because you’re blocked or insecure, everything is uncertain, it’s all a huge risk with big bucks attached, and you will stay focused and meet that deadline because those are the rules of the game. You’ll also succeed from time to time, but it means little or nothing. There’s the next assignment you’ve got to hit. That’s my background, my habit of mind, and the way I work. Even if I work myself to a frazzle and produce a finished product above my current ability, it will be changed and re-worked. Everyone from the 10th AD to the bit-part actor will suggest (demand!) changes. Most of those suggestions will be good and make it a better film. That’s just the way it works, and it’s excellent training.
Another thing I like about scripwriting is the lack of instant gratification. You do your best, and then you wait. Then you wait some more. I’ve won a Gold at this festival several years ago with a different script. That script came to me completely fleshed out during a short nap. The next month was spent at the computer writing what was dictated to me in my mind. Easy stuff, yes? No! After that I spent a year re-writing the thing, another year submitting to festival and waiting, and another two years before it was ripped off by the production company that had optioned it. It’s a long, slow process filled with uncertainty. You can’t pay anybody to design anything, you can’t built a name or a platform, you can’t display your craft in bits and pieces to build an audience, and you can’t click a button to upload and wear the title of published author. Again, it’s great training.
I liked it. I’m hooked, and I can’t wait to get going on the next project. For a year I’ve been writing like a maniac and studying and waiting and pushing and grunting to get my internal writing engine going, and this was the kick I’ve needed.
It feels so good to be back with a manuscript in the air, and me flying again.
When too much is just enough.
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