I’ve picked up a new hobby since last week, when I was notified that my screenplay is a quarterfinalist for the Nicholl Fellowship. That hobby is Googling questions about the Nicholl Fellowship – more specifically, questions about Nicholl Fellowship quarterfinalists. Long, detailed search queries like “nicholl fellowship quarterfinalists how many are famous now” or “nicholl fellowship quarterfinalist is it prestigious enough that you should tell your college alumni magazine even though you don’t subscribe” have taken me on a tour of pretty much every rinky-dink screenwriting website on the Internet that’s done a post on the Nicholl. I guess some part of me thinks that on page 9 of Google search results I’ll find a post from some obscure writing tutorial blog that will tell me exactly what I want to hear:
“…due to the overwhelming prestige of the Nicholl Fellowship, many thousands enter, but only the most elite writers are selected to continue competing as quarterfinalists. If you decide to enter the Nicholl and become a quarterfinalist, good news! Your quest for fame and fortune in Hollywood is officially on autopilot from now on. In fact, in a recent poll of Truman Capps’ favorite screenwriters, directors, and showrunners, all agreed that there is no greater indicator that a writer is an unparalleled creative genius than being selected as a Nicholl Fellowship quarterfinalist.”
Instead most of what I’m finding are posts older than some of my friends’ children on previous quarterfinalists’ long-abandoned personal blogs, where they announce that they’ve made the quarterfinals and then humorously detail the hours they've spent Googling questions about Nicholl quarterfinalists. Writing this, I realize that I’m now part of a natural phenomenon far bigger than just me and my script: An annual, communal mass ego stroking session that occurs among screenwriters late every summer, like hundreds of neurotic swallows with low self esteem returning to Capistrano.
So, to the subsequent Nicholl Fellowship quarterfinalists who stumble on my blog in the years to come, searching for some tidbit of reassuring information: Sorry, but I don’t have any clues to help you gauge whether you’ll make it to semis or not. How’s the future going, though? How are the new Star Wars movies? What about ISIS – are they still a thing?
Out of 7,442 scripts entered, mine was one of 375 to make it to the quarterfinal round. Every time I think about that, I go on a roller coaster ride between extreme arrogance and crippling pessimism and self doubt.
First, looking at the sheer number of people who didn’t make quarterfinals, I feel really, really good, and my inner monologue starts to sound like a Donald Trump campaign speech.
“Yeah, that’s right – I beat over seven thousand people at something! Have you ever beaten seven thousand people at something? I didn’t think so. Even Michael Jordan never beat seven thousand people! Well, in his lifetime, maybe. I don’t know. Maybe not. Me, I like people who did beat seven thousand people.”
But then, I start to think about how many people 375 really is. Once, at a college bowl game, Oregon played against a school with a 350-piece marching band. It took half an hour for all of them to file into a room; they traveled on a fleet of eight motor coaches. I picture that amount of people receiving the same quarterfinalist email that I did and suddenly I feel a lot less unique and special.
With that in mind, my inner monologue starts to sound more like Rust Cohle from the good season of True Detective. “Think you’re such hot shit, huh, smartass? Lying to yourself. You’ve read for screenplay competitions before. You already know the Dark Truth, but I’ll spell it out for you just the same: Most screenplays are garbage, man. You want to throw yourself a Sweet Sixteen for beating a bunch of misspelled adolescent vampire love stories and fratty The Hangover ripoffs? Be my guest. But all you’re celebrating is that you’re good enough to not be bad, and lucky enough to not be one of the good scripts that get snubbed in the first round.”
I don’t even turn on the radio in the car anymore. I just sit there in traffic listening to these two voices in my head going back and forth until I get to the office. And then I go inside, sit down at my desk, and listen to them for most of the day.
It’s a month until I find out if I made it to the semifinals, which is an awfully long time to spend feeling my ego expand and contract every few seconds. So I keep going online and Googling questions about the fellowship because I want to find something that’ll help me gauge whether this experience is just a fluke in a contest known for flukes (one year's quarter and semifinalists frequently fail to even make it out of the first round the following year) or the beginning of something bigger.
I know my script is good, but I also know every single thing that’s wrong with it. Sifting through archived screenwriting message boards late at night, I guess I’m just looking for some kind of sign that either the judges won’t notice my script’s weaknesses, or that all the other scripts have way, way more weaknesses than mine.