I hit a pretty deep low point in my life on April 30th. It was around 11:30 PM and I was sitting in my car at the In-N-Out Burger drive thru, waiting to order. Usually, the In-N-Out drive thru is a place that fills me with tranquility and joy, in anticipation of soon being filled with meat and cheese. But that night was different. That night, as I waited for the friendly guy in the paper hat to walk up to my car and take my order, I found myself wondering quite seriously if I even wanted to be a writer anymore.
If you read my blog at all last year you may remember that I spent a fair amount of time nattering on about the Nicholl Fellowship – the hoity-toity screenplay competition run by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that I entered one of my scripts into. My script, as I wrote breathlessly at the time, made it as far as the quarterfinal round before getting axed in August because one of the competition readers was a humorless, fun-hating sourpuss who gave it a low score.
For some time after getting the email that I was out of the running, I didn’t really do anything. I didn’t do any more work on my newly-rejected script and I didn’t start writing anything new, either. It’s not that I was depressed – I was just exhausted. I’d spent the first four months of 2015 locked in my room working around the clock to get the script finished in time for the fellowship’s May 1st deadline. The next four months were spent wringing my hands and perusing the Nicholl Fellowship’s Facebook page in search of secret hints that my script was making a splash. (Although it’s our policy not to comment on individual scripts before all the scores are in, we will admit that one of this year’s submissions is so incredibly good that it cured a reader's glaucoma…)
Having already spent two-thirds of my year on the Nicholl Fellowship, I felt like I’d earned the right to coast through the rest of 2015. I knew that I wanted to enter the competition again in 2016 – I even had an idea for a script. But at that point, May was a long way off, Donald Trump had just started tearing up the GOP debates, and Fallout 4 was nearly out. These felt like signs that the universe didn’t want me to be too productive.
In November a friend of mine got my Nicholl script in front of a manager at a literary agency, who read it and loved it. One meeting later, I was her newest client. This was a Joe Biden-style Big Deal for me, because getting professional representation had been my goal for so long that it was my New Year’s resolution in 2012, 2013, and 2014. Before, I’d finish a screenplay, look at it, and think, Who do I have to fuck to get somebody important to read this? My manager helps me get important people to read my script without me having to fuck anybody.
A couple days after Thanksgiving, my manager called to tell me that she’d given my script to the VP of production at her company, and that he loved it and wanted to produce it. In mid December the three of us had a meeting, where the producer told me how much he’d liked my script and gave me a bunch of notes for how he thought it could improve. I agreed with just about all of them.
“So,” he said. “When do you think you can have a new draft ready?”
“January 15th?” I heard someone saying. No, I thought. That’s a very silly timeframe in which to write a new draft of a screenplay. Whoever said that doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Then I realized it was me who’d said it.
“Great!” The producer said. “Let’s talk in January.”
For the first half of my drive home, I felt giddy. I've been living in LA for longer than I was in college. My whole plan when I moved down here was to just try and write eye-catching scripts until one of them found its way to some influential Hollywood type who wanted to take a chance on me. There were plenty of times in the past four years that that plan felt, for lack of a better word, coo-coo bananas. But now, I had both a manager and a producer knocking on my door within the space of a month. For once, one of my harebrained schemes was actually working!
But as the drive continued, it occurred to me that I had just agreed to re-write my Old Script in the same timeframe that I had planned to write my New Script for the upcoming Nicholl Fellowship. Writing a script takes a long-ass time. Writing a good script takes more time. Writing two good scripts in the four and a half months between mid-December and May 1st felt about as feasible as Yoko Ono being crowned the heavyweight champion of the world.
When I got home, I made peace with the idea that I wasn’t going to update my blog again until the spring. Then, I unplugged my Playstation 4 and went to work.
I rewrote the Old Script all through the holidays, Christmas Day included. I spent evenings and late nights trying to outline the New Script's story. After New Year’s, I started each morning by writing the number of days left until May 1st in the top corner of one of my white boards – 120, 119, 118, 117 – until giving up when I realized I could get a much more accurate and less labor-intensive countdown on my computer.
Over the course of the next few months I wrote three new drafts of the Old Script and had three more meetings with the producer, collecting new notes from him every time. Meanwhile, I also painstakingly cranked out three drafts of the New Script, desperately trying to transform loose ideas and concepts into characters and story beats people could conceivably care about. It wasn't going well, and by early April my story still didn’t have an ending – which is the sort of thing that professional screenplay competition judges tend to notice.
I began ducking even more social obligations than I usually do. Every spare second that I wasn’t doing my day job was spent struggling to get the New Script into working order. In the last two weeks of April I took time off work so I could try to iron out plot holes and figure out an ending that worked. By the last week before the deadline, the feeling of panic in the pit of my stomach would wake me up around 6 or 7 AM every day, at which point I’d go to work fiddling with plot details, pacing and dialog until the wee hours of the morning.
I finished the last draft of the New Script on the 30th, at around 11:00 PM, and although I was pretty dead inside at that point I still had enough of my wits about me to know that I had earned a burger.
So I finally left my apartment and drove to the In-N-Out in my neighborhood. As I sat numbly in the drive-thru line, watching one of the employees go car-to-car taking peoples’ orders and radioing them back to the kitchen, it occurred to me that telling this guy what kind of burger I wanted would be the first face-to-face human interaction I’d had in three or four days.
And for the first time since I moved to LA – for the first time since I decided at 13 that this was what I wanted to spend my life doing – I found myself wondering if I really wanted to be a Hollywood screenwriter badly enough to put myself through all this shit over and over again.
My friends in Portland right now are getting promotions at work, buying houses, getting married. I took a pay cut so I could work at a part-time job where I’d have lots of time to write. I may never own property because I moved to one of America’s most out of control housing markets in order to be a writer. I gave up on dating because I considered it an expensive waste of time that I could spend writing instead.
For years I’ve been papering over the shortcomings in my life by telling myself That’s fine, that’s okay – your writing is all that matters! There in the drive-thru, a few days removed from my last shower and with my brain feeling like a moldy, wrung out sponge, I found myself wondering, Do I even like writing? Or do I just like using it as an excuse to avoid growing up?
(I ordered a #1 combo Animal Style with a Diet Coke, if anybody was curious about that part of the story.)
I entered the New Script into the Nicholl Fellowship on May 1st. I’ll find out if I’m a quarterfinalist sometime in July. I’d be pretty surprised if I am, though, because the New Script isn’t all that good. You can’t write two good scripts in four and a half months – but if you try really hard and make a lot of sacrifices when it comes to sanity and hygiene and relationships with your friends, you can write one good script and another mediocre one.
The producer, my manager and I are still chewing over revisions on the Old Script – which I still like quite a lot, and which has improved considerably with his notes. That said, the notes keep coming, and even after five months we’re so early in this process that there’s no telling whether anything will ever come of it.
After taking a month to think about it, I’ve decided that I do like being a writer – but only when I’m working on something I like. Deep down I knew that I honestly didn’t like the New Script, but I was so hell-bent on entering the competition that I never considered just giving up and writing something that actually inspired me. So instead, I spent four and a half months writing a script that was about as engaging and rewarding a process as writing a 104-page term paper about the mating habits of tapeworms.
I’m working on another script now, one that I like, and already this process feels healthier. I'm taking my time. I'm not staying up all night to write. And this one isn’t for next year’s Nicholl – this one’s just for me.
Or at least it is until somebody wants to buy it, in which case it’ll be 100% for them. But that's the life I've chosen, and I'm okay with that.