Tuesday, August 17, 2010

lessons come with a sting

I have been bitchslapped by Sundance. I only have one thing to say to Robert Redford:

“Thank you, Sir, may I have another?”

If you follow me on Twitter, you’re probably familiar with my journey to get our script, SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME, into the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. Yeah, it was our dream. A big one.

Am I upset they passed?

Did I cry?
You betcha.

Did I get angry?
Just ask my heavy bag in the basement.

Do I feel defeated?
Not on your life.

I. Am. Grateful.

I’m grateful in part because it’s with rejection and failure we learn the most.

Just ask yourself if you learned anything when things came easy to you. I bet the answer is no.

I know I haven’t. It’s only those journeys full of pain and obstacles where real growth has happened for me.

In short, this script was my black belt in writing. Hands down. It kicked my ass every single day. But, I took the beating and kept coming back for more.

On February 1, 2010, my writing partner, Doug, and I started with a 31-page outline, and 11 weeks later, we had our submission off to Sundance. In between that time, I wrote 12-hr days, never took a single day off, went to NYC to meet with Doug and Bill Pace, our fabulous script consultant, and barely saw my family.

I cried many tears while writing.  It wasn't because I was tired or thought for even a minute I wasn't capable of doing it.  I knew we'd kick this out of the park.  I cried because of the enormous weight we felt to “get it right” for the African-American community. We didn't take that responsibility lightly. Sundance accepting us wasn’t about an advance of our careers, it was about the advancement of this incredible story… and the truth being told. Note: I didn’t cry after the rejection because of my loss, I cried for the loss of an opportunity to share the truth.

I tweeted in panic one day after realizing that in the midst of getting the draft done, Sundance also wanted a 2-page synopsis. That moment nearly pushed me over the edge. Then, Jacqueline Lichtenberg wrote a post for me with synopsis advice. You have no idea what that meant. It wasn’t just her great advice; she was the hand reaching out as I felt the undercurrent pull me down. Her generosity saved my life that day. I will be eternally grateful to her.

Even after we submitted, we sought more feedback. I spent hours on the phone with Nevada Grey for consultations, Bill Pace sent added notes to work on, and we sent the script to trusted screenwriters to read and rip apart.  We continued to rewrite draft after draft, in hopes to knock Sundance off their feet when they requested the full read. It would be a total of six months before I took my first day off.

In short, we kept raising the bar for ourselves.

But they passed. Passed without that full read. Ouch.

Was it that Sundance thought the Pulitzer win and PBS documentary would already give us a leg up over other, newer writers? Perhaps they didn’t feel we really needed them, or the budget would be too big for an indie venture. Or maybe I’m just rationalizing and they simply weren’t interested. In the end, it doesn’t matter.

The bitchslap stung like hell.

Once I numbed the pain with tequila last night, I realized I learned an enormous amount from the process. Maybe that was my win.

*I learned I’m capable of so much more than I ever realized.
*I can write like a fiend under pressure.
*I absolutely LOVE feedback and editing.
*As much as I loathed writing that synopsis, I will now make it a regular part of my story preparation process (1. Outline, 2. Synopsis, 3. First draft).
*I have an entirely different outlook on writing partnerships.
*I will ALWAYS get professional feedback.
*I am blessed to have Doug’s trust and faith. In truth, I still pinch myself that I am writing with a Pulitzer winner as a partner. He is both generous and humble.
*I am a damned good writer.
*My family believes in me.
*There isn’t enough room in a partnership for both an ego and a successful project. The project always comes first.
*Patience. Patience. Patience.
*Stony Brook Southampton Screenwriters Conference kicks ass.
*You can be a determined and great businessperson, but without writing talent, an ability to take honest feedback (even when it’s ugly), and a great support system behind you, it doesn’t mean squat.  Everyone talks about having to have a business mind to succeed.  Yes, you do, but first and foremost you need to know the craft and write well.  Even the best businessperson can't sell a poorly-written script.
*Polish, polish, polish.  Do the hard work.  

The Sundance experience also taught me who my real friends are. While most were supportive, some who have known me for years weren't.  That saddened me, but I had to learn  to not let anyone piss on my flame.  I had to keep moving forward.  I grieved and moved on.  I took delight in my Facebook friends and Twitter writers cheering me on and following our #slaverybyanothername hashtag with curiosity and support. You were there for me, not expecting anything in return other than the joy of riding the wave and learning alongside me. You didn’t try to distract me.  You fought to keep me focused.  You wanted me to succeed.  I wanted to succeed for you.  You raised the bar for my standards of real-life friendships. I am deeply grateful for all of you and the lessons you have taught me.

But, one of the best things that came out of the experience was a voicemail from my mother. Our characters and story moved her to tears. That trumps Redford’s seal of approval any day. My mother has never read any of my scripts before… and she rarely cries. She’s the toughest bird in town.

I take Sundance’s bitchslap with pleasure. No regrets. No “what ifs”. We tried. We put our baby out there. I’m damn proud of our script and of us.

However, I will be drinking tequila yet another night to continue the writer’s anesthetic. I’ll also be making voodoo dolls of the 12 winners. I am Sicilian after all. Just sayin’.

What have you learned from the setbacks in your life? Those goals you thought mattered so much… did they really matter in the end?

Monday, August 2, 2010

A Graveyard Writing Shift

Living in rural New York, I often drive the countryside for writing inspiration.   This particular day, I needed to find a way to kill one of my characters.   I wanted something unique for her death.

Suddenly, my car’s ball joint snapped and twisted the front wheel perpendicular to the car.  The car screeched to a halt, opposite a graveyard.   How fitting.   Could my character die in a car wreck?  No way.  Too cliché.

As I waited for the tow truck, a flurry of tornado-warning emails filled my cell.  I’m not an alarmist, so I ignored them, until the winds swirled faster and faster.  I was a sitting duck.  I glanced over at the graveyard wondering if God was trying to kill me… or just send me a message.

Should this tornado come, there was no way I’d survive in the car or fully exposed outside.  Why didn’t I watch that survivor episode on The Discovery Channel? 

Think. Think. Think.  How could I find safety in the middle of nowhere?  The graveyard.  I grabbed a rope from my car and ran across, planning to tie myself to a gravestone.  Yes, you read that right.   I may be calm under pressure, but I didn’t say I was smart. 

Whose stone would I choose: a man’s, a woman’s, or a child’s?  Who would I want to die with? 

As my hair spun in the wind, I pulled it from my eyes to read the names and dates on the stones.  My imagination ran wild.  I became swept into the stories buried with these people.  Maybe he died in a shoot out.  Perhaps she died in childbirth or at the hands of a jealous lover.  Stories were popping in my head.  My body was in peril, but the writer inside me was on fire. 

Like a lunatic, I lurked gravestones while the threat of the tornado was still buzzing in my pocket.  Is this how Geraldo felt revealing King Tuts tomb?  Maybe someone would find my dead body the next day. 

There should be a warning label on notepads: “Writing can be deadly.” 

The winds whipped, literally smashing me into gravestones as I searched for the one I’d connect to, both emotionally and physically.   Then, I discovered the old section of the graveyard.  The stones were riddled with details.  Such art.  

As I admired the carvings on the delicate stone, a tree branch snapped and flew past, almost crashing into me.    I glanced toward my car to see the large SUV rocking in the heavy winds.  Time to stop admiring and start graveyard bondage.

While the old stones were more to my artistic taste, I couldn’t tie myself to a wuss headstone.  I needed a big, gaudy monument.  I ran toward the largest one I could find, the wind forcing me into a zig-zag path.  

Just as I found the perfect dead person to join in all eternity, the tow truck pulled alongside my car.   I raced to my hero of wreckage.  

As my mechanic secured the car on the flatbed, I snatched my notepad and frantically wrote, “Idea: girl passes up delicate gravestone for a sturdier, safer and massive monument.  Ties herself down.  Winds howl.  Suddenly, the delicate gravestone is yanked from the ground.  She smiles, happy not to have chosen it… until it heads her way, smashes into her, and kills her.” 

Now that is what I call a unique death.  

I’ve decided to make graveyards a part of my writing inspiration routine.  Next time, however, I’ll choose a lovely sunny day, admire the beautiful ornate stones and see what other stories rise from the dead.

A graveyard can be the perfect resurrection for creativity.

*originally published in Making Me Magazine

Memories of the Crandell Theatre

Palms sweating and heart pounding, I entered the Crandell Theatre.  I prayed garbage cans were within reach, as I was positive I’d be sick from fear.  I was 11 and on my very first date. 

The Crandell Theatre was built in 1926, as a vaudeville house in a little Upstate, New York country town.  Much of my childhood was spent sitting in the balcony watching the red velvet curtain part, to reveal the Marx Brothers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Jaws, amongst others.  For years, the price of a film was $1.50 until it slowly rose to $5.00.  The best bargain in town.

What better place for a first date? 

Young Frankenstein, 1974.  Yes, I’m revealing my age with that admission, but the thrill of seeing the film alongside my boy crush was indescribable. 

That night, as I sat frozen in my chair with “him” mere inches away, I never noticed the beautiful architecture of the building.  The old lanterns, Spanish-arched designs, stucco walls, 26-foot wide stage and orchestra pit. Little did I know, there were still dressing rooms in the back from the vaudeville days.  Perhaps my date knew, but luckily, we were only 11 and not 18. 

Did he hold my hand?  I don’t remember, but I do remember the sexual innuendo between Gene Wilder and the gorgeous Teri Garr horrified me.  I was definitely too young to date… and too young for that film. 

This was to be my first of many dates at the Crandell.  Three years later, I went back with the same boy to see Star Wars.  This time it was Princess Leia flirting with Han Solo.  If only I were that graceful and experienced.  Even though I was older, not even a Jedi mind trick could calm my nerves.  I was convinced I was in love… though perhaps it was Luke Skywalker I loved, not my date.

The years past and my taste in movies and boys did too.   I saw everything from The Breakfast Club to the horror flick, Friday the 13th.  For that, I do remember being clutched to a boy’s arm.  Horror films were the perfect rouse for boys to hold my hand.  I fell for it, hook, line and sinker.

The thrill of the Crandell wasn’t just in the charm of the architecture, it was the family who ran it.  I’d come to the counter to buy my R-rated film ticket, terrified the owner would turn me away for being under 17.   He would give a stern look, ask if my parents gave permission, I’d nod, then he’d smile and hand me my ticket.  No one dared lie to him, because he indeed knew all our parents.  Small town living. 

Time went on, but it never seemed to change the Crandell.  It was the town anchor of amusement and beauty.  Ten years ago, our community formed The Chatham Film Club, a lovely group of film fanatics who birthed the film festival, Film Columbia.  Our Crandell Theatre was the star.  I would buy a pass and sit in my chair, this time with my husband holding my hand.  We’d watch foreign films and a variety of independent features.  The seats were packed, and we lived on popcorn and Hot Tamales for four days.  By this time, the theatre had passed hands to the next generation, and every day of the festival, the owner and his wife were present.  Him smiling and greeting the locals, and her at the concession stand passing out Milk Duds. 

Sadly, the owner, Tony Quirino, unexpectedly passed, and the theatre closed.  The Film Club is raising money in hopes of purchasing it to preserve its beauty and charm for future generations, just as the Quirino family did. 

A part of our town’s charm passed away with Tony that sad day, as the lights went out on the marquise.  While we all miss him, we are grateful for the years of joy he and his family brought our lives and the memories forever embedded in our souls. 

The Crandell was more than a movie house; it was a treasure of celluloid, first loves, hand-holding memories and a magical red velvet curtain. 

*originally published in Making Me Magazine
*update: The Chatham Film Club now owns of the Crandell Theatre. Full story HERE

*NEW URGENT UPDATE* Our theatre desperately needs a new roof.  

Please help the Crandell Theatre win $25,000 in a community challenge.
Just click on this link and vote for the Crandell in the National Trust for Historic Preservation's "This Place Matters" contest.  It doesn't cost anything and you can opt out of receiving any further emails from them.  Please do this now.  You must vote BEFORE SEPTEMBER 15th.
You can only vote once, but please take a few moments to pass this message along to your friends, neighbors, family and co-workers.  The Crandell needs your support and a new roof before winter!
Thank you so much for your time.