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.
Did I cry?
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?