Back to the Screenplay

It’s the first day of my summer vacation, and I have committed myself to trying to write. Really write, not kinda write. The kind of writing that can eventually get me a career as a writer, that kind of writing.

I have several half-finished projects, so I decided to start there. One of my favorite pieces of writing that I’ve done is a screenplay that I half finished when I took a class at USF several summers ago. The professor for that class told me that if this was the quality of my writing, that I should move to LA so I could pursue a career. That was probably the best compliment I’ve ever gotten in my life. But I stopped writing. Why? Because the class ended. But more importantly, I became aware that I was using too much flashback for my screenplay, and the professor agreed. In fact, the whole thing takes place almost entirely in flashback.  That makes it obvious that the character is not in any real danger since he is still there at the end of the movie to tells everything that happened before.  Once I became aware of this, I made an error: I revised and rewrote the first 10 pages of the script.  I should have finished what I had going on and then revised afterwards.  So I put it on the back burner and never turned the heat back on.

So this morning, I reread the first 63 pages that I had written for that class. I also reread the brainstorming I had done before I started writing. It turns out that I am almost done.  In fact, I’m at the second plot point, so I’m about 75% done. I think the best thing for me is to go ahead and finish this screenplay totally.

And then, the rewrite. You see, I knew at the beginning that the protagonist was going to be a comic book fan. But over the past couple years that I haven’t been writing I have developed a real appreciation for WWE wrestling,. I had mentioned the fact that he liked wrestling when I was setting up the character, but now I think I’ll include much more wrestling terms and basic moves as he’s doing his thing, and I may change the title. The title right now is Suicidal Tendencies, but if I change it to add more wrestling, I may change the title to The Kayfabe Kid. My professor suggested that the title Suicidal Tendencies was too dark, too dismal, and may not attract the kind of audience I was hoping to reach out to. I was pretty much committed to the title, but The Kayfabe Kid includes a wrestling term and has the alliteration of a comic book superhero.

Anyhow that’s what I’ve accomplished today. I have reread my first 63 pages, made some corrections and suggestions for myself, and now I’m ready to write more. If I work hard at it, I can finish it by the end of the week – two weeks tops.  And then, no matter what else, I can say that I have finished a screenplay. No more “I’m working on a screenplay” or “I’m partway through a screenplay” but “Yep, I’m done. I’m working on rewrites now and looking for an agent.”

Too Critical?

Ugh, I’m in a weird position.

Here’s the question I have to answer: Am I too critical?

I have been workshopping with other writers since I got my first computer, back in 1995. One of the first things that I did was join a listserv that was a poetry sharing mailing list. I could send off a poem, and several other people would read it and give me some feedback.

During that time, I became aware that most of the comments I received were not very useful to help me develop as a writer. For example, people wrote “Great poem!” or “Good job.” They were not really contributing anything. This is about the same as clicking Like on a Facebook page. It’s nice to know that people were reading my writing, but I was really seeking a chance to develop, to improve.

As for my own participation, when I read a poem that was of some worth I would try to give it good thorough feedback. I would talk about the images that really touched me, the lines I thought were that were especially well-written, the structure of the poem. If something didn’t work, I would let the person know. In short, I gave to them what I wished that they would give to me. Don’t get me wrong, there were writers who did this for my writing. In fact, I am still friends with at least three of them and am still in contact with two or three others.

How wonderful it is to have somebody take you seriously as a writer and to give you serious feedback about what you’ve written. Or at least, that’s my philosophy. I may be wrong. I think I’m right. But I may be wrong.

How much of my job – whether as a creative writing teacher or as the person you come to and say “hey-read-this” – how much of my job is to make a person feel good about himself or herself and how much my job is to show them how to make things better? That’s the problem I’m facing right now. Well, maybe it’s wrong to call it a problem: this is my current perplexity.

Cases in point:

I teach Freshman English in college, and I know each semester that a few students get their feelings hurt when I respond to their writing. These students have been nurtured and encouraged by teachers who believe their job is to make these kids write more in the hopes that they will right better. But then they come to college, where they pay hundreds of dollars for my class, and their writing is too often substandard. And occasionally, frankly, it’s notably poor. I have only 13 class sessions (26, if they take me for Freshman English II as well) to help them master skills that high school did not help them master. I am blaming neither the student nor the high school, by the way. This is just the way it is. Being a high school teacher and a college professor, I can see both sides of the issue. So do I softball this thing, make them feel good about themselves, and have to worry about them going into their other college classes and performing lower than they should because I did not teach them to raise their writing skills appropriately? That doesn’t seem right to me.

Sometimes people come to me with something that they’ve written and asked for my opinion. Piece of poetry, story, something. I am always happy to read and give some feedback, but I always ask them the same question: What sort of feedback would you like from me? Do you want me to give you a thumbs-up/thumbs-down? Do you want me look at it for the grammar and spelling and punctuation? More often than not, they just shrug their shoulders and invite me to share whatever I’d like. So that puts me back into the mindset that these people want to be better writers, so the most helpful thing is to give them serious criticism about their piece. Sometimes that’s what they wanted, but too often it isn’t. One writer – my aunt – told me in passing that she hasn’t written anything since I critiqued her piece when she asked me to a couple years ago. That devastated me. I respect her so much – as my aunt, as a person, as a writer – that I wanted to give her my best. But if my “best” stifles her creativity, then that obviously is not what I should’ve done.

I try to temper my negative comments with positive comments as well. I’m not always successful in finding something positive to say, especially to my college students unfortunately, but I try.

All I can do is think about what I would want in a position such as that. I am writing a screenplay about a School Resource Officer, and I asked the school’s deputy to read through it and give me his impressions. He took it for a few days, and then he brought it back to me and said, “Real good. I can’t wait to see what happens.” I thanked him with a big smile and told him I appreciated his input. But he really hadn’t give many input it all. In fact, based on what he said, I’m not even sure he read it. He’s asked me a couple times how it’s coming along, and I have always said that I’m stuck at a certain point (which is true), but I wish there were a way I knew that he read it.

Okay, okay, I think I’ve said what I had to say on the point. I’m going to open this up for discussion and hope that some people comment and give me some feedback. Honest feedback, now. I don’t need anybody buttering my biscuit for me. If I have read and critiqued something for you in the past – whether you’re my friend, family, or former student – I want you to tell me if my too-harsh critique has been useful to you in your development as a writer or if you feel that I should spend more time making people feel good about themselves instead. I will keep comments screened unless you type “OK to publish.” And I am sincerely interested in what you have to say- you will help me grow as a human.

Pivot Points

This is one of those things that happens that stimulates the writer’s mind in me, being able to look back in my life and see situations with a more mature point of view. A few days ago, I contacted the front of a friend on Facebook to ask if she was someone I knew from high school. Her last name had changed, so I wasn’t sure. She responded that she was and then asked who I was. She and I weren’t friends in high school, not really, not at all. So I told her the friend’s name that we had in common. I reminded her that I was the guy who had dislocated his shoulder in high school. I told her that I was in drama class and thought she was too. None of this inspired her to remember who I was, it seemed: she didn’t respond to me for several minutes. Well, no big deal. I had one specific memory about her that I wanted to thank her for, so I proceeded to type it up:

So I will tell you about my one memory. As I said, I don’t think that you will remember me based on this because it really was more about me than you, but here goes:

As I said, I know you from drama. I don’t actually know if we were in drama together or if you even took drama class, but one year – I think it was my junior year, your sophomore year – I was house manager for that year’s stage production. I was in charge of making sure that the audience was seated and that everything in that area was taken care of. And once everything was under way, my job was to sit at the table in the back of the auditorium where people would be coming in with late tickets to allow them in quickly, quietly, and peacefully. Frankly, there was little to do back there except sit and watch the play.

And for whatever reason, you sat next to me. That was exciting enough, that you would want to sit with me. And I don’t remember how this happened, but you also let me hold your hand. And I had never held anybody’s hand before. And there really wasn’t anything else to it, it was just handholding, but I. was. holding. your. hand.

Probably nothing to you, and that’s cool – it really is. But I had struggled all through middle school and high school with social acceptance. Sometimes I felt like a real pariah in high school. It was really lonely. It was really sad. And I’m not saying this to inspire pity for myself – things worked out, and I’m doing great, but high school was really tough. I did what people do: I tuned out the parts myself that were not successful (as I said, social interaction, being accepted) and tuned into the parts of me that were (poetry, piano, humor, creativity, intelligence). But it’s one of those things – like people sometimes pose a question like, would you give up 10% of your intelligence to be 10% more attractive. That kind of thing. I had all my things going for me that I had going for me, but I would’ve traded them in gladly to feel more in tune with other people.

And you held my hand. I remember very specifically how sweaty my hand was and how many times I thought that I should stop holding your hand because my hand was so sweaty, but I was all about one more minute, one more second, one more moment of holding your hand. And you never pulled your hand away, you never made me feel like you were uncomfortable. You accepted me, and you made me feel welcome in your space, and I have valued that for the last thirty years.

I think in a way that it’s the small things that are the most important to remember. Someone may have made a Grand Gesture to me at some point and I may have forgotten that. But you, simply holding my hand, simply making me feel important, simply makes me feel human … it’s an incredible memory.

So thank you. That meant a lot to me. Sincerely.

So I went back to Facebook to send her this message. But in the meantime, she had responded and she did remember me. She also surprised me by saying that she tried not to think too much about high school because it had been hell for her. I was that she really had it all together in high school, but she affirmed that it was hard for her.

We talked for a few minutes and she said she remembered that I was “a real sweetheart.” She said she remembered my poetry and that we would talk sometimes and said that she thought it was “cute.” I asked her what else she remembered about me and she said I was “real quiet with a nice smile and a bit of an introvert.”

So we talked for a few minutes, about our careers and our families and where we live. It was getting late, so I asked her if she wanted my memory, the one I had typed up. She said she did, and so I sent it.

I waited for her response, and I’m glad I did:

I actually remember that day very clearly. Yes, your hand was sweaty, but I was nervous too. I was not any more socially adept than you were. It was a first for me also to sit and hold someone’s hand. I also valued the human contact. In 10th grade I had never had a date, never had a kiss, or any type of boy/girl interactions so Yes I remember it VERY clearly. I really wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do next. So I just held your hand and watched the play.

That was way more than I expected to hear about this memory. In my mind, she was really popular, way beyond me. I figured she was holding my hand out of pity, and I was willing to take it (and yes, I know how pathetic that sounds). But in fact, she must have held my hand because she liked me. If I had tried to kiss her, I could have. But in fact, nothing more happened, then or ever. We didn’t start passing notes or meeting up between classes, nothing. I just had no functional social skills whatsoever.

Who knows how this one incident when it changed my life. I don’t play “what if” games. I’m happy with my life where it is right now, I can’t imagine myself being happier. But I’m able to see that this was a real pivotal moment in my life because of what DIDN’T happen. If I had known then what I know now and if I had tried to kiss her and she had let me, no matter what the repercussions might have been between her and me, things would’ve changed dramatically. For example, this kiss would have given me confidence in myself a full year earlier than actually happened. This means that the girl I actually started dating first would’ve been someone different. This girl was two years younger than me, so I delayed going to college until she graduated so that we could go together (even though that isn’t what ended up happening). If I had not waited these two years, I would not have met my first wife (which means that I would not have my son) nor would I have connected with my current wife, whom I also met when I started going to college way back when.

This one kiss that I did not get would have changed absolutely everything.

It’s just amazing to think about, and makes me reflect on how many such pivot points we have in our lives. All of this is good fodder for my novel The What-If Girl.