Category Archives: Personal

On McCourt and Mentors

It’s almost fall in southern California, and I can’t help thinking of school (of course, according to my girlfriend, summer ain’t over until the last hundred degree day passes in November). In a way, I miss the buying of books, the planning of school newspapers, and that sort of thing, but in other ways, I am happy to be free of the homework and social anxiety of those years. What I really miss are some of my favorite teachers.

I miss my hippie school and how we were able to call our teachers by their first names. I remember Persis, who in ninth grade gave me a failing grade for my first paper and sent me into a state of shock. Once I got over her style of grading, I began to appreciate the discussion-heavy classes and her introduction to Gilgamesh, Antigone, All Quiet on the Western Front, and much of Shakespeare. I can picture taking notes in Wendy’s Arabic class that I somehow passed (yet I now have no knowledge of anything as simple as the alphabet). There was Susan’s Spanish class, where one morning at an ungodly hour we brought in a potluck, and each member of the class explained the ingredients in Spanish (I made a muy bien Caesar salad). And there was Ernie’s AP Chem class that I miraculously passed. There were college teachers whose classes were supposed to be life-changing, but I always used my high school classes as a reference point, and none of them quite measured up.

And in real life, the now, I miss these mentors, the teachers who encouraged me to write, to learn, to read, to be a nerd and not care.  I miss them because most would never have tolerated me starting this paragraph with an And.

If there is one ingredient I think I lack in my screenwriting career, it’s someone with knowledge of how this thing works: who to contact about queries, when a draft is finished, why my ideas are all wrong. This mentor could give an encouraging word to keep me going, or maybe a piece of advice to save my screenplay. It has nothing to do with success, and it has a lot to do with failure. You need someone to tell you your career isn’t over before it has begun, to prevent you from throwing out that half-finished draft.

It was with a mild amount of envy that I listened to Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man on audio book the other week. You can’t choose when to be born or where to go to school, but those kids lucky enough to write in his classroom must have known they had hit the jackpot. Filled with stories, songs, and jests, always honest, a true practitioner of the craft, McCourt must have convinced a lot of kids to be writers. There’s this quote from student Elizabeth Kadetsky, “I nevertheless left Stuyvesant bragging to everyone I knew about my association with this legendary teacher, despite his utter lack of fame among anyone who hadn’t been his student or one of their parents.” And that’s how I feel about my teachers, the mentors in my life, almost all of whom I have left behind.

You can’t help but laugh at this excerpt from Teacher Man.

New Opportunities

So, the writing career is not entirely dormant in Los Angeles these days. I have a new writing gig—on Top Story! Weekly, a sketch show that takes place at the iO West in Hollywood each Sunday night. The writers tackle events in the news ala Saturday Night Live, but I think in many ways our show is funnier and often more topical.

Of course, I may be biased. The actors are top-notch, and it’s a real thrill to write something on a Wednesday only to see it performed on a Sunday. I think I’m hooked.

Here’s my first sketch, it’s a take-off on the Jersey Shore “contract negotiations.” I had another skit in last Sunday’s episode—“Elena Kagan versus the World,” a mash-up of Scott Pilgrim and the recent Senate supreme court confirmation hearings. I’ll post it when it becomes available online. Let me know what you think in the comments!

A Year in LA

So, a year has passed since graduation from college and my move out to LA, which is weird because it has felt like a decade. Sure, there have been disappointments, I mean, the best I could do in one year, three screenplays, a plethora of sketches, countless query letters, and a ukulele band (just kidding on that last one) was a positive read from a producer and another read from a fledgling production company.

The stand-up comedy career fizzled after my girlfriend walked out of the open mic that one Saturday night last October. I would continue, but she was the last audience member in the audience at one in the morning.

The screenwriting isn’t on hiatus, but it hasn’t picked up. I found freelance journalism more meaningful this past year, and after a couple of commissions, I even made some money. Not enough to, you know, make it a living, but it’s something I want to pursue more of in the future. I mean, if I have even encouraged my mom to pitch article ideas to me, I know that it’s not in vain.

I have heard the next year in LA is much easier. I hope so.

Writing Accomplishments:

1. A couple of credits via imdb (more to come): Here
2. A writers group that is actually pretty helpful and—through the group—an equally cool short film collaborator.
3. One successful blog that has gotten upwards of thirty-thousand hits.
4. Multiple articles published for print and online periodicals.
5. Three screenplays: “My Father the Agent,” “Da-ad,” and “Truly Desperate,” all of which I am very proud of.

The list will be longer next year, I promise.

Some things I learned:

1. If you have sixteen items on a fifteen item express line at Ralph’s—expect to be yelled at in West LA.
2. All pedestrians west of the county line should be required to wear body armor.
3. Your mechanic is your best friend.
4. “You can have anything you want but you can’t take it from me,” truer words have never been spoken (Axl Rose: “Welcome to the Jungle”).
5. The people who are mean to you are generally mean to everyone—don’t take it personally.
6. Life without learning isn’t worth living.
7. If you see Mel Gibson holding a puppet and emoting, run the other way.

What have you learned this past year? Please tell me in the comments.

Earliest Influences

I have been boring my friends lately with questions about their earliest memories. Watch out, I’m about to bore you guys, too. But I have to admit that I think some of these things are important to know. I mean, what sort of person would I be if I hadn’t listened to Peter, Paul and Mary growing up? I don’t know—I probably wouldn’t know the chords to “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

In terms of music, my earliest memories are of the aforementioned band’s Peter, Paul and Mommy album, which features shredders like Puff and “Going to the Zoo.”

I even remember seeing them live at a Smithsonian folk festival on the mall. I know their blend of folk music and literary lyrics inspired me. During my musical career, they were certainly songwriting influences. How else can you explain all of the dull “meaningful” songs I wrote but never shared? Of course, my protest songs sucked, and theirs changed the world.

This ability to play popular music and say something important stuck with me. I don’t quite believe musicians have much power in this world, but their unironic belief that they did and that their words could change things still moves me. What gems. Mary is sorely missed.

As for movies, The Nightingale on VHS is my first. Sure, I can remember sitting through a trailer for Ghostbusters when I must have been about three (part of a rental for Look Who’s Talking Now in that way back year of 1990). Both movies scared me senseless. I could not watch The Nightingale, a Hans Christian Andersen story redone for television as part of the Faerie Tale Theater without crying. The visage of death during the final act, when the emperor (played by Mick Jagger of all people) is on his final breath, sent me upstairs and into the arms of my mom—every time.

It’s a bit of a time capsule now on Hulu, but the movie’s ability to literally place the fear of death into me has stayed put. In that way, I will always find film a bit more powerful than the next person. What other medium could make me afraid to fall asleep at night?

Interesting side-note, Ivan Passer, one of my favorite directors of the Czech new wave and co-writer of Loves of a Blonde helmed this disaster. And, yes, Mick Jagger is really my earliest acting influence. Blame him.

Finally, I am having trouble remembering my earliest books. It’s not like I skipped the picture books, either. Even before I knew how to read, the simple act of holding a book in my hands was magical. Paddington Bear’s picture books come to mind. So do Richard Scarry’s complex animal-worlds in Busytown. Babar was a big influence, both in books and on VHS. I used to take off my clothes and run around the house naked each time I read In the Night Kitchen. One Dragon’s Dream by Peter Pavey feels familiar, although I remember it being more colorful than the stills I found on the net. Goodnight Moon and Corduroy probably round out the list. I still have a weird fascination with department stores ala Corduroy the bear—enough to make a visit to downtown Philadelphia last year all about the Wannamaker’s.
I didn’t have much truck with early readers. By the time I became literate I was onto young adult and beyond. The Egypt Game and The Pushcart War were some of my elementary school favorites. There are many many more influences, especially television shows (I still remember the day my parents installed cable back at the beginning of the first Gulf War) but those are perhaps too embarrassing for this post.

Tell me about your earliest memories. I can’t wait to hear!

Lessons from My Dad

I think my dad is enjoying a literary renaissance. When I was growing up, the most he wrote was the occasional birthday card, but now, oh boy. I think it’s the internet age. Recently, an article he wrote with my uncle Mike about Let It Be ended up in PopMatters. Is this really my dad? This past couple of years he has published books, started a couple of websites, he even has a blog—if he weren’t writing about education issues, I would be afraid of the competition.

Obviously, I am very proud of him. I’ve been thinking about how his writing and his advice on writing has changed mine. I picked out a few things that he has taught me over the years and I thought I would share them this post.

1. Write Both Sides

The other weekend he visited and somehow got a hold of one of my scripts. Now, here is some background, I never really show any of my manuscripts to Dad because I am frightened of his criticism. Finished works are OK, but the manuscripts he’ll bloody to a pulp. In fact, before he arrived I hid all of my screenplays in a guitar bag. Of course, that didn’t stop him. Somehow he dug up a second draft of Da-ad under my bed and spent half the night reading it.

Over breakfast, he told me what he thought. The criticism was not pretty. Something especially stuck with me from the drubbing: why did I make the teachers at the school in Da-ad so awful? I had drawn from my experience and had simply written a caricature of a mean headmaster. In my dad’s words, “They have concerns too, especially if there are drugs on campus, it’s a huge liability. They could be in a lot of trouble if they knew and didn’t say anything.” I had never really thought about their points and their reasoning. Or if I did, I had not taken them seriously.

And I think that’s a helpful lesson; every character deserves perspective and a mind of his or her own. Otherwise, they are just caricatures. To be good, you have to write both sides.

2. Write Every Day

My dad is very insistent on this one. It’s simple advice: if you want to do anything well, you have to do it every day. This was much easier in college, when there were dozens of assignments each week, but here in the real world I spend admittedly less time in front of a word processing program. But it’s that discipline that makes a good writer. Through repetition, practice, and revision, I can become a better writer (hopefully). Like any other instrument, the writing brain needs practice.

3. Read Everything

I remember that my dad and I spent nearly every Saturday morning in the Montgomery County Public Library. While I wiled away the time, bored and listless in the young adult section, my dad would work on a personal crusade to find eighteen books on nineteen different subjects. There was no topic he didn’t want to read about, which made it so impossible to find him after an hour or two. He could be in biographies this week, science next, and then literature the day after. I could walk several circles around the stacks before I spied him poring over a couple dozen books in a corner.

If there is one lesson he imparted to me, it’s to be curious. The more eclectic my taste, the more I have to write about. Writing about a young twentysomething screenwriter gets boring after awhile, too—so why not branch out?

Lessons Learned: Hollywood Style

Last year at this time I was preparing for finals and getting ready to graduate college. My plans were vague, although even in April, I knew I wanted to brave California and move to Los Angeles. My girlfriend planned to move out here, and gosh, I was going to follow her, too. I remember spending a great deal of time studying, and not much time thinking about my future. I’m glad I wasn’t more reflective, because, let’s face it, it was either blissful ignorance or panic.

The wheel began to slam down around May, when graduation was well upon our class and I hadn’t even a hint of a job offer. While other students talked about grad school or work opportunities, I had nothing. It was a recession, after all, and, well, how do you surmount bad luck?

The next few months after graduation were spent scrambling. I was living the dream in Los Angeles, but the best I could do was the occasional tutoring gig. In the fall I found a couple of part-time jobs and juggled those. I was writing, but the search for jobs in entertainment fell by the wayside. I spent a great deal of time feeling sorry for myself, which is pretty exhausting.

But that gets old, and soon enough I learned better.

I learned that I am not the center of the universe, despite what I may have thought about myself. That was a tough realization, but needful. Being humble doesn’t mean giving up on my quest to be a screenwriter, but it does mean being more flexible, more open, and more willing to take criticism. This opening up is not complete, but hopefully I am doing a better job of this as a writer and a person. It reminds me of that Socrates quote: “I know that I know nothing.” It’s about as good a lesson as any and I’m glad I learned it at twenty-three versus sixty-seven.

Patience was my next Hollywood lesson. A working screenwriter told me when I first moved out here I’d be lucky to get something of mine seriously read by thirty. I tossed off that comment when I first heard it, but I can’t help but realize how right he was. It’s disheartening, but it is a fact of life. The climb is that competitive. Not to say I can’t ever have a script produced, but I have to be willing to wait. And wait.

Finally, I learned to be unique. I was lucky enough to study the works of John Waters for a project. At first I didn’t really “get” why an anti-establishment beatnik would pick up a camera and film his friends doing outrageous things like eating dog poop (Pink Flamingos), but now I kind of understand. To be original, to be in effect oneself takes effort. For Waters that meant taking camp to another dimension, for me, well, I still have to find my voice. But I know I don’t want to be in Hollywood if I’m just writing someone else’s story. Where’s the fun in that? I have come to express my vision, whatever that turns out to be.

But most of all I have learned to live both sides. I have been the entitled college student and I have also been the struggling tutor considering food stamps. I have auditioned actors and stood on the other side of that casting table, meeting casting directors for the first and only time. I looked down on the world and now look up, and wonder what’s so great about the top anyway. Better parties? Again, it’s that gift of knowing I know nothing that Hollywood has really imparted to me.

What have you learned since college? I would love to hear in the comments.

Music and Me

I learned to play guitar the summer after my senior year of high school. The guitar was a graduation present from my mom; after years of fantasizing about playing an instrument, the Yamaha plain pine six-string felt like a gift from heaven. We had moved after graduation to upstate New York from suburban Maryland, and I took lessons at a local music shop, perhaps my only social outlet that summer. I was impressed with my progress, unlike piano, which I had suffered at for years, strumming chords was easy enough. I never was that subtle on the guitar; it took me years before I could pluck a figure, but I always loved to strum.

My first performances were for the very lucky oldsters at the Goshen senior center where I volunteered that summer. I am not sure they quite enjoyed the material (only a few walkouts), but I didn’t mind playing. I took inspiration from folk giants from my parents’ generation: Peter Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, some Neil Young, the oldies, as well as some new stuff like Sufjan and The Mountain Goats.

In the fall, at college, I quickly fell into a group of other students who played folk music. Even more exciting, open mics abounded that first semester. Just about every week there was another chance to play folk music—whether a social justice event or a coffee house, it didn’t matter, I was there. And most exciting of all, I was writing my own stuff. The song I wrote on a Thursday I could perform in front of a rapt audience Friday. It was the most instant, and greatest gratification I had received so far as a performer.

I think I was happiest during this period of college, when I was really playing and writing music. It was my thing, more than any other writing I had done in my short life, this stuff was actually accepted by an audience (unlike the poetry of my high school years that was met mostly by groans and the gnashing of teeth (I won’t even mention the stand-up comedy)). There were moments, like when I organized my own concert with a friend at a venue on campus that I even felt like I could make a career out of this. The idea of never having to get a straight job was just as thrilling then as it was now.

Then all of the people I used to play music with moved on. Or maybe I moved on. Or we all moved on and by junior or senior year, the time I used to spend with my music I spent with homework or playwriting or being a deejay.

It’s called a plateau, and if you achieve any level of success in your life you will become familiar with this deadly geography. It is the feeling that although you have made it past the initial stage of trying, and you have a success or two, you will never do anything better. This state of being, can last from several months to a lifetime. And after hitting that first plateau there is a second a third down the line, too.

I also felt that the audience had moved on. Instead of trying out new musical ideas, I was the same songwriter in freshman year that I was in senior year. Even though I now knew barre chords and could do a couple simple figures and solos, let’s face it, I wasn’t learning enough to make the music compelling. Not only was I losing an audience, I was losing confidence that anyone would want to see me play.

And maybe they didn’t. My nadir came during a Peace Week event the spring of my senior year. Admittedly, between my thesis film, several classes and the whole graduation thing, I didn’t have much time to practice. Either way, I was awful. Of the people who came out, a couple of friends, some people selling baked goods, other bands, none paid attention to my set. It was devastating, enough that I really never took my music seriously afterwards.

I regret that.

So, here’s my advice to you, pursuer of creative things. Don’t give up. Even when your audience has moved on, don’t move on, too. The plateau happens to everyone. We can’t know when it will end, but there are things you can do to climb the mountain. I could have made an effort to form a band, learn jazz guitar, do something completely different for a concert. Instead, I panicked and shut down. Ninety-nine percent of creative people give up. There’s no shortage of musicians, artists, writers in this world, but there are only a few who can live up to their dreams. My advice: let go of the pride and get to work. There is one reward for failure, but there are multiple outcomes when you try.

Anyone have a similar experience? Tell me about it in the comments.