Pitch It To Me

In my last post, I was saying that two of the classes I’m teaching this term two are very similar to classes I took in screenwriting school. One — the topic of my last post, I enjoyed.

The OTHER was pitching class. 

The room was small and bright. The number of students was less than 12. We sat around a table. It was a class that required performance, real time responses, and a certain kind of salesmanship that — to the untrained eye — seems not to be salesmanship at all.

On the first day of class, our teacher entered and told us a riveting personal story. It was exciting, suspenseful, a little vulnerable and very relatable — the kind of story where you think, “yes, I feel that too, you are just like me!” But just as I was getting sucked in, the instructor dropped a bombshell: The whole story wasn’t true. It was an example of “a ramp,” meant to engage listeners, make them feel connected to you and to the larger story you are about to pitch. The instructor noted that the best ramps propel the listener so naturally into the pitch that the listener doesn’t even realize where the small talk ends and the pitch begins. Even though his ramp was a lie, our teacher said, it wasn’t considered a lie because everything, he said, from the moment you enter “the room,” is part of the pitch.

We were ten minutes into our first class session and I was feeling the first stabs of panic. “I can’t do this,” I thought. I’m a terrible liar. I can lie. It’s just that ten seconds after the lie, I have to tell you that I lied. I’m basically that character in KNIVES OUT who vomits every time she tells a lie except that instead of vomiting vomit — I vomit the truth. Even as a complete newbie, I intuited that my style of involuntary, often crazy-sounding truth-vomits were not going to help me create the kind of “conversational and compelling” experience the instructor was talking about.

During the course of the the semester, my anxiety and discomfort shifted from ramps to just about every aspect of pitching. I left most class sessions feeling like I had profoundly under-impressed in an environment that was all about ones ability to impress. At the same time, I knew that my discomfort was a symptom of growth, that I was learning a skill I needed, and that it was a skill that, with practice, I could eventually master.

Some of my fellow students that semester were amazing, professional level pitchers. I Although it was sometimes emotionally hard to have to follow their dazzling high-wire act with my own, seeing them pitch every week modeled for me what was possible.  And it’s possible that all my emotions during that class helped me better remember what I learned. Certainly it made an impression on me, and I’ve been grateful for that class every time I’ve had to pitch in the years since. I’ve had the experience of going into a room with a pitch and being told by an exec that he requested the meeting purely because someone had told him it was a “fun pitch.” It felt good — I might not be the person with a sold show, but at least I had a fun pitch!

A couple years ago, I placed in an Alumni pitching competition with a feature. Afterwards I chatted with the woman who had won in the TV category and she said, “Did you have pitch class with Trey Calloway?” Indeed I had. It was not my favorite class, but it was a valuable class, so when the folks at UF asked if I could teach a pitching class, I said “yes,” figuring if I can give my students half the experience that was given to me, I’ll have done something helpful.

Something New / Script Analysis

This spring I’ll be taking a cross country trip in order to teach three classes at University of Florida.

Two of the topics I’ll be teaching will be very similar to classes at USC that I feel were the most valuable to my writing career.  One of them I enjoyed greatly.  The other, I did not enjoy as much, but have always been grateful that I took it. I’m going to write a post about each.

The one I enjoyed was called “Screenplay Analysis.”

Flowers-vocabularyBefore my script analysis class, the construction of a movie felt to me like a large amorphous blob. The class showed me how, in fact, a movie is made up of segments and parts that perform various functions — that there are recurring techniques and devices that are recognizable. It was the difference between walking through a garden and seeing “a bunch of flowers” and walking through a garden and seeing tulips and roses and snapdragons and having a sense of why they are planted where they are — either for aesthetic purposes — color or height or when they will bloom — or because of what they need to grow — light or shade or more or less water or a certain kind of soil. And also — to belabor the metaphor — differentiating between kind of gardens and understanding the elements that might go into choosing what kind of garden to plant in the first place.*

Another aspect of script analysis that made it enjoyable was that it was a large class taught in a dark auditorium. The teacher lectured, and unless you raised your hand, you didn’t have to fear he was going to break the fourth wall and pull you on stage. In my pedagogy classes, this was considered pretty old school, but honestly, I enjoyed it. I could process and think and plan out my questions if I had them. It was a class about receiving, and a class about training ones brain to think in a certain way.

However, it was a divisive class among the students. While it was one of my favorites (so much so that I snuck into other sections of the class for the next couple semesters), it was other people’s least favorite class. They found it boring and confusing.

I imagine it will be the same with my students. An odd part of being  a teacher is how at any point you can be rocking one student’s world while at the same time you are simply inflicting torture on another student — by teaching the same material.

So I’m both looking forward to — and daunted by — the opportunity to teach this subject for the first time!  I’ll try to check back in and let you know how it goes!

*I feel I should make it clear that I know next to nothing about flowers or gardens.

Learning from Mistakes

So, I’m doing this 21-day challenge that a friend invited me to do. It’s like this Deepak Chopra / Oprah Winfrey thing that’s supposed to raise your vibration. Each day there’s a task and a meditation and an inspirational quote. Today’s inspirational quote is:

“Learning from mistakes is a great lesson for growth.”

Which turned out to be extra-appropriate for today, because today, like a dumbass, I left my purse in the back seat of the car when I went to the gym. Less than an hour later, as I was treading on the treadmill, Paul’s phone started blowing up with fraud alerts for one of our credit cards, and then for another.

We left the gym to go home and figure out what was happening. Because my purse was where I’d left it in the back seat of the car, it took a few more minutes for me to realize that the lock had been jimmied, and my wallet removed from my purse!

Thus began a gauntlet afternoon of talking to security, filing police reports and calling banks and credit card companies. One thing I learned today is that several credit card companies, even after you press the option to “report a lost or stolen card” still send you up a tall phone tree. In under an hour, the culprit traveled from spending $2000 at Nordstrom’s at the Grove to Century City Mall to spend an additional $1500 at the Macy’s… possibly while I was on hold waiting to tell Macys to block the card.

Part two of the bureaucratic saga will begin tomorrow, when I set out to replace my driver’s license, global entry card, and yes, my social security card. (I know, I know, despite the fact that it’s clearly sized to keep in a wallet, you should never keep you social security card in a wallet. I did mention I was a dumbass, right?)

So anyway –I guess this is as an amusing time as any to mention that in ten days, I’ll be taking a five-day road trip across the country to start a temporary job in Florida. It might be nice to have a credit card or ATM card on the road. And the only thing they really emphasized at the job was that, in addition to my driver’s license, I would definitely need my social security card to show to Human Resources. (No problem, I thought, I’ll just put it here in my wallet so I don’t forget!)

Learning from mistakes is a great lesson for growth!

(I also went to a screen of Little Women which I enjoyed, as any would-be writer and lover of books would.)

Thanks, Part 2

2019 has been a year. Such a year that I haven’t even thought much about how it’s the end of a decade — another thing to process at another time.

Parents of dear friends have been ill this year. Parents of dear friends have died. Spouses of friends were ill this year. Spouses of friends have died. A beloved teacher died this year. My mother had hips replaced, my father-in-law lost much of his sight, My mother-in-law’s unflagging energy has begun to flag.

Predictions about the environment became more dire this year, people became more clear about what divides them and less interested in bridging those divides.

My career aspirations took beatings surrounded by the kind of circumstances  that make me question not just if I’ll ever be able to achieve them, but if they are really worth achieving.

What I find myself thinking about, as much as lack of money or milestones (perhaps I am processing the decade after all) is how, at an age by which I’d expected to be “reaching back” to assist others, I instead find myself continuing to wait for my own air-mask to drop from the airplane ceiling as we fly through increasing turbulence.

It is hard to know what kind of movie I’m in — Is it a movie where the hero experiences a crisis of faith, but stays steadfast to the goal and it makes her success ultimately sweeter? Or is it a movie where the hero realizes her goals have been false, and finally notices the more authentic life that has been there all along, just waiting — in girl-next-door-like fashion —  to be loved?

Why did I name this post Thanks, Part 2? Truthfully, I started writing it the other day, and now I can’t remember! But rather than change the title, I’ll rise to the occasion: 2019 has been a year — the kind of year where when people ask, all you think to say is “I survived.” And, if you are me, you might say that with a dry tone deprecating tone.

But, actually — that’s huge. The gift of survival. To arrive at the end a year in one piece; to have another year to try to figure it all out (or not)?

I’ll take it.

Thanks.

Words To Drive By “Superman Falling”

EPISODE 06: “Superman Falling”
To save his marriage, a New York advertising exec reluctantly accompanies his wife to the Midwest.

Superman Falling lives near to my heart, first because it came from an emotional place, and second, because it I learned so much working on it.

The emotional origin was years ago. I was recovering from a major abdominal surgery – the removal of a cancerous tumor that had been discovered as during tests as I was trying to get pregnant – and I had a dream.

In the dream, I was standing near a window on a high floor of a building, holding a baby. The baby slipped from my hands and fell out a window. After he fell, I started running as fast as I could down a stairwell, desperately hoping… for what? That all wasn’t lost – or that I would make it to the ground first and somehow catch him? But as I ran and ran, the realization sank in that there was no saving this. The sorrow and guilt was overwhelming.

When I woke, I felt compelled to write the dream, which I did, making up some of the circumstances that weren’t clear in the dream, but leaving its core – the child falling and someone running down flight after flight of stairs, hoping desperately, and at the same time knowing what waits at the bottom.

A couple years later I had gone back to school for writing, and I took a version of the pages I’d written after the dream to a writing workshop.

Where I learned something important. Just because you feel certain emotions when you’re writing, doesn’t mean readers will feel those emotions when they read what you’ve written.

The folks in my writing workshop didn’t feel what I felt. Instead, they were confused. They floated different theories as to why the story “wasn’t working yet,” and offered advice on how to possibly fix it. But the killing blow was the instructor’s note. He said, “The moment you’ve written about isn’t the real story, the real story is what happens after this moment.”

Notes that are versions of “go write something completely different,” are tough to swallow. I’m sad to say that I have entire projects sitting on aging hard drives after getting similar notes. So kudos to my past self — determined and energetic and a little bit dumb — because she went off and actually wrote the “after this moment” story.

Which still didn’t work.

My instructor read it, and gave me a new note: You want to have two stories, not just one. There’s a present-tense story, then there’s a chronic tension born of the past that puts pressure on what’s happening in the present.

These weren’t words I was ready to I understand completely, but something about them resonated. And when I went back to the page and bludgeoned my way through another draft—I began to experience a slow-motion epiphany: The past shapes the present and adds meaning to it—and there are different ways weaving this into a narrative. Later, I’d study screenwriting, and recognize this more clearly. Even today, I often find myself thinking about how what I’m watching or reading is a “two-story” story.

In the final version of Superman Falling, the plot is entirely fictional, the protagonist is not me—his guilt has different roots, the situation is different – my own experience mostly replaced. But somehow the act of replacing almost everything, and transplanting my sense of grief and guilt – made the story “work” more effectively—not perfectly at all, but the best I was capable of then!

And the process of crafting the story was part of a transformation in my life. Those flashes of understanding and fleeting moments of control I’d felt whetted my appetite for learning more… and that hunger is something that has given my life purpose and meaning for more than a decade.

“Superman Falling” was first published in Colorado Review.

Cover art by Ted Giffin. Sound design by Greg Gordon Smith.