Thinking about Chadwick Boseman, Cancer and Hollywood

Would you rather be famous / remembered / rich / accomplished / loved / fill-in-the-blank-with a dream — and die younger, or struggle in obscurity / not accomplish said dream (though work to find happiness in other ways) and live longer? Would you rather feel healthy for a shorter period of time, or feel sickly but live longer?

“Would you rather” games are the worst, because for the most part we don’t get to choose anyway, we just have to learn to take what comes. Love, kids, success, health… you don’t always get what you want. But then sometimes we do get to choose, and the choosing is at best bittersweet because the opportunity to get things we want tends to involve sacrifice. The dream job is going to take hours or years away from people you love, children may cost or delay a career goal,

I’ve been thinking of Chadwick Boseman since his death was announced a little over a week ago. We didn’t have much in common in terms of race or gender, specific profession or level of success… but we shared an industry built around storytelling, and aspirations to succeed in that industry, and were part of a much smaller subset: He was diagnosed with Stage 3 Colon Cancer when he was still fairly young, just as I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Colon Cancer when I was young.

I’ve never specifically asked other cancer experiencers, but I think many of us feel a special kinship with people whose diagnoses most closely match ours, type and stage and special characteristics. There is a sense of having someone who is about to undertake the same challenging journey we are. The kinship is based on prognosis as well… having similar goals and obstacles and hopes. It’s like when two friends bond over wanting kids or money or success… and, like in those circumstances, sometimes one gets one thing and one gets another, and a chasm opens up. But because at one time you were in the same place, you watch that person, even if from a distance, because in another universe, maybe their fate is yours, or vice versa.

I’ve always been grateful that when I was diagnosed with colon cancer, I was in the middle of the Outback. In a way that, looking back, feels almost magical, everyone in the community was supportive of me devoting the better part of a year to flailing, figuring things out and exploring healing methods — physical, nutritional, psychological, spiritual. I remember I’d just finished some kind of grant application before I left for the hospital, planning to turn it in after my surgery — but when what I’d assumed would be a small, Stage 1 tumor, ended up being Stage 3, with lymph nodes involved, that project vanished from my mind. I don’t think I ever turned in the application, and today I can’t even say what the project was. It was something that seemed important, and then it didn’t. It clearly must not have felt like something pivotal to my life or career?

But what if it had felt that way? Would I have walked away from a BIG opportunity in the same way, or would I have grabbed for the brass ring? And would that choice have made a difference in my outcome? Did — and this feels like a tremendously unfair question to even ask — did Chadwick’s Boseman’s decision to keep working through his illness affect its outcome? The answer is there’s no knowing. He might have stepped away from work and had it change nothing in terms of his health. He still would have died, but died without having been the King of Wakanda. Or, maybe the long hours and stress shifted something — or prevented something from shifting — such that if he had sacrifice the role that would make him famous he might have lived… but he might have always regretted the lost opportunity, and would never have known if that choice made a difference.

The second time I was diagnosed, with uterine cancer, was nine years after the first time. I was living in Los Angeles, a year out of grad school. And it did feel like a pivotal moment in my career. I’d won a screenwriting prize and been hired to do my first rewrite. But — I was still working full time, so was swimming in the long hours and stress of trying to do both well. I was doing things I knew, given my history, could be detrimental to my health, but I didn’t think about it, I thought if I can just get through this I would come out on the other side and everything would be worth it.

Los Angeles was a very different place to be diagnosed — and, looking back, I see how much I was again swayed by my environment. Inclusive of a fairly major surgery and recovery time, I missed only two weeks at my day job. Though people said I should take the time I needed, I couldn’t let go of my reluctance to inconvenience people, and I feared falling behind. Despite everyone’s admonitions to take care of myself, I believed that whenever I did return, everything I missed would have piled up, and I felt responsible for that. And, on the screenwriting front, I made sure to turn in my rewrite draft before telling the producer I was working. It was awkward timing, as they were about to fire me anyway– and did. Looking back, I’ve concluded that was “lucky” I got fired (or not re-hired) when I did, since if I hadn’t, I might have kept trying to please in a situation where it was not destined for any writer to please (as evidenced by the two writers who followed me on the project). So it wouldn’t have been “worth it.”

But is there a scenario that would have made it worth it? If I’d gotten the screenplay I loved made? If it had become something that other people loved as well? What would have been a fair price to trade?

I’m going to stop writing, because I have more questions and thoughts and feelings than I can address without thousands more words, and there’s all kinds of dangerous speculation to wander into. But I will close with the observation that we, as a society, engage a lot of conflicting views about illness, and that I as an individual, do as well.

As an addendum — Something I didn’t know about Chadwick Boseman is that he was a writer too. He is someone cared deeply about his art. I’m so sorry he didn’t have time to do more work, and so sorry that he and his family didn’t have more time for love and life and all that entails.

My Journey from Contest to Manager to Agent to Paid Writer… Maybe!

Depending on how long you’ve been exploring the business of being a writer in Hollywood, you’ve probably asked or heard someone ask, “How do I get a writing job?” One of the first answers to this is often, “You need to have an agent.” The following question is, predictably, “How do I get an agent?” To which you’ve probably heard someone say,  “Get a manager and  the manager will get you an agent.” Which of course begets, “How do I get a manager?” And the answer is often, “Win a contest.”

So, if you win a contest you’ll get a manager then get an agent then get a writing job. Is this true? Yeeessss… ish.

Does winning a contest get you a manager? In 2011, not long after I graduated from school,  I  won a pretty big contest. It was sponsored by Amazon Studios and had a chunk of prize money attached. Amazon ended up optioning the script, twice. Both times, the executive pursuing the option waxed poetic about how they were going to introduce me to agents and get me repped. Once I signed the paperwork, he never mentioned the idea again and any emails where I brought it up the subject went unanswered. I also probably sent a dozen cold queries citing my contest win — (note that this is pretty much NOTHING in a numbers game like cold queries) and also didn’t get a response. Certainly no one ever sought me out based on my contest win. So I did my day job and allocated my extra time to writing. A few YEARS went by…

THEN, about four or years later, I was invited to a party by an old USC classmate. At that party, another classmate introduced me to his manager. A couple months after that, the same classmate heard that the manager had a specific opening in his roster.  He wrote to both of us, recommending me.  So at that point there was a combination of things at work. This classmate knew me personally from school, had read my writing and knew it was in the genre the manager was looking for. AND he knew I had won this contest.  I think the contest win helped give him the confidence to make the referral, because it was like having someone else, someone more important, vouch for me. There’s a good chance I wouldn’t have gotten the referral, or the manager’s interest, without the contest win. But the personal connection with someone who had actually worked with me, who was also connected to the manager (enough to know his needs) was also key. The fact that the manager had met me face-to-face among people he already liked probably also worked in my favor. I think if any of those things had been absent, it wouldn’t have happened. So:

  • Contest win  + Degree from Name School + Referrer familiar with work AND personality + Intangible Group approval of having been invited to party + Writing samples = Manager.

Does having a manager get you an agent? Almost a year into my relationship with my manager, I wrote a pilot script that “popped” more than the other scripts I’d been working on. The manager used this to get me read by two agents he knew. The first wasn’t responsive, but the second was. This agent worked at the same company as a senior agent who had taught a class at USC. I had worked hard in the class, and kept in touch in the years since (without agenda, I’ll note. He had promised he would never rep one of his students, and I believed him). So again — it was a confluence of things… an exciting script, the manager’s relationship with the agent PLUS the goodwill of the senior agent based on the effort I had put in to the class and to staying in touch… and I had the good school credentials and the contest win, AND – at this point a script I had been working on while un-repped had won a fancy prize — a fellowship in Switzerland. As a note, I don’t think the agent particularly liked either of my contest-winning scripts,  but he liked that he could tell people it had won because it made me shiny.

  • Manager + Manager’s Agent Relationship + Senior agent as secondary referrer familiar with my work AND personality + Degree from Name School + Hot Script + Other samples + Contest Win + Fellowship Win = Agent.

Does having an agent get you work? My new agent used the exciting script to get me a “water bottle tour” and  some pitches.  Ultimately one of the companies I pitched entered into the development process to pitch the series. Everything was going according to plan! However, the project ultimately floundered and didn’t move forward. The exec who had acquired it never responded to another email. My samples earned me the opportunity to pitch for some open writing assignments, I got to break stories, go to meetings and give my “take.” Though, on the rare occasions my take was choses, the projects ultimately fell through,  I enjoyed the process. I could feel myself becoming a better all-round writer and pitcher.

There was only one problem:

In the four years of being unrepped + year of having a manager + four years of having both manager and agent (= nine years), none of the work I’d done had been PAID.  All this time, I was teaching, editing, consulting, doing random side hustles and admin work — or going deeper into debt — or both.

Today, as I write this, this seems like it might be about to change. Not in a big way. Not even in a “quit my day job” way. But, in a way that at least breaks the almost decade-long cold streak. (Knock wood — send good vibes!)

To say it is to jinx it, so details must wait for a future post , but I can tell you now that the answer to the question “Does having an agent mean paid work” will be an equation containing a number of factors…

That Time I Almost Unfriended April Ludgate

We’re stressed. Here’s a poll taken in June by the American Psychological Association, and here’s an article about about how we’re more stressed now than in the 90s — especially if we we are old enough to remember the 90s.

Individuals in my life support this. They Report incidents of road rage, scuffles between maskers and anti-maskers, flare-ups on social media and in life. Nerves are fraying, people are getting more judgmental and less patient with the quirks and foibles of others.

Except for me… or so I thought. I hadn’t yelled at Paul or gotten worked up on Facebook. I was doing pretty well…

Until the April Ludgate incident.

My husband’s lunchtime break of late has been rewatching Parks & Rec. Occasionally, I’ll wander in from the back room and join him or listen from the next room while working on a jigsaw puzzle (we all have our own ways of self-medicating).

A couple weeks ago, I brought my lunch in in time to catch the last half of an episode from Season 5. The storyline was that Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott’s character) had taken a job running a campaign for a congressman in Washington D.C. and he’d brought April Ludgate (played by Aubrey Plaza) with him — I think because she’d been flailing about what to do with the rest of her life.

So in this episode, Ben is having problems getting the respect of the interns, who are young, good-looking, richer and better connected than he is. In particular, one intern doesn’t do the work Ben asks him to and and seems to be the source of disrespectful drawings of Ben with a stick up his butt.

The combination of these things cause Ben to regress into a pandering high schoolish nerd trying desperately to fit in with the cool crowd. It’s funny but painful to watch him buy everyone pizzas and organize an ultimate Frisbee match while everyone quietly mocks him–and it’s a relief when he finally gives up this ill-fated effort and puts his foot down with the privileged ringleader intern.

But the twist is — it wasn’t intern who drew the pictures that sent Ben into a tailspin.

It was April.

Ludgate.

So to recap, Ben gave April a job, drove her to Washington DC. Was only nice to her… and she sabotaged his ability to do a job he was excited about, and undermined his sense of self worth.

And then I started to think about how April she treats Ann and Leslie, who constantly try to help her; how she’s mean to Jerry, who has no one on his side; how she fell into a job that, at its core, should be about helping people, and how she consistently and militantly uses her power to make people’s lives harder — remember how at the very beginning she charms Ron Swanson by not passing on any messages and scheduling his meetings on dates that don’t exist? Ha ha, so funny…. Unless you are the citizen blindly hoping that people at a government office might actually do their job and listen to you.

Since I’m not usually one to get triggered by fictional characters in a decade-old sitcom, I’m guessing my reaction might be related to other things that were going on in my life: Like the fact that for three months and many hours of calling and writing the EDD, Paul and I still couldn’t get a response, or that I was caught in a negotiation involvling a lawyer who was so deeply offended I asked a simple question that he seemed to be at every turn choosing to make things more expensive and difficult for me, or that daily I was reading headlines about another government worker who fell into a job he had no intention of doing, and who views his constituency with about the same disrespect an lack of empathy as… April Ludgate.

That day, as I watched April’s sulky, non-apology for her betrayal of Ben, something flipped in me. I thought “I’m done.”

I had not become blind to the fear and insecurity beneath her behavior or the well-placed hints that she’s emotionally vulnerable under her prickly surface.

I had just ceased to care.

I no longer had any interest in untangling her psyche or even watching her grow to be slightly less of a garbage-person. I didn’t want her working for me, I didn’t want to work for her. I didn’t want to attempt to understand her dysfunction. I didn’t want to apologize or explain things on her behalf to people she’s supposed to care about or do the emotional labor she refuses to do. I just wanted to avoid her completely.

I was ready to unfriend her completely but I didn’t, because, you know, she’s FICTIONAL.

And a few days later, I could again — grudgingly — see the amusing side to April’s antics and acknowledge that I had overreacted.

It’s probably just that there’s some shit going on in the world… and it’s making us stressed.

The Semantics of Survivor

This article, about how “cancer survivor” came into popularity, is my first attempt at posting something on Medium.

Update: I got a note from Medium saying I had been “curated,” which is apparently a good thing, and would be promoted in the “Health” section. Woot!

Puzzle

In the movie, PUZZLE, the character, Robert says:

Life’s just random. Everything is… random:
my success, you here now,
your kids, your life… There’s nothing we can do
to control anything. And then it ends.
Painfully usually, full of regrets.
But when you complete a puzzle,
when you finish it, it’s like —
you know that you’ve made all the
right choices. No matter how many
wrong pieces you tried to fit into
the wrong place, at the very end
everything makes one perfect
picture. I know it sounds
simplistic but– Why would I ever
want to deny myself that kind of
feeling? What other pursuit can
give you that kind of perfection?
Faith? Ambition? Wealth? Love?

A couple weeks ago, we finished this puzzle at my mom’s house. Except for this missing a piece. We found the note saying a piece was missing before we’d spent much time looking for the piece, so I didn’t mind really. One thing I can say is, in the cases where I know I’ve really done the work that is within my power to do — I am able to let go of the outcome.

The struggle, then, is knowing when I’ve done all I could… because, can’t you always do more? A puzzle is a nice antidote to that line of thinking! — When all the pieces are in place, there is nothing more to do.

There is a world where, in the case of the above puzzle, to really do all I could, I might have created a piece to replace this missing piece. I might have traced the space to make a pattern, cut it from cardboard, painted it the right color… this is generally the way my mind works.

But something else to strive for in life is an awareness of when it doesn’t really matter. .

I think the hole is interesting, don’t you?