My Third Party Voting Friend is the TV Writers’ Logic Police of This Election

I’m from the Midwest – so my social media feeds are not entirely void of Trump supporters. Their posts can scald, but I have developed a protective layer that prevents me from exploding when I rub up against them. The algorithms must have figured this out, because now I’m being fed more posts from my progressive lefty friend (we’ll call him Stan, which either is or is not his real name) whose feed, as we approach the one-month-til-E-Day at this writing, has become a barrage of doom-forecasting about America’s fate under Biden/Harris rule.

If you have a Stan-like-person in your life, then I don’t need to overexplain the philosophical stance. The gist is that while Trump is a “Capital D” Devil, moderate Democrats are—at the very least—“Small d” devils, and that far too few people have noticed this. Posts from Stan are intended to educate by citing examples of Democrats’ historical sneakiness, posturing, failures and hypocrisy.

These observations are not untrue.

What they are (especially if delivered with enough snark and given wide airplay) is a decelerating force leveled against a group of people who need to move en-masse toward a goal.

What if our political situation was a TV Show?  One of the first things you have to do at the outset of creating a show is break story. Breaking story is charting your map of where you’re going story-wise, and planning the stops—plot points and emotional beats – you need to hit along the way. This is a balancing act, because of course it’s impossible to predict exactly where you’re going to end up, or if every stop is going to work like you’re hoping – but even with these uncertainties in play, in order to start moving you have to drum up the faith that the destination you’ve chosen is worthwhile and that your chosen direction is something that is bringing you closer to it.

Recently I was listening to a TV showrunner, Glen Mazzara, talk about the dynamics of a writers room during this stage.* He says, I understand the scene isn’t working – that it’s cliché, or reminiscent of something, or it makes no sense. I don’t need you in my writers’ room to tell me it’s not working – I want you to help me make it work. The worst thing you can do in the room is be “the logic police” – you’re saying no, you’re creating a negative feeling.**

My friend Stan is the logic police – and I can say first hand, it’s not only a negative feeling, it’s a tangible obstacle. In this case, the time I spent on social media engaging with his arguments and attempting amateur-level cognitive behavioral therapy was time spent at a stand-still –and time that I could have spent writing postcards or phone banking or doing anything else positive or forward moving.

Mazzara also says, I have a rule. That is “do not knock something off the table without putting something else there.

I pressed Stan to say what, exactly, he was suggesting that people should do as they approached the ballot box, given there are no perfect answers. He danced and dodged, until finally, pinned down, he recommended voting for a third party candidate. Which third party candidate? I asked.  He responded, Anything lefty. Probably Green.  He was not proposing any solution, merely a way to “send a message” to the Democratic party.***

Believe me, I have all kinds of rebuttals to this that I’m tempted to provide here, but I’m going assume you’ve seen different versions of most of them on your Twitter and try to stay on track with my analogy.

From the time I first contemplated writing for screen, teachers, writers, and agents have told me, you’re not going to love every opportunity that comes your way, but you have find something in a project that resonates with you. And, I’ve always strongly felt that when you join a team, you have a responsibility to add value that is both energetic and tangible. The network and the studio have bought the Biden / Harris show. That’s the job. Sure, there was a time when I dreamed a Warren show would become a reality, but now is not the time to cry about that. Now is time to beat out the most compelling Biden / Harris season we can imagine and promote the hell out of the pilot to get the numbers we need November 3rd for a four-season pickup.****

Footnotes:

*A cool thing that has come out of the pandemic is that Sundance Collab is temporarily offering a free membership with access to a lot of educational content including the Glen Mazzara masterclass where I sourced his quotes.

**When I heard this, I thought of my friend, writer Dave Metzger, saying something similar at an AMA. He added that another reason logic-policing often receives tepid reception in a room is that, in a group of seasoned writers, everybody already knows there’s a problem. Pointing out the obvious is not a move forward.

***Notably, Stan seems to assume that despite his nay-saying, the Biden / Harris ticket will prevail – i.e. he’s depending on people to disregard his logic and supply him with an improved Little-d devil system that he can criticize . He’s basically that guy on your school group project who maligns you for being an authority-smitten grade-grubber instead of doing any work because he knows you’ll carry him to the “A.”

****If you enjoyed this post, then tune in for Part 2 of this series, tentatively titled, Here’s Why My Infuriating Third-Party Voting Friend is Not All Wrong wherein I will quote Harold Zinn, Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts,” and Jack Epp’s book Screenwriting is Rewriting. It will be published after the election.

(Final note while I figure out how to captions a “feature image” with the new WordPress settings… “Paul and I voted — not for a third-party candidate.”)

Life in the Time of Pandemic and Lies (9/24/20 – 10/02/20)

I think it was last Thursday (9/24) that in the wake of an article in The Atlantic, a member of the press asked the President if, were he to lose the election, he would facilitate a peaceful transfer of power, and he responded, “We’ll just have to see.”

This roiled things up for a day or two going into the weekend, but then, on Sunday (9/27), The Times announced they had gotten access to Trump’s tax reports, and that for more than a decade he had been paying almost nothing in American taxes, due to declaring losses. In the past couple of years, while president, he has been paying $750 dollars. 

That was the news for two days until the first presidential debate on Tuesday night (9/29) which would have been noteworthy in itself because it was so much less like a presidential debate than like watching some hapless student (Biden) try to do a presentation for his classmates (American public)  in the company of a deranged and disturbed child (Trump) whom the teacher (Chris Wallace) didn’t have the authority to discipline or kick out of the classroom. (Apologies to Mr. Biden for this comparison as he was as presidential as one could be, but sharing a frame with Trump unfortunately regresses us all.) Trump interrupted, spoke over, flung accusations and blatant untruths… all so par for the course that we have grown bored with ourselves even trying to unpack and lay them end to end, so…

CUT TO: The focal point of the evening, which was when Chris Wallace asked him to denounce White Supremacists like the Proud Boys, and Trump muttered the catch phrase “Stand Back and Stand By” which the Proud Boys immediately grabbed onto and started printing on shirts as the rest of the country (and the world) looked on in horror, confusion and disbelief — held hostage by our classmate who might end up bombing the school but might just be seeking attention. 
 
This dominated the cultural conversation for Wednesday and most of Thursday, until, Thursday evening (10/01) it was announced first that presidential advisor Hope Hicks had tested positive for Coronavirus, and then, a couple hours later, that President Trump and his wife Melania had also tested positive.

As of Friday morning, October 2, 2020, that brings us up to date.

There is a world where the announcement of the President contracting a potentially dangerous illness would elicit concern and worry from some,  pleasure or glee from others, and certainly no shortage of “he was warned by science” observations from almost everyone — but where few would question the veracity of the announcement itself. However, that world — we’ll call it “World A” — exists only in some alternate reality.

In our own reality, in our world — should we just call it “World WTF?” — any sense of what is truth and what is not has been so systematically stripped away that as soon as the news hit, there began widespread speculation as to whether or not the announcement were true, and what might be the motivations if it were a lie.  

What are all the reasons that the highly unstable kid at school — or a President exactly one month away from election day — lie about being sick? He might, at some level, be embarrassed by the recent debate and want to avoid those upcoming. He might be looking for ways to postpone the election. He might plan to “have the virus” for a few days, then recover fully and easily in order to support his claims that it’s no worse than the common flu. He might be setting up plausible deniability for some coming action by other persons (here the possibilities begin to range darker and more violent). Or he might finally be collapsing under the pressure of keeping all his fictional plates in the air.

In World A, any of these ideas, since they are rooted in the premise of a bizarre hoax, would belong to the fringiest of the fringe elements and would be quickly dismissed by the majority as conspiracy theories.  In World WTF, despite the amount of coordination it would take to carry out such a hoax, it feels like any of those has a legitimate possibility of being true.

And at the moment, it feels like BIG news… but there is also the feeling that whatever happens in 48 hours will eclipse it.

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 young? Or struggle in obscurity / not accomplish said dream 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 with about my upcoming surgery. 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 spent my recovery time continuing to try to fix something that no writer would have the power to fix (as evidenced by the two writers who followed me on the project and the fact the company did not make an original feature film until a decade later). So with hindsight I can feel secure it wouldn’t have been “worth it.”

But is there a scenario that would have made it worth it? What 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 thoughts and feelings than I can address in a blog post of reasonable length, and there’s too much dangerous speculation I could wander into. 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.)

FILE – In this Saturday, March 30, 2019 file photo, Chadwick Boseman poses in the press room with the award for outstanding actor in a motion picture for “Black Panther” at the 50th annual NAACP Image Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. Actor Chadwick Boseman, who played Black icons Jackie Robinson and James Brown before finding fame as the regal Black Panther in the Marvel cinematic universe, has died of cancer. His representative says Boseman died Friday, Aug. 28, 2020 in Los Angeles after a four-year battle with colon cancer. He was 43. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)

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 became attached and 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 loved 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 my take was occasionally chosen, 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.