Hangin’ Out, Thinking About Partiality

(As promised at the end of my last post.)

Much of the story we pitched for ADMISSIONS is built around three families — all New Yorkers, but with different backgrounds and socio-economic resources — vying to get their children into Ivy League colleges — and making some questionable moral and legal decisions in their pursuits. 

Last year, I wrote a pilot for an entirely different series — one with a sci-fi premise where a tech guru creates an Elysium-type alternate reality and the richest people in the United States pay to transport themselves and their families into this other reality.

What do this two projects– one grounded, and one sci-fi — have in common? They are both about families, and both about family members who exercise partiality. 

Partiality — if it’s not familiar to you, as it wasn’t to me — is basically, liking one thing, person or group more than another.  In philosophy, there’s a whole ongoing conversation regarding whether it can be right to act partially and privilege people who are closer in our affections over those who are more distant.

In both my sci-fi scenario and in the real world scandal, individuals act to procure opportunities for their children.  But in so doing they are are taking the opportunity away from other, random people.

Most of us exercise some form of partiality. We feed our own children and take care of our own families first. We help our friends more than strangers. Generally it’s regarded as honorable to help our families, friends, teams, companies. We talk about loyalty like it’s a good thing — something to aspire to.

But, is it also honorable to give a job to your nephew instead of reviewing applications from other hopefuls?  Is it okay to  vote to fund the parks near your neighborhood and not  neighborhoods where other people’s kids live?  What if everyone in your group made the same choices?

It seems like classism, racism, tribalism could all descended from this type of partiality when it’s not just exercised by individuals, but groups of people.

When I think about partiality, it’s difficult not to selfishly think about how partiality  affects me. I want to be a working TV writer. In order to do that, I need to be hired by a showrunner. It’s no secret that showrunners– not just as individuals, but as a class — are partial to people they know and trust, or to referrals by people they know and trust. Since I am not neither of those things, my chances of catching my dream are diminished.

On the flip side, I’ve been hired many times — to be on film crews, to teach, to work admin — because someone knew me.  In every case, I’m guessing Human Resources could have sent a hundred applicants as good or better than I was, who probably wanted the job more than I did.  Yes, I’m a hard worker, but that’s not what got me those jobs. I got those jobs because: partiality. The people with the power to hire already knew me.

The temptation is always there to help out a friend, to make your kid happy. When is that okay, and where’s the line? If you’re a bouncer at a club, is it okay to let your friends in for free? If you work middle-management at a company, is it okay to highly refer a friend for a job? And if you have a gazillion dollars, is it okay to buy your kid a spot at a prestigious college, or buy your family a new life in an alternate reality?

 

Up, Down, Up

Happy weekend, Ya’ll!

So this week:

I got an email from a screenwriting competition — through the Writers Guild, so a pretty good one — saying I had progressed to the next round. Yay.

Then I did a pitch for a big job, and I didn’t get it. Sigh.

Then I got an email saying that a short story I had submitted was going to included in an anthology. Yay.

The job I didn’t get might have paid the rent for a year, while the two things I did get  pay in exposure and contributor copies… I always say, who needs cash when you have compliments?

Snark aside, I am always genuinely psyched to find a home for a story, so I’ll provide the details next month when the publication comes out!

I Was On The Radio

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So, I did a little radio interview this week for a show called Let’s Get Reel on KPC Radio — which is the station run by Pierce College.

“Reel” is like “film reel”– clever, right? We get to do that for a few more years I guess, until film reels are no more…  It was the first on-air interview for my host, Sal Fariaz, and he did an amazing job!  Much better than I did being interviewed. In a way it’s comforting to know how incredibly unlikely it is that I shall ever be famous and oft-interviewed.

But of course I’m posting the interview here because… it exists.

Out of the several things I’d like to go back to say more eloquently or much more briefly (or not at all), the only one I’ll point out is last question, which was the “wrap up” question, that I should have seen coming. “What is a piece of advice you would give to someone wanting to get into screenwriting?” Anyone who gets interviewed ever should have a prepared a “one piece of advice” answer for their specialty, but of course, I didn’t.

Being a little jaded, I advised aspiring scribes to understand that for a long time, being a writer costs more than it brings in, and to brace oneself for that.  It’s actually a practical piece of advice, but I wish I’d added just a little more–which is, while you do need to do non-writing things to feed your stomach, and your landlord–you also do need to feed your soul. Make some kind of little pact with yourself to try to GET BETTER every day–whatever that means.  Maybe it’s writing a page a day, or maybe on some days, it’s just watching a TV show, but I think it’s good to plan out what your ritual is, and then do it with intention. Take little actions that will move you — even incrementally — toward your goal, and keep reminding yourself that you are a writer. So that’s my bonus, off-air advice!

This Is US… I mean, RESEARCH

This Is Us Research…

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I have always loved to watch TV, and read books. Yet both of these activities tend to be tinged with guilt. Probably because, for most of my childhood, whenever I was doing these things, I was avoiding other things I was supposed to be doing, practicing piano, doing my homework, sleeping.  As time passed, and I became my own internal mother, it was easy to insert just about anything into the supposed to be slot.  Cleaning, arranging my sock drawer, doing my taxes, spending extra time at work.

And when I became a writer, it got even better. Because it’s super easy to counter almost ANY activity with “should be writing,” and get a nice little guilt buzz from it. (At this very moment,  as I’m blogging, I’m feeling guilty because I should be writing.) So, even though watching and reading are necessary components to what I do — I’m pretty much hard-wired to feel guilt.

There is, however, a (partial) guilt-loophole. This is, if I go to a meeting, and the producer or executive references a book or a show, then it’s like homework.  It’s research. Watching or reading it becomes the thing I should do, which is awesome. I get to read comic-books, young-adult novels and books on eclectic subjects, all without my guilt-alarm ringing!

A couple of weeks ago, in a meeting, someone mentioned that a show I’ve been pitching has structural similarities to This is UsI’d seen a few episodes early in the season, and — in the context of the conversation, felt like a slacker because I hadn’t kept up. So now, with permission, I launched vigorously into watching the rest… and fell in love.  I binged-watched the rest of the season over about three evenings and cried so much I had to go buy a new box of Kleenex to get through the last night.

Part of what makes the show so effective is how it often parcels out emotional bombshells and surprising reveals very lightly in terms of its story-telling.  No big set-up or announcement, just a passing reference to something the characters already know but the audience doesn’t. So there’s this tone of, Oh, by the way, did we not mention that… “These people you’ve been watching are siblings.” “This happened in the past, not the present.” “This person is dead.””This person was married.”

These reveals immediately prompt questions that don’t get answered right away — as they discuss in this Variety article.

It’s a really neat trick, and I’m planning to go back and study it when the season ends next week.

I like this quote from the article, where they talk about how the creator pitched the show:

He did say that over the course of time, he would always have those big moments and those big hooks and surprises and reveals, but that they wouldn’t have to be every week because once you’re invested in these characters, a smaller moment could feel as big as those huge moments once you’re totally engrossed in the stories of these characters’ lives and the decisions that they make.

Once you’re invested in the characters, and engrossed in their stories, a smaller moment feels bigger…

 

I’m Teaching Screenwriting

Because this blog is sadly neglected of late, I don’t think I’ve mentioned that I’m teaching a screenwriting class this term.  A friend alerted me to the opportunity around the same time that I was leaving my other day job, and it seemed like a message from the universe saying things would be all right. That if I jumped, a net would appear…or at least enough pieces of rope would appear that maybe I could weave a net.

Teaching has been an “interesting” experience, in ways both positive and negative.  (You could say “you don’t fall into a net without getting a few rope burns,”–although probably you wouldn’t say that, because people wouldn’t really know what you were talking about.) The class was available because it was a newly commissioned “outreach” class. Outreach classes are taught at various high schools. Half of the seats are for community college school students and half are reserved for high school students, who can earn college credit for taking the class. In many cases, these classes are successful. In the case of my class, there was apparently some communication breakdown, because when I called my assigned high school liaison to make arrangements, she informed me that “no one knew” I was coming, that they didn’t have a classroom reserved for me, and that none of their students knew about the class.

The results of this were twofold.

First, I ended up teaching in a classroom with no audio-visual technology. To each class meeting I bring: a projector, a speaker, my laptop, cords and adaptors. I set all this up on some pulled-together student chair desks and project the  resultant image on a cork board in one corner, since there is also not a screen.

Second,  since half of the seats were kept empty for high school students who didn’t know about the class, my class size dropped from a potential 35-40 to about 15, which then became thirteen. Thirteen students is an amazing class size for a beginning writing class. It allows me to get to know the students more as individuals, to read and respond at a different level, to have workshops in class where we have some chance of getting to everyone’s work.  I consider this a more than a fair trade for the lack of amenities.

Here are a few more pros and cons:

Cons:

  • It is time-consuming. The class is located in the valley, To safely arrive by its 3:30 start time, I need to leave the house by  1:30. I arrive home at 7:30. So on the days I teach a two-hour-long class, I am gone for six hours. I also tend to devote another day and a half before each lecture to  preparation.  I am  preparing my lectures from scratch, looking through my various books for the best definitions, browsing YouTube and our DVD collection for the right examples. The classroom has no internet, so I need to download all my media clips in advance and embed them in my Powerpoint presentations, and, since my Powerpoint skills are limited, part of each prep session is spent Googling how to do things like embed videos or make my bullet points appear one at a time.
  • It’s awkward and clunky. I’m constantly navigating the environment. I assign free-writes at the beginning of each class partly because I’m never sure the door will be unlocked in time to set up the equipment. At least once during each class something slightly ridiculous will happen: Someone tells us we need to switch classrooms; the broken clock on the wall  randomly starts loudly ticking as the second-hand jitters back and forth like a bad horror movie; the loudspeaker squawks, followed by an announcement about late buses, or someone’s mom waiting for them on the south side of the building. Yesterday,  out of nowhere, a Linda Ronstadt song began playing over the loudspeaker, continued for about three, agonizing minutes, and then stopped.

Pros:

  • Teaching forces me to do things I’ve intended and wanted to do anyway: Review and clean up class notes from my very expensive education; go through books that I enthusiastically ordered and then didn’t have time to read; really think about what I’ve learned and what I believe about writing, and what I think is important and worthy of passing on–and then think how best to articulate that.  If you’ve ever helped a friend study for a test, you know that the process of breaking-down and explaining helps you as well. That is the case here.
  • My students are interesting. They’ve had lives and experiences different from my own, and they have things they want to say.  Often, this isn’t apparent from their official writing assignments, but from our list-making exercises and free-writes that give me glimpses into who they are. And that inspires me more to help them express themselves in writing–because the world, for the most part, doesn’t let you turn in lists and free-writes before it judges who you are and what you can do.
  • It pays money. It’s not a kingly sum, especially when you divide it by the number of actual hours instead of hypothetical hours, but in our new “creative economy” which consists largely of gigs ranging from temping to uber-driving to admin that all pay in the same range, this is a job pays as well as the others while being intellectually and emotionally engaging and feeling karmically defensible.

That said, we are moving into that difficult part of the semester, when the end feels both intimidatingly close, and yet too far off. I have so much more information I want to cram into their brains in the short time we have left, but at the same time, I am counting down the lesson plans between now and winter break. My students wince when I talk about turning in their final projects, and I can’t pretend enthusiasm at the thought of grading them.

But this is just one more thing that is like writing–you dread it, but then you start it, and find things that surprise you and things that you love, and then you are glad you did it.