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.

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.

When It Gets Challenging

It’s a tough time of year. The weather is hot, both in the way that August is always hot and the way that portends the ever-nearing climate apocalypse. The autumn is nigh. In the way that August always precedes the too-fast downhill slope into the holidays and the end of the year.

We’re housesitting for a few days in a beautiful house with air-conditioning and a calm, well-behaved dog. An ideal writer’s retreat… but I am not being the ideal writer. It makes me feel ashamed of passing hours lacking in accomplishments, and it’s all too easy to make the mental jump from passing of hours to the passing of ones life.

I have my reasons for minimal output, as maybe writers always do. So far, 2019 has been yet another year of almosts, of promises, of feigned excitement and “contracts on their way from business affairs,” that in the end turn into nothing. Some “untruths” are no doubt innocent, others intentional — they are plentiful enough to have some of each.

So what should I be writing? I have two stories, a feature in need of a rewrite, and three feature outlines all begun, and I find myself in a state of paralysis, unable to make a good dive into any of them.

There is the pervasive Hollywood myth, that I am realizing is much the same as myths perpetuated by abusers everywhere, that there is some right choice, some story, that (if you can execute it in a way that’s transcendent) will make the relationship healthy, will make the abuser act not act like a sociopath. If you can just be GREAT ENOUGH then THIS TIME all the promises will be made good on. THIS TIME you will be pulled from your indentured servitude into the rosy future — if you can pass all the tests and reach it.

I’ve come to recognize this as the psychological fuckery it is, and I don’t believe in it anymore… except when I do. Like a seven-year-old coming to certain conclusions about Santa, I’m still like, “but WHAT IF?” What if he does exist and there are awesome presents that you get because you’re good?

So, there’s still this temptation to place an irrational weight on choosing which project to invest in, because what if one of them has the potential to be a project that CHANGES EVERYTHING and what if I choose wrong? Or, what if NONE of them will change everything, but there’s a project that will at least give me personal satisfaction, but instead I’m choosing to chase promises and pots of gold at ends of rainbows again?

At this point, either my compass is so messed up or — because it’s actually impossible for anyone to predict — I’m having difficulty even choosing what will give personal satisfaction. Which project, a year from now, will be worth the frustration of finishing a draft and realizing I need to tear it down to the bones and build it again and then again?

So here I am at a fork in the road, unable to choose a way forward, waiting for clarity.

At least there’s a pool.