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…

Life in the Time of Pandemic (March 13-20, 2020)

By Friday, March 13, all students had been advised to leave campus until March 31st — if possible. The end date feels arbitrary, will they all fly home and return two weeks later? I guess the truth is that nobody knows. The faculty receives a query from our department chair asking us to report if our classes were on track to move online by Monday. The university seems to mobilize faster than I would have guessed. They’re negotiating with the software companies to expand licenses directly to students. The dozen emails I send to university tech support got quick responses.

From California, friends are sharing pictures of bare shelves at the stores where toilet paper and household cleansers would be stocked. One sends a picture of a truck with toilet paper being guarded by police, but at our Family Dollar, there are still paper goods — though fewer cleansers — no more Clorox wipes. Though we’ve been encouraged not to have large gatherings, no one has yet said anything about small gatherings. We’re reading the first articles about social distancing, and navigating what this means. Our yoga studio is still open, sending us messages to say they’ve decreased the number of students per class, and are ramping up their cleaning and sanitizing. If we don’t use equipment, we figure, we’ll only be touching our own mats. Our county still has no documented cases of community spread, so on Saturday we go to class.

We also have plans, in place for over a month, to have dinner with another couple and their son. The fact that we don’t know them well makes it seem ruder to cancel. I check to see if they still want us, and our hostess seems not to have even considered otherwise. Their house is beautiful and large; it’s not hard to keep some distance for most of the pleasant evening. When it ends, our hostess hugs me, which feels strange after a week of bumping elbows. “Oh, we’re still hugging!” I blurt in surprise.

“Yes, of course,” she answered.

The need to make things smooth overtakes our group. Paul hugs our hostess two, and I hug her husband. No one is scared. Everything’s all right.

The following day (Sunday, March 15), I’ve made a “study date” with another teacher, to figure out how to make online quizzes for our students. “Should we go?” Paul and I deliberate, and decided we will. I bring my Clorox wipes, which are already something of a joke between us.

I’d assumed their family would be doing some form of distancing, but when we arrive, their youngest is having a play date with two other little girls.  They run around the house as normal.. The older son, newly driving, came and went, picking up food for us. “Wash your hands!” his mom reminds him as he begins to unpack the food.

Coming home Paul and I feel we have felt for the boundaries of our comfort level, and found those boundaries. We agree we’ve made the last of our home visits, and that for us, social distancing, like online classes, will begin in earnest the next day, Monday the 16th.

Sunday night the democratic debate features Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders hooking elbows instead of shaking hands, and standing at podiums placed six feet apart. The news that night announces that both Los Angeles and New York are tamping down on bars and restaurants, limiting them to food delivery only. In California Gavin Newsom asks everyone over the age of 65 to sequester themselves. One journalist notes that the democratic debate, between two candidates in their late 70s, would be in defiance of that request if the debate were to take place in California.

On Monday, the stock market drops by 8% and trading is temporarily halted for the second or third time–I’ve lost track. l realize that while we have food, paper products, and cleansers, in our temporary rental we have none of the over-the-counter medications that accrue over years, so I walk again to the Family Dollar and purchase a motley collection of cold medications and acetaminophen.

On Tuesday the 17th, UF announces that, instead of possibly resuming March 31st, classes will remain online for the remainder of the semester, and into the summer. There will be no commencement ceremonies in the spring. 

“I guess if everything is online, nothing’s really keeping us here,” says Paul.
“Should we just go early?” I respond.

We discuss the pros and cons. It could save us a month of paying rent in two places, which is appealing. At the same time, the situation in California looks crazier than Gainesville. There are also complicated logistics – how and when to make a forty-hour drive across internet-less terrain when we’re teaching a combined fifteen hours a week online, plus grading and correspondence? With the car packed to the gills, where should we sleep? Our presence might endanger the friends along our route, and hotels, if open, seem undesirable.

We table the discussion as I’m still organizing my first Zoom class for that afternoon, as well as an online pitch and an online midterm using an online proctoring service for Wednesday. On Wednesday, as I scramble up various technological learning curves, the news cycles around me: the stock market tanks again, the president proposes a billion dollar economic stimulus package of which $250 million directly to taxpayers, the rest to corporations, and West Virginia reports it first case of Covid 19, meaning the virus is now in all 50 states. There are now 5800 recorded cases and 107 deaths nationwide. New York is considering instituting a “shelter in place” edict. When our temporary landlord emails to let us know that our place was now available through April, we tell him we’ll stay through April 24, the day after our classes end.

On Thursday, Italy is front and center in the news. Their death toll has passed 3000. In California, Governor Newsom orders people not to go out. A friend of Paul’s to combat his own anxiety, invites people to read War and Peace with him — aiming for 50 pages a day. I order it for my Kindle.

On Friday we embark on what feels, in this new world, like an exciting outing: A trip to the GNC to buy zinc lozenges, to a sporting goods store to buy small hand weights (since our gym and yoga studio are both now closed) and to the grocery store. In the strip mall that houses the GNC there’s a line outside the Trader Joe’s – it’s our first sighting of a store admitting only a limited number of shoppers at one time.

The GNC is sold out of zinc, so we make a call and visit the location that still has two boxes – the one in the indoor mall. At the GNC we stand at a distance from the cashier, then exit through the mall, walking past dozens of closed and empty stores. We don’t stop to window shop at the few that are open, and are careful not to touch anything. At one of the small tables in the center of the mall, two women, leaned their arms on the table’s surface as they talked to each other– their faces a mere foot or two apart. They appear relaxed, feeling none of our trepidation.

A few more calls locates a sporting goods stores that is still open. We find a bottle of Purell at the entrance with a sign asking us to sanitize our hands on the way in. Inside, the middle of the store is empty. The clerk tells us most of the weights and home gym equipment have been sold.

At our final stop, Publix, a friendly worker wipes down and sanitizes the carts as they’re returned. Inside, someone is mopping the floor. There’s music playing. Feel It Still by Portugal. The Man — Ooh woo, I’m a rebel just for kicks now… For a moment I suddenly felt buoyant. It feels good to be out, to be pushing a cart and skipping with the music in the wide, clean aisle between freezer cases full of options.

And then the feeling and our trip is over. We’re home, with no other excursions to look forward to. One of my students has written to say that where she is, with her family in Miami, there are more cases than in Gainesville. With family member who are immunocompromised, much of the shopping falls to her, and if would help if she were able to predict her classwork. This hits me deeply, knowing that there have been some unannounced assignments in her class. I spend the rest of Friday and most Saturday – which is today – editing and publishing assignments for the rest of the semester. It doesn’t feel heroic, but I guess that my part in this, as a teacher, is to offer what stability and support I can… to do my job. And I want to. As someone familiar with being underemployed, I keenly feel my good fortune at having a job I can still do during this time.

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.