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 were 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, seemed undesirable.

We tabled 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 scrambled 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 would stay.

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. 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 she was in Miami with family, where there are more cases than in Gainesville. With family member who were 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 had 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 do this. 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.

Another “100 Rejections” Post

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January 29, 2019.

I have a new short story that I feel like has got some legs, despite it receiving its third rejection today. It’s a story with a sci-fi twist so I’m trying sci-fi mags first, but have a feeling it’s not really sci-fi enough. The sci-fi doesn’t become apparent ’til near the end, whereas all the sample story excerpts on the magazine websites seem to start out with people floating around in space-pods. I have been gratified by how fast the genre magazines turn around though. I started submitting at the beginning of January, and although none of them accept simultaneous submissions, they have all responded within a week. By comparison, in the same batch of morning emails, I also got a rejection for a different story that I submitted to a literary journal back in August, which for overwhelmed, underpaid lit journals is about standard.

I’ve just decided, after seeing a few articles on the topic of “100 rejections per year” like this one and this one, that I, too, will aim for 100 rejections this year. I generally have in mind that rejections reflect attempts, and thus it’s good to collect a few, but 100 is a nice round number, and I will need to up my  game to achieve it. The end of January is almost upon us, and I am only four rejections in. I need an average of nine per month to hit 100. Because of the afore-mentioned long turn-around times, I am disadvantaged by my low submission numbers in the last half of last year, and for the same reason, anything I submit after summer of this year might not get rejected until next year!

I also need to change up the types of things I get rejected for. Last year, I invested a lot of time in submissions for screenwriting fellowships and labs. These often have high entry fees. I wish I could say it is the last vestiges of self-respect, but it’s probably just my extreme lack of funds that require me to take those out of the mix this year. No $100 Humanitas Prize entry for me. No $45-$65 dollar lab submissions or $45-$95 screenwriting contests. (I’m glad that my contributions over the last decade have helped all the worthy programs who sponsor these opportunities, and am sure my deficit will be covered by plenty of new aspirants.) A friend recently offered to show me how to look for article work — so that might be an option for rejection collection!

I also need to set some parameters. Like if I pitch a show and they pass… can that count? I think yes, because of the preparation involved, and the fact that I can write the company names and project names on my tracking chart. But things like requests for fee-waivers do not count–even though I can chart them and they still pack some dream-denying emotional punch, they are not actually rejecting my ideas or work or presentation of self.

2019. Bring. It. On.

 

The Hollywood “No”

Last week, I went to a presentation where a speaker mentioned  that rejection imprints more deeply in the female brain than the male brain. I thought this was pretty interesting, so looked online for details but failed to find any article to corroborating this, although I don’t disbelieve her. In any case, it got me thinking about rejection.

Generally I don’t need to  consciously think about rejection because it has become such an integral a part of my life.  I have a kind of “unaware awareness” of it that is constant, but not always identifiable as an irritant. It’s like after you get used to a heavy purse, a funky hip joint, or the fact that Trump is president. After awhile, you kind of forget about it until you watch a news clip, try the wrong yoga pose, or finally clean out your purse and realize you’ve been carrying THREE full water bottles it it. It takes moments of increased or decreased pain intensity to remind you that “oh yeah, that pain has been there.” 

Currently, I have a short story out to a few literary journals. Last week I received the first “thanks, but no thanks” from one of them. We can assume that perhaps someone else is actually reading my story and rejecting it right now, as I write this.

This is actually my favorite type of rejection — a direct rejection, in writing.  

In Stephen King’s On Writing, he talks about how for a long time, he collected all of his rejection notes on a nail, until the nail got too full, and he had to replace it with a long spike.  When I first read that I found it inspiring to think of rejection letters are kind of a badge of honor — evidence that you have been to battle and survived.  I’ve not done anything so romantic as hammer a spike into my landlord’s wall, and with changing times my rejections are often delivered via email… so instead I keep an excel spreadsheet with my rejections. I also enter my occasional acceptances, and then I color code them so I can see what the proportion looks like. 

The spreadsheet has been helpful in another way — it helps me see rejection more like men are trained to see it — as a numbers game.  I can see patterns — that for every ten or twelve submissions to journals, I’ll get one acceptance. I will never forget congratulating a friend for having an essay published in The Atlantic. It was an honorable mention for a writing contest they held. She told me she had submitted it sixty times. It was rejected fifty-odd times before it placed in a prestigious contest.

What is missing from my spreadsheet however, are the less obvious rejections — the “Hollywood” rejections. This is probably because when I started the spreadsheet, I didn’t have the skills and experience to recognize them.

But then a couple of years ago, I bought Stephanie Palmer’s Good In a Room and found a really excellent breakdown of rejection, Hollywood-style.  By the time I read it I had been around long enough that I was starting to “get it,” but by no means was it a natural transition for me. Coming from the straight-forward Midwest, learning to decipher a “Hollywood no” was kind of like an Asberger’s kid having to look at flashcards of faces to decipher different emotions.  When I first got to Los Angeles, I sent a script an agent’s assistant.  She told me she “liked it, but didn’t love it,” and I thought, “Awesome. She liked it!”

Yeah…no. 

Recently, talking to a friend who is newer to the writing game, I found myself trying to break it to her that the super-complimentary email she’d received from one contact about a script, and the other friend who just hadn’t gotten back to her yet were in fact…rejections.  The conversation didn’t go super well. Maybe I should have just shared the section of the book I am about to share here.  Or… maybe, I should have just kept my mouth shut.  This, too is the Hollywood way: Time is the greatest teacher, let it deliver the unpleasant news. You don’t need to. 

But, to save you a couple years of figuring things out, I will herein share from Good in a Room by Stephanie Palmer:

“No” Is Silence Over Time

Chris Kelly, a writer for Real Time with Bill Maher wrote this in a recent article (crediting Merill Markoe):

“In Hollywood, ‘no’ is silence over time. The way you find out you’re not getting the job, that they passed, that they didn’t respond to the material, that they’re going a different direction, is silence. It’s the call you don’t get.” (via Huffington Post)

Other forms of “silence over time”:

  • If you can’t get an in-person meeting at all.
  • If your emails don’t get returned in one week.
  • If your calls don’t get returned in two weeks.
  • If your script has been passed along (to a star, director, or producer), and you haven’t heard back in a month.

If you pitch to a decision-maker and they want to be in business with you, they will get in touch as soon as possible. If you haven’t heard back, the answer (almost always) is “No.”

Unless They Pay You, The Answer Is “No”

That’s the title of John August’s Scriptnotes Episode 71. John’s screenwriter co-host, Craig Mazin, elaborates:

“Unless there’s money, the answer is no. Isn’t that terrible? And it’s so unfortunate because there’s thousands and thousands — so many wonderful, creative ways for people to say no to you. And so many of them sound like yes, which is horrifying really to contemplate, but it’s human nature. Nobody really likes saying no to somebody. Nobody wants to be mean. No one wants to see that look reflected back to them.” If you’re not getting any money, the answer is probably “No.”

“No” Often Starts With A Compliment

When people in Hollywood say “No,” the medicine is typically accompanied by a spoonful of sugar. Examples include:

  • “This has a lot of potential…”
  • “This is a great piece of writing…”
  • “I love the main characters…”
  • “This is hilarious…”
  • “We love it…”

If you’re getting compliments like this, they can be true, but don’t take them at face value. Most of the time, all of these compliments translate to: “You seem like a nice person and I don’t see any reason to offend you….”

“No” Usually Ends With An Excuse

After the compliment you get the excuse:

  • “… but isn’t the right fit for us.”
  • “… but we are overbudget.”
  • “… but it would be too expensive.”
  • “… but we have another project that is too similar.”

If you’re hearing reasons like these, don’t take them at face value. Most of the time, all of the reasons translate to: “…but this isn’t good enough (yet).”

“No” = Compliment + Excuse

Most of the time when you’re getting compliments on your writing followed by an excuse about why you’re not getting any money, the actual compliments and excuses are not the truth. The truth is that they are saying: “You seem like a nice person and I don’t see any reason to offend you, but this isn’t good enough (yet).”

This is a hard thing to hear because we want to believe that the compliment is real because that’s something to feel good about. We want to believe that the excuse is real because it lets us save face. The thing to understand is that if your work was good enough, you’d at least get a “Maybe.”

This last one, by the way, is my favorite, because I love that it’s an equation: Compliment+Excuse=No. 

 

Some other random articles about rejection.

10 Surprising Facts About Rejection

Get Rejected More, You’re Not Doing it Enough