A piece I wrote was published at Emry’s Journal.
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.
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.
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.
I must be feeling poetic this morning.
By Maggie Smith
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
According to this bio from Maggie Smith’s website, everyone else read this poem back in 2016. Also, the article answers my immediate question about whether Maggie Smith the poet is also Maggie Smith the actress (spoiler: she is not).