I recently got some good news: My short story “Girl, Wolf, Woodsman” was accepted by Santa Monica Review and will be published this coming spring!
The story is a twist on “Little Red Riding Hood.” I started it an embarrassing number of years ago and then apparently got either distracted or frustrated. During my “writing lull” earlier this year I ran across it, gave it an edit and finally sent it out.
I’m excited to have it in Santa Monica Review because it’s a respected national journal, but it’s also right down the road in Santa Monica. It would be really cool to read in person at the launch.
I’ll mention it again in three or four months when the issue comes out. It’s a print-only journal, but I get paid in “unlimited contributor’s copies,” so if it’s of interest, you can hit me up!
I spent a frightening portion of the last few weeks prepping an application for the Universal Writers Lab. For readers who aren’t aspiring screenwriters, a lab like this is essentially a miracle ticket — a salaried, year-long fellowship where the participant receives mentorship while developing work with producers, execs, and others, all combining to hopefully provide a springier spring-board into the industry than the participant has experienced thus far.
Applying to opportunities like these are moonshot endeavors, as usually only half-a-dozen are chosen from many applicants. To give you an idea of how many – a couple years ago I prepped an application for similar lab, but when the application portal opened, there were so many applicants it overwhelmed the submission portal. Ultimately the organizers capped the number of applications at 4000, leaving an uncounted number of people left over. Such is the glamorous life of an aspiring Hollywood writer!
I can tell that the organizers of the upcoming Universal lab really tried to cover all their bases, detailing what to name documents, what formats to use, word and page counts, font size, line spacing and even how to address the optional referral letters.
But it’s impossible to predict all the pain points. Because the third party submission portal had no way to save an in-process application, I lost my work three times. Coming to the end of the application the third time, I was getting excited about the nearness of the “submit” button, when I discovered the final “question” was actually a form that needed to be downloaded, hand-signed, scanned, uploaded AND sent to my agent for their hand-signed signature as well! A bummer of a surprise on get on a Saturday night, though it would have been more of a bummer to get it on the Monday evening it was due.
Such administrative oversights land harder in the context of the feelings raised by filling out applications in general. For me, the whole application process calls my life into question — when I’m asked for referral letters, I wonder why I haven’t cultivated have a larger network and more intimate relationships? When tackling the essay prompt, I question whether my life experiences or thoughts could possibly be “unique”! The 15-year limit on work history on the resume is a reminder that few see the life experience of older applicants as having value or relevance. Same for unpaid labor. Although the focus of the initiative is diversity and inclusion, my projects with diverse collaborators didn’t qualify for mention because they were the most difficult to find money for. Overall, the application process is a prolonged reminder of the chasm between where I am and where I want to be, which in turn causes me to self-interrogate — do I think that wanting something badly makes me worthy? Worthier that the 4000+ applicants with their own stories to tell?
At a certain point the overwhelm is too much, I have to give up on these questions. Work continues, even on wrong side of the chasm, and it has its own rewards: For me, the rewards of making through this application are that I finally created a complete project list with loglines that I’ve been needing for ages. I revised a treatment. I re-opened a feature script that broke my heart last year and realized my heart is mended and I have the distance to revisit it again. And I wrote a 750-word essay that would live a better life as a longer-winded and more introspective 1500 blog post — so ya’ll can look forward to that.
When it comes to habits, the key takeaway is this: dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it. Gambling addicts have a dopamine spike right before they place a bet, not after they win. Cocaine addicts get a surge of dopamine when they see the powder, not after they take it. Whenever you predict that an opportunity will be rewarding, your levels of dopamine spike in anticipation. And whenever dopamine rises, so does your motivation to act.
It is the anticipation of a reward—not the fulfillment of it—that gets us to take action.
Atomic Habits, by James Clear, p 106
I’ve been thinking about anticipation in our society. About how dopamine keeps flowing for a person who believes a reward is coming—and how capitalism is great at instilling belief in rewards by showing us other people receiving rewards and selling the idea that with enough work, it will be our turn, or at least our children’s turn. And, if that seems too obviously unrealistic, Christianity offers the back-up belief that rewards will be offered in the life to come, if we are good.
For our economic system (or those who profit by it), it’s good for people to believe in capitalism, religion, or both because it keeps them anticipating a reward. If people stop anticipating— because they stop believing the reward will manifest, or in the value of the reward — their dopamine levels could drop to such an extent that (like the rats mentioned in my previous post) they stop working. Which would be bad, because everyone striving for their individual rewards within the system, is the system.
The pandemic has shown, in a small way, how when people can’t / won’t service the system, it becomes inconvenient for the people who need a new bathroom vanities, cling peaches or car parts, and it also becomes threatening to the people who normally profit from all these transactions. I’m far from the first to theorize that in order to keep things running, the system might ultimately have to provide rewards of actual value — like workplace safety, higher wages and maybe some other things, like respect and appreciation for one’s contributions and skills…etc.
Oops — I think most of that was a tangent. The real topic of this post (of course) is me.
Who am I? I’m a subset of people: i.e. a writer, existing in a subsector of the capitalist system: i.e. the entertainment industry. The rewards I want are the same boring things most people in my industry who aren’t sociopaths want: creative opportunities, a living wage, functional work relationships, etc. For a fair while, I’ve sustained myself with the anticipation of obtaining these, because I had some belief that it was possible. Like its parent system, Hollywood is great at saying “look at all these other people getting treats—if they can do it, you can too!”— and also selling the idea that if you are just good enough, God (or someone) will pick you and lift you up to heaven (or at least higher up the food chain). You can anticipate this happening at any moment…Dopamine!
The thing is, one starts to lose one’s ability to anticipate a bright future if this keeps happening:
Please know, that, within my field, I am in no way unique and this football-yanking happens to lots and lots of people, all the time. So this is not a plea for sympathy, inasmuch as a preamble for some self interrogation, wherein I ask:
Who’s at fault in the situation pictured above?
Is it Lucy, for being a jerk? For sure. But. Is it also Charlie Brown? Why does CB repeatedly come back to Lucy and her ball? Doesn’t he have any other friends who treat him better? Is Lucy so much more glamorous and interesting than those friends? Or, is Lucy his only acquaintance with a football, and a football is the only kind of ball he wants to kick?
What’s with Charlie Brown’s obsession with that dumb football anyway? That question is facetious — I know the answer. He feels like he’s meant to kick that football. If he could just have that one chance, where the ball didn’t get pulled away, and his foot could connect — he can feel in his bones how that football would go flying! (And once that ball was in the air, the world would know, and soon he’d have his face on a cereal box or at least be kicking footballs everyday for money. It’s just one kick between him and living the dream!)
But who are we kidding? It’s in Lucy’s nature to pull the ball away. Like the proverbial scorpion who has to sting, or like Jessica Rabbit, who’s just drawn that way, Lucy is literally incapable of not fucking with the ball.
So the question becomes, what should Charlie Brown do now? I mean, shouldn’t he try playing some other game that doesn’t include Lucy? Like baseball or soccer, or Yahtzee? Or maybe he could start mowing lawns, and just buy his own football?
Hell, he could start a lawn-mowing franchise and eventually buy a whole football team. By then he’d be past the prime for football-kicking himself, but he’d likely have friends who are more loyal than Lucy, clients who truly appreciate (and pay for) their evenly-cut lawns, and co-workers who invite him to BBQs and their kids’ birthday parties where they share inside jokes and compare lawn mowers.
Possibly, he could have a happy life with plenty of anticipation and dopamine despite never kicking a football!
Ugh, I just passed 1000 words! I didn’t want to do that. How can I wrap this up? Okay, here:
Capitalism is deeply flawed but seems poised to persist.
Given the fact that I’m not Neo, and can’t unplug from the Matrix, I need to live in it. (Matrix=capitalist system. I didn’t set up that metaphor in this mini-essay, but it’s so commonly used I don’t need to, right?)
Within the capitalist system, my stubborn commitment to football kicking (i.e. screenwriting) seems increasingly likely to end with me living underneath an overpass (at least between police sweeps), while Lucy / Hollywood forgets I ever existed and doesn’t feel the least bit guilty.
However, Hollywood is just one subsector of the big capitalist machine, and if I can quit sulking about the not-getting-to-kick-the-football thing, I could look for a different sector that doesn’t lead to the whole overpass scenario.
And in the process, I could even look for a sector with work-life balance, respect for my skills, and getting compensated happily and fairly instead of grudgingly and as little as possible. (I don’t know if this place actually exists, but what is life without a search for mythical lands?)
All of which would help renew my faith in humanity and the capitalist whole reward system, which would reset my ability anticipate good things, triggering the release of dopamine…
The importance of dopamine became apparent in 1954 when the neuroscientists James Olds and Peter Milner ran an experiment that revealed the neurological processes behind craving and desire. By implanting electrodes in the brains of rats, the researchers blocked the release of dopamine. To the surprise of the scientists, the rats lost all will to live. They wouldn’t eat. they wouldn’t have sex. They didn’t crave anything. Within a few days the animals died of thirst.
In follow-up studies, other scientist also inhibited the dopamine-releasing parts of the brain, but this time, they squirted little droplets of sugar into the mouths of the dopamine-depleted rats. Their little rat faces lit up with pleasurable grins from the tasty substance. Even though dopamine was blocked, they liked the sugar just as much as before; they just didn’t want it anymore. The ability to experience pleasure remained, but without dopamine, desire died. And without desire, action stopped.
James Clear, Atomic Habits (p. 105)
Although I’m happily emerging from the slump now, for much of this year, I found myself relating to the rats described above, in that I had very little desire to do much of anything. Although this sounds like—and probably was—a classic depression symptom, I simultaneously observed that, like the rats, I didn’t feel particularly unhappy. I still enjoyed flowers and pretty scenery and conversations and food when —like sugar water dropped on the rats’ tongues—it was delivered to me with minimal effort on my part. Luckily, because I live with a man moved by his appetites, much of the world was delivered to me: Television programs appeared on the screen, food arrived, I was ferried to various destinations. And as these things happened I thought mmmm, riding in the car in the sun is nice, this view is nice, this Modern Kale Ceasar Salad hits the spot.
The main arena where Paul could not carry me was in my writing. With a kind of distanced concern, I observed that my sense of hope and ambition had disappeared and my desire to write had dwindled to almost nothing. This, more than anything else, highlighted for me the growing similarity between myself and the desire-less rats.
I thought, For most of my life I have cared about writing. While I don’t care right now, it seems probable that I’ll care again in the future, so I should try to prolong my creative life until the caring kicks back in. To that end, maybe I need to be not only a rat, but also a scientist. (Not the one of the scientists who let their rats die of starvation, but the one who provided sugar water to keep the rats alive, albeit after cruelly disrupting their normal dopamine flow.)
In other words, I needed to procure my own source of sugar water.
I set about doing this by signing up for a new session of a writing workshop I sometimes do. It didn’t push me into writing pages as it normally would, but my sense of social obligation drove me to read other people’s work and give decent notes. There’s some satisfaction in realizing that, after years of practice, searching for writing solutions when I read scripts is now as automatic as starting to chew after I’ve put food in my mouth. So I think my fellow writers benefitted and it exercised my brain a little. But after a couple of months, I was worn out even by this. I needed sugar water that required zero effort.
In the first weeks after my surgery, my general I-can’t-make-myself-care mood mixed with a fair amount of physical pain. I knew I was looking bad when our nosiest neighbor approached me on one of my daily recovery walks and asked, “Are you okay?” with a tinge of something approximating actual concern.
I’m sure whatever I answered was less than satisfying for her curiosity. I had little energy for back-and-forth conversations or the social niceties of stretching my face into different expressions. But as I slowly shuffled around the block like a battery-finally-depleted energizer bunny, I hit “play” on A Swim in a Pond in the Rain and it was pure sugar water piped into my brain via my ears. Inside my head, and even inside my soul, “my little rat face lit up with pleasure.”
Although the book can be described as about writing, Saunders’ discussions weave in morality, spirituality, human nature and the general poignant ridiculousness of people.
Saunders, like my husband, is an engineer-turned-storyteller, and it’s interesting to observe the ways in which their minds think alike (though Saunders’ analyses are elevated because he’s well-read and dedicated to efficiently and affectingly articulating his thoughts shaped by years of reflection and teaching).
In each section of the book, an actor reads a story by a Russian author, and then Saunders analyzes the story, beat by beat, page by page, combining close reading and larger structural analysis.
If you are a writer, a reader or a lover of stories in any format, I highly recommend this book.
P.S. Though I’m a fan of George Saunders’ fiction, I became aware of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain via his Story Club newsletter which you can check out on SUBSTACK for free. I will admit to being months behind — apparently opening emails and reading things on my computer is less like sugar-water delivery and more akin to having to cross one’s cage for sustenance—and I’m not all the way back yet. The minute he compiles his posts into an audiobook or podcast, I will be the first to lay my money down!
The first rosy flush of “up” in my last post was followed by a couple days of down — of pain not diminishing as quickly as I hoped (or becoming less masked as I tapered back on the meds), of mysterious bruises and swellings that are probably normal and not worth a call to the doctor but the source of niggling worry because what if they are not?
And also the sadness of coming face-to-face emotionally with what I already knew logically — that surgery is crest of a hill but not the end of the journey. This goes beyond my physical recovery. I haven’t really gone into the details of how, in these past months I’ve struggled with focus and direction in my creative / career efforts, but at the same time allowed for the fact that the health situation would have me reasonably, distracted! And I’ve hoped that as I move past my issues of health, there will be a moment when I’ll again feel the desire to finish any of a dozen unfinished projects — and even the hope that one project will call to me louder than the others, providing a clarity I’ve been sorely lacking. Of course, rationally, I knew it was unrealistic to expect that this desire and certainty would descend upon in my in my first days home from the hospital, but irrationally, I was still disappointed that they didn’t.
But after a day or so, the mystery swelling went down in my body and I decided I could be gentler with myself in spirit. After a week of convalescence with my mom I headed home with Paul and we had a really nice Easter with family where I was feeling good. The next day, I received word that the pathology report for my surgery was back:
NO LYMPH NODES INVOLVE, NO CHEMO!
Which is, of course, great news.
I returned to a standing weekly client meeting, and feeling frisky, even shot off some emails, feeling cocky, yes, I know it’s less than two weeks, but energetically, I’m past it, it’s downhill from here!
And then on Tuesday afternoon, I got hit by a mysterious new pain, between and under my ribs. It was alarming in that it was sharper, and in a different location than any previous post-surgical pain — but I know from experience that even the most dire-feeling Am-I-having-a-heart-attack? Am-I-dying?? pains are usually just “trapped gas.” Knowing this, I went outside to “walk it off,” only to return, defeated, after only half a block. I spent Tuesday night and Wednesday day and night curled around a hot water bottle.
But, now it’s Thursday morning and though I’m not 100%, the pain has subsided and shifted in a way that supports the idea that yes — even though I paged my doctor and considering the emergency room at one point — it was likely was just trapped gas that is running its course, if not so quickly as I may wish. There’s also a chance that this episode may be the first in a series known as “the new normal”— a non-serious but painful pain, that, as it comes and goes, will need to be analyzed (did I eat the wrong thing, or too quickly, or in the wrong order?), and ultimately incorporated—ie. balanced and juggled—along with the rest of life.
“Balancing and juggling” feels thematically appropriate to a tarot card I pulled last night. (Very recently I’ve been introduced to tarot cards, and have been drawing a card each morning and evening, not as prophesy, but as a way to learn the cards and think about life.) I drew the Two of Pentacles.
Also called “The Juggler,” the Two of Pentacles is about trying to keep all our earthly balls in the air— work, family, money, projects, food, clothing, shelter etc. And, of course, holding our temporary bodies together for as long as we can while we’re here!
I think I have a lot in common with the dude pictured on this card: We’re both running a little to stay underneath those “infinite” balls that we’re juggling or balancing— or both. Our shoes don’t match, but at least we’ve got some on — even if the same can’t be said for pants! Our boats rock on topsy, turvy, turbulent seas, but they’re still upright and moving forward. Sure, it all feels a little precarious, but somehow, nothing’s crashing to the ground. Maybe because we’ve both had some practice with boats and balls and waves all moving up and down, and understand that, tiring as it can be, there’s some fun in doing the dance, seeing how long we can keep it all going!