Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I Am My Own Dramaturg

One good thing about being a struggling writer is that you are forced, by sheer necessity, to learn how to edit yourself.

Can’t say I always do that in this blog. Occasionally, I’ve been known to ramble. But that’s what this is for---so if you don’t like it, you can get your finicky little ass over to and I hope you’re very happy together.

Anyway, last night, I drug myself out to a local writer’s series. I don’t quite know why I went. I certainly have enough writing of my own to do right now. And this particular group always makes me slightly nauseous.

I know very few of them. And they all know each other.

That uncomfortable social situation when you’re in a roomful of people who’ve all known each other for years and you’re the odd man out. Of course, you go because someone told you to go. And you show up and you realize that you only know that one person. But they know everybody! So now you’re forced to do this dance where you talk to them briefly, then you let them go off and be with their friends while you stand there awkwardly. Don’t want to appear too clingy, but also don’t want to look bored. That would be bad form. So you try to make small talk with strangers, but oh god how I hate the small talk. I’ve answered the question, “What’s your name?” with this group more times than my freshman year orientation.

You have to be social. Even if you don't want to, you have no choice. It's that or go outside and smoke.

I did a lot of smoking.

And I’m a pretty social person. My gay friends think I’m the perfect cocktail party guest. I’m witty and I like gin. But these things are a whole different animal. It’s like a cross between a blind date, a job interview and a police interrogation. There’s something expected of you. Only, in this case, it’s even worse---because you don’t even know what it is! Every time I go there I feel like the female Josef K. I feel guilty. And I don’t know what of.

While I often mention the fact that I write things outside of this silly little blog, I never go into much detail. Nor do I plan to now. But I will say that the main character in my current project IS a female Josef K. If you think I was getting all clever and literary just for you guys---well, I admit, I re-used that reference from my book. Yes, a novel. One that’s already been completed.

And already turned down by just about every literary agent in town.

No real reason. Mostly just the “not for us at this time” chestnut. One agent managed to scribble the fullest review I got in the margin of my query letter, “Loved the title, but just didn’t fall in love with the writing.”

Sorry you didn't fall in love. I was kinda going for a "just friends" thing. My bad.

No one read the full manuscript. A few read the partials (generally the first 10-100 pages, per the agent’s request). All declined.

Were they wrong? Not necessarily. While I made fun of that agent's "falling in love" comment---it's kind of true. For an agent to take you on, they really have to believe in you. Because it's going to be their job to sell you. And to do that, they have to believe in you even more than Mom. That's a pretty big deal.

The few friends who read my novel loved it. I was told by one friend that it could be a “Christmas classic”. Yes, it’s set during the holiday season. But not your typical holiday fare. One friend who is quite well-known and established in the business read it and recommended it to two editors and an agent. I haven’t heard a peep from any of them.

I still think it’s good.

Am I crazy? Maybe. But I still think it’s good. My being crazy has nothing to do with it.

My friend who recommended me also said, “This is a screenplay.” He also said, "You're the kind of writer that other writers get; but the business people don't yet."

That's good enough for me.

So recently, over the holiday season, I was finally able to sit down with my rejected book and figure out if I could, indeed, turn it into a screenplay. Of course, I knew I COULD. You can turn anything into a screenplay. But would it be any good?

I’m not new to screenplays. I’ve written a few of them. The first few just turned out to be practice screenplays. Of course, at the time, you think that the first one is going to be IT. It’s not till about the second or third that you realize that this is a marathon, not a sprint. An old friend of mine finally made the big time out in LA with his recent screenplay. He’s being touted as an overnight sensation. That overnight took about fifteen years.

My theory is: you just have to keep writing.

That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. I just keep writing. And writing. And hopefully editing. And cutting. And if I want to over-write, I just come here and get it all out of my system. Sorry.

I’d never turned a novel into a screenplay before. It seemed like an interesting exercise. And the nice thing was, it was MY book. I knew the characters, the story, the setting---what could be easier?

A month later, I found myself re-writing entire scenes, sending my characters off for some serious re-tuning and pacing around the apartment like a caged bear. Turning one’s own novel into a screenplay could be a blog post in and of itself so I won’t go on too much; except to say that the experience has been maddening. Why? Because the time limitations of a screenplay demand expediency. It’s like turning T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” into a haiku. You have to cut, merge, re-arrange, re-write, re-characterize, and cut, cut, and cut some more. You have to break it down to an atom. What is your story’s source of life?

It also forces you to see your mistakes.

But it’s good. All good, she says with a Renfield-like laugh. Recently I’ve had to force myself to go back to the opening scenes to see how I can get 35 pages of material to boil down to 15. In cooking, it’s called a reduction. In writing, it’s called a pain in the ass.

I needed a break. And it’s been a cold, New York winter. Last night, I just needed to get out on a slightly warmer evening and watch someone else struggle with words. Sure, I might be Josef K. But last night, I wanted to look thru the Plexiglas and watch another condemned man go to his literary death.

Is that so wrong?

Luckily, the pickings were ripe. Last night at the writer’s group, I was treated to a great display of over-written scripts, one-dimensional characters, premises that fell flat on their feet, and jokes in the script that just didn’t get a laugh.

Did these writers suck? No. Absolutely not. There was good writing in all the scripts I saw. But they all needed work. And hopefully, the writers were savvy enough to spot this. I could see most of their mistakes. But then, I was outside looking in. I was the silent dramaturg.

After the reading was over, I got the hell out of there. My script was practically turning somersaults in my bag.

I had some work to do.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Non, Je ne regrette rien!

Last night I woke up four times.

This morning, my friend Val called me and I discovered that she woke up four times last night, too.


We don't know.

I suggested that maybe it's the subtle approach of Spring. Maybe we're both so anxious to wake up and greet our day, I suggested. She laughed. She works full-time and has a daughter in school---she soaks up any sleep she can get.

As for me, the single gal---I have no idea. Piaf songs raced thru my head all night. Chansons with accordians about love and loss and broken dreams and sheer bliss.

I can't say it's exactly what wakes me up; but Piaf is the first thing I think of as I shuffle the cat off the bed this morning.

What are these occasional, maddening, sleepless nights all about? Sometimes I wake up happy. Other times, bleak and sad. I have no idea.

Over a cup of coffee, I try to remember and analyze the dreams. If I can even recall them, they never seem to make sense.

The next day, I'm exhaused. I drag thru the day, fully aware of the fact that I didn't get enough sleep the night before. I'll sleep good tonight, I tell myself. One for the records.

Crawling out of work, exhausted and dazed, I get onto a train and nearly fall asleep several times---somehow managing to jolt myself awake two stops before I have to get off. Beddy-bye plans have been in preperation all day. A hot bath. A soft pillow. A cup of herbal tea. And...well, that's pretty much it.

And then, somewhere between the walk from the train and opening my apartment door---I'm awake.

Wide awake.

One sleepless night tends to extend itself into the next three days.

I woke up four times last night. Today is Monday. I will, most likely, not get this mental clock fixed till sometime Wednesday afternoon.

What did I accomplish?

Absolutely nothing.

That is, nothing in the practical sense. Thru a series of complete time-wasters, however, I did learn some new Polish words, discovered my friend Nina didn't like donuts via her Facebook status, realized that the piece of tilapia in my refrigrator wasn't "bad" after all, watched clips from "Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?" on YouTube, sewed a button onto a coat, took care of a potential hangnail, read up on the history of jug bands, dusted off my tennis racket, and found my good scissors.

I'm exhausted.

But I regret nothing.

This is life. In all its meaningless splendor. C'est la vie.

I don't know why I woke up so much last night. But I must have needed something. My body must have been craving some kind of attention. Maybe the hangnail took care of it. Or the discovery of the long-lost scissors. Either way, I've learned to live with my cravings. For sleep or otherwise.

Life always seems to be protrayed as either a series of accomplishments or a string of miraculous events piled on top of the other. But sometimes, I've discovered, it's just about enjoying a delicious loaf of bread. Or a hug from a friend. Or maybe even the brilliance of Bette Davis in "Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?"

In any case, I'm too tired this morning to try to figure out what life's really all about. I'm just trying to enjoy my coffee. Outside my kitchen window, nothing goes on except a piece of newpaper wafting back and forth in the wind. I try to make sense of it. Turn it into something. But I can't.

I'm so tired now, but I'll survive. Something inside of me was fulfilled last night. For hours, I strained to discover what the thing was---perhaps thinking, if I knew why I was waking up, I could find a more sensible way of fulfilling my body's needs.

A few minutes ago, I gave up wondering. I decided I prefered the mystery.

Non, je ne regrette rien.