I remember this well – my excitement was so intense it’s still indescribable. All of those times I came so close to my goal and missed taught me to lower my expectations. I didn’t let myself hope for more than another meeting. To learn my spec script had been optioned by a real producer for real money (not a lot, but more than I’d ever made writing before) seemed surreal.
Part of me always believed I’d make it as a writer, otherwise I wouldn’t have pursued it – but another part saw a screenwriting career as a dream, out of reach. One of my high school teachers told me I wouldn’t be a real writer until someone paid me to write and I believed her – so, Steve Friedman optioning the script was validation.
In my dizzy euphoria, I assumed everything would be different now – my career would come easily. That proved overly optimistic. Steve didn’t make the movie and the option lapsed. The same script would be optioned twice more, by two different producers, and it attracted some top-tier female directors and talent, but as of today it remains unproduced.
Doesn’t matter. It’s still one of the top ten days of my life.
Looking back, the symptoms of clinical depression are in neon lights – but in 1968, I didn’t know what that meant. If anyone had asked, “Are you okay?” I would’ve said “I’m fine” – the correct Norwegian response to any inquiry about mental or physical health, even on one’s death bed.
I felt terrible about disappointing my father but powerless to level up my game. Was it more important for me to make it to school or look human? They wanted both? I couldn’t do it anymore. Sure, other people managed it without too much difficulty – I did it once myself, but those days were behind me now.
I saw darkness everywhere, even when babysitting. Two little girls spent hours play-acting “drunken father coming home.” Another couple, who left me with their daughter, urged me to have fun with their cat. The kids appeared in desperate need of affection. They begged to sit on my lap but I was too lost in my malaise to respond with genuine warmth. I felt guiltier for what I couldn’t feel and do than anything that I did – because I couldn’t do much.
That fall, I had a recurring nightmare, in which I was stalked by an unidentified killer. Just as he was ready to strike, I’d wake up screaming. The trouble was, no one heard me. Surely, someone would have comforted me if they’d heard. If I really screamed out loud.
JS was the only boy I ever dated who actually went to Vietnam. In retrospect, I was an academic snob, attracted almost exclusively to college-bound guys. Because of this – and because JS was shipping out soon – I didn’t take JS that seriously. He wrote me letters after he deployed and I wrote back at first, but not as often as he wrote me. Gradually, I tapered off. To my mind, his letters took on an angry slightly threatening tone – ranting about me and my “hippie friends” – so I stopped writing to him entirely.
In retrospect, I wish I’d continued to write back to him. It wouldn’t have required that much effort and from all I’ve learned about what life was like for enlisted men in Vietnam, it probably would’ve comforted him to have a friend back home even if I wasn’t his girlfriend. In all of his interactions with me, he was nothing but kind and he deserved kindness back.
Both J and I have casual acquaintances who served but in our immediate social circle, there’s exactly one Vietnam vet. In the thirty plus years we’ve known him, he’s only talked about it – to me, anyway – once. Nonetheless, it’s obvious the experience had a profound effect on him and not for the better. Recently, he’s fallen on hard times and faced homelessness so for the past eight months he’s been sleeping on a fold-out sofa in my husband’s home office.
The situation is less than optimum for all concerned and I’m hoping a better option will present itself. I know I’m not responsible for his well-being but I feel a certain amount of responsibility nonetheless. He did something my husband and everyone else we know got out of. Maybe that’s on him, since on some level it was his choice. When he made that choice, however, he didn’t have the advantages that I – and most of the people I know – take for granted. Maybe I’m still feeling guilty about my lack of compassion for JS. Vietnam is far in our national past but I can’t be the only one struggling with the fallout – and I didn’t even have to worry about getting drafted.
This was one of my very first meetings on the first of my spec screenplays to be optioned – in this case by the late Steve Friedman who ran King’s Road Productions in ’79. The script was inspired by Janis Ian’s brilliant song “At 17” although I doubt anybody involved actually acquired the rights to the song (I know as a fledgling writer, I couldn’t afford it.)
Ultimately, the script got optioned three times by different companies and/or producers but – alas – never produced, at least not as of this writing. It did, however, launch my career. It was the sample script that got me hired to adapt S. E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders.
Over the years, I rewrote it many times – incorporating notes from various producers and directors. Although almost every line of the script Steve optioned has been changed – hopefully, for the better – the original characters, theme and the crisis Steve and I added remain. Every time I completed another draft, I’d think I can’t possibly do more only to discover that if I set it aside for a year, the next time I looked I could easily spot room for improvement.
The lessons, for myself and anyone who aspires to a writing career?
You’re never done. No matter how wonderful you might think your current draft is, it can be better.
Take a break – as long as possible. My most recent break from this script lasted over twenty years. Talk about fresh eyes! It was like reading a script by somebody else.
Cutting improves almost anything. In particular, look for flab in the first act.
That was the last I heard from Lewis for thirty plus years. I glimpsed him a couple times – once at Valley Fair and once at Santa Clara University – but I felt ugly and unprepared to run into an ex so I ducked out of sight. He never called and having taken the initiative in asking him to the Sadie, I wasn’t about to call him again.
This was the rule, not the exception, of how my relationships ended. Upon parting, we invariably promised to stay “good friends” after which we never spoke to each other again. Why was it so impossible to stay friends back then? None of my relationships ended in screaming or hatred – quite the opposite. I rarely if ever instigated the break-up although – looking back – in my passive-aggressive way, I drove more than one to dump me. I was sincere in my desire to stay friends but in those days, there was a stigma against girls calling boys – but maybe that’s just an excuse.
The internet – Facebook in particular – was a game-changer. For starters, it’s a lot less threatening to send an email than pick up the telephone. The passage of time helps too – not many wounds remain raw after twenty or thirty years.
In my experience, in any given break-up, one of the people involved wants it more than the other. Even if the dumpee agrees to be friends, there’s a hidden agenda to be more than friends. Twenty or thirty years after the fact, no one expects a relationship to pick up where it left off – hence, it’s possible to form a genuine friendship based on what two people originally had in common. I’ve been lucky that way with several exes, Lewis among them. While I can’t call this phenomenon closure – because these friendships aren’t over, they’re ongoing – they satisfy my need to make sense of what happened all those years ago.
This day has always loomed large in memory – in many ways, it epitomizes my adolescence. First, I have to cop to outrageous thoughtlessness due to the self-centered cloud I lived in. This was a momentous day for my father – in fact, I’ll wager it meant more to him than it did to me.
My indifference to its importance in his life shames me today. I was incapable of grasping a world beyond my transient teen-age hurt over a bad time at a dance or my elation at meeting a new boy.
Natalie and I always egged each other in ways that got us into trouble and this was no exception. (The fact it was a Catholic Youth Organization dance – and in 1968 Lutherans and Catholics weren’t all that ecumenical – didn’t help.) Natalie got grounded too. Maybe that added to the drama and thrill of it all. Since we paid the price, the experience had to be of value, right? When Natalie was alive, no matter where we were, we called each other on February 5th to remember and commiserate.
For me, the ramifications of that Sunday adventure lasted for years. I became obsessed with X (after he dropped me). At the time, I blamed my senior year clinical depression on my obsession with that failed romance but it was a scapegoat – the depression was inside me, just waiting for an excuse. And in some ways, the obsession served me well – it kept me aloof from other serious romantic entanglements that might’ve changed my life – maybe for better, maybe for worse. Like most events of my adolescence, it doesn’t matter; I’m happy with the life I live now.
I’m sure some forward-thinking people were anti-fur in 1968, but I was unaware of the movement and – in my self-centered state – I didn’t feel particularly guilty about cloaking myself in the fur of dead animals. I’m not sure if this is much of a defense, but the reason JoAnn and I were modeling furs in the first place was the Hills were raising chinchillas – very rodent-like little creatures – specifically for the fur trade. I saw them in their cages at the Hill house, stroked their soft fur, but never really put it together they had to die to fulfill their destiny as a piece of a fur cape. I wouldn’t feel comfortable modeling at all today (not that anybody’s asking) and I definitely wouldn’t wear any kind of fur. But this was fifty (gasp!) years ago and times were quite different then.
The other thing that strikes me about this entry is the extreme contrast between this elegant (at least to my adolescent mind) SF furrier salon and a car in which sticks and carpeting served as a rear window. It sounds as if the ludicrous dichotomy escaped me entirely – I enjoyed the whole bizarre experience which I characterized as simply a
I lost touch with JoAnn years ago and I’m hoping if she or somebody who knows her happens across this, she’ll get back in touch.
A year later we modeled the furs at the Hyatt in San Jose. That is replayed in a blog I shared with you last February 8th (Modeling at the Hyatt).
Proms have become a trope in teen-age movies, which would have one believe that attending (or not attending) the prom defines high school existence (Pretty in Pink springs immediately to mind although there are plenty of others). This wasn’t my experience.
I went to several proms – all in the same lace-encrusted blue dress – and while they were all memorable in their own way, they were not the apex of my teen-age years. I doubt I’m not alone in this. I’ve never met one single person who claims their prom was the defining moment of their high school life.
In real life, I don’t think who got crowned king and queen of the prom was of matter of life and death (Carrie). I was never in the running so I didn’t really care. My parents, however, were the King and Queen of their high school prom
Our Prom Party sent up the movie-fantasy stereotype of a high school prom, it didn’t have much to do with the real thing. One of my Columbia students, Holden Weitz, wrote a hilarious teen movie that parodies this trope. That’s the movie I want to see made!
In late February 1969, my clinical depression escalated. (See November 30, 1968) My part-time job at California Book couldn’t save me but it staunched the bleeding. It forced me to adhere to a schedule. I only worked 16 hours a week, but it was my first job and I took it seriously. It didn’t infringe on my social life since I no longer had one. I didn’t miss it.
The major symptom of my despair was a total lack of interest in anything. Anhedonia is the technical term. It means “an inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable … including the motivation or desire to engage in activities.” It took enormous effort to shower. If I also washed my hair, I was too spent to go to school. Not so long ago I could do both – wash my hair and attend school – but not anymore.
I knew I wasn’t living up to the curse of my so-called potential. My parents were disappointed, although they never said so. It was nothing compared to how much I loathed myself.
The last thing I needed was more time in bed to think. That kind of self-centered contemplation was like swimming through quicksand – there was no way out, only down. The answer was activity, to get out of bed and out of the house. I knew what to do, but I lacked the energy – and the desire – to do it.
Writing about my year of depression is about as much fun as living it. I do it because so many people get stuck in something similar. In the thick of it, I felt alone and empty. It might’ve helped to know I wasn’t. If you’re depressed and read this, remember – you’re not alone or empty either. Things get better. Hang on.
The script I refer to here turned out to be my breakthrough spec script “At 17”, inspired by and loosely based on the brilliant Janis Ian song of the same title. I didn’t have the rights – I don’t know if anyone actually did – but ABC was developing it as a Movie of the Week (MOW).
My former boss at NBC, the late and much lamented Len Hill, was one of the ABC executives in charge of MOWs; my sister Janet was his assistant/secretary. He told me if I could write a brilliant script in the next ten days he’d consider it equally with the scripts the network paid for. Ten days isn’t enough to write a great script from scratch under any circumstances and it wasn’t the best of times for me. My son CD was 14 months old but well on his way to the terrible twos.
Nonetheless, I gave it my best shot. The tension was so high I threw up on some of those late nights (gross, I know) but – with Jani’s assistance – I finished it. I don’t think Len or anybody else expected me to do it.
The problem was – it wasn’t good enough. The network preferred the writer who cashed their big checks. The rejection was so devastating I gave up until my pride and desire for revenge resurrected me. “I’ll show you,” I thought. “I’ll do a great rewrite and prove you were wrong to dismiss me.”
Did I succeed? I think so. Although the film never got made, it was optioned three times and garnered interest from directors like Martha Coolidge and Amy Heckerling. Years after Molly Ringwald aged out of playing a teen-ager, she told me she would’ve loved to play one of the parts. To say the least, I would’ve loved for her to play it but my script didn’t reach her at the right time.
That’s the way things go. Big ups, big downs. Victories won, battles lost, it’s hard to quantify wins and losses when script quality is so subjective and the industry’s in constant flux. The bottom line is, were those ten sleepless days and nights worth it when I failed to get what I wanted? Would I do it again? Hell, yes. If I had my life to live over, I’d try harder, reach higher and risk bigger losses. The only way to fail for good is giving up.