early ambitions

May 5, 1979

May 5, 1979

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.)

Me, the fledgling writer
Me, the fledgling writer

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.

Page 1 - "At 17"
Page 1 – “At 17”

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.

Caught in the act of re-reading
Caught in the act of re-reading

The lessons, for myself and anyone who aspires to a writing career?

  1. You’re never done. No matter how wonderful you might think your current draft is, it can be better.
  2. 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.
  3. Cutting improves almost anything. In particular, look for flab in the first act.
Writing frenzy - Day and night
Writing frenzy – Day and night

April 26, 1973

April 26, 1973

Emotionally defenseless

I don’t know what I expected when I walked into Student Counseling – I’d seen psychologists and psychiatrists before but never felt helped by any of them. Maybe because I was so  emotionally defenseless,  this woman got to me.

I knew I was falling apart and I felt terrible about it because I shouldn’t be. I’d just graduated from UCLA and – on the outside – it looked like good things were about to transpire for my writing career. Unfortunately, instead of giving me confidence, this made me feel under pressure which was compounded by my efforts to escape an extremely toxic relationship with L, a much older man who manipulated me with threats of self-harm and other histrionics. (On the plus side, I’m grateful to L for illustrating – by example – how unattractive and unpleasant drama queens can be.)

L took this photo of me - to me, I don't look like myself - there's a lot of strain in my smile.
L took this photo of me – to me, I don’t look like myself – there’s a lot of strain in my smile.

The counselor said  I was lucky to have a supportive family and I shouldn’t feel guilty about moving home. San Diego wasn’t that far from LA – I could make the drive in under three hours if I needed  to take a meeting.

Happy at home, reunited with my sisters around the family dining table. What could be finer?
Happy at home, reunited with my sisters around the family dining table. What could be finer?

I took her advice and moved home. I left L behind, leaving it up to him whether he committed suicide.  (Spoiler alert – he did not kill himself.) It was the right course and I might not have found my way if that counselor hadn’t extended her compassion. I’m not sure I ever knew her name – I know I never thanked her personally because I never saw her again – something I regret because, looking back, I feel like she saved my life

April 12, 1976

 

April 12, 1976

I didn’t know it at the time but this was my last day of employment as a secretary and the start of a major transition.  Although it wasn’t officially confirmed I was pregnant, I strongly suspected I was and I was right. Since quitting my job meant relinquishing our health insurance, my timing was terrible.

Impending parenthood.
Impending parenthood.

In addition to impending parenthood, I faced an extremely uncertain future as a film and television writer – as illustrated by my conversation with my UCLA writing professor and mentor Bill Froug. Not only did I learn the unhappy story of another writing professor’s life, I realized it might take Froug – my champion – an unspecified “while” to read my outline. If the man who most believed in me wasn’t eager to read my latest, how could I hope to interest the powers-that-be in Hollywood?

The very busy Bill Froug.
The very busy Bill Froug.

At the time of this entry, I hadn’t earned a dime writing, John was in his second year of law school and our first baby was on the way. I should’ve been petrified but for some reason I wasn’t. To be sure, there were some hard times ahead – it would be four years before I’d see any success as a writer – but I believed we’d be all right – and we were.

One era ends and another begins.
One era ends and another begins.

April 8, 1965

April 8, 1965

I tried to impress by playing oboe in the Jefferson Jr.High School Band. It's not impressive if you're terrible but the uniform was fun!
I tried to impress by playing oboe in the Jefferson Jr.High School Band. It’s not impressive if you’re terrible but the uniform was fun!

Mr. Uebel was one of my favorite teachers at Jefferson Jr. High and I desperately wanted to impress him. He inspired me and challenged me in ways I remember to this day. I was lucky enough to have several remarkable teachers – among them, Jerry Farrington (Wilcox High School), Bill Froug (UCLA) and Shelly Lowenkopf (USC). I also had one terrible teacher whose last name rhymed with “cruel” (in third grade). In retrospect, what made her “cruel” was her total lack of regard for me. I was just another kid in her class which was unacceptable.

Gerald Farrington
Gerald Farrington
Bill Froug
Bill Froug
Shelly Lowenkopf
Shelly Lowenkopf

I worked hard – especially for teachers I admired – to be singled out as special. While it’s entirely possible they saw nothing noteworthy about me at all, they convinced me they thought I had something, which was more than enough to motivate an approval junkie like myself.

School picture of a girl desperate to be teacher's pet.
School picture of a girl desperate to be teacher’s pet.

Maybe that’s the trick to motivating most people. Who doesn’t want to feel special? Who isn’t willing to go the extra mile for somebody who sees something extraordinary in them? Nobody I know receives as much attention and validation as they need. It’s not polite to ask for it (and if you do, it ruins whatever you get) but I suspect most people thirst for appreciation. The trouble is, outside of academia, it’s easy to get out of the habit of offering it.  I’m going to make an effort to stop thinking about myself long enough to make a habit of giving it. It’s the least I can do, considering how much has been given to me.

April 2, 1970


April 2, 1970

I felt cornered - I felt trapped
I felt cornered – I felt trapped

When I was young and dumb, I did more than my share of dangerous things but this experience was the only time I feared for my life. In retrospect, maybe John was just a lonely guy who posed no threat but I’d never found myself powerless in the passenger seat with a stranger before.  Luckily, my threat about a “hand in my knife” did the trick. I still don’t know if I would’ve used it.

One of the scarier pictures of myself - I look ;like I might actually carry a knife (only when I got in cars with strange men)
One of the scarier pictures of myself – I look ;like I might actually carry a knife (only when I got in cars with strange men)

At nineteen, I thought I’d live forever. Sure, the newspapers were full of dreadful things happening to people my age but I didn’t know them personally and the possibility of death – or tragedy – touching me or my friends seemed remote.

Thanking my lucky stars

I no longer believe in my own immortality – quite the contrary. Having lost my parents as well as some close friends, I am well aware of the fragility of life and the brevity of our time on this planet.  While Doomsday doesn’t lurk around every corner, I no longer take it for granted that I and the people I love have all the time in the world.

Someday, inevitably, I will die - hopefully not at the hands of a monk on the Janss Steps at UCLA.
Someday, inevitably, I will die – hopefully not at the hands of a monk on the Janss Steps at UCLA.

This knowledge ought to motivate me not to waste another minute – to stop procrastinating and focus on what’s truly important but I’m a slow learner. While I no longer take foolish chances like I once did, I still waste time like I’ve got an unlimited supply – and that needs to change.

March 29, 1989

March 29, 1989

Joyce and Judith Russell
Joyce and Judith Russell

John talks to Martin in b.g.

Me with my boys; John talks to Martin in b.g.
Me with my boys; John talks to Martin in b.g.

Almost thirty years later, I can answer that question with some authority. Yes, I was definitely losing interest in movies, a trend that would continue. Today, IMHO, the most innovative, exciting and inspirational writing can be seen on cable television or a streaming service.  In 1989, I couldn’t imagine the myriad entertainment options we take for granted now. To illustrate just how different things were, check out our eighties pride and joy – the gigantic rear-projection television that consumed half the family room. The yellow velveteen sofa is another eighties winner.

Rear-projection TV

Anne Kurrasch, Aviva, and rear-projection TV
Anne Kurrasch, Aviva, and rear-projection TV

Joyce and John Salter

Joyce and John Salter
Joyce and John Salter

A couple people who were there that night – Ed Cutter and Jake Jacobson to name two – have died. I lost touch with JoAnn Hill and even with the full resources of the internet, I haven’t been able to find her due to the sheer volume of JoAnn Hills.

JoAnn Hill and young Thomas Dadourian
JoAnn Hill and young Thomas Dadourian
Martin and Roberta Gundersen
Martin and Roberta Gundersen

My adorable little blond boy in the white faux tuxedo jacket is in his thirties now, living in his own condo and too busy with his job and girlfriend to see us more than every other weekend. The other day he laughingly told me I couldn’t guilt him anymore. We’ll just have to see about that, won’t we?

Me and Alex again
Me and Alex again
JoAnn Hill and John on classic eighties sofa
JoAnn Hill and John on classic eighties sofa

Enjoy these pictures and take lots of photos of your life as you know it now. Before you know it, everything will change and you’ll want to remember how it used to be. In the immortal words of the great Paul Simon in “Bookends”:

Ed Cutter and John Salter
Ed Cutter and John Salter
Sam and Roberta
Sam and Roberta

Memories from March 29, 1989

March 26, 1979

March 26, 1979_edited-1

Face that we hide away We all have a face we hide away

The person I claim to be is a complete fabrication. Three words of the entry explain how and why this could happen. “I drink more.”  A lot more. After a few drinks, my self-consciousness disappears and a wittier, friendlier me emerges. I don’t care what people say or think – at least not until the next morning when I wake with a headache and a list of apologies I need to make for things I shouldn’t have said.

Extroverts

When I stopped drinking this extroverted version of me ran dry. I reverted to an introvert.  Introverts get a bad rap. People with a rich interior life and no apparent exterior life make boring movie heroes and heroines. They’re not easy to get close to but they do have a few things in common with extroverts.

Kathleen in blue

Everyone wants to be loved. Everyone feels under-appreciated. Nobody’s life runs exactly as planned and few, if any, see all of their dreams come true. That does not doom humans to unhappiness. That depends entirely on what you believe you need to be happy.

Kathleen - Hollywood Bowl

I’ve got enough. I don’t need a Malibu beach house or a private jet. If I die with exactly what I’ve got right now, it’s more than enough. I believe that leaves me happier than some who never have enough.

 

March 19, 1973

March 19, 1973

Luke was an art major
Luke was an art major

When Luke and I met in 1969, I was the depressive and he was calm and smiling. At some point during our three years together, he absorbed my darkness and I took his light. I didn’t consciously steal it – it just happened.

Luke and I in the beginning
Luke and I in the beginning

We’d broken up for the final time a year before this entry but we remained friends like many couples promise but few actually do. (Spoiler alert – it’s not easy.)  He never called me, I always called him, which under ordinary circumstances I would’ve read as cease and desist. I didn’t because I was profoundly worried about him. Slim to start with, he now looked skeletal (due to macrobiotic diet, not drugs). He’d withdrawn from everyone and everything, including painting which he once loved. I was afraid he’d die. He was only 22 years old.

Luke and I in the middle
Luke and I in the middle

I knew we could never get back together. We were travelling in diverging directions. Soon we’d move on without each other, not even as friends, but that didn’t mean I’d stop caring.  I’d always wonder about his life – did he find what he was looking for? Was he happy?  In the unlikely event our paths crossed again in this lifetime, I’d be happy to see him and eager to hear his voice. I’d always want to know what would happen next – and then, after that.  They say love never dies. In my case, neither does the power of curiosity.

Near the end. Check the body language. I'm trying to hang on. He's trying to get away.
Near the end. Check the body language. I’m trying to hang on. He’s trying to get away.

Luke isn’t the only one who arouses my intense (obsessive is such a harsh word) interest– I feel that way about anyone I cared about and I suspect I always will. Maybe that’s why the Bible story about Lot’s wife struck me as tragic. As she and her family fled Sodom, she turned to look back – in my view, because she couldn’t bear not to know what happened to the people she left behind. For that, God turned her into a pillar of salt.  I know, the sin was disobedience, not curiosity but the punishment seems a tad Draconian. I’d look back too – so there’d be at least two pillars of salt outside where Sodom and Gomorrah once stood.

Looking back one last time (outside Melnitz)
Looking back one last time (outside Melnitz)

 

February 19, 2012

February 19, 2012

There’s a bittersweet quality to seeing my oldest son do what I once did – albeit, in an entirely new way. Naturally, I’m proud of him (see my October 14, 2006 blog for details of his torturous – for his parents, anyway – journey from sophomore high school drop out to valedictorian in his film school major at UCLA. It was for real – we heard him give the speech. He thanked his father, who majored in poli sci at USC, instead of me, a fellow UCLA film school alumni. Go figure.) As happy and proud as I am, part of me longs to stand where he now stands. It’s less about envy than nostalgia.

CD preparing to walk for graduation.
CD preparing to walk for graduation.
His mother, not mentioned, in the valedictorian speech
His mother, not mentioned, in the valedictorian speech
The Melnitz lobby facing the blank theater
The Melnitz lobby facing the James Bridges  theater

These feelings became acute the night John and I attended the screening of his Project 1 equivalent film. Melnitz Hall looks the same, at least from the outside – and the Jakes Bridges theater where I screened my Project 1 film is oh so familiar – but look closer and everything has changed.  I don’t recognize a single name on the faculty roster. Different people occupy all of my old professor’s offices.

The sculpture gardens outside Melnitz Hall.
The sculpture gardens outside Melnitz Hall.
The sculpture garden as I remember it.
The sculpture garden as I remember it.

During another student’s gory film, I took a breather and went into the lobby. Sitting there, by myself, sent me reeling through decades long gone. Memories of hours spent between classes in that very spot – albeit on funkier couches – flooded me. I half expected a classmate from my past to stroll up and say hello but that didn’t happen. As an old Madonna song might put it,  Melnitz Hall used to be my playground. Now, although it holds a place in my life and my heart, it’s not my world and it won’t be again.

Conferring with Dean (I think)
Conferring with Dean (I think)

On the bright side, writing – my area of specialization – remains essentially the same, at least in terms of skill set, despite technological advances such as computers instead of an IBM Selectric, printers instead of carbon paper, script delivery by email attachment instead of by messenger. (What happened to the messenger industry? Are they out of business?) I got on board with word processing early and it hasn’t been hard to stay on top of the curve.

CDR Valedictorian

I was faced with another transition shortly after CD graduated, when I was offered an opportunity to teach screen writing at Columbia College Hollywood. I’ve always identified as a student – in part because I enjoy and take frequent writing workshops to stay current – and now I’m on the other side of the desk. So far, I enjoy it.  Spending hours mentoring millennials is as close as I’ll get to re-experiencing my heady undergraduate days (albeit vicariously, from a different POV). There’s a palpable rush of creative energy that comes when I cross the threshold of a campus like UCLA or Columbia. It’s not a time machine or the Fountain of Youth, but it’s close enough.

December 14, 1964

 

December 14, 1964

Perhaps what Chamberlain Castle would have looked like
Perhaps what “Chamberlain Castle” would have looked like

I suspect the reason I didn’t have imaginary friends was my two sisters. (That said, the youngest – Joyce – had a a deep long-lasting friendship with an imaginary boy named Keith – and for all I know, Janet had one too but she never told me.)  Sandy was an only child with an oversized imagination so naturally she created a cast of companions.

With sisters instead of imaginary friends
With sisters instead of imaginary friends

The characters in my story took the place of imaginary friends. My favorite part was naming them. I was – and still am – obsessed with names. I used to go through the fashion section of the huge Sears catalog that arrived every year and name the models. Selecting the perfect moniker was a challenge in 1964 because all the names in the baby books – and all the kids I knew – got stuck with traditional names (Kathy being particularly popular in the early fifties – see link to blog).

Sandy and me on the beach in 1964
Sandy and me on the beach in 1964

The era of exotic names – Apple, Charisma, Karma, Carlisle, Kipling (many unisex) – was at least a decade in the future, maybe more. In 1964, the top five names for girls were Lisa, Mary, Susan, Karen and Patricia. For boys, Michael, John, David, James and Robert.

My non-imaginary friend, Sandy
My non-imaginary friend, Sandy

The less said about the story described above, the better. At thirteen, I cornered the market on terrible hackneyed ideas. A surprising number survive, although recently I realized I might not need to save everything.  If “Chamberlain Castle” never escapes the slush pile (in this case, a file cabinet in the garage) the literary world will not suffer.

 

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