I knew that I bragged too much – “I had to tell people…I got into Kessler’s poetry class.” For sure, I boasted to the pages of my diary. I doubt anyone ever paid me a compliment I didn’t promptly record, verbatim. I’m probably bragging right now, by reprinting this particular diary entry. (“Look how great I used to be!”) That said, if I’m ever going to correct my character flaw of vanity – or is it pride? – I need to own it, so here goes – I’m conceited.
It’s not very Norwegian. My parents raised me not to “sing my own praises.” (On the other hand, there is that parable about not hiding your light under a bushel but I’m not sure that exonerates me.) I always dislike myself after I “toot my own horn” – just not enough to stop doing it.
Obviously, my braggadocio stems from a pervasive sense of inadequacy. Einstein didn’t announce he was a genius. Garbo didn’t brag that she was a famous movie star. Brilliant, talented people don’t need to tell the world how smart and exceptional they are. It’s obvious. It’s equally obvious when they are not. And no amount of self-promotion can turn mediocrity into greatness.
Technically, I’m not a hoarder – but I totally get what they’re doing and why. For years, it was impossible for me to recycle newspapers and magazines until I actually read them, regardless of how obsolete they might be. I’m more ruthless about recycling periodicals now, not so much because I can let things go as because I can google any article or story I need. Technically it’s progress, but is it really?
It’s harder to toss early drafts of my creative work because who knows? Someday I may need that bit of dialog in scene 3 of a movie that was DOA. Today, of course, I can save these gems on my computer, but I’m talking about the golden age of paper. Guess what? In my thirty-year career as a writer, I have never – not even once! – retrieved a piece of rejected dialog.
J is a different animal. He can trash yellow legal pads without scrutinizing every scribble. It’s true, he’s quicker to toss my rough drafts than his, but that’s because lawyers are legally bound to hang onto files for a specified number of years after a case concludes.
These conversations may not sound “deep” today (or was the word “heavy”?) I’m glad I wrote them down – otherwise, I’d have no idea what my sisters and I talked about as kids. Do you remember childhood topics of conversation with your friends? Your siblings? Your parents? Do you ever wish you’d written it down?
I have zero independent recall of the vast majority of days described in my diary. They sound vaguely familiar – like something I might’ve overheard or said – but it’s my diary telling me what happened, not any real recollection.
Oddly, I do remember this conversation with my father – it started with my short story and evolved into a discussion of coming of age. I can see him on the floor, repairing that cupboard in our Del Monte kitchen. He made such an effort to meet me on my own turf. He listened to my Beatles records, listened to the Doors. Being young and selfish, I didn’t respond with reciprocal interest in his world. I wish I had; he had more to teach me than I could ever teach him. That said, his purpose was never to indoctrinate – he wanted to know me.
These were heady, exciting days. The chance to adapt S.E. Hinton’s novel for the screen was the break of a lifetime and I didn’t want to blow it. At my pitch meeting, I impulsively volunteered to return to high school – posing as a student – to determine if contemporary high school cliques resembled those depicted in Hinton’s 1967 novel.
I was a novice at writing as well as posing as somebody I wasn’t. I’d written two spec scripts and an unproduced MOW. Technically, I knew what I was doing; I could perform at a high level in academia but what about the real world, for real stakes? The story meetings were intimidating. Facing blank pages felt terrifying. Add to that, the pressure to pass for a 17-year-old high school student when I was a 29-year-old married mother.
Because I was a nobody in a sea of somebodies, there’s no reason Jon Davidson should have recognized me – particularly since I worked all of three months at New World, ostensibly as Roger Corman’s assistant (my title) but actually as the receptionist (harsh reality). Jon was sweet to pretend; it gave my ego a tiny but desperately needed boost.
I’m guessing that Julie, Debbie and I were doing a report together. Whatever the reason, I was already fascinated by psychology and still am. At one point, before I made a dime as a writer, I seriously contemplated returning to UCLA for a degree in psychology. Unfortunately, statistics was a requirement.
Books on psychology – anything, from pop psychology to doctorate tomes – are invaluable research resources. Lately, I’ve been obsessed with the enneagram. Making certain all my characters are different enneagram types differentiates them. For the record, I’m a solid #4. David Schnarch is brilliant when it comes to relationships. Carl Jung provided a road map for mythic story structure and archetypes.
Psych experiments are also fascinating; as an undergrad, I volunteered for dozens to make pocket money. The Zimbardo Stanford Prison Experiment (1971) is particularly intriguing. Basically, students were randomly assigned roles as guards or prisoners in a mock prison for two weeks. Supposedly, some of them got too far into their rules –a few prisoners broke down and the experiment was terminated after six days.
Controversy surrounds this experiment because no one has been able to replicate its results. It’s been accused of unscientific methodology and possible fraud – were the guards coached to behave sadistically or did those tendencies emerge naturally from the roles the students played? Flawed or not, the fact the Stanford Prison Experiment is discussed half a century later confirms it was important – and probably warrants further study.
This was an exciting time. I loved the fast and furious pace of television versus the plodding development process in features. Most of my television credits are stand-alone MOWs (Movie of the Week), a 90s network staple. TV movies unfolded in seven acts, to accommodate six commercials. Ideally, all six act breaks were cliff-hangers, to ensure viewers didn’t channel hop when the ads started.
“Malibu Shores” was my only series experience. As co-producer, I worked long office hours with producers John Eisendrath and Joel Feigenbaum. After decades of writing at home on my own timetable, this was a shock to my system.
As staff writer-producers, we wielded more power than the directors we hired on a per-episode basis and the actors consulted us when they wanted to change a line. John and Joel insisted I veto the first request, to experience the thrill of saying “no” to a script change. That said, we could not say no to Aaron Spelling, broadcast Standards and Practices or the NBC executive in charge of the show.
In his novel Artistic Differences, Charlie Hauck compared producing a television series to chapter 37 of Moby Dick. I quote him below, slightly abridged. I highly recommend his book to anyone interested in staff writing.
“It’s exactly like chapter 37 of Moby Dick. Captain Ahab finally spots Moby Dick. He has a shot at him. And he gets a boat down in the water, a skiff or whatever. And he’s got these Asian guys rowing the boat. They’re not his regular guys – these are some kind of hotshot whaling experts. Anyhow, all these guys are rowing the boat. They really know what they’re doing…they’re Joe Whaler. And Ahab is standing in the back with this harpoon that he’s been sharpening for three years. And Moby Dick is flopping around, like, two hundred yards away. And all of a sudden, these sharks surround the skiff. They’re everywhere. And the sharks start taking bites out of the paddles of the oars. And the paddles are getting smaller and smaller, and it’s getting harder for the guys in the boat to row, and the whale’s not going to stay there forever, right?
But the thing is, the sharks don’t want the oars. They want the whale, just like Ahab and the Asian guys. But the sharks, who want the whale as much as anybody else, they’re the ones who make getting the whale impossible. You see?
And here’s the analogy. The whale is the television show. The hit series. Like, if it goes into syndication, everybody connected with it makes fifty million dollars. And the people in the boat, they’re the writers and producers. They’re the ones trying to get the whale, who know how to do it. And the sharks, the guys biting the oars, they’re the network guys, and the production company executives and the agents and everybody else who, when they don’t know how to get to the whale, decide, somewhere back in the swamp ova of the human brain, well, Jesus, I should do something, why don’t I try to sink the boat? And that’s exactly what it’s like trying to produce a television show.”
I’m writing this on November 4, so I don’t know how yesterday’s midterms will end despite dawn-to-dusk polls on cable news. Forty-six years ago, I was oblivious to any polls regarding the outcome of the ’72 election. It was widely assumed Nixon would prevail, in part due to the perfectly timed Paris Peace Treaty and the fact many Democrats deemed McGovern too far left.
Although our country was polarized (two words – Viet Nam), it was still possible to disagree politically without rupturing relationships irreparably. I pinballed from Republican to Democrat and back and none of my friendships died over those divides in the 70s, 80s or 90s. In fairness, I wasn’t all that passionate about politics. I liked to argue, play the devil’s advocate. Violence was never threatened. To my knowledge, no one considered me an enemy, let alone an enemy of the people. We could agree to disagree.
I don’t consider myself vitriolic, but I can be, when provoked. All my life, I’ve taken things too personally. Now I take politics too personally. In the interest of treating others like I want them to treat me, I try to dial down the judgments I lay on people because of their beliefs. It’s harder than it should be.
My three-year relationship with Luke had crashed months earlier but we weren’t through missing each other so we were trying to figure out how to be “friends.” That election night, we were the only two people in Dickson Hall, the Art building at UCLA (since remodeled).
He was a grad student. I was a self-centered 21-year-old who didn’t want to love anyone. I believed the person who loved the most, lost. As if love was a battle and what mattered was winning or losing.
Today, I know things like love and honor are far more important than victory or defeat. To win without honor is to lose everything that matters. To live without love isn’t living at all. But I’m an aging baby boomer hippie. What do I know?
What could be better than a Saturday night Diana Ross concert at the Hollywood Bowl, a venue that holds a special place in my heart? Those of you who don’t live in LA might not know that during the off season or when no performances are scheduled, the Hollywood Bowl is open to the public. There are no guards, no gates, no admission fees. Anybody can slip inside, stand on the stage and gaze upon 17,500 empty seats.
If you’re interested in Hollywood Bowl history (I am), there’s a museum on site. The iconic look of its shell hasn’t changed much over the decades. From 1953 until 1972, those heady days when the Beatles and the Doors headlined, a six-feet deep decorative reflecting pool fronted the stage.
My sisters and I are long-time Diana Ross fans – witness our super-8 homage to the Supremes (see photo below and my September 23, 1972 blog about our record act). To perfect an intricate act such as ours, we listened to their records a thousand times – a pleasure, with Miss Ross on vocals.
And Halle Berry? I’ve never seen a woman more staggeringly effortlessly gorgeous.
Given how much fun this outing was, why haven’t we gotten together to do something similar since then? How did we all get so busy? A question for another day.
These notes on a Hollywood party were accurate for a newcomer/outsider in 1980 and I suspect they hold true today. It was thrilling to scan the room and recognize famous people even though I understood the unspoken rule to act as if I didn’t.
Even now, I’m not sure I understand the rationale for why, particularly if you’re a fan as was the case for me with Claudia Weill’s movie. I can’t imagine there are very many people – even celebrities – who don’t enjoy hearing that someone loves their work, thinks they’re a genius. I know I wouldn’t mind being interrupted by someone who wanted to rave about my writing. It’s never happened and probably never will but I’m reasonably confident I’d enjoy the hell out of it.
Our aging green Plymouth Satellite car – unmistakable in a sea of Mercedes, BMWs, and Porsches -– outed us to the parking valets if no one else – as people who didn’t really belong in this rarefied atmosphere. That’s never a comfortable feeling, but I’d endure it any time for the fun of watching a party like this unfold.
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.