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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For John’s 30th birthday, I threw him a genuine surprise party (with a little help from my friends). I’ve never done it for anyone else and no one has ever thrown one for me. I’m not sure how I’d react. Given my social anxieties, probably not well.
There were a few logistical hiccups. We were leaving for Hawaii in a few days but – to avoid going to work – J told his boss, MPR, he was leaving today. I couldn’t advise him against this without spoiling the surprise even though – since I’d already invited his office staff including MPR – everyone knew he lied. Fortunately, they had a sense of humor.
The party lasted well into the following morning, as most did back then. Turning thirty was a big deal. Only yesterday “Don’t trust anybody over thirty” was a catch phrase. How could people as young as us turn thirty? What happened to our twenties?
Decades later, thirty no longer sounds old and the question is different. What happened to our thirties, our forties, our fifties? Before long, we’ll know what Paul Simon meant when he sang “How terribly strange to be seventy.”
I don’t feel like I’m fifty, let alone sixty, so I can’t possibly contemplate seventy. I doubt I’m alone here. Almost everyone my age eventually says something like, “I know I don’t look my age.” I assure them it’s true even though it’s patently false and they do the same for me. In my mirror, I don’t look my age either but it’s meaningless. In my own eyes, I never will.
J doesn’t seem to age either, at least not until I see him – or myself – in photographs. There, the truth is revealed. Sometimes I don’t spot myself at all because I’m looking for someone younger. Sometimes I wonder how my mother snuck into the picture. Why are photos so much crueler than the mirror? Someone out there knows the technical reason. Maybe they can also explain where my thirties and forties went.
The extreme competition for a toehold in the entertainment industry makes it a major challenge. That, plus the fact a lot of people assume there’s nothing to it. Most people would never attempt to perform brain surgery or extract wisdom teeth because they’re not trained professionals – but when it comes to acting, writing, directing, everybody’s an expert. Some people are right, they’ve got what it takes. Most are wrong; they fail to realize the craft and hard work involved in making it look easy.
For years, industry experts have claimed that if you write a great script, it will be discovered but I disagree. I can’t prove it but I suspect a lot of great scripts die in the drawers of discouraged writers unable to get a read from somebody with enough power to help.
I got my big breaks from professors in college – notably Bill Froug and Shelly Lowenkopf – who liked my work and recommended me to agents. That’s my first advice to anyone who wants to break in. Take a class, impress the professor, make friends with him, her or anyone else with connections. The seminar’s bottom line advice was correct for its time – networking (“hanging around”) and exuding confidence are your best bet.
To a certain extent, YouTube and other on-line venues level the playing field. If your short film goes viral, it doesn’t matter if you live in Kansas and don’t know a soul in Hollywood. They’ll find you.
I hate the word platform but it can’t be ignored in today’s market. An ability to market and brand yourself is invaluable. These subjects weren’t taught when I was in film school and I’m not sure they’re taught today – but they should be.
I didn’t know Don Martin well – certainly not as well as Jon Crane, his best friend, or Christine Vanderbilt, his girlfriend. All of us lived together in the Law House at USC for six months in ’75. After John and I moved into our own apartment, Law House friends like Don and Anne Kurrasch came by to play bridge.
John and Don shared a semi-friendly rivalry – their regard and respect for each other was secondary to their burning desire to win – to be more successful. John could beat Don (and two or three additional opponents) at chess playing blindfolded, which impressed the hell out of me. Don’s academics were stronger. John had an edge; his parents were supporting him for three years of law school (this was renegotiated when we got married but that’s a story for another time.)
Don’s family couldn’t afford to fund his education. Fiercely ambitious, competitive and determined, Don worked his butt off and paid his own freight. Given his struggle to reach Law School, Don wasn’t about to slack off and blow it. Don stayed home and studied when everybody else chugged pitchers of Margaritas at El Cholo’s – although, to be fair, Don was a charter member of the “How many Tommy Burgers can you eat?” Club. He had the self-discipline to defer gratification.
At the time of my diary entry, our circle of friends took Don’s recovery as a given – until Don died. His iron will was useless. Everything he learned about law went to waste. Would he have chosen differently if he could’ve glimpsed the future? Of course. What about his circle of friends, John and myself included? Did his death inspire us to live better today?
From what I can tell, not much. We convince ourselves that what happened to Don won’t happen to us. We’ve got all the time in the world.
There were plenty of reasons both John and I felt uncertain about the future. He was in his first year of law school, finding his place in a highly competitive environment. If anything, my future was even less assured. At least with law school, odds are you’ll find work as a lawyer assuming you pass the bar. My MFA was in Professional Writing and there’s no guarantee you’ll make a living writing, ever. If anything, odds are you won’t.
Speaking strictly for myself, I was sick of dating. I spent entirely too much time obsessing about the state of my relationships. There wasn’t a snippet of male-female behavior, subliminal messaging, or secret motivations I didn’t ponder for days. A relationship I could rely on – i.e., a husband – freed hundreds of hours previously devoted to relentless analysis about how he really felt about me, what would happen next, what he really meant when he said I’ll call you later.
What about love? Isn’t that the reason to get engaged and married? We were very much in love, at least insofar as either of us understood what love meant, which is to say – not much. Realistically, we were in the grip of mad infatuation. We thought we knew each other but we didn’t really, not as we’d come to know – and love – each other over the next 42 years.
IMHO, love is nothing but illusion in those starry-eyed early days when you can’t see past the glorious magic of the other. Love becomes real when you realize your partner isn’t perfect – that is to say, she or he isn’t exactly the way you want them to be all the time – and you stick around anyway. Real love requires patience, compromise, forgiveness, compassion, empathy. It hurts sometimes. It changes both of you. It’s not easy – but it’s worth it.
That said, if I knew then how not perfect – how difficult and sometimes painful – love and marriage would be – would my answer still be yes? Absolutely.
Anne Kurrasch was one of four female law students living in Law House when I moved in and met John. After he casually mentioned he thought Anne was attractive – he and Anne went out drinking and dancing as “friends” before he met me – I realized it behooved me to befriend her. I didn’t expect we’d become friends for life.
Prior to law school, Anne majored in economics at Stanford (nobody else I knew even got into Stanford). When I met Anne, her goal after graduation from law school was to work in a bank. I like to think I influenced her career change to entertainment law.
Like every other job in the entertainment industry, it took a while for Anne to break in – during which she spent most weeknights sleeping on our couch – but Anne doesn’t give up easily. Today she’s an attorney for Showtime.
She influenced me too as confirmed in this diary entry – “influenced by her preference for single stones”. Anne knew everything about the world – perhaps it was an elective at Stanford. Things like the right watch (Omega), the right dressy evening bag (Judith Leiber) and the right car (Jaguar). While I did not acquire these things (aside from a Leiber evening bag), it was all brand new information to someone who grew up shopping sales racks. I didn’t know shoes and bags made a statement about who I was – at least they did in the late seventies and eighties.
As much as she knew about classy accessories, she was only human and, as such, suffered occasional fashion catastrophes as illustrated by the photo below. (I more or less lived there.)
Usually, I don’t realize a particular day or night was auspicious – in terms of exerting a major influence on my life – until long after the fact. Not this time. Everything about meeting John for the first time felt intense, heightened, dramatic. At the same time, there was a quality of recognition – like, “There you are. I knew you were coming into my life.”
I have some corroborating evidence for my romantic premonitions. The next day I met my friend Denise Gail Williams for lunch. She said I looked happy, glowing. I told her, straight-faced, “I met the man I’m going to marry last night.”
I can’t explain how I knew this with such certainty and – in the interest of full disclosure – I must add that John did not know any such thing. He was in his first year of law school at USC and marriage was not on his mind (although it would be, a mere six weeks later when we got engaged, and six months later when we got married).
None of our fellow residents at Law House gave us a chance. Someone started a betting pool about how long we’d last. No one predicted forty-one years and counting. And after all these years – he’s still the One.
Actually, I suspected my classmate Dick made all of it up because – upon receiving a compliment – my first impulse is to negate it. “This old thing?” “No, I haven’t lost weight, I’ve gained.”
Of course, not everybody regards the qualities Shelly allegedly attributed to me as compliments. In retrospect, “nervous” and “high-strung” sound unhealthy and problematic. “Intense” was my favorite word. I don’t know how universal the desire to be “intense” is, but to me it seems more interesting than mild or calm. “Conscientious” was flattering but I was too secretly slothful for it to apply to me.
All my life, I’ve struggled with owning “ambitious”. My Midwestern Lutheran brain conflates it with greedy and ruthless. Anyone who attended Bible school knows the meek will inherit the earth. Ambitious and meek don’t go together.
When I was younger, I tried to hide my ambition. It seemed incompatible with feminine or being a good person. However, I’ve changed my mind. Ambition isn’t inherently “bad” – it depends on how far you’re willing to go to realize your ambitions. When ambition functions as a driving force – a means of powering the passion required to realize a dream – I think it’s a gift.
Re-reading this entry, I feel like I should cue “We’ve Only Just Begun” by the Carpenters for a soundtrack.
J and I had been married for just over two years. Now we stood on the precipice of our future. Our son would be a year old in a month and J was officially launched on his legal career.
My own future looked cloudier and more uncertain. Technically, I was a full-time wife and mother with no intention of rejoining the 9-5 work force if I could possibly avoid it. I harbored writing aspirations but there was no guarantee of success. So far, I hadn’t realized a dime from my literary efforts.
I was my own worst enemy. I put every conceivable task – laundry, paying bills, keeping up with General Hospital, socializing with friends – in front of writing. What kept me from pursuing my dream? Part of it was my fear of completing anything because then I’d have to submit it and risk rejection and failure. Part of it was sloth.
I needed to do something more with my life. In my wildest dreams, that something would be writing but from where I stood in ’77 I couldn’t imagine how it could happen, let alone what form it might take. In college, I studied film writing but I also wanted to write a novel. You need a camera, cast and crew to fully realize a script; all you need to write a novel is time and paper.
When and why did it become so difficult to do what I used to love to do more than anything else? The when is easy. Everything changed when I decided to make writing my career. Before college, writer’s block didn’t exist. I wrote voraciously for my own amusement. My film writing major at UCLA and my desire to parlay that into real life put pressure on every word I eked out and caused me to judge my own efforts harshly because I feared the judgment of others.
I suspect the same thing happens to anyone who turns a hobby into a profession. On the plus side, it’s a chance to make a living doing what you love. The problem is, if you’re successful – maybe even if you’re not – you never enjoy it as much as you did when it was a hobby. That’s my experience, anyway. If yours is different, I’d love to hear about it.