I'm standing in a living room in Forest Hills, Queens, and I'm completely surrounded. My television stands next to me, placed on the carpet, looking wholly vulnerable when it isn't elevated. To my right, a plastic bin barely contains the Playstation 3, rice cooker, and my modest hat collection as various electronic wires burst up over the top, like tentacles trying desperately to latch on to the environment its spent all these months in. I try to walk backward and trip over my dad's giant boy scout duffel bag, this large, unwieldy canvas monstrosity that was once slung over my father's back, the size equaling the whole of him, as he plodded along in the forests of New Jersey (yes, there are forests in New Jersey). Now it contains a generous mixture of clothes for the summer and deep winter, belying my "out by August" couch-crashing lease.
Busy feet move behind me. Sue, my cousin and de facto landlord, finally had enough. After harboring my lost ship for many months past our initiall agreement, she politely and decisively kicked me out. Or, rather, she reclaimed her studio apartment for herself, restoring the natural order of things. Now she moved about the apartment -- her apartment -- rearranging everything. Television stands are brought up and torn down; tables are moved across the room; art is tested to see if it looks better on this wall instead of that one; a novelty iron bike is moved to under the TV. Everything about my time in the apartment is being whitewashed, erased. I never felt more in common with mid-level Soviets in Stalinist Russia.
I crane my head up and stare directly at the desk. "My" desk. Sue was ready to throw this little kitchen table away upon my big move in. It was cumbersome, slightly wobbly, and made redundant based on another, much better table already in the apartment. Looking around the large living room area, I decided to adopt it as my desk, moving it over to one corner, my soon-to-be work area. "I'm going to write a play here," I say almost nonchalantly, almost as if I stated, "I'm going to tie my shoes here." I turned and smiled at my cousin, standing next to me. She smiles in kind.
This is how this kind of story begins, right? I land in this apartment, my first foray into The City, the first firm step away from the tiny, claustrophobic town that nurtured me, bored me, sickened me, and moved on without me. Taking all of the knowledge gleaned when attaining my $180,000 piece of paper that says "Film and Television" on it, I'll get a thankless job in The Industry, the kind of meaningless position that makes me question everything as I deliver nondescript packages from office building to office building as the rain comes down sideways as I shuffle in between. At night, I will write and write and write all sorts of sketches and routines and short films that I'll later enact based on the contacts I've mustered through the pity I see in their eyes as I complete my fifth coffee run of the day. Eventually, I move into a tiny, shit hole apartment in Brooklyn and can barely contain my excitement. I get better jobs, write better pieces, get better exposure.
Years pass. Now I'm living in an apartment that's clean, with decent furniture and 50 more cubic space as I walk by a framed movie poster. A memory pops up of my first apartment and I think, "how did I ever live like that?" I chuckle at my naïveté, at how excited I was when I first moved in, having no idea what would come; having no idea just how bad off I was. I shake my head and catch my reflection in the glass and realize that I'm old and will surely die soon. But it's ok - at least I'd made a film, right?
I snap out of this daydream-turned-success-plan and stare at the desk. This is the place where I wrote nary a word of that play, even with the extra six months I was afforded. This is the place where I would sit for hours, aimlessly flicking through the same eight websites waiting for them to update without ever thinking I should do the same. This is the place where I would be so beaten down that I wouldn't even want to get up and walk into the kitchen mere feet away in order to feed myself, because I couldn't find a good enough answer to, "what's the point?" This is the place where I failed. I failed. I failed. I failed.
Placed on the table is one completed work from my past, a document that Sue insists I sign, "because you never know." The pages have all lost their original 96 white luster, now resembling the shade of shells from the forgotten half carton of eggs you bought for your visiting college roommate that finally made itself known after you move the giant bottle of juice. The edges of the papers are frayed, surviving almost a decade to arrive here still in this form, with each page lumped together with a binder clip in the top left corner. I can think of no less impractical way to contain this hodgepodge of words and ideas that comprise my first screenplay.
The Lost Art of Growing Up started out as a fifty page writing sample for NYU's film program at Tisch, one of the more prestigious institutions in the land (at the very least one of the most well-known). Having absolutely no experience writing screenplays (though I decided that was my life's goal, oh, four years earlier), I took a quick glance at the collected screenplays of Clerks and Chasing Amy and learned quickly that everything in my Word document must be center justified. With all of the format lessons out of the way, all I had to do is come up with a story. And I did. Kind of. I can't exactly remember what happened throughout the plot, which means I succeeded.
The last time I poured into this piece was right before I wrote my second screenplay, the one that would cap off my college career, the culmination of all the things I had learned in my various film and screenplay classes. To celebrate this upcoming success, I decided to open up Lost Art and give it a spin; after all, it was passed around my high school like it was the mailroom at WME. It was easily the most buzzed about screenplay that graced the halls and lockers of Park Ridge High School, and probably by default. But I knew my next script was going to be great because I was going to build off this one, my surefire hit, my lauded piece of work.
The title page -- so quaint, not even printed on card stock -- made me smile. It's rough around the edges, obviously, but inside are a barrel of laughs, lines that were actually quoted by people who read the thing. I opened the piece and happily started reading. Ten pages later, I was pouring myself a strong Jack and Coke, staring down at the paper like an alligator I had to wrangle, if that alligator was comprised of shitty, hack dialogue, listless plotting, an almost comical lack of drive, and no real reason to exist other than "well I have to write fifty pages...and I should probably finish it, right?" Two hours later, I'm on my knees, my arms wrapped around the cool porcelain of my basement toilet, heaving so hard that my ribs feel as if they're going to burst into shrapnel. The jury is still out on whether that was from the alcohol or the prose.
Save for the vomit, this is a process I now go through every two years. With each successive story I write, it makes the previous one completely obsolete, another in a line of flawed works whose inadequacies completely trump any positives that people tell me they see. Yeah, that joke is funny, and I would've kept this in a few years ago, but it comes at expense of the plot, and the pacing, and that character's development. Not to mention that the entire scene should be thrown on the shit heap, let alone this one fairly "meh" line. Then I'll shake my head and think, "it's like I had no idea what I was doing."
Because I didn't.
We are raised to see success and failure as two opposing forces. They are absolutes, painted in oblivion black and blinding white. They are as diametrically opposed to each other as sin and divinity. Without the absence of one, the other shall cease to exist. This mortal coil of ours is mired in failure. It hides inside every stove preparing dinner, lingers around each first date, hovers over every email we type. To attain success is to overcome your own nature to fail, to avoid failure at all costs.
Success and failure are intertwined, yes, but not because their existence sets the guidelines for the other. While it's true that success is not failure, it's just as true that you can't have success without failure. How else can one learn what to do without figuring out what not to do first? We are all dropped in the dark forest with nothing to light the way. Sure, it's possible to make a beeline toward the end of the forest, blindly groping your way onto a track, walking through for miles untouched, jumping briskly over the exposed tree roots and dipping almost magically under all the low-lying, eye-level branches.
But it's not fucking likely.
Instead, you'll slowly make your way, listening to the crunch of the branches you first tapped with your feet, getting the feel of what "safety" feels like before learning what it sounds like. You keep your hands way too far away from your face, completely missing the branch that nearly scrapes your cornea, so you move your hands back to keep your balance and still retain the sense of sight when (if) you ever make it out. An unexpected ridge will jump out of the ground and serve as a landing pad for your shin as the rest of your momentum carries you forward onto what you hope isn't thorn bushes. But you'll get up, and you'll keep moving forward. And slowly but surely, the batteries in your flashlight will charge up, gaining stronger and stronger the more you move around. Suddenly, after what feels like an eternity, you'll peer out into the woods with your bright light and realize you'd mostly been walking in circles, that the destination is just over that ridge.
In turn, every script I write from this point forward would be another step toward figuring out where the hell I am in this forest. Each piece I create is a larger nesting doll, built with all of the knowledge of the previous scripts that are safely ensconced within this new, shiny, markedly-improved piece of writing. And, in time, that doll will itself be relegated to hide in shame within another script, a better one, made all the better from the failures that came before it.
Resting in the middle of that doll will sit The Lost Art of Growing Up. It will never leave. For as long as I write -- for as long as I live -- this will always be the start. It was my first attempt to define myself, a good idea in theory without the necessary skills on how to capitalize on it. It would put me in New York City and with it a golden opportunity to further along the pre-determined line I am to follow.
I never stopped to think about how the character's actions affect the plot. Instead, I had him flailing about, saying this thing, doing that ridiculous comedic set piece, because that's what I thought you did in this kind of film. So I dragged the poor guy, kicking and screaming, through this series of arbitrary check points and landmarks because that's what you do in teen comedies. He starts off lame, gets lamer, finds the girl and somehow lucks into a happy ending. Everyone goes home happy.
Our protagonist is only as strong as the obstacles he or she overcomes. Without conflict, there's no interest. No one wants to see a character glide through a movie doing everything right. They're completely unrelatable. They need to fail and fail and fail until they finally succeed. Only then do you feel like they've earned something, that they've been redeemed, and could move forward as a changed person, hopefully for the better.
So I climbed over the old Dunkin' Donuts box designed to hold 1000 10 oz hot drink cups that is now filled to the brim with various reminders of the time I didn't make it in New York. I grabbed a pen, and turned the script to me. After all that Sue did for me, I wouldn't refuse her a simple autograph. So I signed it, "To beginnings."
See you again in a few, New York.
Image courtesy of the author