Tag Archives: Fear

Should I Keep Writing?

When I was six years old, I spent countless hours alone in my room playing this game I’d made up. I’d take one of those small plastic “bubbles” – the kind that held those cheap little treasures that you’d get for a quarter at the grocery store – and throw it onto my bed. A second later, I’d launch all of the stuffed animals from my sizable collection onto the bed after it. See, the “bubble” wasn’t a bubble; it was a football. And my many stuffed animals were football players involved in a free-for-all to recover the game-clinching fumble. (Obviously).

The moment the dogpile was complete, I’d slowly sift through the (adorable) wreckage and see which stuffed animal had prevailed at the bottom of the pile¹. That lucky “beast” would be hoisted into the air triumphantly, as I announced the results to the “crowd”. (Although, full disclosure: the fix was in. Kermit the Frog, a.k.a. my favorite stuffed animal, won at least 90% of the time due to his long green arms…and the fact that I always threw him on the bed first.)Kermit the Frog celebrates 50 years in show business

Now, obviously my childish antics were far from unusual. I mean, show me a little kid, and I’ll show you a tiny crazy person who talks to themselves non-stop and gets lost in their imagination. But the thing about me is, well…

…I never really grew out of that phase. It’s 30 years later, and while I no longer have a stuffed animal collection, I still spend an inordinate amount of time talking to myself², as I drift off into an imaginary world of my own creation. Sure, life (and responsibility) can get in the way sometimes, but chances are, if I’m driving, showering, lying awake in bed, or just staring off into the distance, my mind is somewhere else. It’s trying to envision a world that isn’t but could be. It’s trying to figure out how Kermit (or more likely, the current “hero du jour”) is going to emerge victorious this time. It’s trying to tell a story.

For the longest time, I saw this as a quirk — an amusing glitch in my programming. It’s only recently that I came to realize: it is the program. It’s hard-wired into the way my brain processes (and makes sense of) the world. As you might expect, this has had some rather far-reaching implications when it comes to my life…

…but the reason that it’s been coming up for me a lot lately is that it answers a nagging question:

Should I keep writing?

If you read last week’s post, you know that it hasn’t exactly been non-stop hookers and ice cream around here lately. In fact, it’s gotten pretty dark. Writing for an audience that hasn’t really materialized (yet) can do that to a person. You can start to feel like you’re tilting at windmills.tilting at windmills

So, you start to wonder… Am I wasting my time pursuing this? Am I delusional about how talented I am? Is anyone (outside of my family and friends) ever going to give a shit about what I write?

If you think about these questions long and hard enough, you can’t help but fantasize about a world where you don’t have to answer such difficult questions. A world where life is unburdened by ambition and expectation and hope. But that’s about the time that you have to face another question:

Well, if I didn’t write, what would I do instead?

And that’s where things get a little bit clearer. That’s when I remember Kermit the Frog and the pile of stuffed animals. Or writing and performing a “Wayne’s World” sketch at Lilli Milton’s 13th birthday party. Or spending all of my free time in college sitting on the floor of the bookstore reading interviews with great filmmakers. Or going five straight days without speaking to another human being, but never noticing because I was so engrossed in a rewrite of my script.

“Being” a writer? It isn’t something I do. It’s something I am. I mean, shit, an alligator can stand on its feet and ring your doorbell all day long; that doesn’t mean it’s gonna stop being an alligator.

The reality is I don’t get to know if I’ll ever be Kermit and emerge from the pile victorious. But I do know one thing. I can’t imagine a world where I ever stop playing.

-MPM

¹“Prevailed” is probably a pretty generous term to describe part of a stuffed animal touching a plastic bubble. But the stakes felt pretty high at the time.
²Although I have gotten just a LITTLE bit better about keeping that dialogue INSIDE my head.

Rewriting Step Twelve

There’s this parable a mentor of mine once shared that has always stuck with me. It goes something like this…

A man is walking down the road holding a gold coin in each of his hands. The man worked hard to earn his coins, so he grips them both tightly to ensure that a) he doesn’t drop them and that b) no one can take them from him.

A little further down the road, however, the man comes upon a field that is littered with gold coins. I mean, we’re talking like a Scrooge McDuck swimming pool of wealth¹: gold coins as far as the eye can see.scrooge swimming in money

There’s only one problem: the man’s grip on the two coins that he already has is so tight that it’s impossible for him to pick up any new ones. [Insert Price is Right loser music here.]

So, yeah, you probably don’t need me to tell you the moral of the story, but just in case the links above sent you down a YouTube click-hole that ended with five consecutive installments of Carpool Karaoke, I’ll make it simple for you: you’ll never be able to acquire more (wealth, love, opportunity, et al.) in life if you spend all of your energy trying to protect what you already have.

Sure, it’s possible that if you loosen the grip on what you have, someone might come along and take it from you. But if you trust (yourself, the world, the universe, et al.) enough to let go, you open yourself up to even greater possibilities.

I’ve been thinking about the story (and its underlying message) a lot lately, though not because I’m holding any actual gold. As a matter of fact, it’s the exact opposite: it’s what’s out of my hands that has it on my mind.

As you might recall, I’m in the familiar position of waiting to hear back about a project I’ve recently completed. And the longer I go without a substantive update, the more I can feel myself tightening. It’s not just my grip around some metaphorical coins, either; it’s my entire body slowly curling up into the fetal position, closing itself off from any potential danger or harm.fetal-man

Ashamed as I am to admit it, it’s a feeling that I’ve become well-acquainted with over the years, as it’s the twelfth and final step in “My 12 Step Creative Process²”:

Step 1 – Out of a sudden burst of inspiration (not unlike The Big Bang) comes a new idea, around which a universe of possibilities can form.

Step 2 – That universe (i.e. all of the characters and story details) slowly comes into focus over time. (*Note: this process typically proves most fruitful when I’m showering, driving, people-watching, actively brainstorming with a friend, and/or in the moments immediately after I walk away from my computer or before I fall asleep.)

Step 3 – I excitedly pitch others (i.e. friends, managers, rando’s on BART) on my semi-formed idea in order to gauge interest. (*Note: only proceed to Step 4 if Step 3 isn’t met with crushing silence and/or the phrase, “Huh?”)

Step 4 – Open a new document and immediately save it (even though it’s still blank) under the project’s working title and let a sense of accomplishment wash over me.

Step 5 – Stare at the blinking cursor atop said document until drops of blood form on my forehead³.

Step 6Masturbate furiously to help alleviate the intense anxiety I’m feeling about “having to write something extraordinary”.

Step 7 – Slowly but surely get a few sentences down on the page. And very slowly build from there…

Step 8 – …once momentum is (finally) achieved, do everything in my power to keep my ass in the chair until said momentum is extinguished (and I hopefully have some pages).

Step 9 – Finish the fucking thing.

Step 10 – Pretend to be excited about the notes given to me by others…and then very slowly let go of the idea that my story is “extraordinary”, before using said notes to help make the story better. (*Note: this will typically involve repeating Steps 2 through 9, but particularly Step 6.)

Step 11 – Release the finished product “into the wild” to see what people think and immediately commence Step 12.

Step 12 – Curl up into the fetal position to ward off any potential passes, criticism, or negativity.

It’s taken some time (and plenty of tissues), but I’ve slowly come to accept the fact that at least 10 (and probably 11) of these steps simply come with the territory. I’ve just heard too many other writers describe their processes similarly to think I’m abnormal (at least for a writer, which granted, isn’t saying much).

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Step 12. Because the truth is, if we were to personify Step 12, it would look an awful lot like the man from the parable: so worried about the bad things that could happen to him that he closes himself off to the good things that may be just around the corner.

I mentioned this a couple of weeks back, but it bears repeating in this context: we all acknowledge that creating anything of value requires an openness and vulnerability on the part of the creator; what we often forget, however, is that we have to remain open and vulnerable even after we release our creations into the world. For me, this second part has always produced far more anxiety, because it can feel an awful lot like leaving your face exposed during a heavyweight fight…or a Ted Cruz concession speech. I mean, you’re just asking the world to cold-cock you, aren’t you?

 

…or are you?

Sure, it can feel that way sometimes, especially when you’ve endured your fair share of rejection. But do I really believe that my dreams are Millhouse (weak, feeble, and pathetic) and the universe is Nelson (just waiting to beat the shit out of ‘em)? I don’t know, man. That sure makes me sound like the schizophrenic homeless guy who’s always marching up and down my street, screaming that the world is out to get him.

Isn’t it possible that the world is just a tiny bit more receptive than that? That the decision-makers in Hollywood and the publishing world, who could be reading my material this very second, are looking for a reason to say, “Yes”? That they want nothing more than to read the byproduct of “My 12 Step Creative Process⁸” and fucking love it?

Maybe I’m just falling victim to the rhetorical nature of the questions, but you know what? I think the answer to all three of them is a loud, resounding “Yes”. And if that’s the case then Step 12 has to be re-written.

It should probably go something like this…

Step 12 – Exercising as much patience as is humanly possible, slowly let the audience for your story come into focus, never forgetting to stay engaged, excited, and open. Be prepared to share even more of yourself when the time comes. And in the meantime, resort to Step 6 as needed.

-MPM

¹I’m taking some creative liberties with the parable to allow for some sweet YouTube linkage.
²Trademark pending. (But I’m confident that it’ll come through, because I have to be be the first person to ever come up with a 12-Step Program, right?)
³Shout-out to Ernie Hemingway, who I’m paraphrasing here.
Redacted for confidentiality reasons.
Also redacted.
Pun not intended, sicko.
Okay, it was intended that time. #sorrynotsorry
Trademark still pending. I’m really starting to get worried, you guys…

Judgment Is Calling…

I’ve spent the better part of the last two years thinking and plotting and writing and revising and editing and obsessing my way to the 330 pages that make up my first novel.

And I’ve spent the better part of the last five (ever since my life caved in on itself) in regular therapy, reflecting and conversing and soul-searching and journaling my way to becoming a person not only capable of writing an emotionally vulnerable 330-page novel, but a person whose self-esteem won’t be entirely predicated upon that novel’s success or failure¹.

Or so I thought. But then the phone rang last week, and all that hard work and self-care flew right out the window.Flew right out the window

When you’re a writer (or an actor, or really anyone working in Hollywood), your phone is like a loaded weapon: every time it goes off, there’s a chance you might die (or, at the very least, your dreams will). The phone isn’t just a communication device; it’s a career barometer. Did that producer like your pitch? Did that showrunner like your energy? Did the studio like your re-write? You’ll never know for sure until your agent or manager calls, because trust me, nobody in this town will ever give you a straight answer face-to-face².

And when you live in a world where a few chords of Marimba can signal a life-altering phone call or (another) painful rejection, you can become quite the Pavlovian pooch.Pavloian drooling dog.gif

Instead of drooling, my conditioned response typically involves some mild tachycardia³ and an adrenaline kick from my sympathetic nervous system. I also answer the phone as fast as humanly possible.

(Quick sidebar: I’ve learned that the urgency with which I answer a phone call is inversely proportionate to how secure I feel about the relationship I have with the person calling. For example, when my mom calls, I am often more than happy to let it go to voicemail. Whereas, if a girl that I’ve just started dating calls, I will answer immediately, i.e. thereby eliminating any chance of her having second thoughts, hanging up, and never calling me again.)

Needless to say, when my manager called last week (on the heels of reading my post about waiting), I answered on the first ring. And before we’d even exchanged pleasantries, my head was already spinning with the countless ways that I could improve my book. The same book that we had both decided was ready for public consumption (after the aforementioned two years of revising and editing and…)

He wasn’t calling to ask me to make changes, of course. He just wanted to give me a quick update: he’d sent the book to a well-regarded lit agent, who he thought might be a good fit to help shepherd us through the publishing world. As it had only been a couple of weeks, he hadn’t yet heard back from her, but it was a first step (on what will surely be a long journey — no matter how it turns out).

But my mind couldn’t focus on the journey; all I saw was my ship (a.k.a. my book) sailing off into uncharted waters. And I wanted more than anything to dive into the water and try to drag it back to the safety of the harbor.

“When an agent or manager reads something, they’re not expecting it to be perfect, right? I mean, they’re looking to see potential, obviously. But you’d never read something and not wanted to give the writer notes, right? You wouldn’t expect it to be, like, a finished product right out of the gate, would you?” I somehow managed to ask in one breath.

“Uhh…” my manager said, clearly unprepared for my avalanche of insecurity, “it- it really depends, ya know?”

What he didn’t know (what he couldn’t know) is that earlier that morning I’d received a text from my cousin, who’d had a chance to read my book over the weekend. His feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but he did have one small criticism: he felt like the story took a little while to get going. And, of course, me being a writer, all I could focus on was the criticism.

Distracted by work for most of the day, I was able to sweep the critique under the rug. But the moment I heard that an important decision-maker now had the opportunity to arrive at that same conclusion and tell me that she had zero fucking interest in ever representing me as a result, well… That’s when I started to panic a little.Beaker panic

Look, there’s no getting around it: when you work in a creative field, there comes a point where your work has to be judged (whether it’s by decision makers, collaborators, or audiences). But I don’t care how many times you’ve gone through it, it’s never easy. You think asking someone on a first date is a leap of faith? Try asking them to spend their time and energy (and quite possibly their money) on a story you cooked up in your imagination. That takes some serious chutzpah. Because let’s face it: no matter how great you feel about the work you’ve done, there’s always a question dancing in the back of your head:

Why do I deserve an audience? Or more to the point…

What makes me so fucking special?

Answering these questions can be a tricky bit of business for two reasons:

1) They’re inherently rhetorical, and even more to the point, self-flagellating.

And…

2) They present a false choice. The authors and screenwriters of the most successful books and movies aren’t “special”, and their stories don’t “deserve” an audience; they just find one.

Among the many prerequisites of writing anything worth sharing is an openness: to your ideas, to your emotions, and to a potential audience who might one day share the journey with you. In other words, there is no art without vulnerability.

But the thing I think we sometimes forget is that we have to remain open even after the creating has taken place. (Even when our only impulse is to curl up into a ball and protect ourselves).

We have to march right back to the edge of the cliff and leap. Again. And again. And again.leap leap leap.gif

-MPM

¹Of course, as all of that therapy and soul-searching has taught me, the definitions of “success” and “failure” are always self-imposed.

²Basically, if “The Industry” was someone you were dating, they’d break up with you by sending a text…to your friend…and have them do it for them.

³a.k.a. an elevated heart rate.

a.k.a. butterflies in my stomach.

The Waiting (Is the Hardest Part)

There’s an old axiom in Hollywood: actors aren’t paid to act; they’re paid to promote the movie. The calculus is obviously different for writers, because — let’s face it — we’re about as powerful a promotional tool as this guy. But if you broke down the money we’re paid based on the time that we actually invest in each stage of the creative process, it’d look like this:writing-waiting pie chart

In other words, writers aren’t paid to write; we’re paid¹ to wait. And if you have two ears and a heart, you already know that the waiting is the hardest part. Hit it, Tommy!

So, yeah, waiting sucks — we know this. But it’s also an unavoidable reality, because guess what? That agent / manager / executive / actress / director / producer / publisher / editor that you’re waiting to hear back from? They’ve got a shit-ton of other scripts/manuscripts that they have to read in addition to yours. And, I mean, come on, just think back to college for a second: was there anything you hated doing more than required reading?Student-Overwhelmed-Books

But enough sympathy for the reader(s) in this equation; this is a writing blog, after all: we care about writers. So, let’s talk about what we can do to make this “unavoidable reality” a little less awful.

To start with, we need to take a minute and think about why waiting to hear back about your work can be so soul-crushing. I suspect that if you’re anything like me, the thing that really agitates you is the not knowing. And if we drill down a little deeper, just beneath the surface of that “not knowing” is something even more unsettling: a loss of control.

When people² ask me what the hardest part of being a writer is³, my go-to response always includes the central irony of being a writer:

When you’re writing, you have God-like control over every detail of your story. But the moment you’re finished, and you put the story out into the world, you relinquish all control.

And when you think about it like that, it’s no wonder that the waiting drives us so crazy. Our stories are our (word) babies, and the moment we birth them into the world, we have to cope with the fact that we can’t protect them any longer. In other words, we’re basically this guy:

(As a side note: I guess I can understand why my mom is still calling to “check in on me” despite the fact that I turned 36 last month. Babies – both figurative and literal – are hard to let go of…)

So, given this unsettling and deep-rooted psychology, what’s a writer to do? Well, for me, it starts with communication. (Hi, Mom!)

If you’re fortunate enough to have representation, it’s very likely that any response you get to your material will come through them. This can often be problematic, however, as the only thing agents and managers hate more than required reading is breaking bad news to their clients. I know this because my manager and I had a conversation about this very subject just a few months ago. It went something like this:

MPM
What’s the worst part of your job?

MANAGER
Having to call clients with bad news.

MPM
Yeah, that would suck… But hey, at least you’re not the one  being rejected, right? I mean, when you write something, it’s  hard not to take a “no” personally since you’ve poured so much  of yourself into it.

MANAGER
Sure, but when you’re with the writer every step of the way, you become really invested in them. Plus, I have lots of clients, so I’m hearing “no” all day long.

MPM and his MANAGER both nod solemnly, feeling each other’s pain.

The thing I failed to mention at the time, however, is that there is something worse than hearing “no”: hearing nothing at all. It may sound counter-intuitive, especially if you subscribe to the old adage that “no news is good news.” But if we walk the “stories are our (word) babies” metaphor out to its logical end, writers are like the parents of a missing child when our work goes out into the big, bad world. Every second that passes without an update is another chance for us to assume the worst.

We writers are an anxious, insecure lot (who also happen to have incredibly active imaginations). Envisioning a doomsday scenario isn’t just easy for us, it’s practically a default setting. So, trust me, there isn’t a “no” on the planet that can make us feel worse than the cocktail of shame and self-loathing that we’ll surely pour ourselves if left to our own devices.

Look, I don’t care who you are (writer, actor, agent, manager, circus clown), hearing “no” is never easy. But you know what? At least a “no” provides a sense of closure and the ability to move on to the next step in the process. And at the end of the day, until we get that call that changes everything, we’ll settle for feeling like we’re (still) engaged in the—

Hold on, my phone’s ringing…

…Yeah, I should probably take this.

-MPM

¹And that’s only if we’re lucky enough to get paid at all.
²And by people I mean Uber drivers.
³Besides all the unwanted sexual advances from supermodels, of course.

The Monster in the Closet

So, I wrote a book. It took two years of dreaming and procrastinating and writing and re-writing (in that order), but I did it. I have 60,000 words that are dedicated to telling a single story — possibly even a meaningful story. And it feels good, I’m not going to lie. It’s feels Really. Fucking. Good.

But beneath that sense of accomplishment (and we’re talking, like, less than a millimeter beneath) there is another feeling; one that is far more profound. I’ll give you a hint: it’s a four-letter “F-word” that you’ll never hear spoken aloud in mixed company under any circumstances. That’s right: fear.

I am scared shitless.

The question is “why?” What is it that I’m so afraid of?

The impulse, of course, is to be as melodramatic as possible and answer, “everything!” But herein lies the problem.

We all get scared. It’s human nature. But it’s also human nature to paint our fears with a brush so broad that we never bring into focus what we’re actually scared of. And rather than drill down any deeper to figure it out, we let our fears go unexamined, allowing them to morph and mutate until there’s a monster living in the closet.

closetmonster2

Now, unless you’re a small child¹, you know that monsters are always man-made, whether it’s Victor Frankenstein’s science project or that fear-mongering orange troll running for president right now. But the “monster in the closet” is unique (and often times even more insidious) because it’s of our own making. We not only build the closet with our bare hands, we willingly lease out the space to its terrifying tenant.

Which brings us back to our original question: what’s actually in there? Obviously, I can’t answer that question for you, but my guess is, if you’re anything like me, you’ve been too scared to open up the door and find out. Even now – at the very moment I’m typing this – there’s a (large) part of me that wants to take the easy way out, quote FDR’s whole bit about fearing fear, and call it a day. But not only would that be a huge cop-out, it’d also make for a really shitty blog post. After all, the whole reason I decided to launch this site in the first place was to have an outlet to share my story – insecurities and all.

FDR quote

So, enough fucking tap dancing: why am I scared?

Well, it starts with this: this book I’ve written is the most personal story I’ve ever put to paper/PDF. Sure, the plot’s almost entirely fiction, but the emotional story? It’s mine. And any attempt to suggest otherwise would just be me trying to protect myself from feeling even more vulnerable than I already do.

Up to this point, everything I’ve written (professionally) has been comedic. And while (I’d like to think that) those screenplays and TV pilots contained their share of truth and emotional resonance, at the end of the day, they were written to make people laugh. For better or worse.

This book marks the first time that I’ve ever written something where the primary goal is to connect with the reader emotionally. Sure, it has its fair share of humor woven in. But if you don’t cry (or at least tear up) at the end, I haven’t done my job.

In other words, there’s nowhere for me to hide. I’ve abandoned the sarcasm and the silliness that I’ve used as armor for the entirety of my career life. And when you strip away that protective layer, all that’s left is me – the real me. The sensitive little boy who spent most of his childhood alone, creating imaginary worlds and sporting events to keep himself company.

And there it is: what’s really in the closet. It’s not a monster. It’s a little boy cowering in the corner, because he just spent two years of his life creating this intricate imaginary world, and he’s terrified that no one will want to come and play with him.

He’s scared shitless — just like I am. But you know what? At least we’re in this together.

-MPM

¹Shout-out to my readers under 10!