Tag Archives: The Monster in the Closet

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.

It’s Always Darkest

I didn’t want to write this. And honestly, that shouldn’t come as any surprise, because for the past couple of weeks, I haven’t wanted to do much of anything.Depression_2014_Types_10-22-14_5PM-img_1280x720

The explanation for this malaise really depends on your point of view. A medical professional would probably diagnose me with a case of situational depression. A philosopher (and/or “The Prince of Denmark“) might suggest that I’m experiencing an existential crisis. But I’m a writer, so all I can think is, “we have now entered the ‘dark night of the soul’ portion of our story.”

Even if you’re not familiar with the terminology, you know what I’m talking about. It’s that 10-12 minutes near the end of the second act when everything – and I mean everything – goes to shit for the main character. Their significant other breaks up with them, they get fired from their job, their dog dies, their favorite sports team loses Game 7 of the NBA Finals¹, and their latest Facebook update gets zero fucking likes.

Hope is lost. Existence is questioned. And shit gets dark. Basically, it’s this song playing on a loop in your head all goddamn day²:

So, yeah, I’m having a tough time. And while my favorite team did choke away Game 7, and I have gone through a breakup recently, and I’m still not sure what will happen with my career, the thought I keep coming back to is this:

How can I be 36 years old and have so little to show for it?Dubs lose GAme 7

To be clear, by “show for it” I am not referring to material possessions like a house, or a sports car, or even a bank account with lots of zeroes in it. I’ve never really been motivated by those things³. I’m talking about the impact I’m making / have made on the world around me.

There’s a reason I became a writer. And it’s not because I was talented, or because someone in my family did it and I looked up to them, or because I wanted to trick people into thinking I was smart. I became a writer because I spent the vast majority of my childhood by myself, and I had a deep yearning to connect with other people. Writing was like a siren’s song: here was a way that I could connect with lots and lots of people simultaneously…

…and you might say: I’ve been crashing into the cliffs ever since in pursuit of that feeling. Or at least, that’s what it can feel like sometimes.

The summer before I started film school at USC, I took an old professor of mine (from my undergrad days at UCLA) to a baseball game. As we were walking back to the car, he told me the story of another former student of his who went to film school. “He spent his two years there, he wrote a bunch of scripts, and then nothing happened,” my old professor said. It was a cautionary tale. The not-so-subtle subtext was, “Just because you’re a good writer, and you’ve gained entry into the best film school in the country doesn’t guarantee you anything.”

Obviously, he was right. And I knew that, even then. But I don’t think you can set out to be successful in anything (be it the creative arts or business or anything else) without being a little delusional — without believing that, on some level, you just might be exceptional. And life, of course, has a way of leaving you just enough bread crumbs to keep you walking down such a path.

If I was some talentless hack, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this right now. Because I wouldn’t have gotten into USC in the first place. Or secured representation. Or sold a few projects. Or had a few others that came oh so close to becoming something that you actually saw on a movie or television screen.

But that old cliche about talent and hard work being the only two things that you need to succeed? It’s starting to feel like another siren’s song. A “promise” that’s lured me to where I find myself now, more than 10 years after I started this journey: dead in the water and lost at sea.doldrums

I’m standing on the deck of a ship, staring up at the sails, waiting for the wind to pick up. Because it doesn’t seem to matter how hard or how long I blow, my lungs just don’t seem capable of getting the damn thing to move on their own.

I’ve been here before, of course. Because our lives aren’t really a single narrative so much as they’re a series of stories told over time. There was that time in college, for instance, where in the span of 10 days, my girlfriend broke up with me, my car died (for good), and I got laid off from my (then) dream job of writing for FoxSports.com. Or that time I spontaneously broke down in tears at a stop light, because I was feeling so profoundly unfulfilled by my 9-to-5 job in marketing. Or that time after grad school ended, a different girlfriend and I broke up, and I spiraled into such a long and miserable depression that I ended up betting a thousand dollars on a football game just to feel something.

Having survived those experiences, I know (on an intellectual level, at least) that there is one cliche that can be believed: “this too shall pass.” But when you’re in the middle of it, when the night is its absolute fucking darkest, you can tell yourself that until your blue in the face, and it still won’t feel that way.

All nights end eventually; it’s true. But the sun doesn’t rise on command, you know?

-MPM

¹Too soon!
²Except you substitute in your name for Peter’s, because otherwise shit just gets confusing.
³Although I’d certainly enjoy having them.
Technically, I bet 500 on the game against the spread (which I lost) and 500 on the Patriots money line (which I won). So, all tolled, I probably lost about 250 bucks.

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 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!