I’m a screenplayless screenwriter, and often want to give up. But I know one day my son might come to me with his own unaccomplished goals and frustrated ambitions, and I will have to tell him what every good screenwriting book says: Action is character.
It’s difficult to feel anything but frumpy while wearing maternity clothes, and sitting across the table from Rachel week after week wasn’t helping. Rachel was a fellow student in a screenwriting workshop I was taking as part of my graduate program in creative writing. She dressed in gentle blouses and crisp slacks and looked ready to appear on the cover of a women’s magazine at a moment’s notice. I was pregnant with my first child and had morning sickness encrusted in my hair.
Rachel always arrived early to class. She had the ambition, focus, and skin of a 24-year-old woman because that’s what she was. She had perfect posture and seemed to be on a diet that allowed only for snacks beginning with a “k” sound, such as carrots, quinoa, and kale chips.
It was Rachel’s first attempt at writing a screenplay. She was a student in fiction but had decided to challenge herself with a different genre. By the end of the semester one thing was clear: Rachel was a natural. Her screenplay was airy yet poignant, familiar yet innovative. Her dialogue was both witty and conversational. Each week, classmates remarked how eager they were to read what happened next, or they would cite lines that made them laugh out loud.
My weekly assignments garnered chuckles too, and positive support. But there was an enthusiasm to the way in which people responded to Rachel’s work that let me know hers was better than mine. Not that it was a competition.
Except, of course, it was.
One afternoon, Rachel, who was single, stated that when she got married someday she would keep her last name because by then she’d be a published (implied: successful) author.
I stared across the table at her, burning with an intense desire for something to go wrong in her life—and shame for feeling this way, albeit to a much lesser degree. Just wait until she leaves school and tries to become a writer in the real world, I thought. I took a satisfying yet perverse pleasure in the fact that I knew something the motivational posters fail to mention: Just because you chase your dreams, it doesn’t mean you’ll achieve them. And as far as that husband thing goes, don’t even get me started on the dating scene in L.A.
I had made the same declaration regarding my last name when I was Rachel’s age, a decade prior. And yet, when I married my husband (whom I met after eight excruciating years of online dating), little had prevented me from taking his surname. In fact, I secretly welcomed the opportunity to reinvent myself, hoping that perhaps this fresh identity would bring new life to my stalled career.
Although I had moved to Hollywood to become a comedian and screenwriter, I had yet to finish a screenplay. I had tried innumerable times to complete this particular script over the years—my high-schoolers-trying-to get-laid comedy that reversed the trope by centering on two girls instead of guys. I’d taken three four five screenwriting classes before. I’d read virtually every book there was on screenwriting, and bought all the fancy software.
I had an impression of what I wanted to happen, but time after time I became lost in the execution.
In my office I had a large corkboard that I’d divided into segments representing three acts. I’d breakdown my latest concept into scenes, label each story point on an index card and affix it to the board.
I’d step back and look at the outline with pride, until a few days—or sometimes hours—later when I would talk myself out of the idea. “Too trite!” “Too gimmicky!” “That’s been done before!” These were the usual complaints my inner editor would fling at me. Really what she was saying was, “You’re just not good enough.”
Down went the notecards into the recycling bin.
Sometimes I’d try to surge onward without planning where I was going, hoping my characters would dictate their own paths, as I had heard happens for other writers. But instead my protagonists just sat down, crossed their arms, and refused to move.
All I ever wanted to do was to be a part of the film industry. No one, not even my parents, had discouraged me from moving to California to pursue my ambitions after college. I was told I was a great writer. I was told I was funny. Everyone believed in me.
Yet, here I was more than a decade later, frustrated and bitter (as every great writer should be, I believe). I didn’t have an Oscar. I didn’t have an agent. I was a screenplayless screenwriter. How could my sense of destiny have steered me so wrong?
And then there was Rachel, who not only made screenwriting look easy without trying, but who made me feel like I had run out of time. My husband and I had decided over the summer that it was time to start our family, lest we run into any unforeseen fertility issues. Fortunately we did not.
The least I could do was to get through this screenplay before the baby was born. One little screenplay. That’s all I was asking for! Each week I turned in my assignments, implemented the professor’s feedback, and surged forward…
Until I’d second-guess myself and start over, yet again.
My son is now 14 months old. My script remains stuck at 30 pages (out of 110), and is represented by a tiny file icon on my desktop that taunts me every time I open my computer.
I wasn’t bothered by Rachel’s age or her talent, I now realize. I was envious of her optimism. It was pure and untainted, the way mine had once been back when I thought everything I wrote would be brilliant, before I thought I’d leave things unfinished.
Maybe I’m too much of a perfectionist. I’m so scared of writing a bad screenplay that I cannot write one at all. Maybe I’ve grown so accustomed to living with defeat in this one area of my existence that I subconsciously sabotage my attempts to prevail. Maybe this is self-inflicted punishment for some horrible indiscretion I committed in a previous life, or worse still, in this one.
Though it seems like it is time to accept that my chances of becoming a screenwriter are minimal, I cannot let go completely. I know one day my son might come to me with his own unaccomplished goals and frustrated ambitions, and I will have to tell him what every good screenwriting book says: Action is character. The steps he takes will dictate how his life unfolds. It will be up to him to decide if he will sit down burdened by disappointment or move forward ready to start again.
And so, after I put the baby to sleep, I sit in bed with my computer contemplating possible story lines, waiting for one of them to inspire my “eureka” moment. I vow to keep trying to write my screenplay, whenever I can. One day, I believe I will prevail. Whether this is inspirational or delusional, I’m really not sure. There’s only one way to find out.
Alison Bonn is a stay-at-home comedian and freelance writer living in Los Angeles with her husband and son. She is currently working on a new screenplay about motherhood.