From the Blog

Writing Alleged Fictions

A long time ago, I took a couple of screen writing classes. I took the first class over the summer with a bunch of super smart, advanced placement high school kids. These kids came from all over the country to spend the summer in Boston and take classes at Harvard University. I walked into that class, and heard the chatter, and saw the young faces and thought “oh, fuck.”

I was in my mid-twenties, and slowly working towards my degree. By then, I was a grizzled old hag, working two jobs and taking classes at night. To these kids, I may as well been super old, like in my 40s or 60s. Because once you get above, say, 26, your life is pretty much over. And your old age, what ever age it may be, just blends together, in the same way you puree your steaks to slide them past your dentures.

Somehow all these kids seemed to know each other, because that’s what happens in high school. Everyone knows each other, and they all know that they don’t know you. This classroom was structured like a conference room, one long table and seats all around it. I had taken a number of classes in this room.

I sank into a chair and exchanged tentative smiles with whoever seemed to notice me. These may have been super smart kids, but they still sounded like howler monkeys when all thrown into a room together. I thought about the rest of my summer. I already had a headache.

In addition to these kids just being young, and since this was a screen writing class, they tended to be dramatic and hyper animated. In comparison, I was quiet and reserved. I observed the various personalities and how they jostled for position. In the very least, they all seemed pretty jovial and good natured. I suppose I would be too if I were in high school and found myself smart and privileged enough to go to Harvard for the summer.

As the class commenced, we shared favorite movie clips, began writing drafts of our screen plays, and went out to see movies together. It was the summer of Blair Witch Project. We all went to go see it and discussed its merits in class.

A curious thing happened through the course of that summer. Through our writing, we all sort of got to know each other. In many cases, what we were writing was thinly veiled autobiographies. There was a gothy nerdy guy who had been hit by a car when he was younger. In his script, his main character throws himself in front of oncoming traffic to get the attention of his parents. But then, no one shows up at the hospital. I think there were lesbian strippers in that story too, though.

My script was blatantly autobiographical. I justified it as “writing what you know.” My script was about a group of friends who wait tables and spend one last drunken summer together before they all grew up and went their separate ways. I had a lot of restaurant scenes with dropped food hastily thrown back on plates, and at least one Puerto Rican character spitting into a ramekin of salad dressing while muttering “fuck you racist,” before he skips off to serve his customer.

My script was awful. It was also close to 300 pages because I was writing down my summer verbatim and I didn’t know what to omit. But my instructor and classmates were supportive. The kids were intensely curious about me. They wanted to hear about going to school, living in Boston, working in a restaurant, and the dropped food and the bodily fluids. They listened to what I had to say and asked questions. One young lady, who I thought for sure was going to be irritating as hell, actually said she wanted to write a story with me as a character.

The the end of the summer, we were all friends. I quit my job waiting tables, which was abrupt and unexpected in my life, but alluded to in my script. My class and instructor were joyous and gobbled up the details of these events. We wrapped up the class and I got an A, one of the few I ever attained while finishing my degree. We promised to keep in touch and all the smart youngsters flew back to their corners of the country, or off to the elite colleges of their choice.

I signed up for the fall semester of Screen Writing II with the same instructor. I needed to rework this script down to 120 pages and I had a lot of material. This class was at night, and it was filled with the usual continuing ed adults. Now I was probably one of the youngest in this class.

The adults, who were more my peers, working during the day, finishing their degrees, hated my script. They hated it. The class was held in the same exact room as the summer class, except now it was filled with trolls. They weren’t afraid to let me know exactly how much they despised my script. One particularly sour woman went as far as to say, “I’m not sure why I should even give a fuck about any of these characters.” They seemed to pity me because I didn’t have the sense to hide this script in embarrassment.

Ah, grizzled old hags. The professor, the same professor who gave me an A for this script, corralled the criticism and coached people on how to offer feedback. But they were probably right. It was an awful script. It was a self absorbed, indulgent, barely fictionalized recitation of my life. Unlike the kids, these adults didn’t have their whole future stretched out ahead of them like a warm, sunny day. The adults had no time for my bullcrap. They did not find my life even mildly interesting or entertaining.

But I worked on my script until the end of the class, and I got an A-. After the class, I don’t think I ever worked on that script again.

Comments

  1. Someday, somehow, I will figure out how to get past the fear and just WRITE. I’ve always maintained that it’s easy to see why writers become alcoholics – maybe it gives them that push past caring what other people think.

    Beautiful post.

  2. Barbara Holmes says

    I’d watch a movie about your life. You’re hilarious! It would be great!

  3. I really enjoyed this! It brought me back to times in my life when I’ve developed that kind of bond with a group of people who are thrown together randomly. It never lasts with most of them, but nothing beats that feeling at the time.

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