I had an interesting experience earlier this week. I read a TV pilot I’d written for reasons still not fully understood — I’m not a TV writer and don’t truly aspire to be (but more about that downstream). When I was done, I got up from my chair and thought “meh.” It was “okay“. It was “good enough.” With some time and rewrite work, it could be better, maybe even sellable, though the odds of selling any TV pilot, even for an established TV writer, which I am not, are quite slim. I could invest the time in my long shot mediocre pilot, or I could invest my time in the things I’m really good at and that seems to suit my life right now: writing a novel (my first) and exploring ways to get more involved in making a better world. These are my passions, really, writing and change-making, and TV isn’t really the place for that. At least not for me.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m really good at and passionate about. I’ve started a novel and I’ve begun to explore ways that I can make a difference in the world. I am retooling myself as a writer and change maker and am still sussing out what that means. What I know, though, is that I’m good at writing prose and that I love it in a way that I never loved writing screenplays, even in my heyday, and that I certainly don’t love writing TV.
The “meh” TV pilot was the third script of mine that I’d read in recent months. The other two were screenplays for feature films, one of which had gotten me a lot of attention and been developed with some hot shot producers. My reaction to both of those screenplays was also “meh.” Both had their merits, both were arguably better than a good chunk of what’s floating around, but they weren’t amazing feats of artistry either.
Oddly enough, I don’t feel bad about any of this. I think I’m a good screenwriter. I don’t think I’ll ever be a great one, in part because I don’t really want to be, but also because I think my natural talents, my true greatness, such as it is, lies somewhere else.
I think I’m a natural novelist. I have no illusions that it will be easy and expect to write trillions of drafts before I have a great novel, but I do believe I have a great novel or two in me. If I applied the same energy to a screenplay, I don’t think it would be half as good, and I know it wouldn’t be half as satisfying. I am philosophical in nature and a little overwrought. I’m interested in themes, and excited about the controlled meanderings and internal exploration that literary fiction allows. I also know how to structure things well, thanks to my background in film. Writing this novel I’ve begun is a joy, whereas just thinking about reworking on of my screenplays or pilot makes me blah. I’m full of ideas and I want to put them on the page in a way that you can only do with fiction or essay. I also want to connect my ideas with the world. I want to use my sharp mind and my big heart to contribute to the conversation that’s happening everywhere you look these days about how we can make a better world. The question of how I can get a movie made pales in comparison and, honestly, knowing what it requires, it just isn’t worth it to me unless it arises organically from the passion projects I’m committing myself to. I can’t keep chasing that film crack, because a film badass is not the sort of badass I am.
It’s a good question: “What sort of badass are you? I don’t mean what have you succeed at. I have enough super successful friends to know that success that’s divorced from some sense of meaning or calling can feel empty, even if it does keep fear at bay. I mean, who are you really? What have you come here to do? What is the true best use of your considerable talents and gifts.
I think of it the way I think about ingredients for a recipe. There are a lot of things you can do with cauliflower, so knowing that you’re a cauliflower (or a lawyer, or a evolutionary anthropologist, or a writer) doesn’t really tell you very much. That’s just an ingredient with which you could do many different things. The kind of badass you are will determine what you cook up with the ingredients you have.
When I saw myself as a “screenwriter,” there was only the one thing for me to do and, though it didn’t make me especially happy (and hadn’t even in my heyday), I kept at it because that’s what I thought I was. But the real kind of badass I am is mushier than that. It’s not a simple job title that I plug myself into. It’s more nebulous than that and it will take shape as I do the things that are before me, the things that I know I’m to do. Right now that’s my novel, a few articles I want to write, a memoir I may tackle at some point, and some change-making opportunities I’m starting to pursue. There’s a through line that connects these things, but I don’t yet have that perfect, marketable pitch. I haven’t clearly defined my “brand.” I think, though, that that comes in time. You start where you are and you shape and refine the thing until it sings. The important thing is to start, and to stay as mindful and deliberate about what you’re doing as you can while leaving room for the unknown. Sometimes the thing that shoots you through the stratosphere isn’t the thing you expect, so it pays to be flexible and to keep exploring and shaping your life as you go.
I’ve gone back and forth over the past year and a half on this question of whether I should continue writing for the screen. I was pretty good at screenwriting, maybe even very good, but just as the big doors were swinging open for me, my past had yanked me back by the ankles. Like many people, I’d had a traumatic childhood and, like many people, I’d just gotten on with it. Though I’d known as early as 12 that I had to sort through all my pain or it would compromise my future family, as a practical matter, I’d fallen back on an unconscious survival instinct and stuffed all of my rage, and a large measure of my pain. Rather than dwell on things that I couldn’t do anything about, I devoted myself to the many tasks super-achieverdom requires. I was excellent, but I wasn’t myself, and my Act I goal was to be free and, whether I knew it or not, that meant building a life that reflected the actual me. Life, in its infinite wisdom, saw fit to get me there through a grueling ordeal.
My ordeal took the form of the emergence of post traumatic stress symptoms that had probably been hovering near me all the while, but that surfaced unmistakably at the very moment when I was this close to achieving the goals that, after some destructive, narcissistic mothering, I’d managed to set for myself. Having unconsciously accepted the stark calculus that I could either have my life or I could have my mother’s love, I collapsed. I suffered from depression, though that was manageable enough with yoga, meditation and 6 months on antidepressants. The real ordeal is that I suffered from serious cognitive deficits most commonly associated with traumatic brain injuries, though brain scans have now shown that a brain addled by post traumatic stress and one hobbled by a traumatic brain injury look remarkably the same. Those deficits made me unable to do the creative work on which my livelihood and dreams depended, and they compromised my ability to tell. I worked hard, delivered screenplays and they sucked. This was abundantly clear to me years later when, having regained my cognitive functioning, I re-read an original screenplay I’d rewritten for a respected producer and his much-admired movie star-director-producer partner who shares my commitment to stories that mean something. I’d worked hard to deliver. This, after all, was a huge opportunity for me, but I’d made it worse. The strange thing is, at the time, I remember thinking “wow, screenwriting is really hard,” though I’d previously written several screenplays and found it perfectly doable. When I handed it in, I thought I’d navigated the difficulties quite well and produced something great. It was a shock to discover after I regained my cognitive functioning that I had not.
Needless to say, the whole experience and the loss of my career and livelihood were devastating. I still wish I’d been luckier, that I’d had my cognitive difficulties at some less impactful time, but I now suspect that if my career dreams had been realized, I would never have found what I have found these last few years, which is the freedom I’d long sought to be the authentic me. Not that I’m not scared to death. I wish I were sitting on the reputation and nest egg that I once thought I’d have. But I learned something this week from Emily Rapp’s beautiful essay about the death of her son Ronan, something I haven’t wanted to know: that things happen, sometimes irretrievable things, and, if we don’t suicide, we carry on — hopefully, if we’re born with a lucky constitution, with an open heart and receptive mind. I’ve struggled for years to accept the things I lost. Though the loss of my career is easier, I’m certain, than the loss of Emily’s son. Yes, I’m comparing. No I don’t think that’s wrong. Comparing can deepen our compassion for those who suffer more. It can deepen our compassion for ourselves if we have suffered more, allowing us to feel the full weight of our devastating grief without washing it away with the empty truth that “everyone suffers.” Yes, everyone suffers, but not everyone suffers this much. Sometimes our losses are deeply difficult, and singular, and just worse than those around us and sometimes we need a home for that truth. And then, accepting that maybe we got a harder hand, we fall through into the greater truth, the truth I had not wanted to know: that sometimes you suffer and then you suffer some more. That you aren’t guaranteed a free ride because something hard already happened. In my case I lost my father when I was a child — he was excised from my life against our will — and he was everything to me. That loss hurt me more than losing him to death when he was 80 years old, a loss which is also irrevocable, but hurts less for belonging to the realm of normalcy. The life I lived with my mother before and after was deeply damaging for me. I have no doubt that she loved me and wanted the best for me. It’s because of her that I had so many educational opportunities. But I also experienced a cornucopia of abuses at her hand and it weakened me. And then, of course, I lost my mind, my livelihood and my career.
To back up for a moment… In screenwriting, the protagonist sets a goal in Act I that shapes the arc of the narrative to come. The goal is something external — Bertie in The King’s Speech wants to speak publicly without stuttering, Creasy in Man On Fire wants to do his job of protecting Pita to the best of his admittedly addled abilities — but there’s also a hidden internal goal. In Bertie’s case, that hidden goal is to find his voice. In Creasy’s, it’s to find something worth living for before he dies. The external goal defines the narrative, setting in motion the sequence of narrative events, but it’s the inner goal that transforms the character, making her into someone who’s capable of achieving her goal.
As with screenwriting, so with life. The narrative changes us. If we let it, the narrative of our lives can transform us into the exalted version of ourselves, but it won’t be easy. Like the protagonist in a movie, we have to find our inner bad ass if we want to triumph in the end. If we don’t shrink back, we just may reach the pinnacle of our lives, whatever that pinnacle may be. But it isn’t guaranteed. The obstacles and reversals of Act II, the fight to the death of Act III — we’re not sure we’ll come out on the right side of these things. We’re not sure we’ll win. We’re not even sure we’ll survive. Which is why we shrink back, why we so often reject the call. But, the truth is, we’ve heard the call and it will nag at us. The vague feeling of unease is a reminder to heed the call. Most of us will ignore it or blame our dissatisfaction on other people or other things, but deep down inside, below the level of consciousness or just near the surface, we know. A voice is whispering, asking, “What kind of bad ass are you?”
My Act I goal was to be free. I now am. The task now is to build a life from that place. It’s scary as all get out. No one can tell me exactly how to do it. There isn’t a job I can apply for. I have to trust myself and do the work and take the risks and see what unfolds and then shape and refine that. It’s the opposite of how I thought my life would be when I went to the ivy league law school and thought, for a moment, that I would take the big firm job, but I have enough friends who walked that way to know that, no matter which path we take, life will require us to confront our fears and it will keep whispering its question in our ears: “What kind of badass are you?”
The odds don’t matter in the end.
We want to succeed (of course, of course).
We want to be happy.
We want (more than anything, more than anything) to be safe.
But here is the truth I did not want to know: We aren’t safe. We may not succeed. But we can be happy. We can be happy no matter what has happened, no matter what we’ve lost. The happy I’m speaking of isn’t the happy you experience when you’ve suffered very few or very mild things. It’s the happy you experience when you’ve experienced whatever rough and tumble life has to offer you, whatever irrevocable losses you may endure (the loss of my father in my childhood, the loss of Emily Rapp’s child…), and you carry on anyway, your heart open to what life may still bring, even though there are no guarantees. That’s the kind of badass I want to be. That’s the kind of badass I am.
PHOTOGRAPHY by Unknown via Pinterest
PAULA PURYEAR is a Lawyer, Film & Television writer, HuffPoster and Founder of Revel In It Mag.