My Nicholl’s Worth

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Every writer needs a panic room. It should look like those indoor play areas at the airport, with lots of padded surfaces and cool cubbies in which a stressed-out scribe can cower. Did I mention the classic arcade games and vending machines that disgorge an endless supply of Newman’s cookies?

This past year was a challenging one for my development slate and I NEED a fortress of solitude to call my own. My beloved Grandpa passed; my parents moved far away; and my neurotic poodle has developed propecia, but in the words of my idol, Tina Fey, “I will not be blamed.” Just when it seems like my career drive has run out of road, a hero swoops in to save the day. His name is Oscar.

It’s been over a week since I wrote a decent scene and I’m losing it, man. Another writer had suggested this yoga class, specifically geared for creatives. So, I wrassled myself into yoga shorts, choked down a chai (which I’m pretty sure is Urdu for “cinnamon gag”), and dove into this roiling sea of spandex. Now, on a rainy Monday morning, I sprawl on the hard wood floor listening to the man next to me digest something that’s putting up a hell of a fight.

The yoga teacher’s voice gently encourages me to listen for my muse. What is it saying? What does it sound like? I squeeze my eyes shut and strain my ears. Someone farts and I hold my breath, mostly to keep from giggling. Apparently, my muse is a raunchy rascal because I suddenly hear him, laughing until organic almond milk shoots out his nostrils. Across the raucous frat party that is my mind, he waves me over. Pushing past the crowd of thoughts demanding my attention, I grin. Finally, I’m going to hang with the coolest kids in my subconscious.

Now, I’m standing face-to-face with My Muse and he is a handsome bastard. He winks and leans in close to whisper…but my cell phone rings loudly in the quiet class. It’s my husband shouting, “You’re a quarter finalist in the Nicholl Fellowship!”

I sit and bawl right there on my mat.

You see, when I first pitched this script to my studio mentor, she took a breath…another…then, she said, “Sounds interesting.” That was the most optimistic reaction I got to my “caper comedy, but with a kidney!” I spend the next ten months working on another comedy, a sitcom, and a farcical parenting book, but still, the caper comedy refused to go away. For me, it’s more than a cool idea, it’s something I WANT TO SEE ONSCREEN. I write it late at night, after dutifully kicking out pages on my praised projects, but when it’s done, I can’t seem to pass it in. This draft has to prove that, despite the doubts of well, everyone, I can turn this quirky idea into a uniquely entertaining and marketable story.

Popular screenwriting lore warns against sharing material before it’s ready. But also, don’t take too long, because there are thousands of scripts ahead of yours already. And also, make sure it’s got a killer hook. But also, don’t go so far afield that studio executives fear they can’t sell it. And…but…and…but…

After months of deadline ducking, my mentor summons me to an amazing little Japanese restaurant where I bury my face in the greatest bowl of soba noodles L.A. has ever served.  This exec has stood by me through bad drafts, ridiculous log lines, obscure titles, and poorly executed pitch meetings. I chug scalding tea and blurt out, “I’m possessed by the Perfection Demon and I can’t get it out!” This diabolical demon is never satisfied with a draft, and eventually dooms all its victims to obscurity and regret. My mentor shrugs and says, “So f***ing hit send. I can’t improve what I haven’t read.” Huh. That makes sense, actually.

So, I hit send. She gives me notes and I rewrite. More notes. Rewrite. Circle of screenwriting, dude. I submit to Nicholl and a couple other big competitions, mostly to finish this creative statement with a period rather than a question mark. Then, I panic. Go to yoga for creatives. Cue Oscar, with his Nicholl cape floating majestically in the breeze.

A few weeks after that email, there’s a phone call. This time, it’s the director of the Austin Film Festival telling me I’m a semifinalist, and my script is one of ten vying for The Black List’s inaugural “Fade to Black” Award. Now, I’m getting script requests from management and production teams whose names I recognize from articles in Deadline and Variety. My script has found a few fans. Will it advance in competition? It doesn’t matter. Honestly. I wrote this story because I WANT TO SEE IT ONSCREEN, and just knowing there are industry people who now feel the same way, is enough to exorcise my demons and even impress My Muse.

It feels great…but I’m still building the panic room.