the only thing I've learned


In the summer of 2002 I was an unemployed screenwriter living in Park Slope with my wife Jennifer and our infant son Owen. Unemployed is putting it generously. Unemployable is closer to the truth.

I was 31. (Does this sound like a Tony Robbins speech? It is pretty much my Tony Robbins speech.) For ten years, I had been straining with all my might to become a professional screenwriter. Not just writing on the side, but writing all day, every day, whenever I could. I earned money in fits and starts as a freelance producer, cranking out features for sports television (“Emmitt Smith: He’s Good!”), and, juuust recently, starting to dip a toe in this strange new genre of “reality television.”

Earning a living had begun to transition from merely inconsistent to terrifyingly inconsistent and soul-crushing. On the demand side of the curve, eight-month-old Owen was consistently eating, and - the diva! - defiantly pooping and peeing out most of it, narcissistically self-enabling a vicious cycle of always needing more food. More than an unemployable screenwriter could dependably provide. Crushed by the basic math of it all, I had officially started to Give Up The Dream. Not just, like, on the inside, but outwardly, taking “Hi! I’m Giving Up The Dream” meetings, like interviewing to be some dude's personal assistant at Ogilvy & Mather. (I was not hired.)

And, then, one, day.

My friend, the great cinematographer Alex Buono, called and said, “You need to meet Lexi Alexander.”

Lexi was a 28-year-old German-born former kickboxing champion-turned-filmmaker. She looked like T2-era Linda Hamilton and sounded like Hans Gruber. Lexi and Alex had just made a short film together that had risen all the way to an Academy Award nomination. So in the summer of 2002, Lexi was a Hollywood debutante with a bit of heat on her.

Lexi knew what she wanted to make her first feature film about: a young American who travels to London and falls in with a gang of soccer hooligans. But she didn’t have a screenplay - not one that was ready to give to her shiny new agents at CAA. She needed a screenwriter. But she had zero money to pay one. That’s when Alex said, “Hey! I’ve got a friend in Park Slope who writes screenplays for that very rate.”

I have thought about this next moment - the moment that changed my life - many times in the years that have followed.

The moment has a lot of layers. First, the most obvious: this was the moment that I transitioned from amateur to professional writer.

After meeting Lexi, I wrote the screenplay that became the movie GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS, starring Elijah Wood. More accurately, I rewrote the screenplay that Lexi already had, which was in OK shape but needed help. And I found myself in the position, for the first time in my life, of being able to get a screenplay into professional, presentable shape. This screenplay became the first thing I had ever written that Professional Hollywood People sent around to each other without me begging them to do so. Within weeks of finishing it, I signed with an agent. Elijah Wood committed. The financing fell into place. Principal photography began in London. And after ten years of fruitlessly banging on the door, I boarded an airplane and rented a Kia and found myself in Hollywood with the absurd superpower of driving up to the studio gates and saying my name and watching the utterance of my name raise those gates.

And for a little while, I mean damn, it was warm and nestly and snug inside those gates. It was Wonka's Factory as fuck. I proceeded to get a bunch of jobs in Hollywood, rewriting a script for Bruce Willis and Robert Redford, and, for a brief, gossamer window, getting my own office on the Warner Brothers lot.

But as thrilling and life-changing as this was, this layer - the professional/Hollywood/ego layer - was not the most important layer. The most important layer goes something like this.

After meeting Lexi, and agreeing to write the screenplay for zero up-front cash, I found myself in a bind. We’re back in Park Slope now, fall 2002, the peeing and pooping. My name opens no gates.

I was working at a reality show every weekday from 9 to 5. The show was called SHIPMATES. It was kind of a Blind Date-y kind of show, with pop-up jokes appearing over the participants heads (except - get this - on a boat). Some of my fellow writers on SHIPMATES would become lifelong friends. Other than that, SHIPMATES was exactly the kind of ultra-shitty grind-it-out hacky experience it sounds like.

But the biggest problem, vis a vis the Untitled Hooligans Project I had just agreed to write, was that I was BOOKED. Every waking hour that I was NOT spending writing for SHIPMATES was dedicated exclusively to Child Care, Inc. My usual habit of waking up pre-dawn to write, uninterrupted, beatifically asail on a creative reverie, was, as any parent knows, brutally shattered by the new concussive reality of diapers and screaming and formula and more screaming (mine now) and exhaustion and etc etc etc.

My wife Jennifer was with me stride for stride throughout this process, thank Christ. But she had to leave for work even earlier than I did - she was teaching elementary school in Bushwick. A nanny watched Owen while both of us worked - and we could not afford to keep the nanny around for even one nanosecond more than was biologically necessary for the survival of the child, i.e. when Jen walked in the door at the end of the day the nanny was already at a full run, lateraling Owen to Jen as her bus pulled up to the curb.

And for me, then as now, writing at night was just not an option. Fucking forget about it. Call it exhaustion or new baby stress or me being a wuss or me simply needing those evening hours to plant the seeds of the functional alcoholism I treasure to this day, I literally couldn't - and still can't - write at night. The longer the day goes the more incapable of writing I get.

I did not have time to write this screenplay! Literally did not have time. An entire month ticked away, post-Lexi meeting. I had not written Word One.

So here is what I did.

Every morning, when Owen woke up, at approx. 530am, I would plunk him in a baby backpack, and slam back as much coffee as my brain could withstand. And then I grabbed two things: 1) the leash tethered to our cocker spaniel, Stanley, and 2) one of those old-fashioned miniature cassette recorders. Owen and Stanley and I set out into Prospect Park. And I dictated the script for GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS.

I basically performed it, acting out the dialogue in my ridiculously shitty menagerie of Clockwork Orange accents. I did this for 90 minutes every morning. And then I would go home, hand off Owen, board the subway, transcribe my performance into my laptop, and arrive at SHIPMATES. I finished the script in six weeks.

These walks would form the turning point of my creative life. They taught me the only thing I’ve ever really learned as a writer. I am writing this blog post to you right now because when I thought about how to introduce myself, how to properly start and center this blog, I thought - there’s really only one thing I have to give back. The thing that changed my life, for good:

Say your story out loud.

This advice is not for everyone. If you are already a professional writer, or storyteller, and the idea of saying your story out loud feels idiotic or show-y or just anathema to how you do things - you are right, of course. Don't change. You will likely not get better by trying my method.

But if you're stuck, or underachieving, or wondering why your writing isn't moving under its own power...book a friend for an hour. And tell your story out loud. Because all I really know is that my whole life changed when I stopped typing stories and started telling them.

When I got to Hollywood I found out that the studios all subscribe to this same school of thought. They don’t really buy screenplays. I mean, they do every once in a while. But most of the time, they buy campfire stories.

Studio executives don’t have time to read screenplays. I'm not even saying that as an insult. All they really want to know are two things:

1) that you've written something good in the past (in other words, that they're not the first sucker to throw money at you),

and

2) when they take 20 minutes out of their day, and sit in front of you, and turn off their phone...that you are going to tell them a story that makes them forget that they’re alive.

Do that and you get the job.

So that’s the one thing I’ve learned.

Down the road apiece I'll tell you how I started pissing it all away.

-Josh

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