I wrote a screenplay once. I felt compelled. For starters, writing is one of the few things I both enjoy doing and seem to do fairly well – insofar that it has gotten me through my academic career and at my current professional standing. I’ve blogged for nearly two decades (…a staggering fact), on and off, reflecting the longstanding presence of the written word in my life. I can express myself better, more honestly, more thoroughly, and far more rhythmically than I ever could orally. Of course, there’s also the fact that I love movies, love the unique power of the theatrical experience. As I’ve said before, I did grow up in Los Angeles.
The screenplay – if ultimately an unremarkable product of little artistic value – did not reflect a half-assed attempt. I conducted research into the basics, read a few how-tos. I downloaded proper script software, learned the correct formatting and font usage, mapped out a bare-bones outline. It was a workmanlike effort. I never felt consumed, nor was I driven by a singular vision. Instead, I treated it like homework: devoting a little time to it on the regular (this was during my first, and academically unproductive, postdoctoral fellowship year). I suppose primarily, as with many of my endeavors, I wanted to prove to myself that I COULD do it.
As one might expect of a debut from a wannabe screenwriter, “Degrees of Sanity” was a thinly veiled autobiographical slice. “Write what you know,” right? I wrote about a graduate student in an existential crisis, who doubted his very commitment to the environment in which he was being drawn deeper. There were embellishments and fictions of course, though even those were steeped in my familiarity with the world of academe. An obstinate head of the department, the antagonist. A nursing student girlfriend, an Indian best friend, an admiring student. Composites, caricatures, fantasies. It was not my life, but it could have been.
Problem is, it wasn’t very good. For starters, it wasn’t interesting conceptually. Graduate students are the best at making graduate school more important than anything else in the world, against all sense of logic or self-awareness or perspective, and my screenplay in effect validated that mentality rather than exposed it. Tension over research design, dissertation chapters, and grading deadlines was hardly compelling within the 15% of the population with graduate school experience, let alone outside it. There seems to me too many reasons why so few movie take place against the depressing, solitary, indeterminate backdrop.
At a more micro level, the problem was simpler. The story of my life was essentially limited by the story of my life. It was meandering, rambling introspection* manifested in a broadly depicted conflict with a poorly conceived antagonist who was unable to fully represent my very real and deep doubts about my life path. Moreover, I was a first time screenwriter, and “Degrees of Sanity” certainly read like a work from such. For instance, the half-baked romantic relationship seemed to exist solely for its inevitable breakup and the incorporation of a poor man’s manic pixie dream girl archetype: the hot student slash local bartender.
*See this blog
Ultimately, none of it felt very natural – yet paradoxically the writing was not good enough to feel overly written either. It was fine, a workmanlike effort, as I said. But I had failed to clearly articulate a conflict, an obstacle, a journey. Perhaps my life – even in a fictionalized form – was insufficiently interesting for a screenplay. Or perhaps the screenplay represented what I needed to see in print in a story of my life. A means to express my hesitation, my doubt. A means to conceptualize a way out. It was a glimpse of what my life could be, and perhaps more important, what it did not have to be. And quality aside, I had that, at least.
In a way then, healthy as it might have been for me psychologically, the screenplay had become a checkmark of sorts, on a number of levels. First, I had always wanted to write one, and I wanted to have the file on my computer that proved thusly. I had achieved that. Second, it served as a necessary outlet in the immediate circumstance, a thing into which I was able to express all the thoughts I was harboring that I might not be able to place elsewhere, even this page. I had done that as well. But in the process, the artistic merits of the screenplay had been undermined. It wasn’t particularly interesting or dramatic or funny or affecting. It just was.
I revisit all this because my desire to write a (good) screenplay has not dissipated in the four years since I completed my first. I imagine it is due to the continued confluence of my love of film, my reliance on writing as hobby and profession, and my delusions of grandeur. It is revealing that I have not yet put pen to paper in spite of this (though I do have an idea and an outline). Perhaps I am reluctant to take on the work it would entail. Perhaps I fear that I will fall into the same traps as last time, of projecting far too much of myself onto the page – in a manner that undercuts the accessibility and the value of the story. My ideas remain largely autobiographical after all.
I suppose then I need to harness the slices of my life into a story that can be compelling within the medium. I need a story that exists not because I need to tell it but because it needs to be told, as vomit-inducingly self-important as that may sound. Still, I truly believe there is a there there – a universality in the persistent struggle of graduate students against deadlines definite and indefinite, in the desire of expatriates to find both adventure and permanence, in the enveloping nature of love and the fickleness of timing and circumstance. Whether I can translate glorified blog entries into a proper screenplay remains to be determined.
Ultimately, I do not want my second script to be limited either by my experience or my imagination. I do not want it to be another workmanlike effort. After all, I believe that I am capable of creating in this medium. I believe I have something to offer, whether that is true or not. Perhaps this then is the true story of my life – one of frustration, of potential, of hope, and of a persisting, nagging belief in more. I do not love the adage that it is about the journey and not the destination, because I fear that it suggests that we should be prepared for the possibility that the destination will never be reached. Maybe it will apply here. In the meantime though, here we go again. Again.
(Photo by Takashi Hososhima, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)