Failing Up

I don’t know how people come to find their “calling.” I don’t know why it is that someone decides, sometimes at an early age that they’re going to be a marine biologist, or a career military officer, or a veterinary technician. Similarly, I don’t remember exactly why I decided, when I was in the second grade, that I was going to be a writer. I just know that was when I started writing my first attempt at a “novel” in a spiral notebook with a blue-gray cover. I had just read “Jaws” after seeing the movie the previous summer and it must have had a big influence because my book was called “Jaws” and featured most of the same characters Peter Benchley had created for his shark story. I think I may have also been influenced by early Saturday Night Live because my book was going to feature a shark that could move around on land if I remember correctly. But I never got around to introducing the Land Shark because I abandoned the project after too many people told me I’d be sued for blatantly ripping off an international bestseller. I didn’t really understand what being sued meant but I knew it was bad so I let it go. Nowadays I could just pass it off as fan fiction and rework it into a script for SyFy or The Asylum, but in those pre-internet days, such possibilities didn’t exist.

My next effort was the story of a bumbling detective, a trenchcoat-and-fedora-sporting dachsund named “Inspector Pluto.” My influences on this one ranged from the Pink Panther films to Agent Maxwell Smart to our unneutered, testosterone-crazed pet dachsund Max, who was long since gone from our lives by then. When my classmate (and later best friend) Jeff Coleman asked me about the notebook (a lovely lavender color, this one) I carried under my arm at all times, I told him, “It’s my novel, which I am going to have published.” His reply, and even after all these years I can hear it like it was yesterday, “The day you get a novel published will be the day…no, the day before…no, two days before the world ends.” Even if he had to reach for it, it was a pretty sophisticated insult from the mouth of a fourth grader. I don’t know if it was the fear of apocalypse that made me abandon that project, but more likely it was my mother telling me that if I wasn’t careful, stealing ideas from Blake Edwards and character names from Disney, I was going to get sued.

Somewhere in there, a pattern started emerging: I would start projects and throw myself into them with full force and fervor, scribbling down my “brilliant” ideas and “hilarious” comedic bits between the ruled lines of my notebooks in jagged script or looping cursive whorls, and inevitably, without a plan or a plot or a general clue as to where any of this was headed, I would lose steam, seek distraction and utterly abort the effort, sometimes discouraged, often indifferent. I would simply let it go.

But no matter how many times I gave up on an undertaking, no matter how many unfinished stories piled up, no matter how many unused ideas filled my cheap spiral notebooks (in place of the schoolwork they were intended for) I continued to call myself a writer to anyone and everyone who gave a shit what a prepubescent thought he was gonna be when he grew to manhood.

In junior high, I joined the the after-school literary club, where I did manage to finish something for publication in the stapled slab of mimeograph paper that was our school literary magazine. “Mission to Mars” near as I can tell through the filter of years was at least in part inspired by the movie “Capricorn One,” but without all the messy conspiracy stuff. I think I just based my characters on those in the film (names changed this time, though that may just be because there was no on which to look up the names and steal them outright) and sent them on a real mission to Mars, where they encountered some very advanced English-speaking aliens and helped foment a revolution or something. All that matters is that I finished it and it was published and that felt great. Never mind that it was very very bad in the way only the earnest writing of a clueless sixth grader can be. But through a more forgiving lens, I’d probably be pretty proud of my twelve-year-old if he wrote it.

As the years ground on, I continued to think of myself as a writer, just one lucky break away from fame, fortune and true salvation in the form of life as a paid artist. I wrote a story in my first months as a high school freshman that eschewed the genre trappings of my early work and went for pure comedy in a kind of National Lampoon vein. “The Duck Hunter’s Guide” was the sad diary of a lonely (possibly depressed) duck hunter sleeping, drinking and wasting his way through a long weekend of doing anything but actually hunting for ducks. It was also published in the school lit magazine later that year, but more importantly, that raging cynic Jeff Coleman (by now my bestest buddy) passed it around to all the older kids in the elite high school theater circle we were so eager to break into, and they loved it and suddenly we were the new cool kids they were willing to take under their wings and mentor. Between that and acting in the school plays, it was my first genuine taste of art and creativity instantly expanding my world, winning me friends and allowing me to influence people. For better or worse, I was hooked.

Down through the years, the writing continued, the fits and starts and occasional finished products (like “Little Italy,” the Godfather-meets-Chinatown comedic melodrama I wrote more or less from scratch my junior year, which got a fairly epic production in the little theater and included a slo-motion shootout perpetrated by myself and Coleman). Somewhere in that smeary haze of adolescence I also discovered drugs, which first fostered creativity and Big Ideas, then increasingly forced those things into the backseat in favor of more hedonistic diversions.

I majored in English lit in college and discovered an abiding love of film, struggling to find a way to join my multiple interests in writing, performing and the art of storytelling. Some friends and I formed a theater group that was part sketch comedy outfit, part laughably liberal political performance art, and I churned out scripts (finished scripts!) and performed them for appreciative audiences and thought I’d found a way to express myself that could finally put me on “The Map” (whatever that might be).

All the while, I kept toiling on various half-baked novels, and while I would churn out many manuscript pages in sporadic bursts, I was again operating without an outline or an endgame in mind, and while the Big Ideas seemed to spill generously from my pen, or clunky IBM Selectric (this was aeons ago, kiddies), I couldn’t get to the end of any of them. Barely past the middle in most cases. Even short stories seemed beyond my grasp, in terms of just turning out a tight piece of work with a solid beginning, middle and end (much less a theme or a point or a reason to be written). Comedy sketches came easily, but polished prose took work, focus, all those things that didn’t leave enough space for getting royally wasted. It didn’t help when adorable Raye Lane, the punky bleach-blonde actress I had a crush on for awhile, said to me when I told her I was writing a novel, “At your age? How pretentious.” She laughed when she said it, but it was just as devastating to my momentum as Coleman’s words eight or so years earlier. Who did I think I was? What life experience did I have that made me think I should write a book, much less that I could? But what I should have told her was, “It’s not pretentious. It’s science fiction!” Pretension is for angsty memoirs. I just wanted to build a cool, dangerous world and put some people through hell in it.

The years rolled on and after eking out a graduation from the University of Texas, I made my way to San Francisco with less of an outline for my life than I’d ever had for one of my books. Tried joining a writer’s group, tried spinning prose into film scripts, tried speed, tried anything and everything I could to kickstart a career but instead settled none-too-comfortably into a borderline-poverty level of existence working temp jobs and in restaurants, still calling myself a writer because it was less terrifying than surrendering fully into being nothing more than a wage slave.

Wrote drug-addled poetry and made meth-fueled stabs at churning out more long-form fiction. Participated in and even staged a few spoken word readings, tried to reinvent myself as some kind of post-punk pure artist of the living word. At my age? How pretentious. A friend of mine who’d thrown his hat into the small-press publishing ring put out a chapbook of my work, and a subversive newsprint rag called Filth Magazine published some bizarre and angry essays I’d spit from my cruddy Brother word processor (it was the ’90s now!)¬†Formed another sketch comedy group with my old high school buddy Les Milton, one of those theater kids who’d taken us under his wing back in the day, and contented myself with writing–and completing!–more of those comedy sketches. I wrote and wrote and wrote just so I didn’t have to stop telling people I was what I claimed to be but I still felt like I was spinning my wheels.

There comes a moment for every writer when you have to either produce or have your creative license revoked, and mine came when I mentioned something off-handedly to Les one afternoon about my “novel” and he let out a possibly involuntary burst of scoffing laughter as if to say, “What novel? You’ve been working on one novel or another since the day I met you and so far, you got shit.” Later on, he wouldn’t even remember the incident, but I carried it with me for the next several months, way back at the end of the previous millennium, when I got as serious as I’d ever been about completing one of my many half-conceived epics, and burned through the first (and sadly, only) draft of “Celebrity Bandwidth.” A cyberpunk-tainted sci-fi opus about artificially intelligent computer constructs of dead celebrities who start to develop consciousness, and in some cases, consciences, it was 300-plus pages of well-conceived but completely overwritten pap, amphetamine-laced adjectives filling out the word count in preposterous runs of go-nowhere hyper-description. Regardless, somewhere in there, I sent out queries to agents and publishers and lo and behold, amidst the slew of rejections there came genuine interest from a very real, and very supportive, agent in New York named Moses Cardona. I wish I could say that changed my life forever, but the fact is, smart man that he was, Moses saw both the tremendous potential, and the deep deep problems of the book, and encouraged some pretty major rewrites. But within a month of spewing the last triumphant line of my sloppy epic, something else happened that would transform my life, and my career, but would also derail the momentum that “Bandwidth” had given me, and brought my way. I got my first paid writing job.

I don’t know if it was just because I’d been in San Francisco too long, but something in my lazy and chemically saturated brain decided that, instead of requiring myself to knuckle down and do the hard, serious work of turning that book into something worthy of publication for a well-placed agent who was legitimately interested in my work, I should simply accept this new and nearly out-of-nowhere gig writing internet cartoons for a dotcom 3D animation startup with their own propietary motion-capture software as my genuine reward from the Universe for completing a draft of the book and my one true destiny. And for awhile, it felt kind of true.

Les and I were hired on the basis of our work writing, producing and performing our sketch comedy material for a project we called White Noise Radio Theatre (work of which I am and remain justifiably very proud, despite the fact that we never achieved the level of success we could and should have had we maybe been younger and able to dedicate ourselves more thoroughly to whatever it was we were trying to do). Working for Protozoa/dotcomix, at its best, felt like we were toiling in the early days of television, that we were there on the ground floor of the future, soldiers on the forefront of next-wave entertainment, where content was and always would be king. The job lasted a year.

After the ignominious burst of the dotcom bubble, there didn’t seem to be much left for me in San Francisco except a possible return to restaurant jobs or some other low-level wage slavery. So with the support of a loving girlfriend (who would later become my wife) I packed it in and moved to LA to see about keeping the momentum of a nascent writing career alive in some capacity. I turned my attention from novels and stories to scripts (while continuing with the comedy sketches–I’ve been in no less than five sketch comedy groups; we are the garage bands of the new millennium). In my ten years here, I’ve turned out more spec scripts and original pilots than you could air in a single season across the entire basic cable spectrum (or maybe it just feels that way), had pilots produced by real professionals with proven track records, had collaborations and Best-Ideas-Ever wither and die on the vine, gained and lost a manager, and somehow wound up a reality TV story producer (which does involve storytelling but is not the same as writing but you try explaining that to ANYONE who doesn’t do it for a living). I denigrate that job a-plenty, but it has allowed me to pay the bills, buy a house, start raising a child, kept me in comic books (and for awhile too long, drugs) while utilizing a very real skill for storytelling honed over all these years of fits and starts.

The most valuable thing I’ve learned from scriptwriting, aside from the ability to accept failure and rejection as an everyday fact of life, is how to tell a tight, concise, purposeful story and to see it through to completion. To not leave things hanging, whenever possible. To finish. And in the last couple of years, as the siren call of prose–funny, interesting, science fictional as ever–has started to sing inside my head again, I’ve paid attention. After all this time, years both well-spent and wildly wasted, I think I finally see the way through, the means to finish, and the willingness, if not always the free time and founts of energy, to do the hard work to make something as close to right as possible before forcing it out into the world. And finally, thanks to encouragement from those lifelong friends and creative partners like Jeff and Les and my friend Rodney Ascher who made the book cover (an invaluable part of kicking off my foray into digital publishing before I even knew I was ready) and my buddy Dave and his irrepressible Budget Press, who made “The Villain’s Sidekick” his first legitimate paperback publication, I’ve birthed this little book into the world and only time will tell what it does with its life, or I do with the rest of mine.

Within a week or so of releasing “Villain’s Sidekick,” I received a package in the mail from my parents. In addition to a couple of copies of that junior high lit magazine containing my first ever published work, there were two of my yearbooks from that time as well. Amidst all the “Luv Ya Like A Brother”s and the “Raise Hell This Summer”s, a surprising number of friends and acquaintances from those long-ago days wrote words to the effect of “Stephen, you are a great writer and a good friend” or “Keep on writing” (and also “You have a very weird sense of humor” which is equally awesome), so I dunno, maybe I really do have a calling.

3 thoughts on “Failing Up

  1. So I am tearing up after reading this. Not because I’m sad but because I’m happy and proud to see the place you are in now. And although I am not a literary critic after reading ” The Villain’s Sidekick” and this blog; I think you are a talented writer. I look forward to reading more of your work.

  2. I finally found your blog [technically challenged].. I am so proud of you, my heart is swelling and my eyes are tearing. You are a talented writer and story teller and the more people that read your stories the more this will be confirmed..
    Keep the stories coming,
    Papa Bob

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s