Chasing Windmills (a.k.a. “know when to fold ’em)

I recently just gave up. No regrets.

At the start of the new season of the Playwright/Director Unit at the Actors Studio, we were given a writing assignment: create a 10-20 minute play based on a two-word phrase provided by the Unit moderators. The assignment was optional; those who chose to partake could then submit their scripts and have them read in early 2014, and then the best might be produced before the end of the season. I love a good artistic competition, and starting brainstorming ideas. Initially, I had nothing. Weeks went by. Months. Then finally, about a month ago, I had an idea. After letting it percolate for a few days I sat down and wrote a first draft. Took some time away, then revised it. Done!

Only one problem: it wasn’t great. It wasn’t bad; the jokes worked, and it moved along nicely, but the story was flawed. I knew it. My gateway reader (a.k.a. my wife) definitely knew it, and was easy to point it out to me. I pondered rewrites and couldn’t wrap my head around how to fix it. Then I got inspired for a totally new idea based on the initial phrase. I sat down to start again with the new idea, but after a page and a half I had a startling realization: I had already written this play before…as a comedy sketch several years ago. The initial sketch was great, having been produced and performed by two different comedy groups and two different theater companies. My “new” idea was a blatant rip off of that original piece.

So what to do? Rewrite the original piece and hope that the flawed story will be overlooked by the humor of the piece? Or finish the second script, knowing that I would be plagiarizing my 27-year-old self?

I chose door #3: abandon the project.

Hello, my name is Alex G., and I am a quitter.

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I initially resisted the idea of quitting. After all, the first script isn’t terrible, and with some hard work it might be salvageable. And the second script is a proven winner with four different productions, but no one in my group would know that. And if I do quit, won’t I be frustrated in a few months when I watch scripts by the other writers in my group? Sure, maybe. But is it worth the time? No, not will the other projects I am also currently writing…and in some cases, being paid to write. With a sigh of relief, I slowly backed away from the computer, opened a beer, and reflected on how awesome I was for being self-aware enough to call it a day.

This isn’t the first time I’ve quit a project. Some are just ideas that bubble up, but then vanish into the ether before a word is written. Some have been real time investments: I’ve walked away from multiple ¬†screenplays after writing more than 30 pages, a completed sitcom pilot, and even collaborations with other writers that went on for months before the still incomplete scripts were abandoned. ¬†Do I regret walking away from those projects? If anything, looking back I regret not walking away earlier. Almost all of us have had relationships where we regret not getting out earlier…but do we regret the entire relationship? Not necessarily, because those relationships were learning experiences that hopefully made us better people, and helped us make better choices down the road.

But this isn’t a relationship advice column, unless you want to follow the analogy that I am in a relationship with my script. If so, then fine…I dumped her. She was needy and wrong for me, and it was not a healthy reciprocal relationship. Plus, it was only a brief fling. Farewell, short script, you will not be missed. On to the other projects that deserve my effort and energy…especially the script inspiring the creation of this blog, of course.

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On winning the race

I’ve made the analogy before (and will continue to do it ad infinitum until someone shuts me up) that a career in the arts is a marathon and not a sprint. Overnight successes are rare, and most of those are actually years in the making. That overnight sensation you saw in a movie recently actually shot that movie a year ago, or longer, and has other films already finished. The director who won an Oscar for his first film spent the last 20 years directing commercials, music videos, and web series. It takes a while.

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I returned from the Thanksgiving week and, bright and early Monday morning, sat down at my computer to get to work. One of my Monday morning tasks is to check my old, defunct email address in case something important rolls in. Usually it’s just spam or crap from any place that requires an email address, but this time there was something actually addressed to me personally. I got an email from the Artistic Director of a Los Angeles theater company stating that they would like to produce one of my short plays in their upcoming series in March. Of course, I was delighted. But I didn’t remember submitting, although there were hints that it had been a while. For example, it was sent to my old email address. Also, the AD mentioned that even though I lived in New York, he hoped I could come out and see it.

I opened my submission database and began searching. After a few minutes I had tracked it down. Sure enough, I had submitted the script…in July of 2010. Three and a half years ago! So I submitted this script before even moving to L.A. Before I got married. Before so many things happened, just a submission along with a positive thought, and then forgotten.

This is a great reminder that there is no overnight success in show business…especially on the writing end. Just keep your head down and keep doing the work. And someday very far away, a finish line is in sight.

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