I have come to Schenectady to teach screenwriting to gifted high-schoolers. Written out, this sentence seems arbitrary, like a Mad Lib. I have come to Oaxaca to teach candlemaking to wealthy cannibals, say. Or, for that matter, I haven’t come to Schenectady to teach screenwriting to gifted high-schoolers – that would make far more sense.
But it’s true, David, it’s all true. I’m here for seven weeks, at the talented and gifted program hosted by Newberry College, called, imaginatively, ‘The Newberry College Talented and Gifted Program’. My second class is tomorrow and I’m writing from my hotel, a crummy dump outside of town called Suites of America. To be fair, it is near a waterfall; although, to be fair again, everything around here is near a waterfall.
My first class went poorly. I told them I was a screenwriter, and they asked me which movies I’d written. I mentioned Save It for a Rainy Day and they just blinked at me. Telling them I’d had quite a run in nineties independent cinema garnered the same response. Had they heard of independent cinema? Or cinema? The nineties? It was unclear. I finally told them that my old agency was the same as Robert Downey Jr’s – Iron Man’s, I made sure they knew – and on at least two occasions we’d briefly sat in the same reception area, and that he requested decaf red oolong tea and wore sunglasses inside, and this finally confirmed to them my bona fides.
Are they gifted? Time will tell. They are gifted with youth, at least, the greatest and most terrible gift of all. I feel so old these days, exponentially old, as though I age a decade each month, but I wouldn’t want to be fifteen again, either. Their faces seethe with oil like the inside of lava lamps. They fidget and squirm like bored six-year-olds while the ugly truths of the adult world, like the ungovernable boners inside their cargo shorts, overtake them hourly without consent. They phrase everything in the form of questions, even their own names. Especially the girls – my God, the poor girls, who have to deal with the boys.
After class, one of the more talkative boys, Leonard – possessed of Jewish name and hair if not ancestry – approached and asked where he could find one of my movies. I asked if he had AMC, and if his parents let him stay up until four in the morning. He said yes, in fact, he did have AMC, and he lived with his grandmother, who let him get away with murder. I said, okay, then it might in theory be possible to see my movie Drive By. He said he’d keep an eye out, and I said that would be fine, and I looked forward to hearing what he thought. And he said he would take notes and let me know. He was refreshingly immune to irony, which gives a person hope in this cynical age, though he’s probably just somewhere on the autism spectrum. Or maybe he was fucking with me, now that I think about it.
I walked the half-mile through town back to my hotel afterward. The class is at an expensive liberal arts college of regional repute. The campus is all rolling, manicured hills, and the second you step off of it, you’re in The Deer Hunter. How did this happen, you wonder, staggering along with the other zombies through the post-industrial wreckage. But there was no industry here to begin with, how did they get to post so fast? I made my way past crumbling brick warehouses, past cleaned out auto yards, past an actual Moose Lodge with suspicious old men smoking Dorals in front. Despite the beautiful weather, I found myself palpably yearning for LA. Speaking of, how is it? You are in Glendale now, last I heard? Or was it Los Feliz? I’d so badly like to catch up soon, have that coffee we discussed, but I’m in Schenectady until August. August: it sounds like an eternity, and will be, I guess, but they are paying me well, hence my being here. They pay better than anything I could have gotten in LA, at least right now. Since getting tossed off Murder Inc. – did you hear about that? It was an ugly scene, and I’m here at least partly to lie low and get my head right. Or less wrong, although more on that later.
Or, okay, more on that now. Back to the hotel, I snorted the line I’d been waiting for all day, ever since the one I’d done in the morning. I’m on a strict regimen of two green pills a day – 100 milligrams – no more and no less. After lying for so long, to so many different people – first and foremost you, of course – I’m trying out what they call radical honesty. I relapsed again after our divorce was finalized, and I brought a large cache of oxy with me out here to cowtown. If my calculations are correct, it should be enough to get me through two months, provided I don’t significantly up the dosage. It’s a maintenance program, inasmuch as such a thing is possible, which of course it isn’t. Radical honesty, David. Okay, maybe the program is that I’ll either kick or die. That’s probably the real program, probably the real reason I came here.
Please don’t try to contact me, by the way. And don’t try to find me. Names and places have been changed to protect the guilty. I may not really be in Schenectady. This may not really even be happening.
I tell the kids that the most important thing in screenwriting is to have a character that wants something. And I tell them this is harder than it sounds. The amateur tendency is to write characters that sit around on couches, talking to other characters on couches. Everyone loves writing dialogue because you can fill up the page so fast, the rising black like smoke signals in the middle of a whiteout blizzard. I love it too, I admit, but at a certain point, you have to get your protag (as I call it, horribly) off the couch and have them do something, something motivated by their desires. It sounds like the easiest thing in the world, but it’s one of the hardest, like most things that sound like the easiest thing in the world: falling in love, staying in love, not ODing at your husband’s parents’ fiftieth anniversary party.
On the whiteboard, I diagram plot arcs loosely cribbed from Save the Cat and Story. I tell them each scene needs to have a positive and negative charge – that, in other words, something has to change. I tell them that this is true of scenes, and true of sequences as well, a progression of linked scenes. Sequences have to change, and so do acts, which sequences build, and so do screenplays, which are made of three to five acts, depending. I tell them that story is really about change, from the macro to micro level, and that, in this sense, a screenplay is like one of those images made from smaller constituent images of the same thing: a face, for example, but when you get closer you see the features are made of the same face, and closer still, that elements of the features – the shadow of a nostril, for example – is made of very small faces, and when you press your eyeballs up to those faces, you see a pixelated constellation of a thousand more faces. I tell them there’s a word for this that has escaped me and that I’ll give extra credit to anyone who tracks it down, which is ridiculous, as this is a talented and gifted summer camp, and there are no grades.
At that moment, I looked away from the board to find them all staring at me. I was very high just then, and I wondered if it was obvious. Probably not. As you well know David, being high on narcotics is so outrageous as to be somewhat unguessable to straight adults, let alone children. More likely they were wondering if I was insane. A girl raised her hand and said, ‘I don’t understand, Mrs Blakely.’
‘Allison. Mrs Blakely’s my chihuahua’s name.’ She stared at me. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ I said. ‘Just write something interesting’ – really, the only good writing advice.
They addressed themselves to their computers for a thirty-minute free-write. I went to the bathroom, splashed water on my face, and got a Lipton iced tea from the vending machine. Did I feel bad about teaching class while high? Not at that moment, no – I was high. Besides, I was doing my job, more or less, and anyway, they wouldn’t be able to get much more from me at 20 percent than me at a hundred. Frankly, the idea of teenagers writing screenplays, or any fiction, is ludicrous, a prestige class for the vicarious pleasure of helicopter parents. Nonetheless, I pushed back in and surveyed their projects: wizards and vampires mostly, though one kid had an idea for a buddy cop movie that probably could have sold for seven figures against mid-six. I made a mental note to rip it off, if I ever wrote another spec.
Did I tell you about the last thing I was working on, about the men who built the Brooklyn Bridge? Sandhogs they were called. They excavated the ground beneath the river and set the bridge’s foundation inside these pressurized structures called caissons. Dangerous work: they were constantly injured, suffered from decompression sickness, and by the end of construction, twenty-one men had died. I had a meeting with one producer in Culver City who said he didn’t see the drama, and another who questioned the sexiness of the project. I said, well, what if they worked naked? Then I found out there was another project, called Sandhogs, making the rounds with Edward Norton attached. That was the same week I called our showrunner a cunt, because he was one, and got fired. My agent said I had a reputation. A good one? I asked. No, he said, and your best bet would be to lie low for the rest of the decade. I told him I was broke, and he asked how I felt about teaching summer camp.
I am broke, David. It’s remarkable to be broke after earning so much money. Where did it go? Well, we both know the answer to that. But in a more general sense, I suppose, it went to good times that weren’t that good. I could have been building something – a family, a business – but instead, for the past twenty years, I’ve been building myself, an unlikely version of me. Tanned and ghostly pale, slender and puffed around the edges, hideously attractive, penniless but with the vague imprint of money – I stare at myself in the mirror, this creature I’ve painstakingly brought to life, Doctor Frankenstein and her monster, both in one body.
You asked me once, toward the end, after you’d discovered the withdrawals – the ones from our bank account, and the ones I was going through in that hotel room during one of my ‘business trips’ – why I did drugs. I told you that growing up in a loud and alcoholic household, I liked to enter the storage cubbyhole under our kitchen floor, where it was earthy and cool and dark and still, and pretend that everything outside had vanished, though I could hear the distant yelling, and that as an adult narcotics held a tremendous instinctive appeal, in the way it offered a quiet place to hide, though it was better than that cubby since you could take the still place with you wherever you went. But this was false. Oh, it may have been true years ago, but the need had long since become its own truth, the only truth that mattered.
Because the other truth, I guess, is that I don’t see the point of all this, however you define this. From the outside, the drugs may seem to take away meaning, to confer a dead pointlessness to the proceedings; from the inside, however, it is just the opposite. They provide a titanium-grade purpose to my days, one that is knowable and achievable. Far from meaningless, dope is the greatest possible meaning, an absolutely defined value and good in a world of rumors and wraiths, fleeting desires and disappointments flickering incandescent against the void. It is nothing, but it is something. It is the somethingest nothing there is.
Leonard raised his hand in class today, and said, ‘Self-similar.’
‘Gesundheit,’ I said.
‘You asked the other day for the word for something made of things that look like itself. The word is “self-similar”.’ I had no idea what he was talking about. ‘Great, Leonard. Thanks.’
‘Do I get extra credit?’
‘You said whoever brought in the word would get extra credit.’
‘Sure,’ I said, ‘you get a thousand points.’ I went back to showing the intro to Casablanca, and rambling on about visual transitions.
After class, Leonard followed me down the hall and out into the shocking day. Summer was exploding in a mortar strike of bright, warm green, more shrapnel in my already still heart. If I could have felt anything at that moment, I might have been delirious with sadness or happiness, or both. I shivered in my thin jacket, in my invisible cocoon. Leonard said, ‘You were being sarcastic back there.’
‘No, I was being facetious.’
‘Okay, I know I don’t get extra credit, but I wanted to ask you a question?’
‘What.’ We were standing in the middle of a grassy slope, near a Japanese maple, and I had the horrible feeling he was about to kiss me.
‘Will you come to dinner tonight? My grandmother would like to meet you.’
‘We only live ten minutes away.’
‘I have plans.’
‘I’ll make guacamole.’
What else could I do? I went. Their house was unbelievable, David. One of those palatial, crumbling Victorians they have so many of in this part of the country, located off the long road winding into town, commissioned by some local magnate who must have promptly gone broke or insane. The thing had twenty rooms if it had two – did people used to have that many more children? I guess whole extended families used to live together. You can feel their ghosts in a place like this, all the high-collared dowager aunties and crib-dead kids still hanging out, making shadow puppets on the wall for entertainment.
It was just Leonard, clad in a dressy black turtleneck, and his young grandmother, Roxanne, only about ten years older than me. I didn’t ask about the parents, but I got the sense they were still alive, somewhere on the periphery. It’s hard to explain, but the house seemed like the wreckage of something, an aftermath. I got the sense something very bad had happened, and that what we had here were two survivors, shell-shock cases who had wandered, half-deaf and heads ringing, into the same cave. Or maybe they just didn’t get many visitors.
Roxanne is a large, no-nonsense lady who has worked for the local electric company her entire adulthood. I liked her immediately. She has clearly made Leonard her project in life – saving for his education and sending him to things like the Newberry College Talented and Gifted Program – and she grilled me on my résumé.
‘What a career,’ she said, ‘I’m very envious.’
‘Yes, well,’ I said. ‘It’s had some exciting moments, I guess.’
‘You guess? You’ve had dinner with Jack Nicholson. Try operating a power company switchboard for forty years.’
‘I know, I’m spoiled.’
‘That’s putting it mildly.’
‘If only there had been someone to shoot me every minute of my life,’ I said.
‘What?’ said Roxanne.
‘Flannery O’Connor,’ said Leonard proudly, and I was appropriately impressed, though less so by Leonard’s guacamole, which, I have to tell you David, was sub-par – heavy on the lemon. Upstate guacamole, an oxymoron. Fortunately, I didn’t have much of an appetite. I had forgone my evening installment in deference to the occasion, and I was not feeling very well. Thin trickles of sweat sluiced down the ice sheet of my back, as we all settled in the dark living room to watch the surprise Leonard had prepared. The TV clicked on to reveal Drive By, which Leonard had apparently, and incredibly, recorded off TV onto an old VHS tape. The vertical hold shuddered like my stomach throughout. After a brief Q and A about the script’s genesis and the unholy litany of concessions I’d made to get it produced, I escaped back into the dark wilds of the front yard, in a near-sprint to get to my rental.
Attempting, with an extremely shaky hand, to fumble key into ignition, I saw Leonard’s small form make its way through the shadows of the unmown grass. It felt not unlike that stock horror-movie scene, heroine dithering in the inexorable monster’s path. Standing at the open window, he said, ‘Are you okay?’
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Not feeling well.’
‘The guacamole?’ he frowned.
‘No, it was delicious.’
‘Is there anything I can help with?’ he said, and I wanted to cry. I cried. He stood there in adolescent alarm until I could speak. ‘No, there’s nothing. Thank you, it was great meeting your grandmother.’
Did I want children, David? I know I always told you I didn’t, but did I, secretly? If not, why did I continue sobbing all the way back to the hotel, all the way through the dose, to the point of addressing the question to you, imaginary you? Are you glad we didn’t? Are you going to do it with . . . Philippa? Can that really be her name? Are you going to have a little Silverlake family? Are you going to wear a Baby Bjorn at the co-op? Are you going to name the girl Hyacinth and the boy Elderflower? Is there any way to reclaim the time we’ve lost? Is there a place where our days aren’t numbered? What is your worst fear? What is mine? And are you even reading this?