Let the World Burn Through You

FADE IN

The other day a writer friend of mine sent me a message asking me to read a short story he’d written. Before I read it, we chatted a bit – he’s a screenwriter, someone Tony and I met online but never in person. The conversation turned to screenwriting.  I told him I hadn’t done any since Tony died, and he told me there was a script he’d been wanting to write for a long time but hadn’t, yet.  We agreed that we’d encourage each other to write and submit our screenplays to the Austin Film Festival’s screenwriting contest next year, and reward ourselves with a trip to the festival to meet some other screenwriter friends.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? I mean, I’ve been writing so much lately. Writing one little screenplay shouldn’t be that big a deal. That’s what I tell myself… so why do I feel almost panicked when I think about writing a feature on my own?

I’ve done a lot of thinking about that this past week. I’m not afraid of writing. I’ve written two novels. I wrote 30,000 words in the last five days. I know I’m a good writer, and I’m not afraid of hard work. That means it’s not any of those things causing the panic.

What it is, I think, is that I have never written a feature-length screenplay by myself. I’ve only done it with a partner. I’ve only done it with Tony. I’ve written short scripts on my own, but those were all very short. A maximum of five pages. That’s part of the panic – the knowledge that this is, in some ways, uncharted territory for me.

There’s something else, though. Tony was a very good writer, funny and with a real gift for giving every character a unique voice. He had this huge talent, but his self-esteem was low. His ego was so fragile. When we first started writing together, we used to outline the story and then write in shifts. We’d carve out chunks of time – a half an hour apiece – and one of us would sit at the computer and write as much as we could in that period. The deal we made before we started was that when one of us took over from the other, we would just read, not edit. It was meant to be a free-flowing thing, only Tony could never do that. Every single time, when I would go back into the room after he’d been writing, I would find that he’d made all kinds of little tweaks and changes to what I’d written. I know he didn’t mean it to have this effect, but it crushed me.

In 2006, Tony quit his job to write full time. I kept my job in finance. At first, I would get home from work and even though Tony had been writing all day, we would still write together. Gradually, though, his self-esteem grew more and more dependent on being able to do all of it himself. He felt a responsibility to be able to make our shared dream come true for both of us, and there was very little room for me in that equation. I hardly wrote at all. I was still part of the outlining process, and I edited and occasionally suggested changes. I called myself a screenwriter, but I wasn’t. I felt like a fraud.

It’s perhaps not surprising that I’m feeling more mired in grief than I have in a while. The second anniversary of Tony’s death is approaching. I am not as lost as I was at this time last year, but it is a melancholy time for me. I find myself crying more frequently than I have in months. I am dreaming about Tony again, which I haven’t done in a while. There are moments when I’ve been able to tell myself that the worst of the grieving is over, but what I’m realizing now is I still have a very long way to go. I have spent so much time grieving my husband that I’ve barely allowed myself to touch on the fact that I lost my writing partner too. Screenwriting was always our shared dream, and if it’s going to happen for me now it has to be my dream. Perhaps part of me doesn’t want it to be mine alone. I want to be able to continue to think of it as ours, but it can never be that.

These things, all taken together, explain my panicked feeling when I consider stepping back into screenwriting. There is some deep part of me that fears that I can’t do it, that I’m not a good enough SCREENwriter, to make it happen. That I squandered whatever gift I had for this form by taking a back seat to Tony all those years. I don’t want to think that I’ve lost screenwriting forever, so I’m pushing my fears down and moving forward. I have so many wonderful friends who are screenwriters – not just the friend whose challenge made me consider this step, but dozens of others who I know will cheer me on, give me notes, and remind me why I fell in love with screenwriting in the first place. They all have their own lives, with their own families and jobs and friends and writing. Yet I know they will make a space for me at the table. They’ve stuck with me, even as I’ve stayed away from the kind of writing that brought us together in the first place.

I’m going to do this. I’m going to take the Young Adult novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo last year and I’m going to turn it into a screenplay. It’s a story that deals with mental illness and suicide, so I have no doubt that I will cry and cry as I break the story down and build it back up again. I’m under no illusion that it will be easy, but I am putting a quote by Ray Bradbury above my desk and I’m going to push through it. It’s going to hurt, but I’m going to let the world burn through me. In the end, it’s what I was meant to do.

 

“Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper. ~ Ray Bradbury

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One Half of a Writing Team

That’s how I sometimes described myself when Tony and I were writing – one half of something, one half of a whole that we made up, together.  I also sometimes said, to him and to others, that together we were greater than the sum of our parts.

So what does that mean for me as a writer – and especially as a screenwriter – now?  Because I would say that we were greater together, it’s hard for me not to think that means that I’m less, alone.  Less of a writer.  Less of a person, maybe, too. 

Somehow this blog exists outside of that.  I never blogged before Tony died, not seriously.  I once wrote a few blog entries, one of which I entered in a “Blogging for Books” contest, but I didn’t keep at it.  The reason I didn’t was because I couldn’t put out fiction and pretend it was fact.  I couldn’t gloss over parts of my life.  I wrote earlier about the fact that Tony, while he was alive, would have hated the idea of me writing about him and putting it out in public.  Being honest about our lives would have felt like a betrayal to him. 

This week I ventured back on to a screenwriting site that Tony and I once frequented.  We were actually members from the very beginning, and for a while, we both loved being there.  It was a supportive community, we met some of the people there who also lived in Southern California in person, and I think our writing got better while we were there.  Then Tony, as he did so often, began to doubt the sincerity of people there.  He was suspicious of their motives.  I didn’t see what he saw.  I didn’t feel what he felt.  But as I did so many times during our marriage, I gave in to his needs.  He and I both stopped going there, stopped posting, stopped entering the monthly contests.

I missed it.

I went back this week and got such a warm, lovely welcome.  I don’t think I’ll be entering this month’s contest.  It’s funny how things happen, but each month’s contest has a theme or topic, and this month’s scripts must include a character holding his breath.  That’s a little too close to how Tony chose to end his life.  I can’t even think about it.  When I wrote that first post this week, I shared what I felt about the contest theme with everybody.  And that’s the difference between the writer I am now, and the writer I was then.  Before I wrote with a partner, and while his talents and creativity and work ethic made me a better writer, his fears and suspicions and secrecy also held me back.

I think I will write screenplays again.  They will, necessarily, be different than the ones I would have written with Tony.  I am no longer half of anything.  I am wholly myself.