My confidence was shaken after the Project Greenlight fiasco. I retreated from screenwriting and didn’t try again for years. The tremors of this reverberated through my writing for a while. I felt like a failure. It added to the doomed, romantic view I was cultivating. Success would destroy my writing life. I had to keep failing, for as long as I could. Only then could I incubate new ideas and keep growing stronger. Success was for losers. All my heroes had been failures, at least for a while.
I kept going on the movie junkets. I met Kevin Costner, Ben Affleck, Kevin Spacey, Liv Tyler, and Viggo Mortenson among others. I wasn’t very good at the job, not at first. I wasn’t aggressive enough, and often got elbowed out of conversations.
Most of the press events were roundtables. The “reporters” would wait for the talent, usually laying recorders on the table and jockeying for the seat next to the actor. Then some asinine conversation would follow. For movie writers, they were a nearly illiterate movie-watching bunch. They normally spoke of trashy reality tv, despite the common ground we all supposedly shared. They complained when the rooms were too small; they complained when the rooms were too big; they complained with the stars were late; they complained when there wasn’t bottled water in the room. They were, on the whole, with a few obvious exceptions, spoiled brats with little to say. They tried to catch actors with insipid questions about such and such movie doing poorly in the domestic market. This was the height of their criticism. Here’s the rest: What are you doing next? What was it like to work with so and so? What attracted you to the character? It was as if the whole thing was by rote. I hated the roundtables, even though the actors, directors and writers were on the whole polite, interesting, and intelligent. It was the reporters who dropped the ball.
Keanu Reeves was taciturn and wry. Ewan McGregor was combative and funny. Tim Burton was dismissive and annoyed. Jack Nicholson likes PM Dawn. Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman were roommates in the early 1970s. Richard Zanuck was great, although he looks scary enough to eat a roomful of recalcitrant reporters. And John Cusack was exactly how you’d expect him to be, somewhere between Lloyd Dobler and Rob from High Fidelity.
The culture—the whole entertainment industry really—wasn’t and isn’t about the movies, about ideas, good writing or even good acting. It was about image and money and the latest thing. The sense that movies were part of a tradition, that they represented a corpus of immense artistic and social importance, that I loved them with a guileless heart—these things meant nothing to this group of cynical people. They were coddled and petty and small-minded and I grew to loathe them.
There were a few outsiders and film nerds who had stumbled into it, like me, and I got along with these people fine. But they were the exceptions.
But I didn’t really fit in, and after two or three junkets, I didn’t want to. I liked going to the movies and staying in fancy hotels; I liked free passage to New York, to L.A., to New Orleans.
I stayed in top flight hotels. I drank away my per diem, ordering room service with eight dollar Heinekens. My first hotel was $400 a night. They asked to see a credit card. I only had a debit card and was worried they would charge my account, which had less than fifty bucks in it. I was reluctant to hand it over. “You’re not going to . . . charge anything to that card, are you?” I asked. I looked like some rube, some Deep South hayseed.
I stayed aloof. I didn’t go out with the other writers. I only sometimes chatted with any of them. I was regarded with a slight disdain. I didn’t have expensive clothes and I looked young. I was, I’m sure, grouped in with the college kids who sometimes attended. I didn’t care. I grew to despise the irony, the bottom line nonsense of the other reporters.
I wandered the various cities alone, often in a slight drunken haze. I didn’t write much in hotels (I still don’t), and as much as I love reading on airplanes, I couldn’t read on a junket. Not fiction anyway. Hotel rooms, even nice ones, feel antiseptic and chilly. So I walked, or I watched movies on TV while sipping cans of gas station beer.
I made some headway, as a feature writer and as a reviewer, but my heart wasn’t in it. I could have worked my way up the food chain, but I eventually let it go.
There was no future in fiction or film for me, not that way. I would have to try a different path.
During this time I also was traveling back to Montgomery to help with various editing jobs. I did a lot of copy-editing; one book, which shall remain unnamed, should have me listed as a co-author. I ghost-wrote a few things, too. And I had ongoing pieces in two papers. I was never a good proofreader, and I’m still not, but I was becoming a stronger editor. The writing life was hectic and crowded, but I was making a go of it. I had turned the Titanic around. Or so I thought.
I was still living with a shroud of darkness, but the despondent helpless angry frustrated sad enervated knotted up feelings were dissipating. My weight stabilized. And as I was learning how to live hand to mouth, I was getting adept at stretching my dollars. It was here, for instance, that I started going to the library every day. I stopped going out to eat. I stopped going out to bars, save for nights where pitchers of PBR were five dollars.
But. We moved into a bigger apartment and my finances were stretched once again. Now I had to pony up $500 in rent every month. It was a strain and a mistake and two months in I felt a gnawing uncertainty about my future prospects. The higher rent forced me to look for more little freelance jobs, which in turn distracted me from writing fiction, which was why I was unemployed to begin with. Coleridge’s advice to a young writer was never truer; I should have become a city clerk or taken on a menial job and saved my writing muscles for the night.
I kept writing anyway. I got three stories accepted for publication. The first was called “Infestation,” and was accepted by a new magazine based in Atlanta. An editor there loved it, but before the magazine put out a single issue it folded. The story is a riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, only the whole thing seems to be playing out in the deranged (and chronically bored) mind of a suburban man. Here’s the first two lines:
“A black beetle with spindly legs balanced precariously on the lip of an empty wine glass. The curved antennae twitched as the dark bug made its way around the red-stained glass, only to start another revolution.”
It’s a good, but not great, story, and probably my last foray into straight science fiction. It’s (relative) success lies in the point of view. It’s written in the third person but all of the experiences are refracted through the main character, who is profoundly disturbed. Other writers figured this out before me, but I learned from this and took it on to other stories.
The other two stories were essentially flash fiction—I hate that moniker and despise most of the stories carrying this label, but there it is. Both were published in a literary magazine out of Montgomery, started and run by my friend Foster Dickson, called Honeydu. The first was called “Good Neighbor Policy.” It follows a possibly deranged man who has a run in with his neighbor. The second is called “Hypothetical,” a little story about a guy who finds himself in the exact situation a friend had posed to him as a hypothetical the week before. It’s . . . okay, an unsophisticated and bleak look at the human condition.
I made this same mistake with other stories. The plots are too straightforward and the characters too one-dimensional. During this period, all the characters are basically empty-hearted intellectuals capable of grand violence. I was floundering, really, writing just to be writing, but I learned from this, too. Complexity and sophistication have to incubate. I was feeling my way around in the darkness. I was exploring my own psyche and the boundaries of my own tastes. I was developing a style, too, I just didn’t know it yet. I was, in the end, leaving my adolescent writing life behind.
I wrote a short story in the vein of Cornell Woolrich and Robert Bloch, ripped out of the crime genre. I don’t know how it worked out. Here’s the first graf:
“There’s a hole in my mouth,” Jason Elzy said as the doctor looked at his clipboard. “I saw it last night in the mirror. A small, black dot. I tried for a few hours to scrub it off, but I think it may be a hole.”
I titled it “Black Dot Like Stone.” It isn’t terrible, but a major departure for me. Jason ends up embroiled in a crime/revenge caper involving the possible end of the world. Kiss Me Deadly, the film, was a huge influence. I knew the story was weaker and after a cursory rejection put it in the archive and forgot about it.
Meanwhile, my little life in Atlanta was breaking up. Keith went to Sudan on a humanitarian trip. Jonathan was moving on. The 941 Arts Consortium was disbanded. Looking back, it really is a sad thing.
There were silver linings, however. I got a job in Spain. And, best of all, I met my future wife.
During this time, I started two novels and failed to finish them both. They’re both interesting failures; one is comically terrible, the other intriguing but a labyrinthine mess. I’ll get into them next.