Mar 18, 2022
My childhood was peaceful. I was the youngest of four, living on a thirty-acre farm in the Midwest. I spent most of my free afternoons alone, lying in our hammock strung between two Cottonwoods, staring up through the kaleidoscope of tree leaves and sunbeams, making up stories in my head about the more exciting life I was going to live, just as soon as I had a chance.
When I was sixteen and I’d had enough of the farm, I went to my school counselor and told him that I wanted to be an exchange student. He appeared confused by my announcement. “We don’t have a program or a club for anything international,” he told me firmly, slipping me a brochure for a local summer camp where I could learn more about tending livestock.
At that point, I reacted in a way that would become a life-long norm; I became quietly depressed for a few days before getting a second wind and saying to myself, “I bet I can figure this out on my own.” A few weeks later, I officially started our school’s first foreign exchange student club myself, became the one and only member, and traded myself to a family in Europe.
A year later I was living in Benidorm, Spain, in an apartment on the twentieth floor of a high-rise, looking out over the golden sand and turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
Looking back, this was a major step forward in my path to becoming a writer. Even though I was terrified, I got on that plane. I met new people who were nice to me, but couldn’t understand a word I said. After a few weeks, I climbed on the scooter with my new Spanish “sister” even though I’d never ridden one before. I went to that beach party, watched and listened and learned, and came home to Kansas speaking Spanish. That experience was, for me, intoxicating and addictive.
I wanted to write poetry. I envisioned myself one day talking dreamily to small groups in a soothing voice, in a long skirt, Birkenstock sandals, with flowers in my hair. My older brother had moved to California and I wanted to follow. I applied to most of the UC schools, but my first choice was Berkley, where my dream of going barefoot and listening to surfers play the guitar while I wrote poems about them was most likely to come true. Well, Berkeley turned me down, but I was accepted at UCLA. And just like that, I moved to Los Angeles and forgot about being a poet, because I, like so many before me, caught film fever.
I’m not complaining. There is a cliché that says, “When one door shuts another one opens.” This isn’t always true, but for me, pivoting from one life direction to another was a game changer. I had to roll with the punches, and I think this particular revelation was crucial. I learned to accept what the world gave me, rather than lament what I’d lost.
After UCLA I went to film school. What a horrible and also incredible experience. I was accepted to the American Film Institute as a Screenwriting MFA candidate. On one occasion I was nominated for an award and a scholarship. On another occasion I was literally laughed out of a workshop for writing such a terrible scene. I learned to have a thicker skin (though after twenty-five years in the business I can tell you, mine has never been thick enough) and that there is always someone better than you, someone worse than you and plenty of opportunity and failure ahead. I even had my first film produced by MTV when I was twenty-three. Shock and awe. That’s the only way I can describe the feeling of that first sale of your own written words.
Nobody gets all great reviews. You probably can’t make it as a writer if a little rejection makes you give up completely. Film school in the shark tank of L.A. taught me to play the long game. Play it patiently, be a teammate to your friends and fellow writers. There is enough success to go around for everybody if you truly have talent, kindness and respect for yourself and your peers.
That’s when I went AWOL from the path I’d been following. I literally dumped everything I had going to get on a plane for parts unknown. I had written a novel that was getting a lot of interest from agents, my film had won some awards and what did I do? I ran off to Eastern Europe with a backpack and a contract to write for Fodor’s Travel Guides.
While on an assignment in Eastern Europe, I met a group of people who were working with an Israeli/American film production company in Bulgaria. They needed a “script doctor.” A script doctor is someone who fixes the problems with screenplays as the film production is ongoing. The producers were thrilled with me, not because I had an MFA in Screenwriting from AFI, but because they didn’t have to spend the money to fly out a screenwriter from the States. Many of my production meetings were in the penthouse of a Bulgarian hotel, passing around a bottle of vodka, with requests from the various directors like, “Can you go through the script and make half the characters not talk anymore? We can hire locals who don’t speak English and it will cost us less.”
I spent six years in Bulgaria, script doctoring movies like KILLER RATS and FROGMEN. I now speak Bulgarian and can write pretty convincing Eastern European characters and action sequences.
I’m grateful. As a young writer, it’s hard to get work. I learned during this time in my life that I was not just an artist—although I was an artist—but I was doing a job. That was my job. The time that I spent working in Bulgaria on B movies for the Syfy channel were some of the happiest years of my life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Most importantly, I will NEVER, EVER run out of material. I have stories upon stories upon stories about those days. And I will never forget that I am, like most people, day to day, just doing my job.
Life is to be lived. I recommend living big, living hard and taking chances.
All I ever wanted to do was write and have experiences worth telling others about, and luckily my personal story is interesting enough to provide me with a lot of material in the years to come. When you have amazing memories and you are a writer, honestly the adventure never ends.
Say yes. Show up. Travel. Love. Stay late at the party with the interesting people. Dance in the snow. Swim under the stars. Tell stories and laugh your ass off. You can’t write with passion unless you live with passion. (And by the way, sleep late too, when you need to!) That’s pretty much all I know. I wish you a wild ride. In the best way. Go big!