Saturday, April 17, 2010
You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.
My Dad sent me an email the other day that contained a link to a speech given by Steve Jobs to the 2005 graduating class of Stanford University. In it, Jobs relates three stories from his life, each of which seemed like a major setback at the time, but which eventually led him to bigger and better things. One of the stories was about getting fired from Apple, the company he started in his parent's garage when he was a 20-year-old college drop-out. It was devastating for him, but it also led him to one of the most creative periods in his life.
It reminded me of the time I got fired. Of course, the company I got fired from was not one that I had started, nevertheless the experience was a major blow. I was working in publishing as a managing editor at a small boutique firm in the Chelsea district of Manhattan. It was as close as I'd ever gotten to a 'dream job' -- basically being paid to be a writer, or more accurately, to rewrite other writers. I was working in a creative field with other creative people. No more temping in law firms for me! I was beginning an actual career. Like a real adult.
Or so I thought.
When the three book series I'd been working on was finished -- on time and under budget thanks to my tireless efforts -- my usefulness at the small company came to an end. Several lame explanations were offered for my dismissal, but the plain truth was they didn't want to keep paying me what I was worth when they could easily find some young kid to do the job at half the pay. Which they did.
So I was out on my ass. And the economy was bad. I reluctantly reapplied to the temp agencies, but they had diddley. I tried to shop one of my book ideas, a parody of the Twelve-Step Program called The Twelve Shleps, but was told that Twelve-Steppers wouldn't find it funny.
I was unemployed and out of ideas. I had too much time on my hands and nothing to do. I spent long days exploring New York City from top to bottom -- from The Cloisters to Coney Island -- discovering whole new worlds in hidden places. I walked all over Brooklyn and spent hours in Prospect Park, the Botanic Garden, and the Brooklyn Public Library. It was actually a pretty amazing time. I came to love New York more than ever and really feel at home there.
Meanwhile, I had a roommate who was working in the movie business and would bring home screenplays from whatever movie he was working on. I picked one up one day and read it in one sitting. And from that moment I was hooked. I'd been interested in movies all my life, but it wasn't till then that I realized that all I needed to make a movie was pen and paper. Well, not a pen, actually, a computer. And I didn't really need the paper right away. What I needed was an idea.
I thought about all of my favorite stories growing up: James Bond, Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur... I loved the story of Arthur and Merlin most of all. My high-school girlfriend had given me a copy of The Once and Future King and it had always held special meaning for me. And the Disney cartoon The Sword in the Stone had long been a favorite. Employing one of the screenwriter's most valuable tools, I began thinking "what if..." What if Merlin were to show up in modern day New York? My New York. What would he think? How would he react? How would New York react to him? One thing I knew -- it would definitely be a comedy.
I began by doing tons and tons of research. I read everything ever written about Merlin and King Arthur, from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Tennyson to the excellent series by Norma Lorre Goodrich. I prowled the Brooklyn Library and the New York Public Library for information on dragons, magic, Celtic symbolism, ley lines, chivalry, Avalon, and dozens of other topics. I couldn't get enough. The more I learned the more I wanted to learn. I had taken to heart the words spoken by Merlin to Arthur in The Once and Future King: "Learn why the world wags and what wags it."
All the while, I continued to explore New York, the city of never-ending discoveries. I went to a renaissance fair at Fort Tryon Park to see a mock joust and witnessed a Merlin figure dressed in a purple robe practicing tai chi with a beautiful polished wooden sword. I came upon a Wiccan circle in the middle of Prospect Park, celebrating the pagan holiday of Ostara. I wandered through Central Park and beheld a vision of the Grail Castle, a winged dragon hovering over its entrance.
I became fascinated with Stonehenge and the concept of ley lines, imagining that these magical energy pathways that ran through the earth's surface were somehow connected both to Merlin and the dragons -- and that Stonehenge was the vortex of their power. Then one day, while investigating Celtic symbols, I found a drawing depicting a dragon beneath the surface of Stonehenge, just as I had imagined. I was blown away -- this idea I thought I had conjured up on my own was right there in front of me in black and white. I called the person who created the graphic and explained how my vision quest had led me to the discovery of his artwork. He chuckled and said, "you're just on the brink of a much larger world."
As it turns out, he was right, although I don't think in the way he meant it. What I was on the brink of was the world of screenwriting. I took all of my research and distilled it into a story of a young man who goes to England and stumbles into a crystal cave where he awakens Merlin from a magic spell -- then returns to New York and finds that it wasn't all a dream, and that Merlin has followed him home and chosen him to be his next pupil.
I wrote several drafts, and each time I did, it seemed that the events I created in my story were being recreated in my real life. Soon after writing a scene where my main character gets mugged, I got mugged. I wrote a sequence where two knights on horseback are jousting on the Brooklyn Bridge and the next day I saw Woody Harrelson and Kiefer Sutherland dressed as cowboys riding horses across the Manhattan Bridge. Likewise, the things I experienced in my life were finding their way into the script -- the tai chi sword master, my trip to the Cloisters, the Grail Castle in Central Park. I got so wrapped up in my story that I never wanted it to end. It was a whole new world.
Eventually I decided to enter a contest, thus giving myself a deadline. I finished the script and sent it off, fully expecting to hear from Steven Spielberg any minute. I didn't win the contest, though, and I never heard from Spielberg. But that didn't deter me. I was already researching my second script -- based on my love of the Sherlock Holmes stories -- and was reading everything ever written on the subject. And loving every minute of it.
I finished the second script a lot faster than the first. And I even attracted the attention of a William Morris agent. I was on my way now. I had proven that I wasn't just a 'one hit wonder' and that I had material with commercial appeal. And I already had a third idea, about a guy who fantasizes about being James Bond. There was only one thing left to do, and that was to move to Hollywood.
I still don't know where this path is leading, but looking back I am able to connect some of the dots. Getting fired from that publishing 'dream job' gave me the freedom to pursue a passion that has kept me inspired ever since I read that first script. And lately, I have only become more inspired. I know there are more 'dots' on the horizon. I just haven't connected them yet.