Lingchi was a form of torture and execution in ancient China that was eventually banned in 1905. The practice involved tying a condemned prisoner to a frame and carving away bits and pieces of the prisoner’s body in a public place as a form of humiliation, as a slow and lingering death, and as punishment after death. The idea wasn’t just to destroy someone’s body, it was to leave them in spiritual limbo since a body that had been physically altered could never pass into the afterlife.
Not long ago, I heard Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone were eager to work together on a film like THELMA AND LOUISE. It’s a hard act to follow, writing a script about two women on the run from the law without referencing one of the great game changers in film history. The list of things to artfully avoid is longer than the film itself.
I was sitting in the Admirals Club at LAX, hours ahead of my flight when the story hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t write fast enough, and would often tell the characters to slow down because the race to keep up was exhausting. Within a month I had a first draft, and two months later, a script I was so proud of I could spit.
I sent it out to an executive I met last summer who I adored, and who not only read it immediately, but who wrote back to say that of the thirty or forty scripts waiting for him upon his return from a two week vacation, it was the ONLY script ANYONE in the office liked. For three days he tried to figure out how the company he worked for could become involved before deciding it was studio picture and beyond their financial means.
My agent read it and hated it and said he wouldn’t send it out unless I agreed to rewrite it to his specifications. When I refused, he dropped me as a client.
Another agent at one of the top ten agencies took up the mantle and the next thing I know, I get a mid morning request for a meeting the day he read the script. During our hour long conversation, he said all the right things; it was wildly funny, insanely commercial, the characters were rich and he wanted to know more; about me, about what else I had written, about the short film I wrote that Robin Wright directed.
Two weeks later, he passed.
He said he “didn’t have the bandwidth” to take me on, which is agent speak for, “you are a new writer, and this script is great, but I would have to work to get this set up and I don’t want to.”
I have been pursuing this dream since I was 24 years-old. Back then my work was rejected out of hand because I was a female writer, crafting scripts about amazing women when no one cared about diversity or the #metoo movement or “being woke.” Now I am an incredible writer, with a stack of amazing scripts, and the question I keep asking myself is, “is this worth it?”
Is it worth it to work on a script for a year with no compensation to discover that once you have shaped your vision to match someone else’s expectations they want a free option, they want to own all the changes you made and will continue to make, and when you decide to step away from the relationship because the only one benefiting from this arrangement is the producer in question, they blackball YOU for “being difficult?”
Is it worth it to discover that someone you considered a friend, who you nurtured through the painful loss of a parent, decide to hold a grudge against you for the rest of their lives because you decided not to extend an option on a script you wrote?
Is it worth it to spend the better part of every day doubting yourself, doubting your talents, wondering what you are doing wrong with your life when everyone else seems to be achieving…something…and then hating yourself for comparing their journey to yours because “this isn’t a competition.”
I see post after post on facebook encouraging heartbroken writers not to “quit” because quitting is giving in or giving up and anyone with a grain of self respect should never quit because quitting is bad.
But when you are in a job you hate or a relationship that is killing your spirit, you quit. Walking away is admired because YOU made the choice to walk away from something that no longer serves you. Recognizing that the choices you made are dangerously close to destroying the part of you that made you…well, you…takes a tremendous amount of courage because it means walking away from something you once loved to an uncertain future.
But with every completed script, every amazing review that ended with a pass, every sentence that started with…”When I sell a script I will pay off all my bills…When I sell a script, Michael will be able to quit his job…One day I will sit in a theater with my family all around me and know I did something I am hugely proud of, and they were there to witness it with me…”
Screenwriting is a lot like lingchi.
It’s not the rejection that kills the dream. It’s the death of hope by a thousand cuts.
I could change my perspective. I could train myself to care less about my work. But I also think my passion is what makes me a great writer. And the one thing that has always and eternally given me hope was the idea that out of nowhere, my life could change.
Out of nowhere, the phone could ring. Or I could get an email. I could be like the director I don’t know who posted on facebook recently that Sundance called to tell her they wanted her film for the festival while she was trying on bras at Target and her family waited impatiently in the car. I could be like Oprah Winfrey who wanted to be in THE COLOR PURPLE so badly it was all she could think about, and then the phone rang and it was Steven Spielberg offering her the part. I yearn to be John Gregory Dunne, who went for a walk after his eight hundredth rejection letter, only to come home to Joan Didion on the front porch saying “Random House wants your new book.”
There is no dishonor in giving up a dream that does more harm than good. I had to make that choice when I was an artist. I was a goddamned great artist, and I am STILL the only gourd artist to sell a single piece of gourd art for $22,500.
But I had to leave that dream behind when I was four months behind in my mortgage payments because the bottom dropped out of the art market and there was no relief in sight.
I am a great fucking writer, and this new script has had more incredible feedback than anything I have ever written in my life.
But I no longer agree to see my hopes, my heart, or my dream die a slow, agonizing death.
This dream may eventually come true but its going to have to get there without sacrificing my soul in the bargain.
So I’ve decided to quit.
Because my work either speaks for itself, or it doesn’t.
And if it doesn’t, I have more important things to do.
Like letting the Academy Award winning producer I reached out to yesterday, the one I have never been properly introduced to, who was suitably impressed with my accomplishments and connections to immediately say yes to reading FREEFALL.
Its a fantastic retelling of the D.B.Cooper story, about a recently fired stewardess and the air traffic controller she teams up with to stick it to the airlines, until their carefully planned hijacking goes sideways and the female FBI agent hot on their trail tightens the net, threatening both their friendship and their freedom as they race to reach the Canadian border before getting caught.
Because if there’s one thing I know for sure…
Death by a thousand cuts is for suckers.
And there is more than one way to skin this cat.