Monday, October 26, 2009


I spent the weekend in a class, sitting beside a bird. Although the bird only made it through the first day, I remained—get ready to groan—unflappable and hung in there for Day Two, a sixteen-year-old boy my new seating partner. More on the bird and the kid later.

I’m skeptical of touring workshops that purport to teach you how to write a novel, how to get your book published or how to succeed as a screenwriter.

And if I’m skeptical of the workshops and the presenters, I’m even more judgmental about the people who attend. These are the wannabes. The ones searching for a magic formula.

Why do I think that? As an educator, I’ve attended plenty of professional development workshops. While a few were complete wastes of time, the majority provided me with insight and strategies that improved, or at least informed, my teaching practice. Other perspectives made me evaluate my own.

However, I’ve got it in my head that writing is an art, a delicate talent that must be developed from within. Nothing wrong with that. My resistance to workshops about writing comes from arrogance. Yikes, I don’t think I’ve ever described any part of myself that way. Meek, humble, sure. Arrogant?! But that’s what it comes down to. It’s a you-can’t-teach-me-anything-because-I’ve-got-it-all-in-me-somewhere (maybe hiding under my pinky fingernail) stance.

Rubbish! Good thing I ignored that kind of thinking and impulsively signed up for a two-day course on the film business. I noticed a full page ad in Script magazine, signed up online and then spent a few days regretting the decision. (It wasn’t all arrogance. With no income at the moment, charging $400 bucks brought on dizziness and nausea—basically, a starving artist’s hangover.) Despite my hang-ups, I’d enrolled and I was too cheap to back out, knowing some guy could enjoy a steak dinner with my hefty cancellation fee while I spiced up my oatmeal. Ooh, nutmeg!

With cautious optimism—funny how I can temporarily quell doubt when I’ve poured money into something—, I spent the weekend immersed in Dov Simens’ 2-Day Film School. I slept on a friend’s (too short) sofa in Vancouver so I could arrive feeling refreshed for both days of the conference. Sleep is a broad term in this context. It was more tossing and turning and listening to snores break the sound barriers from the other room. (I suspect that my friend may be the primary reason there are a dozen coffee shops within a three-block radius of his apartment.)

The workshops ran from 9-6 on Saturday and Sunday. Breaks were few—and short. I’d proactively flung a bottle of Tylenol in my backpack, but didn’t need to dig it out. There was a lot to learn.

Dov Simens is one of those speakers who flaunts his ego. He yells, swears, comes off as an a-hole. He lets us know he’s wildly successful. (“My wife and I are living off the bonds from our bonds.”) Money is sexy. Then he inserts an tender anecdote about loving his wife or asserts that he will give all of the profits from his next mega, sure-fire project to the people of Darfur. Just enough sweet to counter the schmuck. He’s built his persona. Most of the people in the room were captivated. I spent much of the time viewing him as a character study and watching his students’ reactions. That alone justified the course fee.

This is the morning after and I’ve got much to review from my notes. I gained a clearer picture of the film business and screenwriting’s place within it. He gave me another perspective on screenwriting and trying the get your work read. Much of what he said about writing conflicts with much of what I’ve read—everyone seems to have a different take—but that’s a good thing. I now have more to think about.

So,…back to the bird and the boy. What was a bird—a blue-and-yellow macaw, I believe—doing in a crash course on show biz? Trying to get noticed? If so, mission accomplished. Saturday morning, I staked out my spot in the back row with no one sitting on either side of me. By the time the class commenced, the lecture hall filled to near capacity. Still, a space remained on my right. A little extra room to stretch out! Then, at 9:40, a gentleman appeared with an animal crate and, of course, he chose the vacancy beside me. I love animals and the bird looked cute in the cage. However, within five minutes, flapping began, just inches from my head. Yep, Polly was on her perch, on her master’s left shoulder.

To be fair, Polly—not her real name—was well-behaved for the most part. But the flaps, and faint clucking noises did not come with predictability. I found myself tense—remember, lack of sleep may have played a part—and distracted. At the first break, a full three hours in, I moved down a row, spending the rest of the weekend beside Doogie Director.

There were moments that I felt like the lawyer in that new TV sitcom, “Community”, who faces loopy profs and odd classmates when ordered back to community college. That was a good thing, color commentary to keep me alert and inquisitive. And the play-by-play analysis, the substantive part of the course, turned out to be something I’m glad I didn’t turn my nose up to. I’ve still got that credit card charge to fret about, but that’s six weeks away.

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