This began as a journal fragment. I cleaned it up, added a few things, took out the names, because I wanted to share it.
Aug. 2, 2014
Last night, I grabbed the 2, then the F down to Mike Birbiglia’s house in Brooklyn, where he and a bunch of his friends read Mike’s new screenplay aloud. As I set off for his place, I was miserable; I knew the subway ride was going to be long, and the night was–it was an NYC August special, hot, rainy, muggy–the worst subway weather imaginable. I also knew my wife and teenage kids were home and available to hang out, and I was tired from a long week, so, even though I am a huge fan of Birbigs’, I wanted to bail.
But when another working writer, a peer, one you respect, asks you to listen to his script, you go and listen to his script.
Man, was I glad that I didn’t bail. The script was strong—funny, smart, tender. And Birbigs’s friends, some famous actors, a few sketch comics, a radio host, were excellent performing the parts. They really brought the characters and situations to life.
That was great. But it wasn’t the thing that really made heading down there worthwhile. What made the night memorable was the feeling in the room, the way these artists came together, and the spirit in which they did, to help another artist gain perspective on his work. .
Looking around the room, at the performers but also at others, directors, actors, podcasters, teachers, poets, there to listen, I realized: I belong to this tribe. These were my people. They were creators, risk takers. And they were so generous in the way they approached the process.
Having been on Birbiglia’s side of a table read, I know how intense, nauseated and panicked you can feel as your screenplay is about to be exposed. As a screenwriter, you never feel as naked as you do when it’s being read aloud for the first time, without the benefit of a musical score, tight editing and sound effects to help it along. And it can be tense for the actors too–reading something they haven’t had time to prepare, trying to inhabit the essence of characters they haven’t had the chance to think about.
But the vibe in the room wasn’t tense at all. It was comfortable. No one was competing with anyone else. No one was judging anyone else. And then, at the end, I watched as Mike invited everyone there to talk to him about the script, about how he could make it better, about what worked and what didn’t work. He was so calm, almost serene, his ego very carefully put away.
By welcoming the criticism, by the warmth of his manner, Mike created the possibility that he would actually get honest feedback. Everyone saw that he wasn’t threatened, that he wouldn’t bite back if someone suggested a cut or told him there was a part of a scene they didn’t understand.
As a result, there was a kind of magic in the way we all communicated, honestly but with respect, love even, and above all, empathy.
In Hollywood, the note-giving process is rarely like this. It is freighted with so much other junk, possessiveness, power issues, the threat of one of us losing his job, that almost nobody gives or receives a note without some rancor creeping in. Mistrust is the real lingua franca of the back and forth between execs and writers in the notes game because there appears to be little reward for telling the truth. “Listen to the notes and tell them you’ll think about it,” an agent might say. “Hey,” a studio boss might tell a creative exec, “get her through the next pass quickly, and let’s have a closer lined up to follow.”
But last night at Birbiglia’s, the exchange of meaningful ideas on an already high-quality script, had nothing in common with that.
I spent years as a blocked writer. And like most blocked writers, a ton of that had to do with criticism, I’m sure, with my own perfectionism, with my fear that I was without talent, without that essential, ineffable gift real artists have.
Looking around the room at the collection of real artists, the brutal subway ride receded completely. I knew that all these folks had overcome some version of what I’d overcome. They had all felt like frauds at one point or another, had all wanted to be better than they were, had all battled the urge to quit, live a normal life, hide the best of themselves. And somehow, they were able to fight it, to push through, to live this life, the life that had them at Birbiglia’s house, in this wonderful creative circle, helping another artist, just like them, to get the most out of himself that he possibly could.
When I was first trying to write every day, when each sentence felt like a war, sometimes I’d dream that I’d be a part of a community like this. I didn’t know what it was, exactly, didn’t have any evidence it existed, but I knew I needed to find it. Riding home from Mike’s house, I smiled and thought that each step along the way, each day I managed to put something on paper, each rejection I absorbed, was my passport, the very thing that allowed me to be welcomed in, the very thing that confirmed I belonged.