I was never a conventional dreamer.
From the very first time I realized I had an imagination, I allowed it to take me to unusual (some say wacky) destinations. When I was six, I owned a Barbie Doll named Negla Shay. I was never interested in combing her hair or changing her outfits or allowing her to hang out with Ken. Negla was a spy. My grandmother’s house, where I did most of my dreaming as a child, served as a booby-trapped landscape for my doll. I would rig the knobs of Mom-Mom’s dresser and bedposts with thread so my pint-sized plaything of espionage could grip the string in one arched hand and slide down toward the building containing the safe, or hostage or secret papers she battled bad guys to retrieve. If Negla, in all of her beatific immobility could be a spy, surely I had what it took to become an agent provocateur when I grew up.
Time traveler also made my short list of potential vocations. At age 8, I read The Bungee Venture, a sci-fi tale about a brother and sister who must travel to a prehistoric era to rescue their father. Bending reality, stepping into parallel universes, was all in a day’s work for your girl. I know I’m not the only one who tried to move objects with her mind as a kid. Although I failed Telekinesis 101, I was still convinced that I could build a machine to transport myself back to the past (or forward to the future). I spent several months constructing just such a space ship out of a baby carriage and nuts and bolts. Although my feet never left the ground of Mom-Mom’s house on Spring Lane, I never gave up on my dreams of flight.
Compared to childhood’s list of would-be gigs, screenwriter was a pretty tame aspiration for me. I developed a love for the written word at an early age — the obituaries I penned as a youngster is testimony to that — I just never knew what form my ramblings would take. While living in Baltimore in my 20s, I attended informal writing workshops at a coffee house and tried my hand at my first script, “The Has Been Who Never Was.” Even though the screenplay was corny and formulaic, I got a thrill from hearing my work performed aloud and the audience’s response to that work. I didn’t think I’d be able to make it as a screenwriter in Baltimore. Although the entertainment mecca of New York was only four hours away by car, the city was too cold and formidable, and I was afraid to move there to pursue my newfound writing passion.
California seemed the perfect incubator for my dreams. I was young and knew that if I didn’t take the chance then, I would regret it later in life. I quit my job as managing editor of a newspaper, sold everything in my apartment, packed two suitcases and hopped a Greyhound Bus from Maryland to the Golden State. The three days that I spent riding cross country, often with drunks lolling on my shoulder or the wails of a baby puncturing my equanimity, didn’t make me question my goal of becoming a Hollywood screenwriter. If anything, that trip strengthened my resolve.
I made a fourteen-month pit stop in San Diego before moving to L.A. I didn’t have any family and only a few friends in the area at the time, so I slept on people’s floors and air mattresses. I worked at telemarketing jobs that I hated, selling pens and diet pills, fundraising for dubious charities, and then coming home to my section of floor or inflatable mattress to write. I didn’t complain because I had youth on my side, and I was still fiercely optimistic that I would one day see my name up in lights. It wasn’t even so much fame and fortune I was seeking; it was the notion of having a voice.
When I finally moved to L.A. more than a year later, I had about $3,000 in my savings account and a new script, “Ill Wind Blowing.” After a few months, I got a job doing temp work which later led to a permanent gig as an executive secretary to the president of a stock brokerage. Most people that I met, fellow transplants trying to make it as directors and actresses and comedians, put themselves on the “three- to five-year plan.” That meant if they weren’t successful within three to five years of moving to La La Land, they would pack up their toys and return to their respective hometowns. I never had such a deadline. Maybe because I was still so unnaturally hopeful, I secretly believed my Fairy Scriptmother would tap me on the forehead with her magic wand and POOF! I would step into the writing job of my dreams. Blame it on Negla and The Bungee Venture. Even though several years of dwelling in the Golden State tried to shackle me to a sunless reality, I still had dreams of flight.
After five or six years of living in L.A., I had taken several screenwriting classes, joined an organization for black screenwriters and was networking several times a week to spread the word about my project. The script “Ill Wind Blowing” morphed into “Bless the Mic” and had been optioned about three times, but each time, the financing fell through. I would still hit up the clubs and red carpet events and industry parties — most nights by myself — to see if I could attract the attention of a rapper or ball player or any studio bigwig who could take my work to the next level. But I was over 30 by then, and the steam was slowly seeping out of my ambitions.
Which brings me back to my initial query: when should you give up on your dreams? I’m fourteen years older than I was when I first hit the sidewalks of L.A. with my screenplays and a smile — decrepit in Hollywood terms. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the next phase of my writing career. I don’t know if La La Land is still the incubator for my deepest desires. If anything, this town will char all but the toughest dreamers. It’s been a while since my hope was inflammable. Over the years, I’ve seen people come and go, would-be starlets and producers, whose knees have buckled under the weight of dead visions, dead goals and dead desires. I’m not saying that I’m giving up on my passion to become a Hollywood screenwriter, but my knees are quaking.
I will never give up on writing.
I just don’t know if my laptop and I need to be here — in L.A. — to do so. I secretly (maybe not so secretly) joke to myself that I will move into my mother’s basement in Pennsylvania, nuke my Facebook, Twitter and other websites and get a job as a cashier at a Mom and Pop shop. Just withdraw from society into the cave of my self-pity. And it is self-pity, I know. Another part of it is cowardice — fear of failing (again), and fear of being successful. Part of it is awakening from youthful optimism and stepping into the wan sunlight of reality. Nobody ever promised me a rose garden. This is true. But we all yearn for a little beauty in our lives — whether it’s the love from family or friends, whether it’s the joy of achieving a goal you once thought was unattainable. Beauty can be costly. And exhausting. I don’t know if I have the strength to start over, to gather all the petals of a dying bouquet.
Melancholy makes me melodramatic, and that’s not a space I want to inhabit for too long. In the midst of my despondency, I get a text from my homie Belinda, one of several sister-friends who have always encouraged me on this journey. She sends me a gift from the past — the cover page of a screenplay I wrote more than ten years ago, “Ill Wind Blowing.”
“This is going into my safe deposit box,” she says. It’s almost as if B has become the time traveler, sifting through the ruins of my long-ago hopes to bring back just the artifact to keep me going.