The Road Between

So I have to tell you about last night. But before that, I have to tell you about my life on September 11, 2001.

Yes. 9/11.

Everyone has a 9/11 story. It’s like the day Kennedy was assassinated or the space shuttle Challenger exploded. We remember where we were, what we were doing when we heard that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers…and then it just kept getting worse. It was one of those days that one way or another is part of your life story, whether you want it to be or not. I’ve yet to meet someone who can say that the events of the day didn’t make some impact or scar them in some very deep way. Even if you didn’t know anyone personally who died that day, it felt like you did. If you’re too young to remember the day, in many ways I’m jealous of you. In other ways, I feel you will lack the ability to really relate to the story I’m going to tell, but I trust your imagination is vivid enough that you’ll find a way.

This is the story of how 9/11 changed my life forever.

A friend of mine from my years spent in the hallowed institution known as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced he was getting married. It would be a small wedding, but he wanted me to be there. I was flattered and honored. Before that time and honestly since, I’ve attended so few weddings I can count them on one hand. And I know a lot of people. I just don’t seem to get invited to a lot of weddings. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not upset about this fact — look, we all know people for whom we would gladly bear witness to one of the biggest life-changing moments in their lives…but often, we may not know them well enough for them to justify the cost of another dinner plate at the reception.

My friend was actually not going to be married in Illinois, but rather on the East Coast, specifically, Block Island, which is part of Rhode Island. I was living in Florida, trudging along in my chosen occupation at that time and really only just coming to terms with the fact that I wasn’t living the life I wanted. I had finally gotten some stability in my emotional life, having finally determined that I needed to be assessed for my depression issues, and gotten medicated and therapy, which was helping immensely, but wasn’t curing that existential dread that loomed around every corner of my life. The one thing my lifestyle at the time did afford me was vacation time and the financial security that allowed me to travel. Under other circumstances, I might have declined my friend’s invitation to his wedding, but I had never been to the Northeast, and found this as an opportunity to visit New York City for the first time, turning my friend’s life event into a whole exploration and vacation for myself.

You probably know where this is headed, and you’re probably right, but stay with me.

His wedding wasn’t planned on 9/11, in fact it was for many days after — my recollection of the exact date is fuzzy, but for some reason the 16th sticks in my head. I could be off by a day or two on either side, but I know it wasn’t on the 11th because that was the day I had a plane ticket to fly into Laguardia Airport, with the intent to stay in New York for a few days before renting a car to travel to Block Island and attend the wedding. I was traveling with a very close work friend of mine who had been to New York many times, and was originally from Connecticut, though his family had moved to Florida when he was a kid. I was thankful I’d have a guide for my adventures in the Big Apple.

So, of course, the day came — time to fly to New York. We had a morning flight (9 AM) and were at the Orlando Airport early enough to wait around for boarding. I recall looking up at one of the TVs at the gate and watching the weather on CNN — a hurricane that had been moving up the coast was moving off shore. We had perfect flying weather to look forward to…

And then, we didn’t. I’m still not certain whether we learned what was happening from the TV or not. And the order of events in the span of the next few minutes are a little confused for me 13 and a half years later, but I remember we were in the pre-boarding line, waiting for the group number to be called, etc. when the plane stopped boarding. We were delayed. I looked back at the TV for the weather wondering if I had misinterpreted the map I had seen before, and somewhere in this gap we learned what was really going on. The TVs in the passenger gate areas weren’t broadcasting it. We all had to make our way to a bar situated further up the concourse away from the gates, where the TVs were showing real CNN and not the faux-airport CNN, which was still showing weather and headlines that didn’t include the breaking news. It was a little chaotic at this point — none of us knew what was happening, whether we’d be delayed temporarily or if we were grounded. At this point we only knew one plane had hit one tower.

And then the second plane hit. And that was the ballgame.

They started pulling luggage off planes and lining up all the bags in the concourses, so we could all get the bags and go home. It was clear that planes weren’t going to be flying that day, or for many more days in the future. People walked around in a dazed state. I got a panicked phone call from my mother and also from my sister, both of whom knew I was flying to New York and were terrified I was already on a plane headed that way — no one knew how broad the terrorist attack was. Could a flight from Orlando to NYC be similarly targeted as the planes that hit the towers or the planes that hit the Pentagon or crashed into the field in Pennsylvania? Could there have been a planned attack on Walt Disney World? (a very legitimate possibility, as WDW is a prime terrorist target, for obvious reasons.)

While we stood and watched CNN around the circular bar with a couple hundred other people, we watched the first tower fall. We all gasped and a few people cried. It was horrifying. As difficult as it was to tear ourselves away from the screens, we managed to get our bags, which were now available, pack the car and head home.

No one had any idea of the scope of things, and it was paralyzing. It was in this state of complete disbelief and dismay, listening to news on the radio that we drove home in silence. My friend’s phone rang and it was another coworker who knew we were traveling and checking in on us. Upon learning we were fine he suggested we might be needed for ‘all hands on deck’ if anything were to go down at our place of employment — Disney World. The magnitude of the events of the day just kept piling up as we sat in front of my friend’s TV watching endless news, trying to cancel hotel reservations and rental car reservations…We briefly considered renting a car and driving to the wedding, but ultimately decided it was too risky and really unrealistic. Instead we stared blankly at the rubble in New York, DC and Pennsylvania and took stock of what would become the rubble of our lives.

Why am I telling this story? What does it have to do with last night? It’s only in retrospect that I can see clearly that in many ways, if it weren’t for the tragic events of that day, I might not be where I am, doing what I’m doing.

The ripples from that event spread wide — the tourism business in Central Florida dried up immediately. It was devastating — businesses had to cut back, even Disney World — I had only a few months earlier started working in a different department doing project management, a huge step up from my first job at the park, which was doing tech support for computers, servers and networks. I spent a lot of time crawling around on floors, squeezing into tight server closets and generally being both savior and necessary evil to everyone I met in my work capacity. One of the first things that happened when the cutbacks came was that I got moved back to my old job. I was lucky, really. A lot of people got laid off — they at least found a place for me to go. Meanwhile, my sister had only the week before left her job in Chicago and faced other personal challenges. She was ready for a change, and about a month later, my parents and she came to visit and maybe even attempt to heal together, but it also led to a fruitless job search for her. It was quite literally the worst possible time to be looking for a job in Orlando.

I barely remember the months between September of that year and January of the next. My next major recollection was of my paternal grandmother’s death, which was quite sudden and unexpected. I traveled home for the funeral and it was during the days I was with my family, that Julie and I came to the same conclusion — we were extremely unhappy with our lives as they were and felt unfulfilled. We both wanted to move to Los Angeles, so the plan was set. She would go first, flying there in February, sleeping on a college friend’s couch while she looked for a job and a place to live. I’d come later…I was on the slow boat to China. It felt foolish and incredibly impractical that we should both be unemployed bohemians, so I agreed to stay in my position in Orlando. A few weeks before my grandmother’s death I had been moved to the customer support center and out of field tech support, working on a project that would merge the call centers for the East and West Coast divisions of the entire Disney company. WDW had the largest of the call centers, so we were really leading the project effort. I saw in this an opportunity to leverage my position in this project to attempt a relocation. I knew this would take time — a lot of it, in fact, but at this point I was determined to be the master of my own fate. If I couldn’t manage the relocation, I’d quit by the end of the year and join Julie in Los Angeles.

I’ve told this story before — the story of our move cross country, how Julie got her job working for Dustin Hoffman’s production company (and later, for Dusty himself). How I visited her in July to find our apartment, so she could move out of her sublease when the time was up. How in August I was told the relocation might happen, but I had to be patient. Then, how I pushed up the timetable by making the riskiest move I’ve ever made in my life — I essentially packed a bag and moved myself to L.A. unbeknownst to anyone, under the guise of assisting the West Coast operations team, as it was coming into existence (including, the job I wanted). I paid for that initial travel, since I timed it with a “vacation” — traveling first to Las Vegas for a few days, then driving from Vegas to L.A. to attend the first Screenwriting Expo that Creative Screenwriting magazine was holding. Yes, I had already decided on my career and I was putting things in motion to accomplish it. I also had no return ticket purchased, so I meant business.

None of this would have happened had I been able to attend my friend’s wedding. I know this, deep in my bones. I imagine that I would have had a wonderful trip to New York, maybe seeing a show (I was dying to see “The Producers” which was the toast of the town, but tickets were impossible to get), visiting the Empire State Building, then going to the wedding…then returning home, still trapped in a life that was unfulfilling. The tourism industry wouldn’t have dried up. Julie might have gotten a job in Orlando, and we’d have been on a completely different path, or at least a much twistier version of the one we took.

I thought on this a lot last night. Last night, Julie and I celebrated our first TV staffing job, a job we have worked to get for 8 years “officially” as a writing pair, and a lot longer unofficially, as you can track from the dates in this story. As each person came through the door of the bar where we invited people to come celebrate with us, I was genuinely touched and in some cases shocked by who had come to toast our success. There were people there that I had not seen in nearly 8 years, others I’d swapped a few Facebook messages or tweets with, but hadn’t had a real conversation with in the last few years. Every single person who arrived knew how long we had been working toward this goal and understood how much this meant to us. And I now understand how much it meant to a lot of them. For those who had served as our mentors, it was pride that we had accomplished what they hoped that we would, like parents who see their kids off into the world. For our peers, it was excitement and for some even inspiration — we were a motivator. We had done it, and for those who haven’t yet gotten their break, they were happy for us and wanted to follow our success with their own (and boy do we want that to happen too!)

I expected to tell people it was okay to hate me — I know how hard it can be to see someone else get the job you want, but everywhere I turned, I got the same reaction — just happiness, for us. No one was bitter or disillusioned. No one was petty or unkind. I can say with absolute certainty that the amount of pure love I felt was more than I’ve ever experienced in my life. Several times I was overcome by tears of joy and yes, I recognize that sounds ridiculous, but my emotions were so barely contained from all of the congratulations thrown our direction, that as the night went on it became too difficult to keep them down. They broke through, and maybe I looked ridiculous, but I don’t care. I told every person who congratulated me how much I loved them — which probably sounded like the drunken ‘I love you guys!’ that often breaks out after a few drinks, but I meant it sincerely. I loved everyone in that room, everyone who knew us and wanted to tell us how happy they were for us.

Those of you who were there, I am sorry that I was unable to split myself into about 20 different people so that I could have talked to every one of you for more than a few minutes. Wave after wave of new guests came through the door and it took everything I had to try to make sure I was greeting and hugging and talking to every one of them. I’m sad that there are people who got so little of my time, but I appreciate that most everyone understands what it’s like in those situations — large gatherings aren’t really great for in depth conversations, and I look forward to reconnecting with so many people I saw last night. For those who couldn’t be there, the messages and tweets and texts and carrier pigeon messages (okay, maybe not that last one) that were sent were more than enough. I hope to spend time one on one with them too in the near future.

I am not a social creature by nature, but last night all I wanted was to talk to everyone, hug everyone, tell everyone how much I loved them for being in my life and being some part of us getting to this place and having this success. So yeah, I got a little overwhelmed. Hell, I’m all teary-eyed right now as I write just thinking about the joy in my heart, that Grinchy heart that grew three sizes in the span of 6 or 7 hours.

I’m glad that when Julie and I arrived at the bar ahead of our guests, we had about fifteen minutes to ourselves. We toasted each other, and finally were able to acknowledge our accomplishment. I think my biggest regret of the night, was not getting someone to take a photo of the two of us in our euphoria. I know I posed for two pictures, but I wanted to be taking so many more! If for no other reason so that I would have visual reminders of this very singular evening that I can reflect upon on the road ahead, when we hit new bumps and obstacles. When those moments come, I will have this memory to hold onto tightly, the memory of such friendship, support and celebration to remind me that yes, in fact, I do have people in my life who give a damn. If I ever doubted it, I can never doubt again. Last night proved that.

I hope you all get to experience what I experienced, and I very much want to be on the other side of the equation for it — I want to be the one celebrating these people in return, their success and joys — whether they be career or personal. It made me mindful that the avatars I see every day online…they are all real people (well except for those bots that follows me on twitter, but you know what I mean.) They are real people who care enough to get babysitters or pay to valet park their cars and pay for overpriced (but really excellent) drinks in HOLLYWOOD, one of the most inconvenient meeting places in L.A….but then again, all of L.A. is inconvenient, Hollywood just more so.

When you have your success, remember me. Invite me to share in it. I will move heaven and earth to be there, if I can. If I can’t come celebrate it with you, I will let you know how excited and happy I am, and it will be from my heart, just as it was from all of yours.

My path from 9/11 — the beginning of the darkest time in my life to last night — the brightest day in my life. It’s quite a journey, one I honor and appreciate, even though I really wish it hadn’t needed to be so long. But, you know, everyone’s path is different. This was my path. I can accept that.

People asked me last night how I felt, and as the night went on I started to accept the reality — “I feel fucking fantastic!” There is no joy as powerful or as poignant as a joy that is shared with others.

Thank you for sharing with me. Keep in touch.

I love you.

Posted under randomness

This post was written by Shawna on March 28, 2015

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The Importance of Study Hall

Someone (sorry, don’t recall who) posted an article on Facebook, which I actually read — a rarity! It’s a little bit of psychobabble and some hippity-dippity stuff about why most people don’t find their purpose in life. I think a lot of it was true, but more importantly, it lead me to a realization. I believe I discovered my purpose in life way back in high school.  In Study Hall.

Study Hall was that glorious period of the day where you had no class instruction — you’d sit at a desk or a table (one year my study hall/study period was in the cafeteria) and you’d work on homework assigned in other classes or try to pass notes.  Some would attempt to be disruptive, mostly out of boredom I suspect.  I, of course, like the good student I was at the time would do homework, and prevent myself an hour of lost TV time at home — in my house, you could only watch TV if your homework was done.  Some days, though, I’d have no homework to do.  My time was split between two activities in those cases — reading a book or writing.

I still have those notebooks, filled with scribbles and doodles, but also with stories — stories about my friends, horribly bad poetry, a musical I thought I’d write about Death coming on his white horse and taking the dying to a huge party in the afterlife.  I wrote “Star Trek: TNG” fanfic before fanfic was a thing you posted on the internet.  I wrote an episode of Tom Baker era “Dr. Who” for my friends and I to film (but never did) — it was written in stage play style, because I didn’t know what a screenplay looked like.  The local library didn’t exactly cater to budding screenwriters in Morton, Illinois.  A half dozen notebooks full of dreams and stories and uninhibited lyrical fancy.

What’s interesting to me now, and why it occurred to me at all is I wondered why it seemed so easy to be so creative and prolific back then.  Was it just my youth and my general ignorance and naivete about most of the world? We talk a lot about the intrusion of technology into our lives, but I can get distracted by doing crossword puzzles… no, I think the key to my writing success those many years ago — in study hall, there was nothing else to do.  It was homework, read or, in my case, write.  I wrote to escape the boredom.  I was actually not much different than those kids trying desperately to disrupt the class, to escape their boredom; I just chose to disrupt mine on paper, foraging through my brain for any story that would entertain me for 50 minutes.

So, what did you do during study hall?  Could it have been the way you found your purpose in life?

Posted under randomness, writing

This post was written by Shawna on January 28, 2014

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Progressions

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do — I wanted to be a screenwriter.  I, of course had no idea how I would accomplish that goal. Once I was settled in my new Disney job (I was transferred cross country, remember) and started to focus on the real reason I had moved, a pathway started to present itself. I enrolled in the UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting. To apply I had to write 15 pages of a script.  They were 15 terrible pages as I recall, and thankfully lost in a hard drive crash in 2007.  Still, the program wasn’t exactly rigorous in its standards and let me in.  It was meant as a way for those who could not get into the very rigorous MFA program to get a similar experience and instruction for significantly less money and no degree.  For me, it was a bargain — I had a good office job and could well afford the tuition, and what I needed was some structure to learning what this crazy dream of mine was all about.

The Professional Program, at least when I took it, was two nights a week on campus.  According to the website, I see they now offer an online version of the program, and a TV Writing track, which I am now very jealous they did not have back nearly 10 years ago, but that tells you how much power TV has gained in the last decade — also, how many more jobs are available writing TV than feature films.  The two nights a week were each 3 hours – one night was lecture, which for me was Hal Ackerman, who is still there and who had just written a book, which, obviously, became our text for the class.  The second night was a workshop class of only about 10 students as compared to the 75 or so in the lecture hall.  The first 20 weeks you spent with one instructor and then you were moved to a new workshop for the last semester / 10 weeks of the program.  My first workshop instructor was Tim Albaugh, who is also still there teaching.  Tim was the one who helped me find my writing strengths and weaknesses.  He overlooked the folly in my topic and genre choice for my first screenplay (A Western, about a Chinese Man who moved to Alaska and dealt with hardcore bullying. It was based on a true story but a really poor choice for first script right out of the gate) and did his best to encourage me as a writer.

Sidebar: Speaking of Tim  reminded me of another person who had encouraged my writing at a far younger age.  His name is Brad Keefauver. Brad worked with my mother at the local newspaper office and told her of his love of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. I remember his very distinctive BSI earring he wore, in part because he was the only man I’d ever seen wear an earring at that point in my life (I lived in a very sheltered midwest town). The BSI of course was for the Baker Street Irregulars, a national organization of which he was a member, having written many pieces about Sherlock Holmes.  He invited my mother to a meeting of the Peoria Sherlock society – The Hansoms of John Clayton.  My mother, knowing what a fan I was of Sherlock stories on PBS (Jeremy Brett was my first Sherlock) took me along, which is where I met Brad and admired his daring choice of ear-wear.  He gifted me a large tome of the Complete Sherlock Holmes, Annotated.  I still own the very large book, which in some years served as a way to prop up my small 13″ television.  Of late, the book has been getting a bit of a workout again, as I pour back through some of the stories and the annotations provided to suss out details from either Moffat’s fine adaptation SHERLOCK or the CBS show ELEMENTARY, a fine show in its own right, honestly, even if it has strayed more from the traditional Doyle tales.

Brad not only introduced me properly to Holmes and the wonders of that world, but within the year he gave me real inspiration. I entered a Young Writers competition at my junior high school.  I wrote a futuristic tale, told as a diary about a young girl named Sari transporting her brothers in an old Yugo across the post-nuclear war hellscape to a launch point to get them off Earth to a space station.  I placed third in the competition. One of the judges was Brad.  Somewhere in a box, likely in my parents’ garage are the encouraging words he wrote. I’ve neither time nor inclination to drive to San Diego to find them (I searched the entirety of my own closet last night, coming up empty). Suffice to say, they warmed my little 12 or 13-year old heart.  It would be many years until I would purse writing as an occupation, but that little ember glowed for most of those years, reminding me that someone thought I had talent.

So, after the UCLA Professional Program, I spent about two or three months trying to finish the second feature I had written for the program in the final semester – a comedy.  I learned quickly that while I had some interesting or quirky comedic sensibility, it was hardly mass appeal.  I grew frustrated with my lack of output.  Here I had been in a program that had required me to produce story, outline, script pages on a weekly basis and that structure was now gone.

I had just started watching this new show on FOX called HOUSE — it’s ratings were okay, but not spectacular out of the gate. I was a huge fan of Hugh Laurie from BLACKADDER and SENSE & SENSIBILITY among other things, so Julie and I were two of the few Americans who knew who the hell this guy was and actually anticipated this new medical show.  Within just the first two or three episodes, we were hooked, and I used to try to come up with great ideas for stories for this character.  It then occurred to me that I might increase my output by branching out to TV writing — I was a product of TV as babysitter in the 80’s and was well versed in all manner of shows.  In some ways, I was more adept with talking TV than I ever was talking film.  By some stroke of Providence, I decided to look at the UCLA Extension classes; I had heard they offered TV writing courses each semester, and as I was missing the structure of the classroom environment for my writing, it felt like a good option.  What sold me on taking the class, was that the entry level TV writing course was being taught by a writer who was working on HOUSE — Matt Witten.

Of course, I couldn’t write a HOUSE spec in his class — it would cause him all kinds of potential problems, so I chose the other show I was obsessed with that year – LOST.  I’m not sure what it says about me that I consistently choose high degree of difficulty for my first attempts.  I guess I like to fail spectacularly.

Six or seven Extension classes later, I got a certificate in TV Writing.  That and a dollar will buy you a scratch-off lottery ticket; it’s worth nothing to say I paid UCLA many hundreds of dollars to learn how to write TV. In the one full year of extension classes I took, I finished three TV spec scripts — the LOST spec, a HOUSE spec, which I wrote in a different class, and a COLD CASE spec.  That output was far greater than what I had experienced in the Professional Program, and I was officially hooked on TV writing.

Why am I telling you this? I guess I’m more telling myself, looking back on my journey to what brought me to where I am now.  At times I feel as if I am so far behind everyone else I know.  It’s folly to measure your success against others, and yet, I cannot help but do so at times.  There are so many factors that play into how quickly or slowly we progress in our careers and in our lives.  Some of us have setbacks, insurmountable obstacles, and others get lucky, are in the right place at the right time, strike up a conversation with the right person, make what ultimately becomes the right friends…none can be planned.  All you can do is try to take advantage when opportunity presents itself, and do your best to dodge the roadblocks.

I hope to take the next step in my progression this year.  I want this to be the year I make it over the wall and into a TV writers’ room.  It’s been a long journey, a journey that started when I was 12 years old and was delayed for many years.  I came into the business “late” by many accounts, but I refuse to be beaten.

Thanks to Kay Reindl’s retweet of Chuck Wendig’s link to a guest post on his blog, I found motivation in Kameron Hurley’s words about Persistence being the key to success.  It is often said that those who succeed in this business are the ones who don’t quit.  I honestly don’t know how I’d quit now.  Besides that, as I once explained to my father, who wondered where my line in the sand was — the point where I pack it in and go back to a nice cushy I.T. job, there is no line in the sand which I can see.  I may take day jobs here and there, but I will always be a writer.  I can never not be a writer.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I have a new pilot outline to work on.  The machine stops for no one.

Posted under randomness, writing

This post was written by Shawna on January 23, 2014

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Clear Skies – 17 months later

I actually meant to write this post five months ago, but you know how it is. You blink in April and it’s suddenly September. I haven’t blogged a lot in the past year — all you have to do is look at the dates of the last five posts to see that’s true — but it wasn’t for lack of interest. It’s been a very busy year.  Julie and I got an agent. We pitched a pilot all around town (though it didn’t sell). We went up for staffing and came close… I watched the webseries project go into limboland after completing the draft…

And through all of these trials, I’ve been in a good place, mentally.  Seventeen months ago, I bared my soul to you all about my struggles with clinical depression. I had really gone to a dark place and gratefully came out of it, with a lot of support from family, friends and you (and medication). I still have the daily worries and concerns, the occasional bad mood and even a few down days, but those negative moments are easily handled.  I allow myself to have a bad day, but it doesn’t turn into a bad week, a bad month, a bad year… When you are suffering depression and not coping, it is so easy to start down the spiral. The key is to see when it is happening and acknowledge it, without getting caught up in it.

Believe me, it would be hard to take the amount of rejection we’ve received this year if I were still feeling as I did last April. The perspective I have to keep is that with each rejection comes a new opportunity.  Each executive I meet, each person I pitch or draft I complete is one step closer to the goal, to be a staffed writer on a TV show.  Nearing the end of my 10th year in Hollywood, I am as close as I’ve ever been to the goal, and now I’m so close I can almost see it. It’s funny how the closer I get, the stronger my resolve has become — a year ago I worried how I would feel if I wasn’t staffed by now.  Now I don’t worry about if but when. I feel it will happen, and I just have to keep pushing.

I want to thank all of you for sticking with me, whether it’s here on the rarely updated blog, on Twitter or Facebook, in Meatspace… it means a great deal to me to know you are out there. I hope to see some of you “old skool” bloggers in a couple of weeks, when we meet up at Morrison in Los Feliz to catch up and talk shop.  I’ll also be back in Austin next month for the Austin Film Festival, so for those who I miss in L.A., perhaps I can see a few of you there. Otherwise, we’ll always have The Scribosphere.

Here’s to continued clear skies and fair weather… and to reaching the next milestone.

Posted under randomness, writing

This post was written by Shawna on September 4, 2013

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The Dark Cloud

I had a lot planned today.  Laundry to do, check to deposit, dishes in the dishwasher to unload, new ones to shove in, my fancy new wine glasses to meticulously hand wash because I refuse to put them in the dishwasher, and of course, there is the writing — the ‘work on my pilot rewrite’ writing or the ‘rework the first act of new pilot’ writing or even the ‘hash out an outline for this feature spec’ writing… but I’ve put it all aside right at this moment, because right now, there is nothing I want to do more than talk to you about something.

It’s something I’ve put off a very long time, in part, because I fear that talking about it may not make any difference, and could in fact make things worse.  It’s been on my mind all morning, because it is every morning. And every afternoon. And every night.  Since I’m not male, you probably surmise I’m not thinking about sex all the time, so you can stand down from worrying if this is an X-rated post.

I want to talk to you about the Dark Cloud.

The dark cloud has been with me as long as I can remember.  I refer to it as the ‘dark cloud’ because of a specific poem I wrote when I was a kid, all imagery of scary darkness and frightening forests and anger and pain.  The dark cloud loomed over all of that other stuff, as it does in my real life.  The dark cloud has descended upon me so often in my life and when it does its effects are devastating — relationships destroyed, personal health and happiness abandoned, apathy and hopelessness conquering all else.

My “dark cloud” is clinical depression.

I was diagnosed officially in 2000, but it has been with me all my life.  There’s no abuse, no divorce, no tragedy that I can point to that has impacted my ability to be happy as an adult.  All I have to look to is myself and this constant feeling of inadequacy, of failure and ennui.  I had been functioning with it for many years, but it wasn’t until I headed down a very dark spiral in 2000 that a friend of mine finally alerted me to the fact I needed to get professional help.

“I can’t help you with this anymore.  I think you need to find someone who can.”

Those were the words that set me down the path of getting help and learning that admitting I needed help wasn’t itself a failure — it was a first step toward happiness.  So, I called up the “behavioral health” (I love that euphemism) coverage provider for my then-job in Orlando and got a referral and an appointment to be assessed.  It didn’t take much for them to figure out I was clinically depressed.  From there I was assigned a therapist and not long after I was prescribed medication.

For the first time in my life, I felt like I had control.

Over the next ten years, I would go through fits and starts of mental health.  Most of the time, I’d be functioning incredibly well, and handling depression became easier.  There was a brief time after my initial move to Los Angeles in 2003 that I had to deal with finding a new therapist and getting a new prescription, but I didn’t let my mental health progress lapse for more than two or three months.  Even after I was laid off from my job in 2009 I had built up enough coping mechanisms and good mental health practices that I still looked to the huge question mark of my future with optimism — being laid off was an opportunity to pursue my true dreams!  For the year following my lay off I certainly saw my therapist more (which really, this was probably my 8th or 9th therapist. There’s always been a revolving door there, but that’s the nature of things) and handled my new situation pretty well.  Even when relationships fell apart I weathered the storm with little damage.

Then my COBRA coverage ended.  My supply of anti-depressants dried up.  For awhile I was actually happy to get off my medication;  I eased myself off by ratcheting down the dose from the supply I had available once I no longer had any refills remaining.  It felt liberating — I had been chained to a drug every day of my life for 10 years — why wouldn’t I want to try to break free of that?  I had also read extensively about the school of thought that drugs weren’t really the answer for everyone.  I had always hoped that the drugs would be a temporary arrangement anyway, so moving myself off of them seemed like a good arrangement.

The trouble with having depression is that it is a sneaky bastard of a condition (I refuse to call it a ‘disease’) — very often I don’t recognize the signs that I am in a downward spiral until I’m circling the drain, about to fall in.  I’ll go days and weeks saying ‘I’m fine’ when I am very clearly not fine.  In fact, I sometimes even used this system to my advantage.  I figured as long as nobody noticed I wasn’t fine, then there was nothing really to worry about.  I never actually start worrying until I hear this from someone who is very close to me (family member, inner circle friend):

“Hey, are you okay? I mean, really okay?”

That’s when I know I’m not pulling one over on anyone anymore.

A few months ago I discovered a lost cache of anti-depressants in my bathroom.  I debated with myself for a month whether to take them, as they were an older prescription, one I had before my medication had been switched up when it had lost efficacy.  Of course now that I wasn’t taking anything, it seemed like they might work again.  Also, now that I was paying for my own health insurance, I reasoned I could start with these, and if they helped, I could ask my doctor to write me a prescription (I can’t actually see a therapist or a psychiatrist under this health plan — the cost for that is prohibitively expensive).  So I gave them a shot.  Usually it takes about four weeks to notice any change from the medication, but I noticed improvement within 2 weeks, and that was on half the dosage I had (I scored the pills).  After about 40 days, I noticed I only had about a week or so of pills left, so I called my doctor to arrange for a prescription…

…it never got called in.

Now at this point, I should have called my doctor back, asking why, but the dark cloud has a way of causing self-defeat.  I never called her back.  My self-defeating brain told me that if it didn’t get called in, ‘it was because she couldn’t authorize the prescription, which would mean I couldn’t have it, and what’s the point of raising a fuss about something when there’s nothing that can be done about it…’

We all have self-talk.  Those moments when you have to psych yourself up to do something or when you tell yourself you can’t do something… that’s self-talk.  Mine is nonstop.  Seriously, my self-talk is a chatty Cathy, and it never shuts up.  If the medication does anything, it shuts up my negative self-talk or at least mutes it so I can function in my life.

My self-talk sounds like this: “I don’t know why you bother with this script.  You’ve been working on it for months and it isn’t getting any better.  No one loves it — you’ve not gotten a single note raving about it.  If they’re all so critical of it, it must be bad, so you should probably just quit working on it.  Besides, it’s not like you’ve written anything else that’s good.  If you had, you’d be doing so much better by now, you might even have an agent.  But then, that’s you — you can’t finish anything; you still have a book to read that you started a year ago.  Oh and don’t try to counter me by bringing up the ‘Mars’ thing — you’re just piggybacking on someone else’s talent for that project and you know it.  Your sister is a better writer than you and she’s been doing this half as long as you have.  You know what else? She’s prettier than you are.  She’s pretty and younger and more talented.  She writes with you out of pity because she feels guilty that you aren’t capable of having your own career.  She’s also more well-adjusted and has better relationships than you do because you are an introverted freak who can’t keep a relationship going.  Everyone knows you are the quiet and less talented sister — that’s why she’s so popular and you aren’t.  You hide in your room and refuse to wear makeup or go out (and let’s not even get started about how fat you are) so of course you are social kryptonite on the scale of Gollum.  You look a lot like Gollum actually.  Perhaps you should live in a dark cave, or perhaps, you shouldn’t live at all…

Yep.  That’s self-talk.  It’s horrible.  Believe me, it was effortless to write that, because most of that stuff runs through my head at some point, and it all usually ends up in the same place “perhaps you shouldn’t live at all…”

Believe me, I’m too much of a coward to ever actually kill myself (I really hate pain), but the self-talk plants this constant refrain in my head — that I’m worthless, I’m talentless, I’m ugly, I’m fat, I’m old, I’m past my prime, that everyone around me is better, that I’m kidding myself, that all I do is for naught.  There have been more nights than I can count where I have gone to bed fantasizing of never waking up again — and that’s a comforting thought that allows me to fall asleep.  THAT SHOULD NOT BE.

Why am I posting about this, publicly? And why now?

Because last night was another one of those nights — where I lulled myself to sleep by thinking about it being my last night alive — that maybe I’d just die in my sleep and the pain would be over.

Because this morning I woke up from a dream where someone said “I can’t help you anymore.  I think you should find someone who can.”

Because I decided I was done with living in pain, but dying wasn’t the answer.  I did this pain for years before my first step, and it got me nowhere.  Revisiting the pain doesn’t help anything, and it certainly doesn’t make me happy.

Because I really don’t want other people to suffer as I have suffered.  If some person reads this, who has never sought help for their depression and sees a reflection of him or herself here and decides they don’t want to live like this anymore, then it will have all been worth it.

This is the scariest thing I’ve ever written on my blog.  It’s more terrifying than when I wrote about career success or failure, or putting my creative work on display.  It’s scary because THIS IS ME.  This is who I am, this is what I live with.  Every day.  For the last two years I’ve let the dark cloud rule my life, and I’m not letting that happen anymore.  Today I’m taking back control.

I will probably never get the dark cloud out of my life, but I can certainly push it far enough away it doesn’t interfere with my ability to live my life.  I also figure that most of my friends already suspected I was a ‘brooding artist’ type — but I don’t want to be the artist who suffers for their art and then dies for it.  Also, brooding is really not fun.  I miss my friends.  I miss you.  I miss living my life and never regretting it, even when I make mistakes or take wrong turns.

I don’t ask for people to walk on eggshells or treat me as a fragile porcelain doll.  I know my true friends will just nod their heads and tell me to get on with it already with a virtual slap on the ass to get back in the game.  They won’t tell me to stop whining or mock me for my admission — they’ll just quietly support.  That’s all I want.  You don’t need to post an ‘atta girl’ in my comments here — I’m not looking for that.  I don’t need that.  What I do need, is for people to be more conscious that someone they know may be in this kind of pain and needs help.  The last thing people suffering depression want to do is admit they need help.

I’ve asked for help once, so I know I can do it again.  I called my doctor today and asked for that refill…hours later, I got the call back.  The prescription is being called in now.

It’s a step I was ready to take and now that I have, I am going to work hard not to move back to where I’ve been the last few months.

Thanks for listening.

 

Posted under Uncategorized

This post was written by Shawna on April 3, 2012

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Shawna Benson vs. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

This is a story about how I saw Scott Pilgrim vs. the World twice before it was released to theaters, and how I felt about the film each time.  This is also a story about the last year of my life.

WARNING – There are spoilers for the film “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” in this post.  If you don’t want to be spoiled, come back after you’ve seen it to read.  I’m sure there won’t be much else here to read for a few days anyway, as I travel back to L.A. from Illinois…

In April, I was lucky enough to get grabbed by one of those random chances on the street – outside the Arclight theater my sister and I were asked if we’d like to see a film far in advance of its release.  This happens often in this town, of course, but this time we were amazed it was a film we actually were excited to see.  That is how I saw Scott Pilgrim the first time.

It was probably 80-85% done.  A lot of the effects were there but not all, and certainly there hadn’t been a lot of the final touchups in place.  It was still a work in progress, even if it was mostly finished.  I enjoyed that viewing thoroughly.  It’s interesting because at that point in my life I was identifying with the character Scott Pilgrim.

Last warning about spoilers…

So in April I felt I was Scott Pilgrim.  I had, in the last year, broken up with someone I got along with very well, but wasn’t quite right for me in other ways and was lured to a relationship with someone else.  That second relationship seemed to be full of spark and life, and I felt, finally, like I had found the right person to be with.

No, I didn’t have to fight seven evil exes, but the relationship was short-lived, and I was dumped.  It hurt a lot.  I am still very fond of him, and I know he is a really good guy, but as with most things, it was not meant to be.  So, when Scott Pilgrim was screened in April, it made perfect sense that he wouldn’t get Ramona and would end up with the person who he was best suited for, Knives, the girl he dumped to pursue Ramona.

This didn’t mean I was compelled to restart the older of the two relationships – I felt I had damaged it beyond repair anyway, but it did give me some hope, that perhaps the “right one” was still out there for me.  I really liked this ending and left the theater completely satisfied by the experience.

The next four months were pretty brutal for me personally.  I still wasn’t coping well with the loss of that dynamic relationship, the one I thought would be THE ONE.  I started the year ready to tackle the world, and within two weeks, the world had tackled and pinned me to the ground.  From January to August I flailed, occasionally getting up off the mat and walking away from the fight, only to find myself drawn back to it and landing flat on my back once more.

It was while I was struggling to move on with my life and embrace the opportunities in front of me, that I saw Scott Pilgrim a second time, this time at Grauman’s Chinese Theater for the premiere.  Again I enjoyed the film, but I noticed a strange shift in my perspective as I watched the film.  Instead of identifying with Scott, I suddenly found myself identifying with Knives.  Scott seemed like an ass, using, then throwing away various girls until Ramona, who he pursued while still dating Knives.  And then he dumped Knives, which, though the right thing to do, felt incredibly harsh.  I had, after all, been a girl recently dumped and still hoped against hope that he, my version of Scott, would come back to me.  This change in perspective had me anticipating the ending all the more, as I knew Scott would go back to Knives and the two of them would end up at the arcade happily playing video games together once more.

But that isn’t what happened.

As the final reel of the film unspooled, I started to realize that it was not the ending I had seen before.  Confused, I watched as Knives gave her blessing to Scott for him to go after Ramona and try their relationship again.  No!  This wasn’t the right ending!  Knives was supposed to get Scott!  And I’m Knives, which means I get the guy!  And Ramona hasn’t shown an ounce of love for Scott, where Knives very clearly was infatuated.  This was messing up everything!

I left the theater, upset about the change, certain that stupid test audience notes were responsible for this egregious mangling of the story.  It tainted my experience of the premiere somewhat, though I still had enormous fun at the party, I couldn’t quite shake the nagging thought from my mind: Knives got screwed.

In the week or two following the film I felt even more determined to try to get back what I had lost in that relationship, so I pursued harder, and found that I was pushing him further away.  The realization was devastating and I suffered a complete meltdown.  It was probably what needed to happen.  I needed to not just be pinned to the mat but punched in the face to get the point – THIS ISN’T GOING TO HAPPEN.  My brain finally registered the reality.  Once I was told that my feelings were not reciprocated, and most likely wouldn’t be, there was no hope left.  Maybe I could finally move on.

The morning after that brutal yet honest assessment of things, I had a revelation.  I thought back to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World once more, pondering how this film could hold so much meaning for me.  I then realized that the new ending was the right one after all.  Knives was too young for Scott, and honestly deserved better than to be the afterthought girlfriend post-Ramona.  Scott did deserve a second chance with Ramona, without dealing with seven evil exes and Knives deserved to find someone who would treat her as the best thing in the world rather than a ‘good enough’ friend to pass time with.  Finally I was at peace with this ending, understanding that we don’t always get what we want (except Scott Pilgrim apparently).

It’s all very silly, I realize, but then, this is why we go to movies in the first place.  We watch them to be entertained, yes, but also to identify with characters, analyze the decisions they make and how those decisions would affect our own lives.  I will never blow up the Death Star, but like Luke Skywalker, I left my home to seek out a different sort of life than the one that stretched before me like the Tatooine desert.  We watch films to cheer us up, make us sad, provoke thought and shut off our brains.  The joy is in the discovery of what kind of film a new one will be for us, and whether we will return to it as a remedy in the future.  My sister and I watch “Sense and Sensibility” repeatedly, because it soothes us and brings us some comfort when we are feeling down about our lives.  We need only look to the Dashwood sisters to remind ourselves how much better positioned we are in our lives than they are in theirs, and that our futures are wide open to our own actions, and we are not limited in our options as the Dashwood women are based on the standards of the day.

So here I am, brushing myself off, rising steadily off the mat once more and walking away from this fight.  I’m not looking back anymore.  Sometimes it’s best to know when you are defeated and move on to the next challenge.  And the next challenge, while not a relationship, is something I will tackle with every ounce of my determination.

And someday I’ll find my own Scott Pilgrim, or Ramona, depending on the point of view.  Or maybe I won’t.  But that will be okay too.

Posted under analysis, randomness

This post was written by Shawna on August 12, 2010

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Mom.

Dear Mom,

I screwed up.  Seemingly every year this “holiday” sneaks up on me and I become “the bad daughter” for a day.  I didn’t send you a card or flowers or an edible arrangement.

Consider this my public apology and attempt to make amends.

Love,

Your Daughter (the mostly good one) Shawna

Folks, I know everyone’s mom is amazing.  But my mom is…amazinger.  Yeah, that’s right.  I used a non-word to describe how awesome my mom is.  She’s made of win.  And stardust.  And rainbows.

First, I’m sorry for what birthing me and my sister did to your body.  Because you were HOT.  I know, I shouldn’t think of my mom as ‘hot’, but look at her!

Hottie.

See?  To think that we ruined her for a lot of years…well, I understand the sacrifice.  So, thanks for that.  I know you endured a lot of health issues for about 20 years, and I’m so thankful that you are in good health now.

So, there’s that.  My mom is awesome because she gave birth to me.  Everyone can say that.

Not everyone can say their mom is a star.

Sure, it may not have been the “national stage” or the hitmakers of Nashville, but my mom’s a singer…a GOOD one.  Before we destroyed her dainty little figure, she was in a band.  That picture above is her from her country star days.

So, she can sing.  That’s pretty awesome.  But, wait!  There’s more!!

She’s an ARTIST.

"Downtown Horse and Buggy" by Londie Benson

"Jean Harlow" by Londie Benson

I mean, look at these.  They are ridiculously good, and completely different in style and composition.  But that’s my mom.  She doesn’t know what she can’t do, so of course, she can do anything.  By the way, the ‘Horse and Buggy’ is a wall mural.  The ‘Jean Harlow’ is, I believe, a watercolor.  But her best work is with pencil.

"Feeding Time" by Londie Benson

The crazy thing about this one, in my mind, is it isn’t even her best one.  Sadly, I don’t have any images of some of the other work she’s done, but trust me — it’s breathtaking.

Now, my mom, of course, will tell you that she’s not that great; that she’s not doing anything new or different.  Right.

"Pagliacci" by Londie Benson

Might take a second or two to realize it, but that’s me.  No, I did not dress up like a clown.  She took a regular, random photo of me and created this trippy piece of art.  She’s just that good.

Of course, having such a good eye, she’s a wonderful photographer too.

"Orchid" photo by Londie Benson

It does make me a little crazy that she can snap a picture of an orchid or a half-naked squirrel as if it’s no big deal, but then when I get them in my email, they aren’t just photos.  They’re statements.

Naked Squirrel

Speaking of statements, she has taken some really wonderful photos of people too.  I don’t know why, but there has always been something about this photo she took of my grandmother (her mom) that always strikes me as poetic:

"Grandma" photo by Londie Benson

Oh yeah, as a side note: my grandmother was HOT back in the day, too.  And how adorable is my mom as a child?

She writes.  She sings.  She tweets.

When I was in grade school, my friends knew my mom as the cool “art lady.”  She’d come in and talk about art to my class.  Kids came over to our house to HANG OUT WITH MY MOM.  I was far from cool back in those days (though there is an ongoing argument over this between my mom and I, of course).

Now my friends get to know her from Twitter.  Lord help me, it is probably the single worst/best thing I’ve done, introducing my mom, first to online karaoke and then to Twitter.  But mom has quite a following.  In fact, she has 4 times as many followers as I do.  So clearly, she must be doing something right.

Yes, that’s right.  She hosts a karaoke channel for Kelsey Live! She got the gig through all of her online karaoke and twittering.  Go figure.

So, here we are.  My mom and me.  Yes, I’m really that much taller than she is, but I don’t hold it against her.  I can’t express how proud I am of her and all she’s accomplished so far in her life.  I know there are the down moments as well as the ups, and I may roll my eyes when my friends tell me about something she’s tweeted, but honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I love you, Mommy.  With all my heart.

Londie and Shawna, 2005.

Posted under randomness

This post was written by Shawna on May 9, 2010

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Employed.

So, breaking my hiatus to announce that while not officially official as yet (paperwork to be signed, all that) it looks like I am once again employed.

It’s a contract position, probably 6 months and non-writing related.  I was hoping to hold out until the end of staffing season, but the writing was on the wall — I think my chances of getting a writers assistant job were approaching negative probability.

So, time to get back in the workforce being productive and stuff.

Pilot isn’t finished yet, but much progress has been made.  Hoping I’ll be able to keep making it now that I’ll have a day job again.

Time will tell…

Posted under randomness

This post was written by Shawna on February 28, 2010

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No movie today

It’s been kind of a sucky day.  I did see an episode of ‘Breaking Bad’ and the season premiere of ‘Chuck’, but 11 days in, I’ve fallen off the wagon.

Gonna try to climb back on tomorrow.

Posted under randomness

This post was written by Shawna on January 11, 2010

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Paving Stones

It has been one of those weeks.

I don’t know how I got here, or why.  I already wasn’t sure where I started, and now the terrain is really unfamiliar.  It’s like when Q sent Voyager into the Gamma Quandrant…okay, too nerdy.  It’s not exactly a road to nowhere or a stairway to heaven or some other metaphorical place (Hotel California?) but it’s weird.

First, it started with the not sleeping thing.

That happens sometimes, I know.  To everyone.  But it had started happening more and more to me over the weeks following my unemployment, and it was as if I was building to some Mozart-style fever pitch insomnia this week.  For all I know, my own version of Solieri is going to pop out of my closet and help me write my own Death Fugue.

Yes, there will be a lot of movie and/or song metaphors coming up.

So my doctor prescribed Ambien (which, now that I look at that sentence, sounds EXACTLY like the commercial line, which would normally be followed by a horrifically long list of potential side effects).  Apparently Ambien should NOT be taken with alcohol…though, in my defense, I hadn’t actually had any alcohol for well over an hour before I took it.

And when I had taken it in the past, I took half.  Now, these pills are eeety bitty.  Teensy tiny.  You honestly think, ‘half a pill isn’t going to cut it if I’ve only been getting 2-3 hours of sleep every night” when you look at them, as I did.

So I took a whole one.

And then it was like some Hunter S. Thompson gonzo nightmare featuring The Lizard King.  I’ve never done drugs so I have no frame of reference, but if you had seen me when I awoke from this stupor, I looked like Johnny Depp swatting at imaginary bats.

So I won’t do that again.

But really, that trippy little experience was like a microcosm of my week, which, if you were around for the last chapter of the blog, included finding out a long distance friend of mine has been dead for 6 years.  That little revelation led me down the memory hole, back in time through the miracle of ones and zeros…sorting through emails that are more than 16 years old.

16 years.  I know there are a lot of people who have had a ‘net presence for longer than that, but I’ve spent nearly half my life in the virtual world.  Now some kids will spend their entire lives there.  But that virtual life led me to Jason, and to many other friends…and now I want to find them all.

Of course, they may not all want to be found.  I’m still looking for Meg, my friend in Junior High who improvised stuff in my friend’s basement that still makes me laugh (before she moved away a year later).  And I’ve lost track of Keely, Tom and Steve…who, if you knew who they were you’d understand how implausible that seems.  My best friend, Susan…she has such a small internet footprint, well, it doesn’t leave a mark.  I’ve lost her too over time.

And I don’t like to lose anybody.  I’ve lost enough in my lifetime, that I don’t really have people to spare.

Fortunately, I found a few people I had lost this week, and that has really encouraged me.  But I also found Jason.

It happens every fall, I guess – I get weirdly introspective and moody.  Usually I come out of it upon my return from Austin Film Festival.  Ah, AFF.  I cannot quit you, even in a recession.

So, I’m going.  Again.  To see the people I call me far flung writer friends, who I do not want to lose and maybe get some writing mojo injected into my veins.  With any luck, the usual World Series timed malaise will pass, and I’ll be back on track.

Or I’ll be with Johnny, in Bat Country.

Posted under randomness

This post was written by Shawna on October 7, 2009

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