"Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream." --William Shakespeare from "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
CALL ME what you may, but I'd like to tell you about a dream I had, how it was fulfilled and why I forsook it.
Having enjoyed moderate success writing short stories and plays in college, I was determined to make writing my profession after graduation. But after earning only $100 my first year in the real world, I knew I had to take the express lane to movie options and second printings. Naturally, I did what anyone who grew up watching "The Dick Van Dyke Show" would do: I decided to be a television writer.
In August 1980 I quit my government job in Washington, packed my little car, kissed my girlfriend goodbye and drove to Los Angeles. With each state line I crossed, my dream of going to California and being a successful writer moved closer to reality.
Before I left, I had enrolled in graduate school in Los Angeles to study script writing and help "get my foot in the door." But before I knew which doors my feet needed to be in, my first break came. A television production company called my professor looking for an intern to work as a "reader," someone who reviews screenplays and writes synopses. He offered me the position, and soon I was working in a penthouse overlooking Hollywood Hills wondering why the family in "The Grapes of Wrath" didn't move to L.A. and mellow out.
"The American dream lives!" I exclaimed, fingering my gold chain.
My internship was 75 percent "go for," but playing delivery boy got me into every studio and production office in town. I always thought of large studios as impenetrable fortresses, so I was amazed at the ease with which I passed through those iron gates.
While I enjoyed strolling around back lots acting important, I wanted writing experience. I moved my desk outside the writers' offices to eavesdrop on their scriptwriting sessions. What a disappointment! They were writing a comedy show that--like many productions where thousands or millions of dollars are spent--never aired. The writers sat around trying to think of risque' double-entendres and demeaning sarcastic remarks.
One writer would sit at a typewriter while the other paced, stood on his head or did whatever helped him feel funny. I heard few clever lines, but they laughed incessantly. After someone would tell his joke, one of three responses would follow: 1) Oh, that's funny; 2) Oh, that's funny but how 'bout this . . . ; 3) Oh, that's funny but you can't say it on television.
The only real joke was their work day. They began meandering in around 10 a.m. and--after an exhausting day of laughing and making bad jokes--departed at 3 p.m. A few took long lunches to accommodate their psychiatrists. I must credit them for one thing though. While it took me at least a month to write a 20-page short story in college, they churned out four 30-page scripts in a few weeks.
At last my writing assignment came. The executive producer (like most, a practicing attorney) owed a friend a favor, so he promised he would ask one of his writers if they could develop this guy's "true-life experience" into a movie. The producer had no interest in the project but wanted to tell his friend "one of my people is working on it." The task filtered down to me. His only advice was "write for the mind-set in Des Moines." I assumed he didn't know one of the most respected fiction-writing schools was at the University of Iowa.
My job was to write a 20-page narrative or "treatment" based on this guy's one paragraph idea: A young man is endlessly chased my lustful women after appearing in a women's magazine as "Bachelor of the Month." I reminded myself great writers have meager beginnings.
My first treatment featured a Woody Allen-type bungling his way to celebrity until finding happiness with his first love. "Woody has been out since 'Interiors,' " I was informed. I switched the character to a prototype of Cary Grant: cool, witty and charming. "Too old-fashioned," they said. Finally, I tried the Tom Selleck-type: pure beefcake with that little-boy smile and dash of innocence that drive women crazy. "It's been done before," they told me. I wanted to shout, "Making babies also has been done before, but it's still pretty popular!"
Having spent all my time writing silly treatments, I was light years behind in my graduate school work. I needed to complete a 120-page screenplay before I could graduate. With no time to outline a solid plot, I wrote off the top of my head, making it up as I went. I used cheap jokes, cliche'd dialogue, contrived scenes, anything to fill 120 pages.
In two weeks I finished and handed it to my professor with an ashamed look. The next day he called. "Brian, this is great!" I told him I was too tired for jokes. "No, this is a helluva script. I think you could sell if it you brought in the wife at the end." I said I didn't see the need. "You gotta have more sex," he said. (I agreed after spending a lonely year and a half in L.A.)
I was ecstatic. In two weeks I wrote a marketable screenplay. I didn't know I was that talented. I felt like fasting for a week so I could one day recount my days as a starving writer.
While I shopped for an agent, a friend "back East" asked me to be in his wedding. I threw my screenplay in my suitcase and flew home to tell everyone my success story.
The church was in the Shenandoah Valley, close to where I attended college. The mountains reminded me of my undergraduate days, reading literature and spending weeks laboring over writing natural dialogue, interesting characters and airtight plots. "How my writing had changed," I thought. The night of the reception I retreated to my hotel room and re-read my screenplay. Yes, my writing had changed, but not for the better. Whom was I kidding?
In December 1981 I received my Master of Arts, packed my little car, kissed my gold chain goodbye and drove to Washington, D.C. With each state line I crossed, the reality of having gone to California to become a writer moved closer to being a foolish dream.