In the first act (read: 20 minutes) of Nicole Holofcener’s “Enough Said,” Eva (Julia-Louis Dreyfuss) introduces herself to Marianne, played by Catherine Keener, as a masseuse. To which Marianne replies, “I’m a poet.” Eva laughs in her face.
Substitute “poet” for “writer,” and you now know how I feel at parties. Or family gatherings. Or the countless networking events that a writer must attend so he doesn’t end up an alcholic hermit. It’s even more so when the word “screenwriter” trails out of my mouth, as if I’ve just declared that I have AIDS as they’re holding my hand, like there’s a whole devastating backstory behind it, but one that no one should ever ask me about.
The person opposite me usually raises their brow and says, “Oh!” in feigned excitement, while sullen eyes tell me, “I’m sorry,” and “It’s only a matter of time.” I imagine the people I meet in corners of a bar, huddled over Manhattans and martinis, drinks I used to enjoy, where they speak of me in quiet whispers. “He’s a screenwriter,” they say.
“He just moved here from New York.”
“Oh God, another one.”
“I know a screenwriter. He’s my favorite Barista at the Starbucks on Melrose.”
“You know Scott Fitzgerald? The author of Gatsby, the Dicaprio film? He tried to make it as a screenwriter in Los Angeles once. And then he died.”
Traveling into Fantasy
It’s been six months since I crossed the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey, the muddied Manhattan skyline receding in my rearview. This was now the second time I drove out of the city I immortalized. That first time, well, we don’t talk about that much. But this…
“I did it,” I thought. I had lived in New York, took advantage of everything I could, and left without regret. In the immortal words of Sinatra, “I made it there. I can make it anywhere.” Like Los Angeles. Ten days later, without any idea of who to call, or a calling card script to my name, or even a story that I loved and wanted to sell, my wife, my dogs and my feet set down in the Santa Monica sand.
When I was driving through the mountains of Pennsylvania, and the plains of South Dakota, and the plateaus of Utah, I imagined free-flowing Cabernet and long-haired surf lessons off the coast of Malibu. I imagined networking parties and film premiers and clichéd conversations about Tarantino ripping from other directors. “But everyone steals,” someone would say, “he just steals well.”
I imagined driving onto studio lots for meetings, giving my name at the guard and finding a parking space – albeit one that was still a hike from the warehouse I’d be working in. When I crossed the Los Angeles county line, I was met with roads riddled with potholes, 20mph winds from the east and no sign of the sun. I asked the one friend I had in LA, “is that the smog?” She looked at me, cocked her head and said, “That’s called a cloud.”
I was no longer a freelancer. I was simply unemployed.
Soon, the clouds parted, the sun shined, and that first month in Los Angeles, I did indeed enjoy walks on the beach, yoga in the park, and driving. A lot of driving. Palm trees under sunny skies and starry nights. More driving.
One day, the beach became too far a drive from my home in Hollywood. The daily sun and 75º temperatures that I once bathed in became some sort of atmospheric prison. While back east, New York was pulling out their North Face fleeces and carving pumpkins and hanging wreaths and seeing their first snow dusting of the year, I felt locked into the routine of idiotically happy weathermen, muscled hikers and stubborn bikini beach goers. I looked for networking events for writers, but the sheer number of events in LA made me wary of attending any of them. Thinking I would just get out and make some money for the time being, I contacted every advertising agency and recruiter I could find. But none of them returned the call.
I was met with one other thing I didn’t consider on my drive. While in New York, I made a good living as a freelance writer, attaching myself to agencies and recruiters and filling in the voids when needed. But while I thought that experience would transfer across fifteen state lines, it didn’t. Not for months. I was no longer a freelancer. I was simply unemployed.
Mocking the White Knight
The White Knight races into town and saves the Princess from the burning tower. He’s the hero, they live happily ever after, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
But what does the White Knight do if he gets to town, and he’s not met by the Princess, or a burning tower, but met by ten thousand White Knights, all with shiny new armor and sword training, and they’re all trying to save the Princess from a tower that’s just been reinforced with titanium?
I’m not saying I had dreams of success the minute that I walked into Los Angeles. I didn’t expect a limo or a red carpet or a recording contract or a three-picture deal, or a meeting or even some sort of discussion besides “Oh. You’re a screenwriter too.” No, no I didn’t expect –
Okay, seriously. Sure I did. Because no one moves to a new city to be “mildly formidable and mediocrely successful.” They move to be great. To be amazing. To be the person where someone says on your arrival, “I’ve been waiting for you.” They move to be the White Knight.
As a writer in Los Angeles, you can walk into any Writer’s Meetup, and you’ll find a carbon copy of you from a place where they spent a lifetime asking “Where do I belong?”
“I just moved from Iowa. From Detroit. From Lousiana. From New York.”
“Oh really, where’d you live?”
“85th Street, you?”
Just when you thought you were unique, you meet someone with your story, through and through. And you immediately connect with them. And you immediately like them. And you immediately are in competition with them. “I’m not going to be you,” you think, no matter how “nice” and “sweet” and “loving” and “accepting” you are. Because it’s innate. Because you can either beat ‘em or join ‘em.
Because you just spent all of that time, effort, money… my God, the money… to cut your connections and pick up your life and move it to the other. Side. Of. The. Country. Because you wanted to follow your dream and damn it, no one is getting in your way. You have the armor. You have the sword. You have the training. You. Are. The. White. Knight.
And then you are alone.
Growing up, I called South Carolina home. For a year, I called Miami home. For a year, I called Chicago home. For a while, I didn’t have a home. Then I had a home in New York City. Friends, family, connections. My favorite bars, my favorite restaurants, my favorite seat in the upper balcony of the Lincoln Center movie theater.
“New York has a current. Los Angeles, you have to row your own boat.”
– Alec Baldwin
I found my family on the riders of the 1 train, when we all shook our head at the pushing crowds or the occasional elbow. Or, for God’s sake, “It’s SHOWTIME!”- the yell that was meant to excite the wide-eyed tourist, but was really an incessant warning that a 14 year old was going to perform a backflip on a moving train, whether your knee is in the way or not. Or the mornings you get into an empty car without thinking… and then realize why it’s empty.
Los Angeles on the other hand… Well, my home is a four-walled house on a suburban street in Hollywood. And the only reason it’s there is because that’s where my wife and dogs are. Because that’s where I’ve found purpose. For some here, their home is their car, like the man I saw fixing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich out of the trunk of his Nissan. Or their home is the freeway, the 405, where my old boss used to talk to his mother while sitting in traffic. Or on the surfboard off of the Huntington Beach pier, where people named Bodey get lost in the tube of a crashing wave.
It’s something that we all search for – those of us transplants that come here searching for a better life. And while that innate competition will always stand, you can’t help but feel connected by the simple desperation and desire of having it all work out like you originally planned. Where hoping for and helping with and seeing one’s success means that there’s a chance for you as well. That no matter where our purpose lies now, one day, it can be funneled into that reinforced tower and put to real use. That our knack for words and stories will eventually find its home.
It’s true, what Alec Baldwin says, “New York has a current. Los Angeles, you have to row your own boat.” I meet the other White Knights here, alone in our cars or in our cubicles or in front of our computers, and recognize that we all know what it’s like to introduce ourselves as writers and to feel like it’s our scarlet “A”. That all of us are connected as we grasp for the oars.
Another social gathering. Another night of networking. Another pocket full of unused business cards. Another cheap whiskey in a short glass. Another hour of nodding, “mm-hmm”ing and trying to remember names. Another moment when I miss looking across the landscape and seeing the unfinished One World Trade in the distance.
My wife takes my arm, pulls me over to a small crowd and says, “I’d like to introduce you to someone.”
“Hi, I’m Patrick,” I say as I stretch out my hand to a woman who moved to Los Angeles forty-seven years ago. “I’m a writer.”
“Oh,” she says. Her head tilts left, her brow raises. Her lip pulls back into a smile. “What genre?” she asks.
A moment passes and I can’t help but laugh. If only because I realize, I’m here.