I strolled by the bar three times before I could make my way inside. I didn’t want to be alone. I don’t do alone very well, at least not and especially in public social situations, but I had to go in. My entire trip was built around going inside. I’ve been to nearly 60 countries, been hit by a car twice, there were things to be afraid of in this world, but a bar hosting a screenplay competition where I’m a finalist is not one of them. Still, I was impressed I only passed by it three times. I expected five.
None of my New York friends were available, and it’s not like I was going to fly someone out just to go to this thing with me. I looked at it as a growth opportunity. Unfortunately, the week before I had a mild anxiety attack while attending a birthday party for a friend and what was supposed to be a fun, little dive bar. What it was: a loud, obnoxious, overstuffed festival of stress. It started with having to stand in line, and I decided a few years back that I was too old to stand in lines, as nothing ever good is at the end of them. I almost bailed then, but given the festivities, I stuck it out to get inside. I couldn’t really make small talk, when the background noise reaches a certain level I actually can’t hear anything, so I did a lot of standing around and nodding, laughing when it seemed appropriate, and counting to ten multiple times in my head and breathing along accordingly. I told my friends that I was going to stay as long as I could but that at some point in the near future I was going to say “I’m going to go to the bathroom,” but I was really going to Irish exit. Normally I don’t give anyone the heads up.
I lasted another two minutes after that and walked the four plus miles home because I wanted to be outside in the air. The next day I made an appointment with my doctor to get my Xanax renewed. That’s a lie, I had to wait until the following Monday. I don’t know why I changed it.
Then a few days later it was off to New York.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that my entire trip was based around this screenplay contest. I’m not going to name it because 1) it’s not that important and 2) I don’t want my remarks here to connect to them. I’m nothing but grateful at being chosen as a finalist and don’t want an exploration of my social anxiety to somehow come across negatively.
My first thought when I got the notification was “that’s neat.” It came at the exact right moment. I had quit my job a few months before and was finishing up my extended notice when I had that mild Arrested Development like thought of “I’ve made a huge mistake,” when I got the email, so it served as a bellwether of sorts that I was solidly right in making this completely valid life choice for myself. It wasn’t a big contest, a little research turned up, well, very little. Been around a couple of years. Film festival attached to writing contest. A few pictures from previous after-parties/awards ceremony (a big word for this) but nothing too descriptive.
The first time I passed by I was able to take in how small this venue was. I knew it was a bar. But it also had a screening room, as it commonly had viewing parties (one was even happening later that night which told me that it wouldn’t be a late evening). The bar was on a corner in Brooklyn and only slightly larger than my living room, which is actually not true, but I have a big living room. As I passed by the second time there were a few characters having a cigarette on the corner patio. One of whom looked exactly like I imagined someone attending this thing would look like – mid twenties, tall, slightly stoned, tattoos. I bet his script was heavily influenced by Tarantino. Another guy was obviously a friend. Same demo, same general look but he had a baseball hat and (I think) pony tail. The third guy was much, much older. Like old enough to be my dad older (and I’m old enough to be the other kids’ dad). I don’t know what was more off-putting: imagining trying to make conversation with any of them, or the smoking.
The third time I was taken by the outside film shoot a block away and I wanted to pass by again to see if I recognized any of the actors. But at this point I was ten or fifteen minutes late for the awards presentation, which is also stressful for me, so I needed to force myself to walk in.
There were about eight people in the bar, including the three aforementioned smokers. All of them looked like they could be a part of this evening, but none of them actually seemed focused on awards or after parties. There was a counter bar and about four tables, and I grabbed a beer and positioned myself at one of the tables where I could observe the rest of the room. No one asked if I was there for any reason. I wasn’t sure if this was it or if there was a back room somewhere (in the back probably) where more exciting things were taking place. I messed around on my phone while watching and listening closely. After a few minutes, I noticed a woman come out from the back room. There was clearly something going back there. But now I had a beer. And I didn’t want to go through a door not knowing what was on the other side, with a beer no less, if there was anything not completely kosher about it. I decided once I finished the beer I would push through the door and hope that it wasn’t just a kitchen.
Before that could happen, a young man came bursting through the door. Obviously friends with tall, stoned kid, he shouted to him, “hey man, they just called your name.” The three smokers got up and went clamoring through the door, and I chugged my beer and followed behind them, assuming they could provide ample cover.
We walked into the back of a small screening room. Directly across the room in front of us was a large screen with the festival/contest logo. It looked like a 16-foot by nine-foot screen, something my previous job gave me enough skill to recognize. To the right of the screen was a small portable table where a dude sat behind a laptop with a microphone. There were about twelve other tables facing forward, with another thirty people facing forward. The others grabbed seats they must’ve already had before, while I stood at the back of the room scanning for an empty seat. I found one next to another young kid who looked exactly like the other kid but with a collared shirt and slightly less stoned.
The stoned kid was then called up to accept his award. The moderator urged him to tell a bit about what his story was about, a bit about himself and then give a piece of writing advice. He talked about his story (it involved time travel and was told from the perspective of his cat, and had a Tarantino-esque vibe [side note: nailed it]). His advice was something about getting weird. He seemed very uncomfortable on the microphone. When he sat down, the moderator continued.
“Next we have best science-fiction short screenplay.” He announced the winner and urged the same winner to follow the three notes he had given before (story, yourself, advice). He did and this time the winner was an older woman. She referenced being a retired PI and that someone earlier had a story about a female PI. As I scanned the room, I will say the demographics were more diverse than expected. At least forty percent women, maybe twenty percent non-white. As a representative of Whiteyville, I still appreciate diversity even if it’s of no benefit from me. It’s because I’m not an asshole. Another woman won and made reference that she was actually beginning principal photography on her project.
Next up was Best Drama Short Screenplay, It was the old guy from earlier. He mentioned his story being set in Omaha, Nebraska (where I’m from and incidentally where my pilot is set). I made a note that it would be a decent ice breaker if forced to talk to him. And then the award for Best Comedy Pilot Script. My category. And he said my name. Thankfully, I had seen a few people talk before me so I was able to be succinct. I referenced the pilot story (a group of gamers) and how I worked in gaming for fifteen years before leaving to focus on writing (and how I got the notice at the right time). My advice was simple – learn how to take feedback. I got some bad feedback on my script, but I also got some great feedback and instead of getting defensive about it I learned how to translate what the feedback said into my failure to communicate what I wanted to effectively and my script got better because of it. I shook the moderator’s hand, and got a piece of paper that indicated I was a “winner” (though it did not include the actual category and/or the title of my script, it was the same paper handed to everyone). I think there was one other winner after me.
The moderator then wrapped things up and said there were would be some pictures and then mingling out in the bar. I had no interest in pictures so I popped back to the bar and got another beer before I noticed no one else came out. I couldn’t very well go back in there, could I? I already had the stress leading up to the event, I didn’t want to compound that. I decided that I would have my beer but when the others came out I would make an effort to talk to at least one person. A couple people wandered out, the three smokers and the guy sitting next to me (also a winner. I imagine that about a third of the audience had won something and it lent credence to my theory that my chances for success were upped by my being there in person). I congratulated the guy that was sitting next to me. He returned the favor. We shook hands, talked for a bit and then he wandered out. The smokers were out smoking and everyone else was still inside. I finished my beer and then headed out. I had to spend a few minutes texting everyone I knew anyway.
I’m not trying to suggest this is more important than it is. Even if it was a contest run by the one moderator (and it very well could be), it was still one of the few indicators I’ve had that someone with no connection to me thought something I wrote was pretty good. Some days that’s all you need.
Besides, a win is a win.