In Part I, I mentioned how rock stars often talk about the importance of staying true to their music. I came across a similar sentiment from the world of comedy in a Conan O’Brien interview in last week’s Onion. Conan was asked whether he thought he would need to revamp his show when he takes over for Jay Leno in 2009. Conan’s response:
There’s a temptation to overthink the whole thing. I’ve had a Field Of Dreams philosophy to this: If you build it, they will come. I still have no idea. I don’t look at research. I don’t look at who’s watching, or when they’re watching. I’ve never been interested in any of that. I’m interested in doing what I think is funny. For the last 13 years, that seems to have worked for me. If I go to 11:30 and do what I think is funny, and someone comes and tells me it isn’t getting enough people in the tent, I’d say, “Well, that’s all I can do.” If I’m looking at spreadsheets and time-lapse studies of viewing patterns, I think I’m wasting my time.
Conan is true to his comedic art. He doesn’t know how to do it any other way.
Returning to my evolution as a writer, I had just graduated from college and had written two mediocre novels. At that point, I was sure the novel was my medium but I could not shake my interest in writing dialogue. I knew plays were not really my style but I have always enjoyed movies — why not give screenplays a shot? So I did.
When I worked as a peon in Congress, one perk was that you could order books on loan from the Library of Congress and they would deliver them to your Congressional office. One book I ordered was Company Commander, a classic but not well-known book about a World War II Captain marching his company across Europe. War has always figured heavily in my writing so it is no surprise that my first screenplay was a squad-level WWII drama called “The Pebbles of Mars.” Like my first novel, it stank. Also like my first novel, finishing it was a victory.
I loved the screenplay as a medium. And I loved the novel as a medium. I fantasized about winning both an Oscar and a Pulitzer.
My evolution as a writer sounds like a nice orderly progression when I write about it but during those end-of-college and early post-college years I was doing a fair amount soul-searching. Should I go to graduate school or should I go to D.C.? Once in D.C., should I stay? Should I go to law school? How about the Foreign Service? At root, I was asking the same question most of my peers were facing: what should I do with my life? There were a couple twists in my case. First, my health seemed to be pointing me toward home to be close to my family. Second, I knew what I wanted to do — write — I just didn’t know how I was going to support myself.
I returned to Denver in 1993 and led an aimless but fun life. I had a series of temp and low-paying jobs with no career in sight. But I did write another screenplay. This time it was a monster movie set in Telluride. Plot intricacies made it overly ambitious but it was better than my first attempt. It was what they call in Hollywood a “high-concept” idea and my hope was that I could sell it and make enough money to stay writing. I entered it in some screenwriting contests but no dice.
I think that script is when I turned the corner on quality. I started to see and feel real improvement. As I was finding my art, I was also honing my art. I was becoming a better writer.
But I still needed a job so I started law school in the fall of 1994. My rationale for this decision requires another blog entry but suffice it to say I thought I could be a lawyer and a writer and I soon realized that I could not be both. In my second year, I applied to a couple film schools but did not get in so I figured I might as well finish law school. In my third (and last) year of law school, I wrote my best screenplay, my contribution to the Gen X genre — then twentysomethings trying to make sense of the world armed only with our senses of humor.
It was also toward the end of law school when I read a book by Charles Beckwith called Delta Force. Beckwith was the creator and commander of the elite special forces unit involved in the Iranian Hostage Rescue attempt that ended in disaster at Desert One in April 1980. I became convinced that my next novel had to be a fictionalization of the Iranian Hostage Crisis focused on the time period between the hostage taking and the rescue attempt. (Which works out to 174 days, by the way.)
Continued in Part III.