I’m not a “tabula rasa,” as my Father once told me
My father raised me differently.
He told my sister and I that we were born, “tabula rasa” — a "blank slate" — and it was up to us to figure out what we believed. This is quite a responsibility, especially when you’re 10.
This is why, contrary to what a character said in Woody Allen’s masterpiece "Annie Hall," I actually happen to embrace the cultural stereotypes I’m reduced to. Because there are so few.
Strong Irish grandmother? Check. Uptight Minnesotan? Check. A gloomy, Fitzgerald, Franzen-esque place ripe for deep literary inspiration? Check.
But the checks of "belonging" to something, including cultural stereotypes, stops there. Not only did my father tell me I was “tabula rasa” at a young age (he was a scientist, an aerospace engineer who was part of the top secret MOL Satellite Program) but due to a family rift, my deep Irish Catholic roots (my ancestors came over during the potato famine) were nearly lost when half the family converted to Methodist.
Who the heck has ever heard of an Irish Methodist?
My family also wasn’t the stereotypical Minnesotan: we didn’t own a black lab (the defacto Minnesota state dog), we didn’t hunt, we didn’t canoe. We were brunette in a sea of tall Scandinavian blondes. We read books, we were short, we argued at the dinner table. I grew up in the Minneapolis theater community. My name was Hebrew, my mom named me after a character in Steinbeck’s "East of Eden." On top of that, my parents were divorced, then got back together, but never remarried. Yikes.
Despite the fact that outsiders like to think of Minnesota as “folksy” and “nice,” let’s face it: Nice is not the same thing as repressed hostility. There is some serious repression going on there.
I did experience dreamy summers at my grandmother’s lake cabin, fishing for crappies (pronounced croppies), chasing fireflies and boating. It was Lake Wobegon idyllic. But Minnesotan literary icon Sinclair Lewis explored its darker side best in "Main Street": there is nothing more spirit-crushing than those “quaint” Midwesterners who are so resistant to change.
This “outsider” feeling is what drives, I think, the desire to be in the arts.
My passion for writing and the arts brought me from the Minneapolis theater world to NYU to being a screenwriter in Los Angeles. When I first began screenwriting, I pushed myself to write “high-concept” spec scripts. I felt that my story, my life, my drive, and insights were not good enough. Instead of writing my quirky original romcom "The Fitzgerald Complex" (about a young woman who wants to escape the Midwest) I mistakenly felt I needed to write "Die Hard" in a casino.
Instead of embracing my themes and issues, I ran from them. I approached screenwriting with that “tabula rasa” thinking in my head again: the blank page now substituted for the blank slate. I could make it whatever I wanted it to be.
This is not always a good thing.
My husband, ever the philosophy major, suggested I refrain from telling everyone that I “lived in New York” as if I were trying to replace my Minneapolis background.
“Embrace it,” he said, “it’s who you are.”
The best writing comes from an authentic place. Take the Coen brothers — their past inspires everything they do.
I turned a corner then with my writing. The very first screenplay I submitted after moving to L.A. was a romcom called "The Fitzgerald Complex," and it got me a meeting at Gersh.
This new realization brought rewards. I wasn’t tabula rasa — I had my life, however geeky and unconventional it might be. I wrote an original sci-fi teleplay, an ensemble piece about an impending alien invasion (genre yes, but this had solid characters) loosely based on family member’s cancer battle. That teleplay was a Slamdance Finalist.
Then I wrote a script loosely inspired by my theater background ("Easy A" meets Christopher Guest-esque story about a young girl in a wacky regional theater company in Minneapolis) and that script placed in another contest.
Next came a breakthrough script for myself and my partner. This one was inspired by my life as a new mom in West L.A., and that script landed us a rep. I remember when I first wrote that screenplay it was just me, alone with my laptop at 1 a.m. while my little one slept, and the hubby and border collie snored in the other room. Being that I’m a Minnesotan, marketing and self-promotion does not come naturally to me. Yet something about this script was different. I promised myself I would help this project find its home.
My goal was to get it to Jack Black. The lead character was a dude with a bulldog named McClane (yes, I’m obsessed with "Die Hard") who is a slacker with a heart of gold and finally grows up and becomes a dad. It was perfect for him. More important: I wrote a fun, commercial spec that was true to myself.
A funny thing happened then: an exec at a company who produced one of Jack Black’s recent films invited us in for a meeting. They loved the script and our “smart” writing style. I "oohed" and "ahhed" at the legendary life-size monster replica in the lobby I’d seen in a film.
They had a deal with Fox and were going to get our script out.
We had more meetings. Suddenly we were “taking generals.” This is screenwriter parlance for taking meetings with creative development execs and VPs on the lot (try explaining this to friends and family back home!) We saw Clint Eastwood’s Malpaso office and the Lucille Ball Building. We met a cool up-and-coming exec who loved Jonathan Franzen and we talked all about Minneapolis and the “sacrifices” which go into a writing career. We met at an Oscar-winning director’s company, the one with the waterfall in the lobby.
Even though I’m a bit jaded, I still felt that pinch-me moment on the studio lot. As my husband likes to say, “there’s less gravity on the lot. You kind of float.”
Yes, being a screenwriter is a bumpy road, especially writing specs, especially in the current climate of a preference for pre-existing source material — but it can be a fulfilling one.
The key for me is to balance my artistic voice with the commercial demands of screenwriting. This isn’t a problem as I love Tolstoy and "Transformers" in equal measure.
Yet, I often think of a famous story analyst whose coverage on "Casablanca" (based upon the play, "Everybody Comes to Rick’s") when he described the "Casablanca" screenplay as: “sophisticated hokum.”
This comment reminds me that all movies, no matter how sophisticated, have a degree of “hokum.” The challenge for a screenwriter is to make that hokum seamless, entertaining, and compelling.
I keep this in my mind as I write my new spec, a sci-fi thriller about a couple who take a puddle-jumper airplane to camp at a remote locale in the North Woods of Minnesota for their honeymoon when the new bride is abducted – the husband will stop at nothing to save her, called, "Honeydoom."
I learned a lot when taking general meetings (I accepted the bottled water and had my pitches down cold). Mostly I learned that in that moment, after my drive-on, when I sat in those legendary bungalows peddling my “sophisticated hokum,” that I was no longer a blank to be filled in.
Here I was with ninety-plus pages of my vision of a story and I could finally just be… myself.
← Previous Story