Who had the greatest impact on your career?
Writers are usually asked this question when they’re at a bigger level of success than where I am right now. But bear with me…
I’ve never had a honest-to-God MENTOR mentor. I’ve had plenty of friends and professional acquaintances that have popped in and out and who I can call or email and be reasonably sure they’ll respond.
But someone like a teacher who took a long vested interest in what I said I wanted to do and helped me along the way, no, not really.
But there was a guy who, whether he realized it or not, changed my writing career entirely.
Back in 2005, before this blog began, I was directionally challenged, career wise. I was writing all the time, and finding more success with plays than screenplays (2005 was the year of ZigZagged Ostrich, still one of the best things I ever did) but I wasn’t trying to be a playwright, I was trying to be a screenwriter.
There was a contest, I don’t remember where I heard about it, but it was a faith based screenwriting fellowship based in the South. It was the first year they were holding it, and I firmly believe you should get in on the first year any contest is held. Less competition, and the organizers might not know what they were doing yet.
But it was a fellowship with a cash bashed award and I’m a Christian and a writer already based in L.A. so I felt like I had a reasonable shot against other Christian writers who weren’t in L.A., so I submitted a bio, an early draft of Pink Piggy, and a 10 page sample of Muppet Midsummer Night’s Dream.
I ended up being one of 12 finalists. Didn’t go any farther, though ironically Pink Piggy did. What I submitted as a writing sample to them grew up to be my first produced feature film four years later. I don’t think the fellowship went past 2008.
After I was cut from the last round, I received an email from a man who introduced himself as being the reader for the fellowship. They had received 150 scripts, which this guy had to cut down to 12. “I was glad to include you into that stack.”
And even though they went with five other winners, this man wanted to tell me how much he enjoyed reading Muppet Midsummer Night’s Dream. “It’s a delightful idea with really fun characters and very clever dialogue. Keep up the good work.”
This man’s name was Jack Gilbert. When I did a Google search to see where he came from, I found Act One. So I applied there for their summer 2006 writing program, figuring that if he was there, and he liked my writing, I could get in.
Which I did. And my life changed.
I met new people: students, teachers, professional writers who I now count as very dear dear friends of mine. People who I can talk to not just about writing, but about God and life and my father’s cancer, and their lives, and their babies, and their health scares, and what in the world is going ON here.
I learned more about screenwriting. I learned more about God and how God wanted to be a part of what I was writing.
At the end of the program banquet, I was seated at a table with Jack Gilbert. And ironically a guy who was one of the winners of the fellowship I didn’t get (he’s a really nice guy, and someone who I now count as a friend).
The question was raised, “What did you learn during Act One?” And I said, quite honestly (because lying takes too much energy) that I learned I wasn’t as good of a writer as I thought I was. That I went into the program thinking I knew a lot, and came out severely humbled (in a good way).
And though I blurted it out because it was the truth, and not because I was looking for sympathy, Jack immediately jumped into the conversation and told everyone about Muppet Midsummer Night’s Dream, and what a great idea it was.
And that was Jack for you. The most unassuming, mild mannered valuable champion by your side.
Jack went on to be my teacher in other classes. I would see him at prayer groups. I would chat with him about ideas I had for Walking Dead specs (that one placed in Austin’s TV contest last year.)
He wasn’t flashy. He didn’t need to be the loudest voice in the room. He didn’t seek personal glory or fame. But he knew so much. And he loved to champion other writers. He loved to teach. He loved to support in perhaps the most selfless way I’ve ever encountered. He loved God and he loved screenwriting, and you don’t get much better than that in a person.
Jack was a long distance runner, and last week sped full tilt into God’s arms (I refuse to say “went to be with the Lord,” it’s too passive).
I never told him the impact he had on my own life, how a simple email from him back in 2005 radically changed the course of my writing life and introduced me to a whole new circle of friends, a whole new way of thinking, a whole new way of life. Had he not sent that email, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be the person I am now. I would most likely be angry, bitter, and a crappy screenwriter with no sense of structure or theme.
I never told him any of this, but I don’t have to. I know he’s looking down on me, on hundreds of his students, and he is smiling in that quiet way that only he could. Forever our champion. Forever our friend.
Who has had the greatest impact on your career?
Jack Gilbert. Unquestionably.