My Shift Matters

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Monday, July 11, 2016

I sit looking at the spot Philando Castile was fatally shot to take my shift. I still haven’t watched the full video of his last moments. I’m terrified it would break my heart. The last few days have been rough for me… for most of us. I’m afraid in this spot. Less than five minutes and I’ve already seen three different police cruisers. One with North St. Paul stenciled on its side which is over ten miles away. I assume they’re patrolling but I wonder if they are doing the same thing as me. Paying homage to the event, to the man, but they don’t have as much freedom as I do to stop and read the sidewalk chalk and signs. To smell the flowers and hear the flapping of the balloons in the pre-storm wind.

Across the street, another shrine. Three Native Americans take vigil there. I wonder if they are thinking about their people’s history of genocide and how it ended like I am thinking about mine. After the Civil War the South needed workers. The US needed workers. Our economy was failing. Because of the mass exodus of unpaid labor they needed people fast. So they taught law enforcement to arrest black people wherever they could find them and for whatever reason. Strong black men were forced into peonage (or as the documentary calls it Slavery by Another Name) to work the fields and mines to save this country from financial ruin. The rest of the country only heard the staggering numbers of black people being arrested and thought, “Oh, they really can’t control themselves on their own.” Ever since then cops have stopped blacks for being black and the rest of the country expects it. Most of them don’t know that this tradition of incarceration comes from a financial report 140 years ago.

A white man just stopped to talk to me. He tells me he’s surprised. He thought that all this would stop when Obama was elected president. I told him I never thought that and I wasn’t surprised at all. We are still a largely segregated country. One does not represent all. I should know, I spent my life being the one. A friend once told me that before meeting me he thought all black people were rude. I asked him why. He said his neighbors stop their car in the middle of street to talk without a care to the traffic they’re blocking. Clearly, he hadn’t met enough black people. If you haven’t met enough of a people to love some, despise some, and think of most of acquaintances you’d hang with you are segregated. I don’t tell him this but immediately wish I did because he says something I’m not expecting.

He says we need to get a fire and brimstone preacher on this spot and air it on TV. He tells me this is part of the end of days according to the Bible. “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth,” he quips. I challenge him saying what if God is in all of us and wants us to help each other. What if God wants us to know what to do by the history those that are living can remember? What if we don’t wait for God to solve this by pushing the reset button? What if today is not the beginning of the end but just the beginning?

I tell him I went to church on Sunday after a long hiatus because I needed company. I needed a place to share my anxiety and despair. I needed to know what to do. My spiritual leader knew this. She knew it’s what we all needed. She asked, “What’s your shift? What is the talent, the insight, the resources that God has given you to make a difference in this world?” I tell him mine is writing so that’s what I’m doing. I’m taking my shift today. I ask him, “What’s his shift.”

What’s your shift?

#YourShift

AFF One: In the beginning there is the web

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For all of you going to the Austin Film Festival. I’ve gone to AFF the last two years and have some tips for you.

A small prologue, if you’re still debating on what badge to get. Upgrade to a Producer’s Badge if you can afford it, if not, a Conference Badge gives you all the same things except access to most of the parties and free drinks. So, if you’re a big drinker the extra 225 bucks is saving you money.

Now that that’s done let’s talk AFF schedule.

As far as the film festival part of AFF I recommend going to as many films as possible. Especially, if you are going to be in Austin past Sunday. I’ve watched many great gems over the years and only one dud. However, if you are only going Thursday through Sunday and your goal is to learn and network, skip most of the films. Go to at least one shorts program, there are a lot of filmmakers there. One might be your kindred spirit. Go to other films only if you have met, or want to meet, the filmmakers and want to support their work.

For the conference schedule, go over it with an eye on not only where you are, but where you intend on going. Get it out of your head that the only reason you’re there is to sell your script or get representation. Take a hard look at where you are as a writer and what you need work on. What is the common note from your readers regarding your scripts. Do they need more tension, better dialogue, surprises? Find the panels that discuss those things and take notes.  What do you do well that takes the most effort? Go to those panels too because even though you know how to make it work they might have something that makes it easier for you.

The most important tip I can give, is be flexible. If you have had it in your head all day that you’re going to see “A Conversation With…” panel because you liked his last movie and want to hear what he has to say but you’re in a great conversation with a fellow screenwriter who is willing to help you with your bad third act, forget the Q&A. Within the coming months, the On Story podcast will air the most informative parts of what that person had to say. The person you’re talking to right now might be the key that unlocks the blocks in your head. Or he or she might be a new friend with the same passion as you.

Never underestimate the power of a fellow human being that likes you and wants to help.

If there is an advanced sign-up that you weren’t able to register for but desperately want to attend, get there 20 minutes ahead of time and wait. They will have a few seats open after the people on the list are in. Conversely, if you want to get into a panel reserved for second rounders or semi-finalists and you are not one, don’t try. You’re wasting your time. I know.

Finally, mark all the options you had for the given time frame. Your first choice might be full. Or if you run late talking to someone you might want to have a secondary panel in mind that’s closer. No need to miss ten minutes of a panel across the street if there’s one down the hall you’d like as well.

No matter what, relax. Have a good time. You are surrounded by writers and people who love writers. That’s awesome.

Crowdfailing, Selfcess

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So, originally the post I had written about my gofundme.com campaign was one describing my sheer discomfort about asking people for money. I felt like I was begging. Much like how I suppress outward expressions of anger, for fear of being perceived as the angry black woman, I didn’t wanted to be perceived as the lazy charity case either. Upon hearing my worries one of my twitter friends told me not to think of it as begging, but as crowdfunding. Crowdfunding, yeah, I can do that.

I made a decision to ask the social media universe for help. With a knot in my stomach and apprehension in my heart I pulled my big girl panties up over my boobs, yes, they’re that big, to ask for retweets of gofundme.com/BillieJeanVK. When the first retweet came through I felt like I had won the lottery. All but one of the lovely tweeps who I asked to retweet me did. Even though it resulted in zero new dollars, I felt like it was a personal victory. I climbed up on my soap box and shouted that I needed help. Others took up the shout saying I was worth helping. Amazing.

Even though as an adult I know there are people who enjoy me as a person, being an outcast my entire life has made me afraid of anything where I find out what people think about me. There are times I worry that someone will think I only want them for what they can do for me. I forget what I have to offer and withdraw. I become a wallflower, waiting for someone to ask me to dance.

Putting myself out there, asking for what I want, is difficult for me but I work on it every day. I do this for myself and for my career. I must convince myself that I deserve to want to be president and not just first lady. I deserve to be heard and understood as the smart, talented person I am.

Sixty dollars raised so far of a goal of two thousand. I suck at crowdfunding but I’m doing better at asking for what I want. So here goes…

I want you to support me. Financially at gofundme.com/BillieJeanVK if you can. Or help by reading my scripts and giving notes. Or introduce me to neat people who will be an asset to my life or my career. By telling me if I am going overboard with asking for things. (Everything seems like too much for me right now, so it will be helpful if I have someone to tell me when I actually am being as annoying as I feel.) And most of all, by being your non-jerky self.

In return, I will walk through doors, hold out my hand, and open my mouth. I will welcome no, instead of dreading it. Most of all, I will never again be the one preventing me from achieving my dreams.

What We Know

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We’ve all heard, “Write what you know.” Most of us have also heard that this is crap on a cracker. Because really, who knows what it’s like to be a Jesus figure with a princess twin sister in a galaxy, far, far, away? Or a queen that was born shooting ice from her fingertips?

What I’ve found out about my own writing is more disturbing than writing what I know. I write who I am.

If someone had told me that writing who I am is how I would access my ability to write quality scripts I would have smiled, nodded, and hoped it didn’t look like I thought they were stupid.  Writing who I am is too painful, too limiting, I would have said. And I would have been right. Sort of.

It’s important to write who I am, but through characters without my face or history. I have told the emotional story of my history with race relations in the 1990s through an ex-slave lawman in the 1870s. Of being hurt by relationships through a fat white woman who’s had sex with more men than I’ve kissed, and my struggles with fitting into society through a serial killer’s love for a model with an ugly face. Their emotional truths are all part of who I am, but I don’t know any of them.

I think I will always be a little scared of writing who I really am. Even now too many of my first drafts consist of me giving a stiff arm to my emotions. They’re there at the edges, smooth, shiny, but not quite real. Only when I rewrite, holding the script to my emotional soul like a babe on a teat, does the script seem to connect with my readers.

Writing it down feels like it makes it real. But it already is real. All those hurt, rough places, and the mean, unforgiving places, share a part of me with the awesome joy I hope to exist in most of the time.

Be brave, tell me who you are. Be an artist, tell me through a world you’ve never known.

 

ESCAPE a story of the suicidal

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When you’re deep in the bowels of depression, that’s what the idea of suicide is to you, escape. All you think about is the end of your pain. To me it was the endless running in my brain of foreign thoughts. Of how good it would feel to just stop thinking. How good it would feel to stop having to live with this evil soup in my brain that made life a torture.

I had spent the last year and a half having genetically modified mouse cells intravenously added to my blood stream one a drop at a time, or shooting them into my belly through prefilled syringes. The infusions and injections did their job. My body was limber and pain free. But my mind. My mind fought each of those microscopic cells like a born warrior willing to give its own life for the eradication of the enemy. I stopped taking the biologics and let my body fall back into ruin because that pain was so much easier than the hell in my head.

When I was taking the drugs there was a tiny part of my brain that was able to stay afloat just enough to let me know that the thoughts I was having didn’t really belong to me. I know there are people whose entire brain is submerged and I don’t know whether to feel good or bad about that. They’re in constant pain but they don’t know anything else, so that gives them some measure of protection. My therapist says that the highest risk of suicide is when the person is getting better. When the depression is at its worst one finds it hard to get out of bed, much less find the energy to plan and commit suicide.

The only reason I’m alive today is because of my mom. I knew that if I killed myself it would devastate her and she might not survive. I had no desire to take her with me. Thank god I understood the damage that I would do to her, because I didn’t understand the damage I would do to everyone else who knew me. A suicide is violent act. Like a suicide bomber, it damages everyone around you.

In my group therapy, there was a beautiful woman in her fifties. We walked together on the way to our cars, we exchanged numbers. She called me. “How are you able to laugh while you’re in so much pain?” “I don’t know.” “But what are you doing?” “I’m doing all the work they give us. I follow-.“ Buzzzzzzzz. She’d hung up on me. I sighed and waited to see her at group. When I asked where she was that next group, I was told she had moved to a more intensive group. Oh good, I thought. She needed it. Three months later a former group member runs into a current group member and tells him how he saw her obituary in the paper.

The rumor burns through the group like wild fire. She’s dead. Our group therapist confirms it that night. She never left our group for another. She killed herself. The what ifs tumble through my brain along with every tool therapy has given me. My recovery is most important. I am not responsible for other people. You can’t save everyone. My conscience mind says, “It wasn’t your fault.” My unconscious runs through a series of pictures; she hangs up the phone and picks up the pills, the rope, the gun. If I had just called back she wouldn’t have been able to hold the phone and her weapon of choice at the same time.

Every suicide brings me back to that buzzing on the phone and the bomb that followed, exploding guilt and shame through my heart, her husband’s heart, our therapist’s heart, and the heart and head everyone that knew her.

It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my fault.

May she rest in peace. It wasn’t her fault either.

My Interview

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This interview was a really fun experience for me. Danielle and I talked for over two hours so a lot of what we talked about had to be trimmed. That is why sometimes it sounds like I start talking about something random but it all connects. Really happy with the way it turned out.
All the resources I talk about and more are on my Info For You page on this blog.

Earth and Fire

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I’ve never told you you’re a bad writer. That you are wasting your time and ink on reams of paper. I never have, but someone will. Whether they’ve seen your writing or not, someone might tell you this. Someone has told me this but I didn’t listen. I didn’t listen because I know who I am.

I am a writer.

Whether anyone ever buys a story of mine or not I have to write. That’s my truth. That is the ground I stand on. I had to learn to dig my toes into the dirt and let them grow roots so I can stand on my own even when others try to push me over.

Most of you that have met me know I laugh loudly and share freely. I’ve been told I’m trying too hard to be happy and personable when the truth is, I wasn’t trying at all. I was just being me. Unfortunately, when I’m around someone I admire I get quiet. I suppress all the bouncing and blurting in an effort to seem normal, only to amplify my awkwardness. The entertainment business, especially in LA, will try to tear you down for your differences. Don’t let it. Know who you are and what you’re willing to do. Stand in that truth and never let the fire in your belly, your passion, consume your humanity.

Fire can burn off the old to make room for the new. It can also, attract people to its warmth or send them running in fear. The earth can feed you, comfort you, and be the foundation to build on. But if you let others chip away at it, erode it, it will bury you.

As I talk to all of you, my fellow aspiring screenwriters, I talk to myself. I know these things I’ve shared with you these last weeks, but I have not lived them. There have been times I have let my fire be snuffed, stood still as dirt was shoveled on top of me. I don’t want to do that again. I know I have learned my lesson, but now for the scary part, to live it. I am preparing to live it. I will live it. This is my year. Is it yours too?

I wish you all luck but more than wishes I urge you to be prepared. Not only with your craft but with your soul.

This is the last of the life elements I’m posting. It took me so long to post this one because it scares me the most. I am still figuring out where I draw the line, and how far I’m willing to color outside of  it. I will treat myself gently if I fail. I will forgive myself and try again.

Try again.