RECENTLY, I DISCOVERED I am the same age as Quentin Tarantino. Truly. There are so many similarities between us. For example, the year I turned 50, he turned 50. He used to run a video store, and I used to run to the video store.
Before I moved to Los Angeles, I was fascinated by the life of a Hollywood director. All that power, all that wealth, all those opportunities to write for and direct the most talented people in the world.
MY PLAN FOR success was clear when I moved from Ohio to Los Angeles in August 2001. I was there to stay. I had found my niche. Through an excruciating, miraculous journey, God had led me there. I was sure of that.
My plan was simple, based on Sylvester Stallone’s trajectory.
Do you know the story?
He wrote his Rocky screenplay in a week, attached himself to it as the lead actor, sold it, then won an Academy Award.
I, too, intended to write a screenplay. Living in Hollywood, I was sure to meet a famous producer. One glance, and he would recognize my talent. He would insist I leave teaching and direct my screenplay. Naturally, the resulting movie would be a cutting-edge, second-coming-of-Quentin, Academy-Award-winning box-office hit.
After that, I would hobnob with the wealthy and famous. The money would pour into my puny checking account. My simple teacherly lifestyle would explode into Hollywood extravagance, stylish and edgy.
I had great confidence in my abilities. I met people easily — they liked me. Surely they would see my natural talent. Surely I would become as revered and honored as Tarantino.
I just needed to learn the rules. The unofficial rules.
The rules I had no clue existed.
WHEN I ARRIVED in Los Angeles, I knew I’d been placed in the ideal situation to write and sell that first big screenplay. My work at The Archer School with the children of parents in the movie Industry gave me access to some of Hollywood’s primary players — access people told me was the first requirement for success.
So why didn’t a famous parent decide to buy my screenplay and turn me into the next Tarantino?
It wasn’t that I was denied access. I could and did speak directly to the most powerful players in Hollywood. I directed their children in theatre productions, managed them in the student store, and advised them on the newspaper staff.
American Idol judge Randy Jackson lauded me as a “great teacher” before all the parents at the annual Spring Fundraiser, just before he auctioned off four American Idol tickets. I interacted with them — they knew who I was.
But eventually, I learned something important. Teaching the child of a Hollywood power broker — and using that relationship to break into the business — isn’t gaining access.
It’s breaking boundaries.
When Mr. Big Shot Director strides into school for a parent/teacher conference, he’s there as a parent, not a world-famous director. There’s a reason he pays for high-priced schooling, and it’s not because he wants one more conduit for wannabe writers to pester him: he wants to know his daughter has committed teachers. As he chats about her grades, he doesn’t expect to fend off potential screenwriters disguised as teachers.
Learning my role was the most difficult lesson I learned in Los Angeles. It took me a long time to figure out I wasn’t part of the showbiz world. Even though I taught the children of the rich and the famous, I wasn’t one of them.
No. I was just The Help.
I REMEMBER STANDING in the local Brentwood pharmacy, talking to Cindy Harrell, the wife of Alan F. Horn, who at that time was President of Warner Brothers, now the Chairman of The Walt Disney Studios.
Cindy was an activist and fundraiser for environmental causes. A personal friend of Al Gore.
Naturally, she was on Archer’s board of directors.
By the rules of the rural Mennonite world I’d grown up in, Cindy and I were fast friends.
She called me by my first name whenever she saw me. She always took the time to chat with me whenever we ran into each other. She was interested in my goals.
Clearly, she had spotted my talent.
But that day in the drugstore, without realizing it, I stumbled into forbidden territory. When she expressed polite interest in my latest writing project, I downshifted smoothly into an elevator pitch.
“I’m writing a screenplay about a boy named David, whose friend is killed—”
“Wait!” Cindy’s eyes, which had been so kind and interested in me, suddenly looked shifty. “Steven, I can’t listen to this.” She opened her small white purse and began searching for something.
I froze. Prickling sensations of embarrassment crept up my neck.
She looked up and glimpsed my distress. “You’ll need to get an agent if you have a screenplay.” She snapped her purse shut. “I’ll be happy to recommend one for you.”
Finally, she smiled.
I sucked in a gasp of relief. I knew the top agent from Creative Artists Agency would soon be in touch, thanks to Cindy’s recommendation.
“Thanks, Cindy. I’d appreciate that.”
And I did. For several months.
Until I realized no agent had appeared at my doorstep, bouncing and eager to represent me. No agent had even bothered to call. I hadn’t received so much as a friendly text from Creative Artists Agency.
IT CONFUSED ME.
It took a writer-actor friend of mine in the business, Steven Huey — he called himself Hollywood Steve because he wasn’t teaching middle-school students — to help me figure out what that studio exec’s wife had feared.
“She’s afraid she’ll be sued,” Huey told me over breakfast. We were eating at IHOP in West Los Angeles. As usual, I had long since vacuumed down my breakfast, while Huey was still nibbling thoughtfully through his sausages.
“You’re not a Bullshit Artist, the way most folks are in L.A.” Huey observed with wicked amusement, “but you are full of shit. The thing about you, though, is even when you’re full of shit, you earnestly believe you know what you’re doing.”
Noting my shock, Huey nibbled a molecule of toast and continued his analysis. “You must understand — I admire this quality in you.” His voice sounded genuine. “I wish I had it.”
“What quality?” I tried not to look insulted.
A long pause ensued while Huey inhaled a slow, stately sip of orange juice and began contemplating his eggs. Slowly. Finally, the words came to him.
“You have a certain kind of resilience. You take failures in stride. In that way, you’re admirable . . . because you give yourself the creative license to screw up.”
SO MUCH FOR access.
I soon learned the best thing about living in Los Angeles and interacting with people in the Industry, as they call it, is that I learned a lot about writing I couldn’t have learned anywhere else.
It didn’t happen when I was trying to impress anyone. It happened when I foreswore ambition. It happened when I was listening. Because that’s the best way to learn how to write — hang out with really good writers, observe closely, then go away and practice what you’ve learned.
Writers I met in L.A. taught me to think differently about the writing process. In fact, my experience there transformed the way I write and teach.
THE FINEST WRITING mentor I know is one I encountered by accident.
When I met him, I didn’t know about his connections. I didn’t see him as a ladder to success. I didn’t even know who he was. I was just doing my job, trying to help his daughter.
The meeting was memorable because it didn’t go well. His student was having a difficult time adjusting to seventh grade — lessons about life everyone faces and hates — and during the resulting conference, plenty of drama played out between mother and daughter.
Eventually, we got it sorted out — while her father sat quietly, undisturbed by the chaos, all but invisible.
I remembered vaguely his name was Tom.
After the conference, Tom came alive. As he rose, his eyes lit on the play I was writing, bound like a screenplay on my desk.
Tom glanced at me. “That a screenplay?” Real curiosity in his voice.
“No, it’s a play.” I gestured dismissively. “One of my college buddies — a high school drama teacher in Ohio — commissioned me to adapt A Tale of Two Cities for the inauguration of their new theatre.”
Tom’s eyes lit up. “Would you like me to take a look? Maybe meet for coffee to talk about it?”
I looked at him in surprise. Considering what I’d learned about the way things worked in Hollywood, I wouldn’t have expected anyone in the Industry to volunteer.
“Sure.” My heartbeat shifted into high gear.
He picked up the script and slipped it under his arm. Then the lively, curious face disappeared. He turned to his wife and daughter, once more the absent-minded writer, and trudged off with them.
I HAD NO idea who Tom Rickman was, other than the father my student. As soon as I had a minute, I Googled him.
Only to find he was nothing less than the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Coal Miner’s Daughter. Robert Redford had hired him to teach for the Sundance Institute, where he served as a writing mentor. According to the New York Times Magazine, Tom’s work inspired Tarantino to become a screenwriter.
I stared at the screen, heart sinking to my soles.
There was zero chance he would ever call. He was just being polite to his daughter’s teacher. I could kiss that script goodbye.
Next time I met Tom — if I ever did again — he would have forgotten who I was.
TO MY SURPRISE, Tom did not forget. Several days later, he did call. Would I like to meet for coffee at a nearby Starbucks?
I actually hesitated.
Tom couldn’t have known I was still recovering from another recent “mentoring session” with a famous filmmaker I’ll call “The Master.”
I’d met this short, acerbic writer while singing in a local church choir. Like me, he was a tenor. Unlike me, he was also a successful screenwriter working for a major studio.
Flattered by my interest, he offered to give me feedback on my new Dickens play. Several days after I gave him a copy, The Master rang me.
“I’ve read your play. How about dropping by?”
With pleasure, I agreed.
Surely this was the first step to fame and fortune.
To my surprise, no high-powered agent or even a low-powered press agent was waiting breathlessly at the apartment, eager to represent me. Instead, during a nightmarish five hours, The Master ripped apart my play, scene by scene, sentence by sentence, word by word, comma by comma … you get the idea.
He meant well. I’m sure of this. Just like any well-meaning high school English teacher who takes the time to go through a piece of your writing, line by line, pointing out every spelling error and punctuation mistake you’ve made — forgetting to tell you, of course, what if anything they actually liked.
That conference steamrolled my ego. That conference wrung every ounce of joy out of my writing. That conference deleted any molecule of confidence I’d ever had as a writer.
It left me with nothing.
I decided I needed to face reality.
My writing was clearly trash.
There was no hope for me as a playwright or screenwriter. I should focus on what actually paid the bills.
But I took the script to school with me the next day — a small literary tombstone etched with my fading dream of becoming a Hollywood screenwriter.
It just so happened that was the day of student-parent conferences. And between conferences, I stared mournfully at that lonely script — perched on my desk.
Which is where Tom spotted it.
Which is how he asked to read it.
Which is why I was now going to have coffee with him.
Did I really want to risk being torn limb for limb yet again by someone who actually knew how to write?
I must be a complete fool.
WHEN I WENT to meet Tom two days later, I braced for the worst.
Once again, my expectations turned inside out.
Instead of the arrogance I expected from an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, I found a man who was kind, self-effacing, humble.
Completely focused on me, he sat listening, drinking coffee from a white cardboard cup. His questions demonstrated a comprehensive knowledge of the play. He remembered every detail.
His respect for my writing potential was also evident. He offered practical suggestions for improvement.
Rather than trying to prove he knew more than I did — as The Master had done when he obliterated me during that horrific five-hour critique — Tom began our session by asking thoughtful questions, giving me the benefit of the doubt.
He was genuinely curious, even fascinated by my choices. Why were there no written transitions between the scenes? Was I using a Brechtian distancing effect, as Bertolt Brecht had done in The Threepenny Opera?
Another thing he wanted to know. All the scenes came directly from the novel. Had I considered creating original scenes? In my mind, what would be Sydney Carton’s primary motivation for going to the guillotine? How could I explore that within the dialogue?
HERE’S THE IMPORTANT thing I’ve observed about Soul Teachers — they treat other people as if they do know something.
Rather than lecturing me as the novice I so clearly was, Tom treated me as a writing colleague. He somehow knew the difference between ordering people about and inspiring them to create. When he gave me a suggestion, it became a seed rather than a paint-by-numbers lesson.
He counted on my imagination.
He collaborated with me to help me discover ideas, rather than giving me his own. Best of all, Tom was generous with his time. At the end of the first two-and-a-half hours, he turned to me. “I think we could spend some more time talking. Tomorrow?”
Although I spent the same amount of time with both men, at the end of five hours with Tom, the effect on me was dramatically different. I felt energized, ready to work.
The next day he was waiting again at our table, bearing a tall cup of coffee and a smile.
THE GREATEST GIFT Tom Rickman gave me was empathy.
He’d been where I was — stranded behind my keyboard with no help in sight, convinced I’d never get the story right. He knew how to collaborate with writers.
That day, sitting in Starbucks, he gave me what I needed.
When I was done talking to Tom, I didn’t walk away thinking about how great he was. I left convinced once again I could do this thing. I could make my play work for the stage.
Which is exactly what Tom intended me to think.
YEARS AGO, ONE of my graduating seniors sent me a thank you card. In it, she offered me a line by Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher.
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists,” Tzu wrote. “When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
Until I read this line, I believed the only great teachers acted like Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society. Filled with charisma, they dominate the classroom.
How wrong I was.
When Tom walked through a crowd, he was invisible. Yet he counted among his students and colleagues some of the finest screenwriters and directors in the world.
All of whom believe they did it themselves.
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