On a Saturday in May 2008 I sat at a table pushing rubbery lasagna around my plate with a fork. The overwhelming fishy stench from my neighbor’s seafood ravioli made my stomach turn. It was lunchtime at the Nashville Screenwriter’s Conference. I turned to the woman seated on my right and traded small talk. She was a nurse so inspired by Brian Fuller’s “Pushing Daisies” that she turned to screenwriting. I told her about my feature length romantic comedy (a script I wisely tossed years ago).
A pasty man with curly hair that always appeared curiously wet approached our table and squatted. He wore a large carved Adinkra pendant on top of a black t-shirt. I had met him the day before. A close talker, he tried to impress me with his business card featuring his book. I inelegantly dropped the word “husband” to get him to back off. He continued to whisper to me during a seminar. I began talking about my kid (works every time!) and that blessedly freed me from him and his aura of aftershave.
Wet Head told the table how he was writing a screenplay about the friendship between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Someone commented that they didn’t know the two were friends.
“Yeah, they were real tight until Tolkien got his feelings hurt and started acting like a woman.”
I snapped my head up and glared at him. I propped my elbow on the table and leaned forward.
“Really?” I motioned to the women sitting at the table. “Please tell us more about that,” I insisted in mock adoration.
The women at the table laughed.
“I think you just proved my point,” he retorted.
He continued to drone on about his screenplay until he realized no one was listening. He rapped the table twice with his knuckles and slinked away.
. . .
This year was the fifth time I've entered the Academy Nicholl Fellowships Screenwriting Competition. I was a Quarterfinalist in 2009 yet I haven't been able to crack it since then. This year I made the top 20%, an improvement from last year. This year I most looked forward to reader comments. For the first time, the competition provided reader comments for and additional $40.
My comments were somewhat helpful. One was a little snarky but tame compared to other workshops I've attended. Truth be told, I was (like many other participants) underwhelmed. There wasn't much thought put into the critiques. The comments were dominated by personal taste more than attention to actual craft.
However, they were nothing like the reader comment Rachel Koller received:
"With some judicious alterations, [the script] might make a decent porn picture, as the gals do seem kinda hot, at least on the page."
Yes. This actually happened. And it gets worse.
When Koller politely expressed concern on the Nicholl Facebook page, she was treated with contempt:
(for the full exchange, see this article)
This is supposedly the most prestigious screenwriting competition in the world. For me, I thought it was my only ticket to becoming a successful screenwriter. For years I submitted draft after draft hoping I could somehow break through and get an agent or sale or something. To see such carelessness and misogyny on the other side crushed me. I felt my power had been taken from me. My dreams and my hopes snatched away. As I melodramatically related to my best friend:
At the same time, I felt a familiar sentiment simmering beneath my disappointment. Of course. This is how it is. This is how it’s always been. Did I really think that I had the same chance as a man? Especially when all my protagonists are female? Was I really so naïve to believe I had an equal shot?
Yes. Yes I was.
While there were a lot of supportive comments from all genders (yes!) on the Facebook thread, as time went by, more and more dismissive comments surfaced.
There were comments after online articles about the controversy that were scarier and more hateful than these. I don't want to visit those. They speak for themselves. These sly, disparaging comments cast the blame on Koller. She was "begging for it."
It was infuriating.
It was at this point when my buttons had been pushed too far.
Yeah, it was petty and crude ... but it made me feel good. Why? Because words have power. Rachel Koller is certainly evidence of that. I'm indebted to her for speaking up and giving us a peek behind that plush red curtain. What's back there is ugly yet familiar. Powerful but not indestructible.
I'm now conscious that yes, the past and the odds are against me. I'm also aware that I have the power to fight back: with words. With characters. With story. I want to frickin' blowtorch the supposed limitations and expectations of my gender. I will slay that beast behind the curtain until it's bloody mangled mess. Every time it creeps back up, I will stomp on it. For, as Zora Neale Hurston said:
Most of all, however, I just want to do me. I want to write. I want to channel my anger, my sadness, my pain into energy for my work. In a strange way, the opposition has given me a boost of confidence. I have no idea what I will do now. I don't know if I'll enter the Nicholl Fellowship competition again. I have no idea how a chronically ill mom from Tennessee will possibly break into screenwriting. I just know there is something in me that knows I can try.
I'm not worried.
My worth is no longer tied up in what people think of my work, if they even think of it at all. I know there's something in me, my own beast behind the curtain. It's small. It's strong. It's feisty. It will claw at your eyes if you try to stifle it.
I can't be bothered anymore. I've got too much to do. I bet you do too. And I bet whatever you do, even if you mess up, it'll be beautiful.
Parting words from Zora: