HBO Access Writing Fellowship: Why it Wasn’t a Total Disaster

While working through the deluge of ideas floating around in my head this afternoon, and trying to ignore my overwhelming urge to eat a cookie, I did what any good writer would: I googled things to distract myself and came up with this article —

Diverse Writers Break the Internet: Ask HBO How Many

It’s short. Go ahead and read it if you want. I plan to quote from it if not.

So you understand more fully why an article about the HBO Access Diversity Writing Fellowship is of interest to me, some backstory. On March 4th — the day in question — I logged into Without A Box at 11am central time and then spent the next two hours fighting a crashing website for a sliver of a chance that I might qualify for this fellowship.

After a lot of prayers and bargains and refreshing the (multiple) windows I had open, I finally got a confirmation page that my application had gone through.

When I went to Twitter, riding the high of actually making it under the wire, and searched the hashtag #hboaccess, I noticed something pretty unsurprising, but a little disappointing. There were 1000 applicants accepted, and for every one of them there were ten people flipping off HBO and cursing the entire program because they didn’t make it.

There were a lot of questions about how this could have been avoided. Why this happened. What it meant. But there were also a lot of (understandably) angry writers who felt like they had lost out on a major opportunity.

I am not the most diverse woman. I am white. I am straight. I am middle class. Some might say I should have left this for the more diverse, and those people have a right to that opinion. But that opinion is based on prejudice. Because whether I should get to or not, I qualified.

And I would do it again in a heartbeat, because of statements like this one:

…the limited bandwidth of Without A Box serves as a metaphor for the career trajectory of many diverse writers in America: There is only so much room for people like you here. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say diverse writers are explicitly told this again and again. By fellowships like these, yes, but also by literary magazines and publishing houses and art galleries and academia and so on and so forth. It’s real.

Even white, straight woman like me are discriminated against in the film industry and publishing world. We are taken less seriously or made to feel shitty about our writing. And what’s worse, the window is narrowing, and soon, there may not be enough room for us to fight for the right to Write. The playing field is a swarm of talented people banging on the door until their knuckles are bloody. Banging, and being ignored.

Hollywood continues to finance reboots because they are a sure thing.

Publishers continue to buy shit because it sells.

Original content rarely makes it through the door.

Readers and viewers complain about the crap they are given. Readers and viewers, nevertheless, consume it.

I am diverse because I am still the minority in the Film Industry. I am deserving of a chance to place my name at the top of the stack. I’ve been working a long time to get published. I’ve been writing screenplays since I was a child. I am dedicated and I am sick of the bullshit.

More and more creatives are turning to self-publishing, to YouTube, to indie pub or indie films, to teaching, or to crying into a bowl of ice cream and lamenting the life and death of their dreams.

Fighting back starts with believing you deserve to win.

I believe it for myself, whether I am an abysmal failure or a soaring success. Maybe even more when I look around and realize none of these fuckers is buying what I’m selling. I don’t stop pushing it. I push harder.

What the HBO application process taught me was simple: I want it bad enough to act a fool to get it. I better keep acting a fool.  I better bloody up my knuckles pounding on that door, and then I better go back to the drawing board and up my game because if I don’t someone else will. And then who can I blame but myself?

No Excuses. Just Write.

I just spent a week in Hawaii, and it made me realize something:

I’m angry. Have been for a while. I don’t want to be anymore.

I have been writing in the hope of being traditionally published for four years, this October. I remember the moment with great clarity that I decided to make that my goal. And, in retrospect, that may have been my first mistake.

I was sitting on my stoop in Brooklyn, and I decided to discontinue the blog I’d started when we moved to New York City in favor of creating a writing-centered blog to begin building my author platform. I didn’t even have a finished draft yet, and already I was plotting my future as an author. Already, I was thinking about what kind of brand I wanted to create. Already, I was setting myself up for heartache.

This post will be inspirational. I’ll get to that part in a minute.

I did finish a draft. And then I revised. And revised. And revised. And every time I did, I wanted it to be the last time. I wanted someone to tell me yes, this book is no longer a red hot mess. I got a lot of feedback. That manuscript helped me make a lot of writer friends and industry connections because it was promising, but it was never quite right.

I got tired of revising it and around that time I finished my shiny new idea. I revised. I revised again. I sent it to readers and got fantastic feedback. I did a revise and resubmit with an agent. The resubmit went well, all signs pointed to Yes, and then instead nothing at all happened. The agent fell off the face of the planet. I never heard from her again.

Whether it was right or not, I got angry. Yes, I did the proper thing and acted cool. I told myself this was not my fault. I told myself this was just business. I force fed every line of positive energy bullshit I could down my throat. I faked a positive attitude. I began to query more widely. I got a lot of requests, fast, and there were a couple of weeks there in January where I was flying high.

But the Anger was still there. It had a higher threshold for patience than I did. As the months of waiting dragged on, it festered. It seeped into my heart and mind and creative force. I sat down to write, anything, and Anger distracted me with self-pity. I griped about the Industry, and Anger became more powerful in my disgust. I saw certain books become successful, books I read and didn’t love, didn’t like, didn’t get. I struggled to read at all. Agents requested, agents rejected, agents didn’t get back to me. I decided Agents could go fuck themselves.

I’m a bit of a potty-mouth. Anger made that worse.

I kept having accidents and injuring myself, and Anger managed to make even those about my failure as a writer. Because since I wanted to be published, since I had decided that publishing was my goal, the fact that I wasn’t yet meant my writing was bad. It meant I was clearly on the wrong path, and I needed to realize it. It meant my talent, my love of story, my imagination, was substandard. It wasn’t enough to know what I loved and get to do it — I needed to succeed. I needed to win. I should just give up.

This wasn’t happening without my knowledge. I am not a victim. Anger became my ally. It made me feel validated in my procrastination, or lack of perseverance with the manuscripts I had started, or querying some more, or deciding anything, ever about my career.

The week before I left for Hawaii I started a new project. Well, a reimagining of that first novel. The one I gave up on. The one I wrote because I wanted to get published. As the words poured onto the page, I forgot to be angry. I forgot to feel sorry for myself, or to hate the agents that said no or said nothing, I forgot everything because the words were more important, the voice was all that mattered. It was a small victory against Anger, and it was the first step in breaking that alliance.

On the way to Hawaii I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and saw another writer announce they had landed an agent. And I should have been happy for them — I was happy for them, really, deep down — except Anger reminded me of all the reasons I shouldn’t be. Of all that I deserved and hadn’t received, of all the wrongness. I shut my Twitter feed and felt tears well in my eyes. I was tired of being angry. It was making this hard thing harder, and in order to win, I would need to let it go. And winning would have to become something else. And everything would have to change.

This realization followed me to the Islands, where I looked out over the ocean and asked for clarity.

The real problem was me. And the only person I was hurting, the only successful victim in my alliance with Anger against the publishing industry, was me and my writing. Me and the thing that I love.

The clarity I asked for, I received. The Islands operate on a different wavelength than the rest of the world. They move at a different rhythm. I move dangerously fast. I hate waiting. I see time as a commodity I will never have enough of. I want everything. I want to be everything. I am pulled in a million directions by me and no one else because I am afraid of missing it. I am afraid of not doing all the things I am supposed to do.

Ultimately, I, not Anger, am my own worst enemy. And I don’t know if that will ever really change, but I do know that I have to forgive myself for not meeting that goal yet. I have to forgive publishing, and Agents, for not doing things the way I want them to. I have to forgive my writing for still being a work in progress. I will only have me to blame if I let Anger win instead of Perseverance.

In the end, the only thing we have power over, no matter what we’re trying for, is ourselves and our attitude. So, no excuses. Just write. And then rewrite. And then start again. You are never finished, but you are good enough in your unfinished state.

feet in water

Waiting Ring

ring When you are a writer in pursuit of publication you wait. A lot.

First, you wait for feedback from critique partners and beta readers to tell you your manuscript is ready to query. This is an important stage of waiting. It helps you build up strength in your patience muscles. It teaches you that you can’t harass friends, that passive aggression will do little more than make them want to block your email. Waiting on readers forces you to develop a range of coping mechanisms needed to manage the heavyweight Waiting Tournament that lies ahead of you, known as:

Cold Querying.

This stage of waiting comes with a whole new set of challengers. In one corner there’s Inevitable Rejection. This is a brawny, unscrupulous, and unfortunately unavoidable opponent. Sometimes it strikes fast. Sometimes it is a slow, brutal stalemate of DID THEY GET MY QUERY WILL THEY EVEN RESPOND, in which you recheck their company guidelines and bite your nails to the quick.

In another corner you will face the Partial Request. Often, the Partial Request tag teams with Inevitable Rejection to combine their strengths in a pleasant, sometimes long-awaited Form Letter. Occasionally, Partial Request bows out, and you are upgraded to FULL REQUEST challenge.

This, my querying beauties, is the big leagues. Full Request enters the ring, distracting you with shiny hopes and dreams of Offers, and Contracts, and Emails full of flattery and begging. But then Full Request pulls out it’s secret weapon: Waiting for a Response.

At this point, you are tired. You’ve already fought through three rungs of hell to get to Full Request status. You begin to question your ability to defeat this challenge. Your anxiety seeps to the surface and gives you bitter beer face. You are constipated by the lack of movement in your inbox. You wonder if all the offers are somehow being captured by Full Request’s henchmen, Doubt and Self-loathing. You know you shouldn’t give a flying fuck but you do, you can’t help it, and what’s worse, your hands are tied.

Yes. You start work on another manuscript. Or you start a YouTube channel (like this one). Maybe you take a trip or focus on family or educate yourself in the art of underwater basket-weaving. But you are still WAITING. No winner has been declared. No loser has been declared either.

My friend, Sara Biren told me a story today about waiting in the Geek Squad line at Best Buy. A woman showed up waving a piece of paper with her appointment confirmation and demanding instantaneous service. She was sent to the back of the line. After listening to this woman complain, Sara told her, “There are a lot worse things than having a broken phone and having to wait in line to get it repaired.”

Sara knew I needed to be reminded of this, but she was nice enough not to bitch slap me with it. She was nice enough not to say, “Get over yourself. First world problems much?”She has been in the Agent Waiting Ring. She is now in the Editor Waiting Ring. Her patience muscles are bigger than mine.

When Sara was finally called to the desk, she received an upgrade and got a shiny new case to protect the Precious. Her children were happy because they’d spent the afternoon hogging the Best Buy in store iPads. Waiting had paid off.

Sometimes, Waiting is just giving the Upgrade a chance to find it’s way to you. Sometimes, Waiting is right where you need to be.

Life Grades

It’s important, in the grand scheme of life and the American-way, not to lose sight of your standards. In NYC, every restaurant is required by law to display an A through C health and sanitation grade. Here is a link explaining how it works, and why it’s awesome and should be taken seriously. In our neighborhood alone there are multiple restaurants with a B (marginally offensive) and a C (terrifying!). As a person who respects my body (though I inject it with way too much caffeine, but we all have our vices) I refuse to eat somewhere that garners such a low score. I also really, very much, hate to throw up.

There is a funny episode of How I Met Your Mother from season six where Marshall and Lily insist on eating at a restaurant with a D (this is not a possible score now, but was at one time) and they both get food poisoning. Of course, turns out, Lily is pregnant — but really, standards people!

Standards are an important aspect to every part of life, not just food, but we’ll get there. I promise. I am always shocked — not necessarily to the point where I stare through the window at the grease smeared counter with a scowl, shaking my finger reproachfully at the non-hairnet wearing cook with his finger up his nose, but almost — by the patrons of establishments shitty enough to get that kind of grade. In a city literally bursting with delectable eateries, why would you submit yourself to a place where you’ll likely get the runs? (It should be noted that these restaurants aren’t any cheaper, though sometimes they have deals on liquor.)

Standards, expectations, imagination. And here I bring in my point. Ready? Have you guessed it? We achieve what we believe ourselves to be capable of. If you decide you are only able to do one meal a day and the rest are peanut butter sandwiches or cereal that’s OK. If you think your kid incapable of sleeping through the night, they won’t. If you believe your craft worthy of publication, and you raise your expectations, you educate yourself, you work really hard, you can do it.

Often, we begin with a grand plan and somewhere in the execution we lose sight of the goal. We let our expectation for success be thwarted by the hardship of the journey. We stop breaking open our imaginations to find the best route to our goal. We give up. We lower our standards to a place that is manageable and comfortable. We eat at the restaurant with the C grade and the waitress who just sneezed in your coffee.

Thumper

I realize I’ve been a little quiet the last week, which is unusual for me. I have been in Texas since last Saturday working on revisions and proofreading the revisions I have finished. It’s been exhausting and exhilarating. Why Texas? I am originally from the Lonestar State, and both sets of grandparents live in our former hometown. It’s a great place to occupy my son while I am pushing through to finish my novel. I am pushing through everything right now. Through my tired eyes. Through my aching shoulder. Through the other things I could be doing, and the missing my New York apartment and my sweet son who is happily engaged with his family.

Mostly, I am pushing through self-doubt. I think this is a normal emotion to struggle with in the face of rewrites, and the finish line. I had it nicely boxed up inside the corner of my mind reserved for those sorts of thoughts (my weight insecurities and parenting shortcomings also live there) until yesterday. Yesterday I had an experience I would rather not elaborate, but only say, I began to fear my own talent, the positive feedback I’d received from multiple sources, and the truth that I really, really believe this book is worth publishing.

The reason I will not elaborate is I refuse to be one of those people who wears their heart on their sleeve. I refuse to express my anger and frustration at an individual person in a blog that can be read by anyone. I think someone should put this person in line, but I will not be the girl to do it.

I will, however, be the girl to tell you that you can never allow one asshole’s opinion to affect you for more than a glass of wine and a good cry. I do think you should have that glass of wine and good cry, that is super healthy and smart. But after that, and I mean right after, get your ass up and keep moving. Remember what you know to be true. Remember that you can never please everyone. When I was a kid, my mom used to tell me — with her hands on my shoulders: “If everyone likes what you’re doing then you’re doing something wrong.” She was also the one to encourage me to remember what Thumper’s mother said: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” I am still reminding myself of this today.

I am remembering it as I tell you to forget critics and remember only true critique. I am remembering it as I curse those who think they know more than Jesus, and may know a lot, but who can still be blind and foolish enough to make asinine statements in an offhand way. Those people are invited to bite me. I do realize that was not something nice to say and have chosen to say it anyway.

I think you have to find kindreds in your life and remember not everyone will be one. Not everyone is super creative or good at knowing their own mind. Some must be told what they like. Those are the ones who followed the popular girls around school and who now ride the coattails of someone else’s brilliance. There is need for those kind of people in life. I will readily admit that. I will also readily admit that I really, really don’t care to be one of them. But that is sort of off point. I am trying to be edifying.

If you ever find yourself in a situation where you too wrestle with self-doubt, remember that self-doubt can cripple you into never putting yourself out there. Don’t let it. Let it wash over you and remind you of your self-confidence, your self-worth, and your uniqueness. (Have a glass of wine and cry, too, if you like that sort of thing.)