When living in New York City, I met many writers. Some came into my MFA program, some I already knew, and some I just happened to meet. Advice of theirs sticks to me, all of it, but there are certain bits that haunt me. Two of these persistent thoughts came when I did not expect them. Through friends and friends of friends, I ended up going out to breakfast with a screenwriter. He looked young, was no more than thirty, but seemed to be plagued with none of my poverty. There was money in his wallet. His manner was that of someone who had accomplished life goals. There was easy assurance about his speech. Somehow this young man was far ahead of where I was. That did not bother me so much as make me want to know what secrets he had. His way was to come off as one who just knows that answer. I wanted that answer. So as I sipped a shot glass sized serving of fresh squeezed orange juice, I talked to him about my process and got the first bit of commentary. “Phony writers talk about page counts.” This struck me right away as I frequently did just that. To friends I said things like, “I wrote thirty pages yesterday” or “that was the longest novel I’ve written” and I thought nothing of these statements. I think the screenwriter’s point is that it doesn’t matter how much I’m writing as it does what I am writing, what I am completing, and to what end I am using it. If I am just writing piles of material with no real point to the writing it can be considered therapeutic but it cannot be considered professional. The screenwriter said this with the assurance of someone who had gotten the same advice from someone else a long time before, and that that advice had served him well. I hadn’t ordered as expensive breakfast as he had. I was getting an egg on a roll. I watched him eat less from more of what I wanted, Eggs Florentine, and wanted to be him more than ever. He lived in my neighborhood at the time, Little Italy, one that was the most expensive of any neighborhood in New York City. Unlike me, his parents weren’t paying his rent. Writing was. After we walked down and around from a diner in the East Village, I never saw this friend of a friend again, close as I lived to him. The density hid him from me even as he was proximate. The last words he said before goodbye stay with me as well. I had been talking to him about all the ideas I was putting in my thesis, a novel called “Dry World”, and he stopped me short to tell me he had to go west down Prince Street where I had to turn downtown on Elizabeth. So, parting, he shot: “Tell stories. Any other writing is just jerking off.” It was a filmic bit to say. His job as a screenwriter was to tell stories, and in that, my job was like his. I had always been told to think of my work as scenes in a film. A series of them. Even life can feel like a movie. As I watched him walk away from the still rising sun, down the valley of a long city street, I thought about all that I had yet to write.
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