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BALLS OF STEEL™: Put Up or Shut Up

Patience is paramount when it comes to both getting a project produced and learning your writing partner’s habits. But patience can also be the killer of a project – a slow infectious cancer that will suck the energy out of your work and your soul.

Last week, I declared patience is paramount when it comes to both getting a project produced and learning your writing partner’s habits. But patience can also be the killer of a project – a slow infectious cancer that will suck the energy out of your work and your soul.

Sometimes you have to put up or shut up.

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After a year of outlining our adaptation of Slavery by Another Name, we were dancing dangerously on the talk-is-cheap line. People kept saying, “So, how’s that adaptation coming?” Gulp.

In writing, and in life, you have to carefully walk a line between patience and productivity. My writing partner, Douglas A. Blackmon, and I were struggling getting this script written. We lived in different states yet functioned best in person. This was quite a dilemma.

I took a good hard look at what drove both of us. Then it hit me. Doug is a newspaper guy – he needed a deadline. I’m a competitive freak – I needed a contest.

Bingo!Sundance Screenwriters Lab.

The deadline was May 1st. Game on.

We had one last outlining meeting in NYC in January, and in February, we started the first draft. The beauty of having a 31-page outline is we never had to stare at a blank screen.

The words flew. My fingers were on fire. I wrote 12-hour days, while Doug chased Wall Street Journal stories around the country and gave me feedback on the fly. The trust he had in me is something I’m still amazed by. I’m one lucky writer.

Despite having carved a great roadmap for the story, there were days I was totally overwhelmed. For the first half of the script, we focused on the plantations and the U.S. Attorney’s gathering of evidence of slavery. I don’t know where it came from, but it’s as if I was on that plantation, with black skin, back in 1903. I even talked in a Southern accent for weeks. I was in the zone of zones.

Then we hit the courtroom. Oh crap. Can we go back to the plantation again? I liked it there. I was comfortable there.

I quickly learned it’s never good to get too comfortable in any location or life event, especially when you’re on a deadline.

So I did what a freaked out writer does – I wouldn’t allow myself to think about the fear. I simply put down my plantation hat and picked up a courtroom gavel and kept pushing out the words. Like it or not, I was now an attorney.

It was mid April, and we still hadn’t written the final act, struggling to find the perfect ending to such a grim tale and still leave the audience satisfied. The pressure was suffocating.

We needed a fresh set of eyes. Enter Bill Pace, script consultant.

Doug and I met Bill in NYC. We sat in Bryant Park to hash out what was missing, where we needed to push farther, and how to get our protagonist in high gear. Our hero wasn’t right yet. In fact, he paled in comparison to the multilayered antagonist and supporting characters. Turns out, I had a hard time writing for a white Southern guy. Go figure.

In our defense, this story was complicated. So complicated that we’ve since crafted a separate miniseries version, but the goal in front of us that day was to get it all into a feature-length script. Sundance was waiting, and I could hear the foot of Marisa Tomei from My Cousin Vinnie stomping in my head.

At the end of the meeting, Doug had to race off for WSJ business, and I sat with Bill in the park and talked. With a deep breath and holding back tears, I finally admitted what was in my heart – fear. I was afraid of not being able to pull this off, afraid of letting Doug down, afraid of letting down every African American in this country. I felt the weight of an entire community of people on my shoulders. Not to mention Doug's work had earned a Pulitzer Prize. The bar for our script was high, and I was stretched like Gumby to reach it.

Then it hit me: The outline stage was a safe place. Writing the script felt like Dante’s Inferno. I had used “patience” and playing in Outline Land as a safety blanket.

Bill smiled and with one simple touch of his hand, a tear finally shed from my eyes. I was so tired. Drained.

He spoke of his faith in us, in Doug’s incredible work, in my crazy drive, and in his belief Sundance would see how important this project was. Bill was the ray of hope I needed that day. He was the doctor who cured the cancer of hiding behind patience by telling me to suck it up and finish the damn thing.

I went back to my country home, reached out to my Twitter writers, and they gave me the support I needed to keep going. One particular writer moved me most of all. An African American poet who goes by the name Speaks Beliefs shared with me his poem titled Thank You. As I pushed through, I read his poem every day. I urge you to click the link. He is my reminder of why we’re writing this. He is the reason I shut up, focused and finished the script. I hope to meet him in person someday and say, “thank you.”

On April 29, 2010 we completed our first draft and submitted to Sundance Screenwriters Lab.

There’s a time for patience, and there’s a time to shut up and get the job done.

Past columns on the journey of Slavery by Another Name can be found on Jeanne's Script Magazine author page.

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