I stare at the cover page of the printout I just picked up from Staples.
Name of First Writer:
Based on, If any:
It’s the cover page of the screenplay I finished yesterday. The above categories are still blank because I forgot to fill them out. Still no title. It was written by me, and I am the first writer (Hollywood screenplays often have numerous writers). As for based on, if any, I guess it’s based on my life. Or the questions of my life.
Half a year after Bernie died, I called up an actor friend of ours and told him that I had an idea for a movie he should do.
“I think you should do a movie about an older couple that has worked together for many years till a big stroke finally cripples the husband. The wife continues to work as well as take care of him. Often she asks herself what happens to love now, when you’re surrounded by illness and the prospect of death, when partnership becomes dependence and two lives, once so entwined, become different one from the other. Love is still there, but it’s changed.”
“And?” he asked me.
“She falls in love with another man, with whom she has a passionate affair, but the question about what comprises love at this time remains. Does it include lovemaking or caregiving? Is it about sacrifice and loss? Is it about fun? She has choices to make, decisions to reach.”
It had commercial potential, I told him. “I know that most audiences in movie theaters are very young, which accounts for why so many new American movies are tailored to them, but I think folks our age (he’s my age) would pay to see a movie that asks these questions.”
I told him I never had an extramarital affair nor did I fall in love with anyone other than Bernie, but these were the questions I asked of myself when he was ill, this was the story that appeared in my mind—not like a novel or a short story, all of which I’ve written, but as a movie. “So that’s the movie I think you should make.”
He said: “You may be right that it has commercial possibilities, but you have to write the screenplay.”
“I don’t write screenplays,” I told him.
“Write this one,” he said. “Get the First Draft software, which everybody uses for screenplays.” That was it.
Why not, I thought to myself. I was still somewhat in shock, functioning but not present. I couldn’t go back to old writing projects, couldn’t find myself, so why not?.
I started writing the treatment that April, and completed the screenplay yesterday, a year later.
I wrote scenes during which I wept. I couldn’t sleep some nights. At times I had to take a break away from the words on the screen. I made final edits to The Book of Householder Koans, gave myself long breaks to teach, take Bernie’s ashes to Auschwitz, get sick for 5 weeks this past winter. And went on.
I had to do a lot of research, too, because I made the couple in the screenplay astronomers. One evening last fall I drove to the MIT Haystack Observatory and Radio Telescope two hours away for one of two evenings when they open to the public, writing notes, asking questions, watching how they maneuvered the gigantic radio telescope towards the stars (thrilling!), and drove home, elated, in an incredible storm.
I also attended a brief workshop on screenplay writing, and the woman who gave that workshop will review the screenplay.
She may tell me it’s the worst thing she ever read, hardly a screenplay (“You’re writing a screenplay, not a play,” a friend had warned me early in the process), that it won’t work at all. In that case I may never even send it out. What I hope she says is that it needs work, and here’s how to fix it. In that case I’ll make revisions and then send it out to my actor friend.
Once I do that it’ll be out of my hands. Something will happen, or it won’t. I don’t plan to hawk it myself, Hollywood is not my world. I am aware that only a very tiny percentage of screenplays ever become films. If that happens, fine; it’s also perfectly fine if not. I didn’t write it for Hollywood, I wrote it for grief.
There are so many things we do with grief. We walk it in the forest, on-leash or off; we look up at stars and see grief instead; we sit with it, plant it with flowers in the earth, clean house with it, pause to make room for it in lots of phone conversations. Surround ourselves with pictures of it, go down to the basement and drown in its books and photos, under the pretext of creating some order or cleaning things out.
We can also get creative with it—compose songs, paint, dance, write a screenplay. Things come up you never imagined, dialogue, jokes, the squint of an eye—they will disappear into forgetfulness unless you put them down on a living page, in service of a story about love.
It feels like the end of something. Already I feel a little nervous, wondering what now? What will drive me now? Now that it’s done, I feel, I can die content. There was a call, and I responded.
Only it’s not completely over. “I haven’t written the last scene,” I warned the woman I will bring this to tomorrow. Which is strange, because usually, when I have the characters and story all worked out, the end is pretty clear. So why haven’t I written the last scene? What have I yet to decide about love?
“Is it a happy ending?” a friend asked me.
I hesitated. “It’ll be a good ending,” I told her. “A rich ending.”
I think I know what it will be but I’m not 100% sure. Till the last minute, make room for the unexpected.
Take a few days to regroup. Do dumb things: bookkeeping, packing up books in the basement, packing up pictures. Let my mind stray here and there, unconsciously rake in life’s suggestions. Be open to nothing, and everything.