I’m going to go out on a limb here. On this day after the Oscars when people are celebrating excellence in film, debating whether or not George should have FINALLY won or if Meryl should have won AGAIN, and just where and how they can see The Artist (and you totally should because it’s AMAZING), I’d like to make a bold statement that will doubtless be the subject of much controversy.
Newsies is one of the greatest films of our time.
Okay, so granted the plot doesn’t make much sense, and neither does Ann Margaret’s accent; most of the characters are 2-dimensional (at best) and there’s a marked lack of a strong female presence in the film (I mean, Sarah? Really? Sarah?); the historical information is Disney-fied in a way that makes Pocahontas seem like a documentary in comparison; and Robert Duvall turns in a performance that is both bewildering and frightening. But there are a few saving graces. Aside from the incredible score, the rousing dance numbers, and the inexplicable charms of Spot Conlon, there is one thing that absolutely makes this film for me:
Why, you might ask, do I love this number so much? Well, gentle reader, believe it or not, it’s not just because I know this young whippersnapper grows up to be Batman. It’s because this is the story of a boy who wishes he was a cowboy, singing (badly) and dancing (worse-ly) in the streets of New York City. He has one dream, and one dream only: Santa Fe. And even though people laugh at him and tell him it’s never going to happen, he wants it so bad that he sings about it– with his eyes closed (which, if you’ve ever seen About a Boy, you know means that he loves something so much he’s forgotten to be cool). He’s just a boy, in a hat, with a dream. And that, my friends, is a beautiful thing.
Despite my previous posts, it might surprise you to learn I’m something of a total sap. I cry at EVERYTHING. Just ask my family about the Velveteen Rabbit incident. Actually, don’t, it’s really embarrassing, so just take my word for it—I’m sentimental. Stuff like this warms those icy frozen tendons of my heart. Because all of us at some point have been Jack Kelley, a wannabe cowboy stuck in New York City. We’ve all had some dream that seems impossible, some hope that everyone tells us is never going to come true. And unless your own personal dream is something like ‘learning how to blink’ or ‘drinking a glass of water,’ there have probably been some obstacles along the way that made you feel like this thing you wanted so badly was never going to happen. But today I’m going to share a (warning) schmaltzy, sappy little story with you that has a (spoiler alert) happy ending. Because as of almost two weeks ago, I got my dream.
This is the story of Elizabeth, awkward and introverted and weird, who decided when she was a little girl that she wanted to be a writer. Okay, I’m going to stop the third-person thing because it’s a little out there, even for me, but basically imagine me smaller, with pretty much the same haircut and some weird glasses, typing away my first great ‘masterpiece’: a novel that was a combination of Star Wars and Star Trek in which (spoiler alert) the Millennium Falcon gets caught in a black hole and ends up in the same universe as the Star Trek: Enterprise, and Luke and Deanna Troy meet and fall in love (It’s shocking, isn’t it, that I’m still single?). Sadly, I have no idea where that novel ended up, but I think I’m pretty safe in saying that it was absolutely atrocious. HOWEVER, it won me first place in my fourth-grade class writing competition, and as a reward I got to go to McDonald’s with my teacher and get chicken nuggets and an ice cream sundae (I can remember this vividly because it remains the most I’ve ever been paid for any of my writing. Ha! Just kidding. . . kind of . . .)
Over the years I wrote and wrote and wrote some more. Songs, plays, TV shows, movies. But no matter what else I was working on, I always went back to my books. So many different stories, so many different characters. What’s funny is that when I first started out, I can remember thinking how brilliant everything I wrote was; and now, the more I’ve done it and the more I’ve learned, the harder it is to think that anything I write is even passably good, much less AMAZING. But everything has been a learning process. I first started submitting when I was 17 and thank my lucky stars that those manuscripts were rejected, because even though I thought I knew everything then, I realize now I didn’t know anything. I went through a lot of the same problems that I thought were unique to me but now I realize are pretty common—starting things but not finishing them, having too many ideas but not enough time, thinking out great plots and characters in my mind but being unable to capture that on paper. At first I guarded everything under lock and key and refused to share; on the few occasions when someone did see something I’d written and offered criticism, I rejected it totally, reassuring myself they were unable to grasp my genius, that they just didn’t “get it.” Actually, this was the mark of an amateur, though I didn’t yet realize it.
I can’t quite say where the shift came when I started to get it in my head that if I wanted to be better at this, I had to work at it. Writing once in a while and reading everything in sight were a good start, but they weren’t going to make me into the kind of writer I wanted to be. I started taking classes. I shared my work with other people, and actually listened to critiques on how to make things better (and for a while I went too far in the other direction and listened to EVERYTHING other people I had to say before I learned the hard truth—that it was a fine balance of outside input and trusting my own instincts. Something I am still working to master). I started writing EVERY DAY for AT LEAST TWO HOURS instead of “whenever the muse struck me,” and was astounded to learn that I could actually learn how to channel the muse when I needed it instead of just waiting for it to come (most of the time. Sometimes the muse likes to be ornery and “fart in my general direction.” Which is frankly just gross, muse). I learned the wonderful tools of outlining and organization, which contrary to my long-held beliefs, did nothing to stunt my creativity, but actually helped to make it 1000 times better (that is a scientific measurement, by the way, not just a random number). I joined writing groups and entered contests. I got a degree in playwriting and another one in screenwriting. And mostly I wrote, wrote, and wrote some more.
(For those of you curious about the writing process and that all-important “muse,” this is pretty much it. At least for me, anyway)
Gradually, despite the fact that I was now painfully aware of how far I had to go, I started to submit again. And I got a lot of rejections. A LOT of rejections. Occasionally I would have a carrot dangled in front of me and think—this is it! Santa Fe!—only to realize that was no carrot, but rather a cleverly concealed stick of dynamite. Bummer. So then I’d spend a while moping and nursing my wounds, before picking up the pieces and starting all over again.
As most of you who have a dream will find, the longer you go without achieving it, the more you begin to wonder if it’s ever going to happen. Does Santa Fe exist? Is there a place in this world for city-slicker cowboys like me? And unfortunately there are those voices out there that reaffirm these doubts and make you question yourself—some of them coming from the inside, some of them coming from without. From strangers, for example, who give you condescending smiles whenever you tell them what you want to be “when you grow up,” and even sometimes from the people who love you who are probably only trying to do what’s best for you, but sometimes don’t realize just how hurtful it is when they refer to what you’re doing as “a hobby” or ask when you’re going to figure out what you’re “really doing with your life.” I don’t know what it is about a dream that makes people want to crush it. But if it’s a true dream, you have to find a way to drown out those bad voices and—cliché as it may be—believe in yourself. Keep going. Keep fighting. Keep dreaming.
About a year ago I finished a book that has been in my head for a LONG time. I wrote it first as a play, then as a TV show, and finally realized that I was an idiot, and that it was meant to be a book all along. Once I figured that out, it was like a steaming locomotive—I had to cling on with both hands or fall off, that’s how fast it was moving. I worked on it every chance I got. Missing sleep, missing social activities, missing television (gasp!), sometimes even missing friends and family. It was a lot of work, but somehow it felt like very little work to me because the characters were like people I knew. I could hear their voices. They wouldn’t leave me alone, in fact—in my sleep, in the shower, on some VERY awkward dates. Then came the editing, which was much less fun, but which polished that little diamond in the rough until I thought it was perfect. My baby. I sent it out to some agents, including—on a whim—to one of the best literary agencies in the country because I did some research on one of their agents and found out she liked Buffy the Vampire Slayer (it should be mentioned that many of my life decisions have been based off of this very same criteria). I honestly never expected to hear back from her aside from the token “Thank you for submitting your manuscript but unfortunately it doesn’t suit our needs at this time” rejection form which I had virtually memorized.
Then. . . she wrote me back. She liked the premise and sample pages and wanted the manuscript! I was excited, but a veteran enough by now to know that this was only the beginning of a very long (or potentially very short) climb, accompanied by those voices that told me I wasn’t good enough anyway and that stuff like this didn’t happen for people like me. What followed was actually a very long process, but essentially, the agent was wonderful, lovely, incredibly supportive and kind, helped me make the book into something SO much better than it was originally, helped me work on a SECOND project that I loved just as much as the first but in a totally different way, and now. . . she’s my agent. And I’m so happy that all those other people rejected me because I love working with her and she GETS the writing sometimes even better than I do, and in my totally unbiased opinion, she’s the best one out there. And now we’re working on getting my book published. Like, for people to read. In, like, a bookstore. I haven’t quite wrapped my mind around it yet.
The point of this post is really not to brag. It’s to say that Jack Kelley was right—dreams DO come true. Sometimes they change and shift and become so much better than what you originally hoped for. Sometimes—in fact, most of the time, if it’s a dream worth having—you have to work for it, and fight for it, and bleed for it, and cry for it. But it can happen. It took me two whole weeks to finally be brave enough to announce this because I keep being afraid that it’s all going to be some terrible joke at my expense, but. . . it’s happening. I’m not there yet, but I’m on my way. So to quote that greatest of all musicals, Newsies:
Are you there?
Do you swear you won’t forget me?
If I found you would you let me come and stay?
I ain’t gettin’ any younger
And before my dyin’ day
I want space
Not just air
Let ’em laugh in my face
I don’t care
Save a place
I’ll be there
In Santa Fe.”