From the Inside Looking Out (aka “The Belated Birthday Post”)
Confession: I write mostly about pop culture now because it’s interesting. What we gravitate to or are repulsed by reflect the gauge of what we deem acceptable for our culture, our (sub) communities, ourselves and others. I also write about it because it’s an easy pitch to editors even on the most serious of sites because it gets way more clicks than anything news-y that doesn’t have the dual function of being outrageous, shocking or scandalous. People say they want depth. What they click on says otherwise.
But mostly I do it to avoid talking about the ish I really want to say.
Last year’s birthday post was about a TV venture I was nervous about, one that highlighted what’s practically every person’s greatest fear: not being good enough. In retrospect, everyone thinks I was writing about signing on to a reality show.
That option was on the table. But there was another contract in play, the one that kept me up at night, talking to ducks at the park, and myself in mirrors.
A popular cable network that everyone could readily identify for its coveted appeal to women 18-35 made an offer to turn A Belle in Brooklyn into a scripted TV show. Remember when I wrote about flying out to LA and everyone said, “soon, soon”? It was for that.
I partnered with a writer and a production team who had been pitching “The Project” as a neat little package. “Quickly” – or for LA anyway— we had our first bite, and at one of the networks on our short list of “dream places” no less.
The network wanted to meet the following week, so I booked a last minute ticket from NYC to LA and spent way too much to put myself up at an expensive hotel because it was the only other option than places that looked liked critters would crawl the walls at night.
The day of, I was too nervous to drive and thankfully my manager picked me up. “The team” and I went to lunch before the meeting to go over our pitch a thousandth time and I don’t remember what I ordered other than it smelled good and tasted like wood, which is attributed to my state of being and not the chef. I tried not to drink too much water or tea because I thought I’d end up having to pee at the most inopportune moment, ie, in the middle of the meeting.
I tried to seem calm because I was the newbie and the youngest at the table and I didn’t want to come across like an ingénue even though it’s exactly what I was and everyone knew but played along with me anyway. I listened as the vets around me talked matter of fact-ly about the difference between shows with two-cameras or three and felt stupid that despite cramming for the ins and outs of TV writing and production for months, the basic concepts still escaped me. I hated that I had to rely on my manager to explain every little thing like she was talking to a three year old because I knew next to nothing. And the only reason I didn’t let my pride get the best of me is because of what happened to Stringer Bell in Season 3 of The Wire.
I’m convinced that The Wire provides a metaphor for everything that happens in life. This is no different.
Stringer tried to flip his drug money into something legitimate: real estate. And he was in way over his head because he didn’t know the business or the players or even enough to ask what he didn’t know. Before his unceremonious exit when his past caught up to his present, he asked Levy, his lawyer, about the process of being a real estate developer only to discover he was being jerked along all along. He’d found himself trapped between two worlds– “too good” for one, not good enough for the other — an existence that has plagued me in my quiet hours since I left my day job. Yes, still.
I know how to write—a magazine article, a book, a blog. I’ve been a good writer since high school—but not even the best in my class—and I breezed through English classes, and most of J-school. I’ve spent more than a decade practicing and executing so I can write uninspired and have the skills to crank out something above competent on deadline. I understand print and web, and books (most people don’t know I spent 5 years as book editor).
Learning to be a life coach wasn’t a walk in the park – 8 months, 10-hour training days over the course of those months—but it was graspable. Decent journalists know how to get to the meat of a story. If you know how to help people find their bottom-line, it’s a natural transition.
But at the time, I knew nothing about TV (and I still have a lot to learn). I studied, I read. But anyone who’s ever been to school knows that there’s a vast difference between what works in theory and what does in application and most of what makes you successful on the job, is the stuff you learn on it.
So me and my theories and my dry mouth walk into the network conference room with my writer and my producer. We’re sitting at a long wood table surrounded by glass walls talking about the unique experience of being a single Black twenty -something woman in New York. We’re seated opposite a “mature” white woman with a gigantic rock on her finger and her assistant who I pegged as gay, ie, two people who have no idea of the world we’re talking about.
My writer does her song and dance, I do mine (breaking away from my rehearsed speech with the hope that I can do some alchemy-like trick of converting nervous energy into intelligent passion), the producer does hers and the white woman and her assistant nod occasionally and sporadically jot down notes.
Frankly, they seem bored. At the end of the meeting, Network Lady says she’ll “be in touch”, which I interpret as “you’ll never hear from me again”. In my head, I immediately start calculating the money I wasted coming out here and then we go on our way.
My team and I all go out for “celebratory” drinks after. The producer notes that we ran over our allotted time and weren’t hurried out is a good thing. I think she’s grasping at straw to make me feel better.
The vets are talking and I’m thinking about the security of my former day job. I’d been gone a year then, working tirelessly— sometimes publishing 8 stories a week for 5 different sites— as a freelancer and continuing to promote my book at panels and other speaking engagements. Instead of being introduced as “author of A Belle in Brooklyn” or “blogger”, I’m always referred to as “former editor at The Magazine” first. I tried to write my way out of that and it didn’t work. My hope is that if I can land this scripted show, I can be “[Belle] of A Belle in Brooklyn” and maybe that will be enough to quell the voice in my head that comes in the dark hours that keeps me up at night, and riding my bike at first light to the park to see the ducks (yes, still). It says, “you are not good enough on your own” and on bad days I believe it.
Less than a week later, I’m at the Arise fashion show at the Lincoln Center. I’m enamored with the Ozwald Boateng line going down the runway as much for the men as for the cut of their wares. And too, this is a bit of a Moment. I swore when I left my previous job that I wasn’t going to be invited anywhere again. My last week at The Magazine, I’d received a fancy invite to the show and sat in a fancy section with all the editors who when described in media always get their name bolded. I relished that afternoon because I thought it would be my last time there.
But a year later, I was back, not in a fancy seat but a seat nonetheless. It was a small feat, but one that gave me a temporary, but welcome reassurance that everything was going to be okay. Someday.
After the show, I checked my phone as I headed out of the auditorium. There was a missed call from my manager. I checked my VM, then called her back. She said she had the producers and the writer on the other line. She’d conference me in.
I thought the worst. My legs haven’t wobbled since I was in my early 20s and that was over a man, but just like that it happened again in my 30s. I walked back to the seat and sat, waiting for the worst, telling myself that it was only one network and there were others. And we’d only pitched one place, and there were more. And a “no” just meant I wasn’t asking the right person. Basically all the stuff that’s true, that most don’t believe in the worst moments, but say anyway to keep themselves from feeling shitty or falling apart.
“Demetria?” my producer asked when I was on the line with everyone.
“I’m here,” I said.
“The network called,” she said.
Simultaneously, I suck in my stomach, close my eyes, and press the phone to my ear preparing for the worst and hoping I don’t fall apart in front of all these well-heeled people.
“They want to option your book!”
I teared up, which in retrospect I think of my body’s way of releasing all the angst I didn’t know I was holding on to. I couldn’t say anything more than, alternately, ‘Oh, My God!” and “Thank you!”, as much to God as to my team. After a good minute and change of that, my producer realized she wasn’t going to get anything useful out of me right then, told me to process it all and call them back.
She’s a vet who has sold plenty of shows. This is business to her.
It was a dream for me.
Except it never came true.
Part 2: Soon come.