This morning, I’m sitting outside what used to be The Cottage. It’s sold twice since those days with Norman. The owners I knew – who loved Norman – became ill and sold to another woman. She changed the name to The Food Shack. I spent a lot of time there. I changed my regular table and instead sat outside at a metal table looking out over the docks. She moved her location to the boardwalk and is still open. Now the restaurant is called Captain’s Table. It’s completely changed inside – a fresh coat of paint, the counter is gone, the weathered charm spackled away. It’s closed for this season right now. So I’m sitting at a bench outside. The tide is low and fishermen are unloading their haul across the way. Seagulls circle above and then dive down into the water, grabbing bits thrown overboard. The smell of freshly filleted fish fills the air.
There’s not too much left of this story. But we’re also at one of the most critical lessons Norman taught me.
I paced inside my company’s conference room. It was an airy room, glass walls and plenty of windows and a television screen hung on one of the walls. We’d prepared a few slides, but mostly were going to talk through the pilot. Norman stood at the window. He was still. Then my boss walked in. “Let me know when you’re ready,” she said.
I thanked her for giving us her time. She didn’t have to really, and looking back on it, it was really a testament to her leadership. “Reality TV is getting popular,” I said, “and the best shows are those that have great characters…” I went into the beginning of the pitch. To be honest, I sort of blacked out and I don’t remember what I said.
Then Norman cut it. “These aren’t all success stories,” he said. “This show is about the game yes, but it’s more about the pros who play it.” Norman went into his part of the pitch and I dipped into the background. We went back and forth like this for a few minutes, like wrestlers tagging in and out of the ring. We were in synch.
We finished. I exhaled like I’d just finished a workout.
Nancy sat back in her chair. We’d gotten her attention. She asked a bunch of questions – who had access to these characters, who’d produce the series, how would the entire series play out? “Norman, Matt’s told me about you. I feel like I’m in the presence of a legend. So I guess I should be thanking you for bringing this to us. But this is out of our element. We’ve not done shows like this. It’s a different style and different skill.”
“Poker is up and coming,” said Norman.
“I’ve spent twenty years in this business and I’ve always been able to make the right bets. Matt, who’ll produce and write this?”
“And what about the series I just gave you?”
“I’ll do both.”
She laughed. “Keep that ambition,” she said. She stood up. “I’ll be right back.” She left us in the conference room.
We had her. She asked good questions but none with answers we couldn’t overcome. Norman and I felt giddy. “She’s going to green-light it,” he said.
“I think so,” I said, “but calm down. Holy shit. Calm down.”
Nancy came back into the room. “Guys, it’s a great idea. The characters grab you. I already want to know more about them. The game – it’s intriguing. I want to know how to play it. I could see this becoming a thing.”
We had her.
“But we’re not going to produce it. It’s not our style. I’m sorry. I really am. And I do appreciate you taking the time to pitch it. And Norman, a legend in my presence, can I hang onto this?” She held up a copy of his book.
“I brought it for you,” he said.
“I’m sorry we’re not the ones to take this to the small screen,” she said.
“No reason to apologize,” said Norman. “This isn’t my first rodeo.”
“Matt, that was a good pitch. We may use that talent some day. I want you to take this passion and bring it to the new series you’re working on.”
“I will,” I said.
“Thanks again,” she said. She walked out of the room. Norman and I turned and packed our things and walked outside without saying a word to each other.
Dejected. I felt like shit. I took it personally. We walked to Norman’s old Mercedes. He could sense my internal torture. “Don’t think about it. You’ll pitch ideas. You’ll give great advice. You’ll serve people the best you’ve got on a silver platter. More often than not, they’ll thank you and then ignore you. You push on. We push on.”
He grabbed my arm. “We push on,” he said. “You understand? I’m going to head home and eat some lunch and relax. You have a series to work on that she trusted you with. Kill it. Make it the best series she’s ever seen.”
“I will,” I said. “But I feel like I need a break today”
“No breaks,” said Norman. You push on. Thick skin, Matt. Breaks let your doubt grow. Put this one in the drawer and come back to it. But don’t give doubt time to fester. It will doom you. Write something brand new today and be proud of it.”
I smiled and nodded at him. I didn’t really get it at the time. “What about you?” I asked.
“Me? I’m done, Matt.” At least for now. But it’s not about doubt for me. It’s about fuel. I need to refill the tank. But I don’t doubt my skills.”
“I hope I have your confidence when I’m your -“
“Watch it,” Norman said and laughed. “I may slide around like a mop, but I’m not ready for the home.” He loaded his briefcase into his car and turned to me with his right hand out. “Well done today.”
“Well done,” I said and we shook hands. He got into his car and drove south down route 36 and I stood there for a minute. I went back up to my desk and dove into writing the structure for my series. I pushed on and pushed the disappointment away. Later that day Norman called. “Breakfast at The Cottage tomorrow morning? he asked. “Sure,” I said.
I’m sitting here now, the fishy, cold air cutting through me. Thinking about that first pitch, that first big rejection, Norman could have responded in so many different ways. He could have yelled and gotten angry. He could have sank low and wallowed in the defeat. He shrugged it off. All that work writing the pilot and the other episodes. All that work writing the book. And he smiled and shrugged it off. Onward. That lesson, more than any other, has stayed with me – in my writing, in my career, and in life. Push forward and you never get stuck.