A few years ago, I completed a work of “fiction” called Breakfast at The Cottage – a tale about a young writer who befriends an established writer. A few times a week they meet for breakfast at a small place on the Manasquan Inlet called The Cottage. The young writer plans his breakthrough. The old writer, knowingly or not, teaches him lessons about the craft, business, and life.
After pitching the manuscript around, I realized two things. First, I never should have fictionalized the story of my writing career. It is fantastical enough that most would think it bullshit. But it’s not. I was the young writer. Norman Wolfson was the expert. How expert? A few meetings in, he told a story about a speech he wrote for one of the four Presidents he worked for. Yes. Presidents of the United freaking States.
Second, the advice Norman provided proved invaluable and still impacts me today. This advice shouldn’t be for sale by me or by anyone else. His wise words should be free to anyone willing to read.
Over the next few months, however long it takes, I will share this unbelievable tale. Young writer. Old writer. Mentor. Take what you will from it. At max, you may learn a few things that stick with you for life. At a minimum, hopefully you enjoy this story of an unlikely friendship.
The Right (Old) Guy
Here’s my true tale’s second Sunday installment. First, a little insight into how I’m crafting this.
I spent two years writing the novel. Cranked through forty-seven thousand words, three drafts, and ten-billion cups of coffee. My alarm chimed every morning at 5 a.m. I promptly turned it off. My second alarm beeped at 5:45 a.m. So I stumbled out of bed, zombie walked into the kitchen, poured myself black coffee, and wrote at our table on the deck. Creativity hits me best when most are still sleeping and the sun is just peaking over the horizon. Plus I have kids. I work best before they’re awake.
I’m using the same technique and reworking all of that previous effort. Same alarms. Same early morning. Except now I sit on our front porch. I’m even simultaneously writing two other collections – Porch Stories, which you can see at http://fictionaut.com/users/matt-devirgiliis, and Seashore Stories, which is in its first draft but you can’t see unless you steal my laptop and hack my dropbox.
Now, back to the morning that changed my life.
Broke and dreamy, I had convinced myself I could become a writer. But I actually had no clue what the hell I was doing. So I scraped the barnacle off of rich people’s boats and waited tables so that I could use tips to feed myself.
Then a single act changed my career’s trajectory.
The marina I hustled for covered a lot of ground. Some of the property was strictly commercial space, but a lot of the business shared space with a condo community. Wealthy folks lived in the dark blue-gray condos. They owned the condos. They owned the boats. They ate lobster. I owned nothing. I cleaned their boats. I ate 7-eleven buttered hard rolls every meal.
I mostly ran from boat to boat. Kept me healthy. Occasionally, I sputtered through the yard on an old golf cart. So there I was loading up the golf cart and cleaning up my tools after installing zincs on trim tabs, when I noticed an older man standing behind his car in the parking lot. He stared into his open trunk and scratched his white hair. He looked perplexed.
I watched for another second. “Need a hand?” I asked.
He jumped. “Yes, that would be great,” he said. “I’m proud but not strong anymore. Next time say hi first. Nearly scared my pants off.” He handed me one grocery bag. I reached for the second bag in his trunk. “No, no. I can handle one bag. We’re over here on the end.”
I followed his lead. The sun shone off of his snow-white hair and his feet seemed planted on the ground, a slow, sliding gait. “Early morning shopping?” I said.
“I like to get out of there before the old folks show up.” He looked back at me trying to see if I appreciated his humor. I did. So I laughed.
We walked up a few steps and he propped open a door and walked his bag inside. “This is where we live and where I work.” I handed him the second bag and he disappeared inside to put it down. He came back outside.
“Work?” I asked.
“Well, I’m retired. But I like to write every day. As much as I can. You looked like you were heading somewhere important. Thanks for your help. I’m sure I’ll see you again,” he said. He extended his right hand. “Norman,” he said.
We shook. “Matt,” I said. “And no problem.” I turned around, hopped on the golf cart, and sputtered to the next center console.
That was it. A single act. I carried an old man’s groceries. Nothing dramatic. I didn’t save his life. I didn’t rub his feet like in Tuesday’s With Morrie. I lugged a bag of produce.
A few days later, I sat at a bench in the marina and wrote, my notebook across my lap.
“What are you writing about?” asked a voice from behind me.
“Jesus, you scared the crap out of me.”
“Got you back,” said Norman. He stood behind me, dressed in his Sunday’s best, slacks and a light-green sweater. He looked like a million bucks compared to me. Silver primer caked itself into my forearm hair and holes circled the bottom of my rank t-shirt. “So what are you writing?”
“Oh nothing really,” I said, “Just an exercise I like to do.”
I pointed to the water. “The stillness of the water caught my attention, so I’m trying to describe it with just three words.”
“Not a bad test. You write a lot?”
“What are you working on right now?”
“A screenplay,” I said.
I had been penning a screenplay. It was my my second attempt at completing something so difficult. Why? Well, a professor said I should. In college, Professor Wine proved the most difficult to pass, especially for writing. Your A paper got a C in his class. I mostly got C’s and D’s. Then I took his scriptwriting class. He pulled me aside and said, “Matt, this is what you should be doing.” And so I tried.
“Wow,” said Norman.
“Not a big deal,” I said. “I have no idea what I’m going to do with it when I’m finished.”
Norman rubbed his thin legs, so I slid over and we shared the bench. Old man and young man sat there staring out over the boat slips and chatting. “Sell it.”
“Not that easy,” I said.
“Never is.” We were silent for a minute. “What do you want to do?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you want to write? Do you want to be a marina mechanic? What do you want to do?”
“I want to write,” I said, “I’m just not sure how to get there.”
He leaned over and smiled at me. His sagging skin stretched happily across his face. “Well, you helped out the right guy yesterday. If you have the passion, I can help you out. Send me your screenplay. Even just a part.”
“I’m still editing -”
“Doesn’t matter. And meet me tomorrow morning at The Cottage. They open at five. Meet at five-thirty”
He stood up. “Little place in Point Beach. It’s over the bridge by the inlet.”
I stood up. I had to head to Marlin’s Cafe for my next shift. “The Cottage.” I put out my hand out this time and we shook. “Five-thirty tomorrow morning.” I ran to my truck and left him there behind me. I was excited as hell. My first break. It wasn’t until later that night that I started to doubt the old man. What could he have to offer? Was he just a cook?
I didn’t care. I showered off the day’s filth, fixed, a section of my screenplay, set my alarm, and passed out believing my dream was within reach.
Our First Meal
I normally keep my writing short. But this installment is different. It captures the first time I really met Norman, listened to him, observed him. There’s no shortchanging our first breakfast. So it’s a bit longer than a five-minute read and I’m okay with that.
But we are three “chapters” into this and you may be wondering when Norman will share some advice. First, if I wanted to cheat the story, I’d write a single article and call it something half-clever like 10 Tips I Learned From Norman or something. Then I’d post it like clickbait on Medium and be done. I’m not that clever.
Second, he had already given me some of the most important life advice. I cut it out of the last post and put it at the end of this one – an extra.
Most importantly, Norman deserves the story. So I’m drinking my coffee and writing our story.
Now back to breakfast.
“Well, you helped out the right guy yesterday.” His words buzzed through my head, stuck on repeat like 1-877-cars-for-kids. I went home that night tired from working another 16-hour day, but excited to wake up the next morning.
Meet me at The Cottage. Five-thirty. Meet me at The Cottage. Five-thirty. I sent him a script sample and then barely slept. At four-thirty I popped out of bed and got ready. I like to be prompt… to a fault. In grade school, I thought I heard the school bus coming down the street and was so terrified I’d miss it that I ran out of the house with no socks, no shoes, and no backpack. My dad sprinted after me wearing nothing but his robe. I hate being late.
The inlet was only a ten-minute drive, but I left my apartment at four-fifty. How hard could it be to find? It’s one road. I drove down Broadway and turned onto Inlet Drive with the window rolled down so I could see the restaurant signs. Eateries, homes, and docks lined the streets. I passed Red’s Lobster Pot and Shrimp Box. No Cottage. I spun around again. No Cottage. I turned off of Inlet Drive and went to Channel Drive. Maybe he meant this side of the inlet. I passed Wharfside and Spike’s. No Cottage. It was five-fifteen. Sweat drops sprinkled my forehead. This was before GPS and before smartphones. I had a flip-phone but I didn’t have his number. I looped again. Nothing. It was five-thirty. Panic. Instead of carefully canvasing all the signs and driving slowly, I sped up and threw my head in circles trying to find the place. Five-forty-five. Shit.
At six-fifteen I noticed a tiny building right in front of the Norma K. – a fishing boat. The Cottage. It looked like a shed. I wiped the sweat from my face, parked my small truck, and ran inside. “You’re late,” said Norman. He sat at a table pressed against a window in the front of the restaurant. He was dressed for a day at the office – creased khakis, a green sweater, and polished loafers.
“Good, you’re still here,” I said. “This place is impossible to find.”
“Now that you know it, you’ll not go anywhere else.”
Six tables filled the small, square eating area. A countertop stretched the length of the restaurant and behind the counter three coffee pots sat steaming on top of an old, blue oven. The kitchen was on the other side of the dining area, separated by a narrow doorway and a curtain.
“Sit, sit,” said Norman.
“Coffee, hun?” asked an older, heavy woman.
“Sure,” I said.
“And a refill for you.” She poured piping hot coffee into Norman’s mug. “Stop badgering the kid, Norman. Company is pretty rare for you.”
“I have friends. This is normally my thinking spot, though.”
“Milk or cream, hun?”
“Milk,” I said.
I sat and he sipped his coffee. “You could have driven here last night.”
“You live close enough. If I have to meet someone in an unfamiliar place, I find it a day or two before the meeting… if I live close enough. Almost never late.”
I didn’t’t argue. He made a great point. The night before I could have driven from Marlin’s to find The Cottage. They’re less than five-minutes away from each other. I wanted to argue, though. I hated being late.
“You’ll find I don’t shut up with my ideas,” he said. “I’ve been coming here for thirty-years. Place hasn’t changed.”
“We haven’t, but you’ve turned into a grumpy, old geezer,” said the woman from behind the counter. Don’t look offended, hun. We love him like family.”
“You’d think the service would get better,” said Norman. “They’re hostile.” He laughed, licked his lips, and drank his coffee. “She feeds a lot of the fisherman that work out of the port here. They love her, too.”
“I’ve never even heard of this place. Brittany grew up here and she never heard of it,” I said.
“Now you can bring her.” He stared out the window for a second, something he did from time to time. Just ejected himself from a situation and stared. It wasn’t age. It was intentional. “I read your script. It’s funny. I didn’t expect funny.”
“You’re an old soul. I figured it’d be serious,” he said.
“I’m old?” I said trying to show my terrible sense of humor.
“You write everything by hand. That’s old.” I laughed at him. “I don’t even do that and I’m nearly a ghost,” he said.
He ordered his regular – eggs over easy – and I ordered what would become my regular – plain cheese omelet with rye. Norman sipped his coffee and said, “I’ll be fine all day as long as I’ve had my coffee. So you want to write. Without thinking, what do you want to write?”
“History shows or documentaries,” I said.
The woman dropped our breakfast on the table and we dug in. Well, I dug in. Norman ate with proper manners. He tucked his napkin into his sweater and pulled in his chair. For a minute, I wondered how I wound up at a breakfast table with this guy. I wondered who the hell he was. I wondered if he could really help or if he was just some loon who walked the marina and befriended anyone who’d say hello. “You said you were the right guy,” I said.
“I may be. But you have to do your part, too.” He wiped yolk from his lips. “You have homework.”
“Okay. For what?” I asked.
“I told you I’m a writer.”
“You mentioned it.”
“I’ve been writing my whole life. Since I was your age. Wrote every chance I got. And I made a career out of it. And I still have a few friends in the business.” He leaned toward me and looked at me with a serious face. “You ever hear of 60 Minutes?”
“Of course,” I said. I couldn’t tell if he was joking.
“I’m good friends with the creator. You helped me out. Now it’s my turn to pay it forward.”
“Norman, I carried your groceries. You don’t have to -”
“I’d still be carrying those darned heavy bags. Regardless, I’ve noticed you sitting and writing. You have the dedication for this business. You need to break into it. But first you have to do some homework. Then I’ll hit my network.”
“Fix up your resume. Make it sing. Make it tell a story.”
“I’ve not done anything in the business yet. How am I going to do that?”
Norman smiled. “You want to be a writer,” he said, “writers tell stories. We look for the story in everything. Could be a resume. Could be a deck. Or a screenplay. Pour yourself a cup of coffee and tell a story.”
I wanted to stay with Norman at that table all day. But I had to make my ten bucks an hour at the marina or else lose my apartment. So I stood up and reached into my pocket for my wallet.
“Stop,” said Norman. “You can pay when you get your first writing job. Now go to work.”
“Thanks,” I said. I opened the door and then turned to him. “60 Minutes? Really?”
“Really. Tell a story.” He smiled at me. “Meet me here in three days. Same time. On time.”
I laughed and left.
While we chatted on the bench, a herring gull cawed overhead and then landed on a pylon just a few feet away. It stared at us like it had heard a dinner bell. Norman smiled. “I love living here,” he said. “Even if the gulls are a bit demanding. Elizabeth can be demanding sometimes. Just sometimes.” He looked at me. “You have an Elizabeth?”
“Well,” I said. “Not married yet. We’ve been together for a year and change.”
“Do you know yet?”
“That’s a long enough time to know.” He smirked and leaned back into the bench. “You going to be in my shoes in forty years?”
“Oh that,” I said, “Yeah, I know. Just not sure if she knows.”
He laughed. “She knows. Women are smarter than us and they know these things well before we do. They’re smarter than us with most things.”
My first lesson and one my wife proves every day.
I had to search my notes and journals to find his wife’s name. He talked about her, but I only met her once briefly when I picked him up for breakfast. She walked slowly like Norman. Her skin fair and hair almost black. She was dressed like an ambassador’s wife – pressed pants, a pale pink sweater, a broach, and makeup. But I could have her name wrong. And that’s the way it was between Norman and I. We shared bits about our lives but we stuck to boundaries established in those early days. We focused. We learned from each other. But mostly I learned from him.
Doubt Over Easy
The other day at dinner, I mentioned work I had done for Target and my seven-year-old daughter said, “Dad, I didn’t know you worked at Target. You worked at so many places.” She figured I wore red and khaki and hustled at the store in Brick, New Jersey. “Lil,” I said, “I’ve done a lot of interesting things.” Then I rattled them off. “Marina, spa, boxing promoter, television producer.”
Yes – spa and boxing promoter. They were short-lived and I try to erase them from memory. I answered phones at the spa. Snobby, old women complained that my raspy voice pierced their delicate ears. I managed talent as a boxing promoter. The fighters habitually got thrown out of our meeting location – the local strip club. Looking back, each “career” stepping stone provided learnings. My months at the marina has proven invaluable. At the time though, well, let’s just say I had my doubts.
Old loon or old genius? The burning debate raged internally for me early in our friendship. If he was a crackpot, I was wasting my time. If he was who he said he was, why in the hell would he do anything for me? I pressed on. I had no reason to mistrust him. He showed up to breakfast. The Cottage owners knew him. He already taught me some life lessons. Worst case scenario, I’d be cleaning up my resume. Best case scenario, I’d be working for 60 Minutes. Throw the dice.
Over the course of those two days, I struggled crafting a story out of my experience. I doubted every line. My excitement waned because I figured even if Norman handed my resume to someone from 60 Minutes, they’d see my background and laugh. Brittany was my emotional and literal sugar mama. “Think about your internship for the production company in Orlando,” she said. “And you worked at the school studio. Use that. Here’s a sandwich I made you. Oh and five bucks. In case you need it.”
Eventually, I had enough bullshit spread across the page that my resume looked nearly complete. Hell, I even threw my spa work on there. Then I went back to The Cottage to meet Norman.
“You’re early, said Norman.”
“So are you,” I said.
“I’m always early.”
“He sure is,” said the owner from behind the counter. “Sometimes he beats us here. We should give him a key so he can make the coffee himself.”
“Might taste better,” said Norman.
“That’s a damn good cup of coffee, Norman, and you know it.”
He drank some. “Yes, it is. Made with love I suppose. Sit, sit.” I plopped down at the table across from him and set my notebook and resume to the side.
I try not to interrupt story but I can’t help myself. You see, rewriting this has brought back great memories. You may be thinking, that’s horse-shit, nobody talks to a restaurant owner like that. Or he’s full of crap. How could he remember a conversation from so long ago. I encourage the cynicism. But I remember the conversations most – the potshots, the dry whit, the loving snark. This dialog seared itself into my brain.
Back to breakfast.
“I fixed up my resume,” I said. “I had to think really hard about it.”
“Great. I’ll take a look at it. But why was it tough?”
“Because I realized I have no relevant experience.”
“Ah, said Norman, that’s where story comes in. Think about what you have done. Break it down into parts. Show what you’ve learned and how that’s helped build who you are.”
“You make it sound easy. I’ve looked for jobs. Companies are always looking for three to five years experience. They’ll just skip my resume.”
Norman laughed. “Then they’re missing out. And it’s their loss. Don’t beat yourself up. Have you ever submitted any writing?”
The owner walked over. “So, boys, what’ll it be this morning?”
“I’ll have my regular,” said Norman.
“And I’ll have an omelet again.”
“You got it.”
“The key to this place,” said Norman, “is that they have two griddles. One for the eggs and one for everything else. Eggs have to be cooked at a specific temperature. All these other places cook their eggs on the same heat as they cook their pancakes. Ruins them.”
“Now about submitting,” he said, “expect rejection.”
“You think everyone is going to like your work? Think about your professor. What did he think when he first read it?”
“He thought everyone’s work sucked.”
“He was training you for rejection. You have to have thick skin in this business. If you don’t, you won’t last. You have to be willing to plug away.”
The owner served our eggs and potatoes.
“Eggs cooked properly,” said Norman. “So I talked to my friend the other day. He wants your resume.”
“Are you serious?”
“Why would I lie?”
“How does he know if I’ll be any good? He doesn’t even know me.”
“He knows me. Knows me enough to know that I don’t recommend just anyone.”
Guilt. How could I have such an internal battle? Norman was no crackpot. “I’m sorry,” I said.
He laughed at me. “Remember the thick skin. I’ve got it. Why it’s so saggy now. I wouldn’t have gotten far in my career if I let every doubter get in the way.”
Finally a chance to prod. “What was your career? Why do you know the creator of 60 Minutes?”
“Well, I started off as an eager kid, just like you. And really, at that time, I just had what I though were good ideas. I hustled. I went on to work in PR. Wrote for a few politicians, a President, a few CEOs, and a few other heads of state. Interesting folks.”
Norman stopped and looked out the window – the Norman pause. He looked and pointed at his Mercedes. That’s why I drive that. It’s why I live on the water. I have all these things that show people I had a successful career. But your career is only successful if you feel it is. No one else. And I’m not done yet. I’ll stop when I’ve got nothing left.”
“President?” My doubt hit back.
“Eisenhower.” He said. Norman responded to my question like it was no big deal.
We finished our meals and and drank more coffee. I stopped prying. We chatted about Point Pleasant and about breakfast joints and about the local fishing business. “You’re going to be late for work,” said Norman. “Before you leave, I have more homework for you. My friend would like writing samples. Think about what you’ll use. Clean them up. Then send them to me. We can talk about those and your resume. We’ll meet again next week. Same place. Same time. Treat this like it’s your first writing assignment. Sound good?
“You got it. I’ll see you next week. Thanks, Norman.”
“Thank you,” I said. Once again, I left him sitting there, the sun shining off of his smiling face and white hair.
He was as genuine as anyone I’d ever met, much more real than folks I befriended while promoting welter-weight matches. I drove to the marina thinking about Norman’s new challenge. What samples would I use? What kind of scripts made sense? And how the hell was I going to move all my writing from notebooks to digital files in a week? I’d figure it out. This could be my only shot.
Self-doubt fills the creative world. We craft something and are proud of it. A few minutes later, we look at our work, hate it, and throw it in the garbage where it belongs. Designers do this. Editors do this. I do this. It happens while penning these posts. When I first decided to rewrite this, I said to myself, you’ve already done four drafts. Don’t spend time editing. Just get it onto paper and publish it. Fed myself a line of crap there. I spend hours a week drafting, editing, fine tuning these. My heart races as I hit publish every Sunday at 8 a.m.. This fear goes back to the beginning.
At the time, Norman sparked my career. He believed in me for some reason, seemingly more than just because I carried his grocery bag. But Brittany supported me between breakfasts. Morning after morning, night after night, she boosted my morale. She swatted away the doubt circling my head.
I’ve shared a bit about my process. Norman called me an old-souled writer. Over the years I’ve come to use these computer things a bit more, but I still write almost everything in notebooks first.
I jotted down these posts on paper. I wrote each of my short stories with pen before moving them to digital. For my screenplays, I wrote the scripts on paper and I wrote each scene on index cards. I hung the three-by-fives on cork board and hung the boards on my walls. Once my first drafts were digital, I printed them out and rewrote the second drafts in more notebooks. I have stacks of notebooks and index cards.
So there I sat in my room, surrounded by yellow legal pads and index cards, trying to figure out what the hell I was going to hand over to Norman. Fixing a resume proved difficult enough, now I had to share something more personal. I had to turn in my work. Brittany stood behind me, beside me, in front of me, ready to catch my fall and push me back up. Finally, time won. A week had passed and I had to send Norman my samples. I did. The next morning, I met him for Breakfast at The Cottage.
We sat at our table, drank our coffee, and ate our eggs, staring out the window. I found myself mimicking the Norman pause. Despite the absolute terror of submitting scripts to him, these breakfasts felt like a reprieve from fourteen hour work days.
“You boys are spending an awful lot of time here,” said the woman. “You plotting something?”
“I’m always plotting something,” said Norman.
“I know you are. Well I don’t mind much. You’re keeping us in business this early in the season.”
“Well, here’s to us then,” said Norman raising his mug. I raised my coffee.
“You’re in on this, too?”
“Sure he is,” said Norman. “He’s why we’re here. Getting him a job.”
“Oh well good luck to you, then. Not sure what this senile guy told you, but good luck anyway.”
“Oh come off it,” said Norman. “Saw you sent the scripts. Good work.” He turned and leaned toward me, hunched over at the shoulders.
“Was it?” I really didn’t believe him.
“I don’t know yet. I didn’t read them.”
“So how do you know it’s good work?”
“You met the deadline. That’s your first task. Meet your deadline. Your boss needs three scripts by Wednesday, get those damn scripts done and hand them in.”
“What if they suck?” I asked.
“Remember that thick skin. They may suck. But they may be fine. First things first. Get them done and in. So like I said, nice work.”
“I almost didn’t do them,” I said. “Brittany kept me going.”
Norman smiled and drank a sip of coffee, leaning back into his chair. “Self-doubt. Keep going.”
“What if they suck? What if, after us putting in so much effort writing and editing, your friend decides they suck? Then I’ll have wasted both of your time,” I said.
“So they suck and you tell me not to send them out. Know what I’m going to do?”
He laughed. “Send them anyway.”
“You’d send them behind my back?”
“That doesn’t seem right.”
“You’re good. I don’t have to read your work. Not yet. You’ve got a good mind. More importantly, you can talk.”
Interrupting the story here. Norman was right on the mark. My family and friends have a running joke that I can sit in an Uber and in fifteen minutes know my driver’s life story and be invited to his son’s wedding. They laugh at me and I defend myself. But it’s true. I talk to everyone. Interruption over.
“So you’re completely doubting yourself and tell me not to send them, and I say okay. What happens to your doubt?” asked Norman.
“It goes away.”
“Then, without you knowing, I send them anyway. He reads them and likes them and asks to talk with you. Does it matter?”
“No, but you get the excitement of getting a call-back. He reads them and doesn’t like them, but you don’t know it. Does it matter?”
“So there it is. I’m sending them.”
“You have a way of setting up a situation.”
“I was a PR guy.”
“I told Brittany that I didn’t want to send them.”
“And what did she say.”
I looked at my watch to shift the conversation. Almost time to go to work. Run out the clock. “I think she’s embarrassed that I work at a marina.
“That’s rubbish,” said Norman. “I only know her from what you’ve told me. And that is rubbish.”
“You’re direct today,” I said.
“Thicken that skin, Matt.”
Out on the dock, a large black-hulled fishing boat pulled in. Two men jumped off the boat’s gunnel and tied line around pilons. Seagulls swarmed.
Norman pointed to fisherman. “You think they’re embarrassed?”
“They take pride in what they do. What exactly did she say?”
“That I should finish editing the scripts and get them to you. She knew I’d regret not trying.”
“Take your shot, Matt. She’s not embarrassed at all. She puts drive in you and knows what you really want. She wants you to take your shot.”
“I know, I know. But again, what if I fail? What if I wind up at the marina for a long time?”
“Then take pride in your work at the marina. You enjoy it. And I’ll meet you here as much as you want to work on your writing. Writing is like anything else – you have to work at it. So if my friend reads your samples and says your craft needs work, you work on it. In the end, you want to love what you do and do what you love. If you run away because you’re afraid of rejection, you may love what you do but you may have missed the chance to do what you love. Finish life with as few what-ifs as possible.”
The fisherman walked through the front door and sat at the countertop. “Morning, boys,” said the woman. “How was your run?”
“Good, Ma’am. Great. Was a beautiful trip,” said one of the young fisherman. He pulled off his orange, rubber jacket and lay it over a stool.
“I have to go,” I said. “Thank you.”
“Thank you,” said Norman. “I’ll read them today and we should meet again tomorrow to go through my notes. Sound good?”
“Sounds great. See you tomorrow. Same time.” As I drove from The Cottage to the marina I thought hard about his words. He was right. I did enjoy working with the boats, using my hands, laboring. But I wanted to write.
Brittany and Norman knew it. They pushed me to do what I loved.
And so it’s fitting and completely unplanned that this chapter lands on 26 July 2020 – our wedding anniversary. Happy anniversary, Baber. Thanks for believing in me and for knowing when to knock the self-doubt out of my head.
A Small Victory
You know the cycle by this point – Norman and I met at The Cottage. We ate eggs. He said words. His words doubled as lessons. He gave me assignments. I toiled on the assignments. We met at The Cottage again.
The lessons were nestled inside conversations, hidden in plain sight. At the time I heard them but didn’t absorb them. Distracted by his tasks, and by working two jobs, I didn’t have much time for deep thoughts. Even my own burning questions of – Who the hell is this guy and why is he helping me – dissipated. I focused. I barely knew him, yet I figured that would come with time.
The honest answer to those questions, though? I had no idea. I had a hunch. He was interesting. Breakfast was my favorite meal. I enjoyed the combination of sitting in a tiny diner, looking out over the docks before sunrise, talking to someone with a like mind, and hearing about how he’d gone through life. Maybe I was seeing myself in the future. But it wasn’t easy getting to that point.
Before I had sent him those script samples, my hemming and hawing went into overdrive. The internal conversation went something like this – Just hit the send button. Don’t do it. Delete that email. The scripts are junk. You put all this time into it. Click send.
Something made me do it. I don’t remember if I just finally found the guts or if Brittany saw my conflicted face and said “Just send the freaking scripts.” Either is possible. But the split second after, all doubt cleared and excitement took over. I followed my hunch.
The next morning I went to meet Norman. I got there early because I wanted to cover our meal. The old man always beat me there and dropped his credit card right away. I needed to thank him. So I woke early, left my apartment early, and walked into The Cottage early. I handed the owner cash. “Please make sure this one is on me,” I said.
“So what’s Norman helping you with?” she asked as she prepped the coffee pots.
“I’d like to write for TV. “
“Ah, she said. What kind?”
“Any,” I said. Sure I hoped to write documentaries, but I also didn’t care how I got my start. I wasn’t about to be picky. “Norman knows someone that’s involved in 60 Minutes, so I figured I’d start there.”
“What if you don’t like that kind of writing? What if you’re no good at it?”
“Nonsense,” said Norman as he walked in the door. “He’ll learn and adapt. Good morning, too.” His silent gait let him slip into the diner undetected.
“Morning, Norman,” she said. “I’ll bring your coffee right out.”
“You, know,” she said, picking up the coffee pot, “I’m not sure if you being here two days in a row is a blessing or curse. Sure we’ll take the money. But I’ll also have to put up with you.” She stood at our table. “Here’s your coffee. Two breakfasts in two days. You want to try something different? Change it up.”
“I’ll take my usual,” said Norman. “Same for me,” I said.
“Creatures of habit. They’ll be right out.” She walked away and disappeared into the back.
Norman pointed in her direction. “I’m beginning to think she likes you more than me,” he said.
“Of course I do,” she hollered. “He’s not a pain in the ass.”
“That’s fine. Just don’t talk him out of doing what he was born for.”
“How do you know I was born for it?” I asked.
Norman paused. We looked out the window. It was unusually cold. The wind blew out of the east and clouds from the west hung low and blue. The boats bobbed high in the water.
“I read your work last night,” he said. “I figured you had it before I even opened the scripts. Read a few pages. You confirmed my suspicions. There were a couple spots I’d change, but don’t worry about those.”
“What do you mean?”
“Writing is subjective. You write potato. I write spud. Doesn’t matter. Point is, your story was there. It engaged me.”
“So I’ll send them to my friend today.”
I smiled so hard I remember feeling like my face hurt. I couldn’t contain myself. “What should I expect?”
“You should expect me to talk to him today. Nothing more. Nothing less,” said Norman.
“Don’t get disappointed. See that look on your face. Keep it. I bet you’re feeling accomplished, like you’re succeeding. Those bursts of joy will keep you going in this career. At the same time, I can’t promise you anything except that I will push for you.”
“That’s good enough,” I said. “Thank you.” I raised my mug to him.
She lay down our plates and we ate and chatted. He opened up more about his own past – his working for Eisenhower, and Robert Kean, and dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. He talked about his reporter days and his own self doubts. He spilled his life’s beans for a few minutes and then paused. He only ever spoke about himself in bursts and then he quickly refocused the conversation on me.
I left that morning feeling a sense of accomplishment that I had never experienced before. I had overcome my fears and doubts because Norman and Brittany pushed me.
I hustled at the marina. The day came to a close and I swept the garage floors and prepped for the next morning. Leaning under the latest sold boat, my head fully underneath the bottom, I made sure the blocks were secure.
A pair of brown, polished loafers slid across the floor and stopped next to me.
The Norman Pause
I had done everything he asked and had broken through every mental barrier in my way. After he had sent my script samples and had shown confidence in my writing, I had started picturing my name scrolling up a screen after a 60 Minutes episode, telling my parents “Look there I am!”.
That day at the marina was like no other. I normally enjoyed the job. But that day I jogged around the boatyard like it was my last. The afternoon rolled around and I finished cleaning inside the garage as my colleagues closed up the shop and the office. Fully under a sold, used boat, my attention was on the hull and then…
A pair of brown, polished loafers slid across the floor and stopped next to me.
“What are you doing?” asked Norman.
“My job. Owner and mechanic keep a tight ship. No pun intended.”
“Bigger space than I thought in here. You working on these boats?”
“This one,” I said pointing to a sporty twenty-eight-footer. “The mechanic fixed it up this morning, so I cleaned out the bilge and deck this afternoon. Put fresh paint on the bottom and zincs on the tabs. I’ll wax her first thing tomorrow morning. Then we’ll drop her into the water. Pretty excited actually. They’re letting me drive the tractor with her on the trailer for the first time.”
“Oh wow. That’s a sharp turn past the garage door,” said Norman.
“Yeah. I’m terrified. There’s a good chance the boat’ll be split in half and I’ll be fired before the end of the day.”
Norman laughed. He paused. And then he sighed. I had never seen him like this. He always walked slowly and his shoulders always drooped a bit, but never his whole body. He sighed. “I’m just going to get to it.”
I pulled two, five-gallon buckets from under a workbench, put one underneath myself, and slid him the other. We sat and faced one another. “I figured you weren’t here to learn about trim tabs,” I said.
“I talked to my friend last night. He liked your work. Said it was solid.”
Doubt returned and so I stood up and grabbed a push-broom and turned away from him. I didn’t doubt my work. Not this time. I went back to my original question – who is this old guy? I doubted him. I assumed I was wrong. Maybe he was just some quack who wondered the marina looking for friends. “But?” I asked.
“But there’s nothing for you. They just made cuts and probably won’t be hiring any time soon. And he doesn’t have the pull that he used to. New guard there. And -”
“It’s okay, Norman.”
“No it’s not okay.”
“I’m fine. Thick skin, right.”
“I told you I’d get you a job.
“And you can’t. It’s not a big deal.” The rejection bothered him. He couldn’t live up to his own advice. I laughed and walked into a small hallway that separated two garages. I grabbed a sheet of paper , walked back to Norman, and handed him the printout. “Came across this last night on an industry website. A local production company needs a production assistant. I’m thinking of applying.”
Norman looked up at me and his face shifted from wrinkly and down to wrinkly and excited. “So I did get through to you,” he said.
“Of course you did.”
“There’s something else. Elizabeth needs me more. Breakfasts can only be once a week. She needs me at home.”
Life assaulted Norman’s armor on two fronts and I hadn’t thought of it because I was too damn focused on my own career. “Norman, let’s get breakfast. An entire meal about you.”
“Maybe,” he said. “First get your application to that production company. You have to try.” He stood up, stretched, and rubbed his knees. “Getting old is the pits. Let’s grab breakfast next week. Tuesday.”
“Sounds good, Norman. And thanks.”
“Don’t thank me. Just keep doing what you’re doing,” he said. He disappeared around the corner of the garage.
I remember listening to Richie Havens that afternoon and humming and sweeping, but not thinking about anything except getting the dirt into a pile. I cleared my mind.
Later that night I sat in front of my laptop and banged out a cover letter and sent the letter and my new resume to the production company. Typing and sending felt easy, as if for some strange reason the outcome didn’t matter as much as the act of applying itself. Screw it, I figured. A rejection would be the worst that could happen. I’d look for something else and apply for that. And so I did. I applied for a couple of jobs each night before bed.
Tuesday rolled around. The Cottage awaited. In the novel, I took some liberty with this entire time period. Because Norman and I kept our personal lives separate, I didn’t know what was going on with Elizabeth. In the novel I imaged how his life was from his point of view. And in the novel I set it up so that my character was more upset with Norman than I truly was. For effect. And I had my character stand him up for the next breakfast. That’ not how it really happened.
Tuesday rolled around and I headed to The Cottage. I paid the owner ahead of time – the bill was always the same – and I sat at our table and waited. I drank my coffee and listened to a few fisherman banter at the counter. I waited. My breakfast came and I ate. It was time to head to the marina. I leaned over the table and looked out the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of Norman’s Mercedes. Nothing. Getting stood-up didn’t bother me. I had been stood-up for a senior soirée. That pissed me off. This saddened me.
I thanked the owner. “He’ll be okay,” she said. “I know,” I said. “I hope so.” I left and drove to the marina and thought about stopping at his condo first. That’d be crossing the line, I thought. One of his kids will answer the door and ask “who the hell are you?” I decided against it but drove by the condo to observe from afar. His parking spot sat empty.
It went on like that for a while. No contact. No breakfast. I missed the coffees, the omelettes, and the conversations. And then one afternoon while waiting tables, my phone rang.
“Hi, is this Matt?” said a woman’s voice.
A Continued Pause
I bet you think this is the looming sad part. It is. But not in that way. This week is a bit different. The story will pause just once. Promise. Remember that this is about how Norman and I set out to conquer the world. Me a young – pretty stupid – young guy wanting to jump into the writing life and Norman a seasoned writing veteran hoping to notch one last victory. We’re not quite into the second act. But something has been dogging me… literally. Just how much has Norman impacted my life?
At this point, you are either a little like my normal self – barely looking into Norman and letting his personality and humanness unfold in front of you. Or you are like my working self – immediately researching the guy to find out who he is. If you’re the latter, then you know his accomplishments. He had written at least two books – Life’s Snapshots and The Gamblers – and had written opinion pieces for various papers including the New York Times.
In my rewriting of this story, of my own life’s snapshots, I have done a little digging into Norman’s background. I’ve been curious to learn more about the white-haired, prim-and-proper man from Point Pleasant. One writeup lays bare his entire life. I read it once a week and laugh each time because I’m unsure whether our lives were always destined to be on similar paths or if his breakfasts impacted me so much that I’ve become him. Forty years from now, I’ll be sliding across the kitchen floor, my head covered in white, curly hair, and my wrinkled body slipped into pressed slacks and a powder blue sweater. Shit, with how I dress, I may be close.
I mentioned a while ago, that I’m writing a collection titled Porch Stories. There’s no better way to describe these – short fictional tales written while sitting on the porch during the pandemic. One week, I had penned a letter instead of fiction. It’s titled Goodbye, Old Friend. And I’ll share it now:
Goodbye, old friend of 15 years. Why – you ask – am I bidding farewell now? I’m still here, you say.
Clouds cover your brown eyes and fog fills your ears. Your once popping gait stiffens each day as you drag your hind legs as if they’re a forgotten nuisance. So goodbye now. Goodbye before you won’t understand and my opportunity evaporates like the morning dew.
I carry you up the porch stairs to spare your joints. You’re cradled in my arms and pressed against my chest, just like when we rescued you. Our final embrace.
Patty is her name. She’s a lab, pit, and mutt mix that my wife and I took home from New Orleans while on vacation fifteen years ago. Most people who visit that city leave with hangovers or VD. We left with a six-week-old puppy, a bait dog hung in front of angry pit bulls. There’s a whole story to it that includes a fake blind man, a fake wheelchair, forty bucks, the ASPCA, and a pit bull fighting organization. A story for another time. Regardless, Brittany and I flew home to New Jersey with a puppy and named her Patty – after Pat O’Brien’s.
Fifteen years later, we’re watching her deteriorate. Thanks to 2020, it’s happening quickly. Even while writing this I’ve had to stop and hold her up so she can eat without falling over. It will surely be a rough few months ahead and our daughters will miss their pup as much as we will.
After penning that letter, I found out that Norman once published a piece in The New York Times called Soap Box: A Dog’s Life, an article about his love for his Pekinese. The article apparently received more positive feedback than any other article of its time.
So we come to what the hell is this installment about?
Well it’s a thank you. Thank you to all who’ve been reading this and have encouraged me to continue writing the story about my unlikely friendship with Norman. Your comments and feedback have lead me to investigate and learn that he and I are somehow more connected than I ever realized. It’s a thank you to my wife and daughters who somehow put up with me. And it’s a thank you to Patty, my furry friend who has been with me for fifteen years. She scurried under my legs throughout my ordeal with with Norman. She was there when I came home from the marina each day. She was under my desk while I typed my stories and scripts. And she was by my side when Norman and I plotted to disrupt the television world.
One phone call – “Hi, is this Matt?” said a woman’s voice – catapulted the two of us into that plot. And that’s where we’ll pick up next week. But for now, Thank you.
And in case you’re curious
Soap Box: A Dog’s Life: https://www.nytimes.com/1999/06/13/nyregion/soapbox-a-dogs-life.html?searchResultPosition=1
“Hi, is this Matt?” said a woman’s voice.
“Yes,” I said.
“This is Karen from Tapestry International Productions. We’d like to bring you in for an interview for the Production Assistant job.”
Well holy shit. (Notice there are no quotations marks around that statement) I couldn’t contain my excitement. I hung up the phone and ran circles in my apartment room as if I’d won the lottery. I didn’t say holy shit to Karen over the phone. Not that I remember. So after about an hour, I calmed down and made my first ever phone call to Norman. At this point, we had only spoken in-person or through email.
I dialed. Admittedly, I half-expected it to be a fake number. Again thinking, why would someone so important give me his real number.
“Hello,” said Norman.
“Oh hi, Matt.”
“I got the interview with the production company. It’s in two days.”
“I’m not surprised,” he said. “Where is it again?”
“That’s not too far.”
“I know, I know. I’m driving to find it tonight.”
He laughed and then paused and I could feel his mood change. “What are you going to ask?” he said.
I had held a few jobs, as you may remember – production assistant, boxing promoter, spa boy – and I had interviewed for each of them. But I also remember them being fast, one-way, and uneventful. “What do you mean questions?”
Then Norman said something that has stuck with me since – “You’re interviewing each other. They want to know if you are a good fit for them. But you should be asking questions to gauge if you really want to work there.”
“Thanks, Norman. I never thought about that.”
“Of course. I can’t wait to hear about it at breakfast next week. Now get yourself ready.”
We hung up and I started thinking about my questions. As a Production Assistant, how much coffee would I be fetching? Would I have to pick up any dry-cleaning? How do you take your coffee? It wasn’t the writing job I wanted but it was a first step. I figured they had writers. So I’d bust my ass for a while and try to work my way into the role I wanted.
Then I got serious. I thought about the only real production experience I had and skipped over my boxing promoting career.
Between junior and senior year in college, I moved to Orlando, Florida with my sister and brother-in-law because it seemed like a fun idea. The ordeal was fun minus having all of my clothes stolen out of the bed of my truck the night I arrived. I spent the next two months staring at people’s shirts trying to solve the crime.
First I got a job as a busboy at Outback. But my real goal was to intern at a production company and get school credit. So I opened the yellow pages (remember those?) and thumbed through businesses. One morning – phone book in-hand – I walked into a production company, looked at the receptionist, and said “Do you need an intern?”
She shook her head as if to say what the hell? and then said, “give me a minute.” I stood there in the lobby wearing the only shirt and pants I owned. Damn thieves. After a few minutes she came back smiling. “Just talked to the owner. You’re in luck. One of the interns no-showed yesterday. You’re here. Welcome. Can you start tomorrow?”
For the rest of the summer, I went on to help write, edit, and shoot PSAs and commercials for Disney and for the government of Florida – their largest clients. The owner and a handful of employees treated me as an equal. I didn’t get coffee once. And so I figured my interview with Tapestry would focus around this work.
I prepped for a while, wrote down my questions, and then drove to Sea Bright. The town itself was a narrow stretch of barrier island with the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Navesink River to the west. One main road ran north and south. A huge seawall protruded from the ground on the ocean side. On the river side, only a block or two of homes fit until you hit the river. You could walk from the river to the ocean in two minutes. I found 3 Church Street, turned around, and went home.
Two days later I pulled back up. The morning sun revealed the character of the building I hoped to work in. It was an old, all brick firehouse. I still had thirty minutes so I parked and walked into a small diner across the street. It wasn’t The Cottage but it would have to do.
It was an older place, the walls and floors had been white but were now more yellow. Aqua blue plastic covered the booth seats and counter stools. The counter was a cracked white plastic edged with a gray wood. A man behind the counter approached me. “You’re not from around here,” he said.
“No. Just stopping by,” I said. “I have an interview across the street, but I’m a bit early.”
“What time?” I can hurry your meal.”
“It’s in thirty minutes,” I said.
“Wow. I’ll tell you what, you don’t get the job there, you can have one here. Coffee?”
“Sure,” I said.
“You should get some food in you.”
“I’ll take an omelette.”
He cooked behind the counter and I peaked at the skillet, wondering if he used a separate cooktop for the eggs. I ate, paid, and walked across the street to the old firehouse. A young woman greeted me and walked me through the building. Plastic covered everything because it was still under construction. But it still looked like a firehouse inside, except a few desks lined the top floor. Offices had been constructed. And along the back wall, editing suites were set up. A spiral staircase twirled between that top floor and down to a kitchen, a full bathroom, and a garage. The woman walked me outside to a patio and I sat at a metal table.
After a few minutes by myself another woman came out. “Sorry to keep you,” she said, “I’m Nancy.” We shook hands and sat. Then I handed her a printed resume. I assumed that’s how it worked. “Oh, thanks. I honestly didn’t look ahead of time,” she said. I guess she felt obligated now that I pushed it on her. She glanced down the sparsely filled page.
“Interesting,” she said and smiled.
“Tell me about this boxing promoting. How’d you get into that?”
You have got to be freaking kidding me.
There I sat. Nervous as hell. Sweating profusely. Watching as the owner of this successful television production company skimmed my resume. I knew I didn’t have enough experience. I applied anyway. She’s going to ask about the business. She’s going to ask about best practices for cleaning cameras. In my head I ran through all the questions she would ask that I didn’t have answers for. She was quiet.
And then she fired. “Tell me about this boxing promoting. How’d you get into that?”
You have got to be freaking kidding me.
Rewriting this installment, it dawned on me that I’ve shared my background as a boxing promoter, but I’ve not shared why that job interested me. Early in junior year of college a coworker convinced me to participate in a trial at his Kenpo Karate class. I did and I loved it. I became Karate Kid. I studied Kenpo, Krav Maga and Baguazhang. I even studied Tai Chi with the famous Y.K. Kim in New York City. So by the time graduation rolled around, I was looking for work and trying to figure out where I’d continue studying. Somewhere, somehow I happened upon a flyer that read “Work with Legendary Boxing Trainer Marty Feldman”. I called the number, talked to Marty, and then teamed up with his son to promote fights. It seemed perfect at the time. But I knew it wasn’t a step toward a writing career. I knew it would be wasted resume space. Or so I thought.
Nancy asked the question again. “How’d you get into promoting boxing?”
I must have looked stunned… because she laughed at me. “Normally, people leave the most interesting things off of their resumes. I have to prod to find out who they are. You just went ahead and wrote something that grabbed my attention.”
“Honestly,” I said, “it was either put that on my resume or leave white space.”
I shifted in my seat and then she completely caught me off guard – SMACK. She slapped my leg. “Loosen up. I already like you. But I do want to know more about this boxing business,” she said.
So I sat back and told her all about the martial arts I studied and about promoting for Marty Feldman and his son and about ringside seats at The Blue Horizon.
“I study, too,” she said smiling. Nancy leaned forward and opened up. She held a blackbelt in Tiger Schulman’s and was studying for her second degree. She’d studied for years one-on-one with her trainer. Martial arts was her one love outside of television. At some point during our conversation it hit me – I might get the job. Not because of my experience with camera crews or scriptwriting. Not because of my internship. But because I happened to study martial arts.
Nancy laughed. “We’ve been talking for forty-five minutes and haven’t really discussed the television business,” she said. “We’re a small company and we hustle. Can you hustle?”
“Been hustling my whole life,” I said.
“Great. We’ll train you a bit but you’ll have to learn on the job. You okay with trial-by-fire?”
“Throw me in,” I said.
She stood up. “It’s been great talking with you and we’ll do this again over lunch. Can you start in two weeks?”
I stood up and shook her hand. At this point, I already idolized her – a successful business owner – one who could easily kick my ass. Yet she was warm and welcoming. “Yes, yes, two weeks.”
“I know you’d really like to write,” she said. “Let’s start with being a production assistant. Help out the writers and the editors. See where it goes.”
“Yes, yes,” I said.
“Okay, see you in two weeks.” She disappeared back into the old firehouse. I stood in the little garden, my heart thumping. I karate chopped the air and then cartwheeled back to my car. I popped into the little diner, “I got the job,” I said to the man behind the counter. “I’ll see you again.”
Sitting in my car facing the beach, I called Brittany. “Baber,” I said, “ We did it. I start in two weeks. Freaking karate. I told her the story.” Then I called Norman. “Norman, we did it.”
The next two weeks at the marina flew by and because I was leaving I volunteered for all the shittiest of jobs – I emptied the fish-gut-filled dumpsters. I cleaned the old bilges. I ran from boat to boat covered in primer and paint and filth. It didn’t matter. Nothing covered the smile tattooed on my face.
One Wednesday morning during that last two weeks, I met Norman at The Cottage. We sat at our table and ate our eggs and I shared my hiring story again. “You know. I have a feeling I’m going to see your name scrolling up the TV screen one day.”
“I hope so. I’m going to bust my ass as a production assistant and get to know the writers. My plan is to figure out a way to get a shot. I just want one shot,” I said.
“Make sure they know it. Tell them your aspirations. No one can help you get there if they don’t know your plan. It’s great seeing you so excited.”
“Thanks, Norman,” I said. “I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t motivated me.”
“I never doubted you. Keep writing.”
“Don’t stop while you’re doing this other job. Never stop.”
He paused. We sipped our coffee and the sun crept up over the fishing boats. It was almost time to shove off to the marina. “What else?” he asked.
“I’m terrified. What if I screw up on the first day and they fire me?”
He paused again and then laughed. “I knew you’d say something like that. Self doubt. You’ll be fine. But let’s keep meeting here once a week.”
Before breakfast, I was concerned that my leaving the marina meant I’d be saying goodbye to Norman. I was foolish. Norman wasn’t a fair-weather friend. You befriended him for life. I drove to the marina excited to start my new job, to jump into my next life’s experience, and to build on my unlikely friendship.
First Day, First Script
By now you know my personality. I can talk to anyone and I hustle. But I do get anxious. Anxiety hits at night and keeps me from sleeping. It doesn’t matter if it’s a new job, new account, or big presentation. The days prior to these events build up internally. It dissipates once I’m in the moment. Before that moment, I’ve lost hours of sleep, consumed gallons of coffee, and perspired through countless shirts. It’s been this way as far back as I can remember.
It was no different before my first day at Tapestry International. I sat in my room night after night and fretted the what-ifs. What if they ask me to operate a camera and it’s a kind I don’t know? What if I mess up a show and it airs? What if I trip and fall and pull down video machines and they spark a fire and the whole place burns down? “Would you lie down,” said Brittany. “But shower first. You’re sopping wet.”
And then it arrived. Day one. I drove from my house to the historic firehouse in a state of terror. When I got there, the owner walked me in and introduced me to everyone again. Everyone smiled and said hello, like they should, and then went about their business. She pointed to my desk and told me to get comfortable. The fear and anxiety lifted. Sitting in my chair, I swiveled around and checked out the environment. I had a colorful blue-green apple desktop, a paper tray, and a lamp. Very nice, I thought. My first work computer. An empty desk sat to my left and more empties were behind me. The other two writers were to my right. They were both hunched over their keyboards tapping away. Anxiety lifted. I had no problem breaking the ice. “Good morning,” I said. They looked up at me and grinned at each other, not at me.
“Glad you’re here,” said the woman.
Interrupting here. I go back and forth about whether or not I will use real names. Unless there’s a good reason, from this point forward I will use faux names. A colleague who reads these – for some reason – recently compared my writing to Anthony Bourdain’s. Holy shit that’s a great compliment… for a few reasons. First, his writing is raw and simple. If something tasted like crap, he came right out and said it tasted like crap. My promise to myself as a writer is always to do the same. It’s a principle I apply to all my writing and that I carry with me from my time with Norman. Second, he built a following that is the envy of any writer. But even though I go for raw, I don’t disparage people. And that’s where our styles differ. He often, and humorously, went after people he didn’t like. That can be tempting at times. But I’m much more interested in understanding and capturing that person’s thinking than I am in criticizing it. If I am going to insert my opinion, I prefer to craft an entire piece from that angle so the reader isn’t tasked with sifting through what’s fact and what’s just my soapbox bullshit.
I don’t take down anyone in this story. Still I won’t use real names.
So there I sat, the internal terror faded and eagerness taken over. The two writers – we’ll call her Anne and him Stan (clever) – looking at me, their own eagerness all over their faces. “We’ve been needing help for a long time,” said Anne. “Yeah, we’re swamped right now,” said Stan. “We’re two weeks into writing our next season and we’re already behind,” said Stan. “And we need you to help us pull footage.”
The season was for the television series Assignment Discovery. It was a show written for high-school-aged viewers. Sometimes episodes were completely new. Other times they used primetime documentaries – written for adults – and rewrote them for younger folks. When I started, Anne and Stan were cranking out at least three, sixty-minute episodes a week. That meant they wrote sixty page scripts and found and pulled the footage for their scripts. It was unsustainable. They were burnt out.
“You’re primary job is to help us pull the right shots,” said Stan. “We’ll give you our draft scripts. In each script, we’ll tell you what kind of shots we’re hoping for. Follow me,” he said. We walked to a small, dark room still on the second floor and close to the editing suits. Behind the glass door, green and yellow lights blinked along stacks of machines and television screens. “Sorry to say this, but this will be your home for a while,” said Stan. Go grab your chair.”
He showed me exactly what he meant. We went through his script and then he showed me how to use an index to find tapes with different shots. If I couldn’t find what they wanted, I could use a third-party, but that was a last resort.
And that’s where I sat for the next three weeks. Holed up like a mole in the video cave. But damn I was intent on finding the best footage for those scripts. Every morning, I handed Anne and Stan their shots list and the tapes and they handed me their next episode.
Then one night – though it was always night in my workspace – Stan opened the door. “Got a minute?” He asked. Ah shit, I already messed up and I’m fired. “Don’t worry. You’re not fired,” he said. Must’ve read my facial expression. “Spoke with Nancy. We’re always behind, as you probably noticed. We figured hiring you would help. Well, it’s not going as planned. We realized first drafts to Discovery Channel are the bottleneck. We need to write faster, but there are only two of us.”
“How can I help?” I said.
Stan held open the tape room door. “Follow me,” he said. I popped up from my chair and walked behind Stan across the open wooden floor and to his own desk. “This is where you sit? asked Stan.”
“Never see you here. You’ll be plopped here more from now on. I printed next week’s theme and episode titles. Those are next to your keyboard. Take a stab at the first episode. It’s an easier one. Just have to cut thirty minutes of the story down and write all the intros, outros, and interstitials. You know what we do. Try to get me a draft before the end of the day tomorrow. If you can get a week ahead, Anne and I can then catch up and then skip ahead of you. I’m right next to you if you have any questions or if you want to knock any ideas around. This is the fun stuff. Show us you can kill it and you’ll stay a writer and we’ll all just get our own footage. I’ll check in later and see how you’re doing.”
Holy shit. Only a few weeks in and I was getting my chance. I excitedly made my two phone calls – one to Brittany and one to Norman. I hung up. The damn anxiety returned. Holy shit I actually had to write a script.
I stared at the blank screen. The Apple’s blue glow encircled my face, pressuring me. All my studying, dreaming, hustling, came to this point…. and I freaking froze.
Jumping in here. As I began crafting this installment, I had every intention of saying that the advice Norman provided at this point was more about the writing craft and business. But as I jotted down the outline and read through my old notes and thought about our world today, I realized my error. Norman’s advice applies to nearly everyone.
But I’m not a writer… you may be thinking. I’m not a storyteller. That’s crap. We’re all both. I’ve been reviewing a lot of resumes for work lately and each time I think to myself, I wish so-and-so approached their resume like a story. Resumes are a chance to quickly tell your career story. We build slides and presentations. Good god, depending on your profession, we’re doing this multiple times a week. Even if we’re only crafting an executive level recommendation, and keeping it to two or three slides, we are still answering basic questions of who, what, where, when, and why. If we treat it like a story, we understand the executive audience and pepper the story with content that will connect with them.
You may not have the word WRITER in your title. Odds are you’re still writing every day.
I stared at the blank page. The blank page stared back at me. Who’d flinch first? I typed the word The and then quickly deleted it. “Who opens a show with the word the?” I said out loud.
Assignment Discovery – the show – followed a simple pattern. Each week had a theme. Every episode contained elements of that weekly theme. Each episode also had a theme. It was the writer’s job to construct that episodic theme. The Cold War was the week’s theme. My episode was about JFK’s health and about his back channel communications with Fidel. That was my assignment. Writer’s block said no.
So I phoned a friend. “Norman. Hi. Sorry I know it’s late. I’m stuck.”
“Didn’t take long,” he said.
I told him about the need for a theme. I told him about the theme for the week. “Best way overwriter’s block,” he said, “is to write through it. You’ll never get it onto paper if you mull it over in your head. Your first draft can be a throw-up draft. But at least it’s down on paper and you can react to it. Get yourself out of your head and just let your fingers or your pen go.”
“Thanks I said. We’ll see how this goes.” I hung up and stared at the screen a few more minutes. I breathed deep and then typed. I typed without looking at the screen at all and just let myself bleed onto the page. After about an hour I looked up, feeling a little sweaty, and realized that I had finished the script. “Hot damn!” Then I did something that I wouldn’t do today, mainly for the planet. I printed my 60-page script and read through it, marking it up with pen. I took my handwritten notes and typed them into the second draft. I had words on the page but I still struggled for the theme. Once I had the theme, I’d adjust it all.
What’s the theme? What’s the theme? JFK hid his health problems from everyone. JFK held backchannel communications with Castro through a reporter. I stepped away and took a breath. He hid things… personal things. That’s not unusual. Everyone hides things. He needed to keep those discussions with Castro secret, especially because they took place after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Everyone has secrets, though. “Shit!” (I remember screaming that loudly) I went back into the script, adjusted it, finished the second draft, and then emailed it to Stan.
That night, I went home satisfied and pretty damn proud. I finished my first script. The next morning, I walked to my desk, Stan already at his, and said, “I sent you my first draft last night. When you get a chance, can you read it?”
“Already did. Nicely done. I just sent it to the executive producer at Discovery for first draft comments. You can start working on the next episode.”
“Yeah, man. Congrats. You’re a television writer. Pretty exciting stuff.”
“No, it’s terrifying. We didn’t even review it together and you sent it to the producer?”
“Don’t sweat it. They’ll make comments regardless, so just get it out and start working on the next one.”
“Don’t sweat it,” I said, “it’s too late. I’m sweating. How long for the comments to come back?”
Stan wrote on a notepad. He was already deep into his own work. “Takes a day. Sometimes faster. I research for the next show next to your pen holder.”
“Yeah, I got you one and stuck some pens in it. I put a few notepads there, too. Some large pads and some for your pocket. You’ll go through them faster than you realize.”
I dug into the content for the next episode. Ding. The email chime scared me. The subject said Draft 1 Comments. The producer turned around her comments in half a day. I opened the attachment and scrolled down. One redline. Two redlines. Three, four, five. Entire paragraphs were rewritten. Red filled the script. I failed. “Stan, can we go over all these comments together? And can we go through my first drafts before we send them to Discovery?”
He laughed. “That bad? She’s probably just giving you the rookie treatment. We’ll take a look. Let it sit for a while and work through that next episode.”
I printed the script again, red ink included, and I threw it into my bag to take home. It sat in there the rest of the day and no matter how I tried to ignore it, it weighed on me. Maybe writing was only a dream. Maybe my ambition and my talent didn’t match. Many people want to be football players, but suck at football. I finished the first draft of the next episode but it didn’t matter. The comments stuck to me. I couldn’t shake the critique. I hopped in my truck and called Norman. “Norman, breakfast tomorrow? See you at six.”
I barely slept that night. My dreams shattered. I ran through the comments in my head. At some point I just dressed for the day, wrote my own notes on the script, and then left for breakfast.
I walked into The Cottage. Norman sat at our table, legs crossed, coffee steaming against his face as he sipped. Rain splattered the windows and the clouds appeared green. It was early in the year for a thunderstorm, it felt like a summer storm. Norman turned to me. “How’s your new job?”
“That’s why I asked you to come. I reached into my bag, grabbed the scribbled on script, and handed it to him. Executive Producer notes are typed in red. My new notes are in blue ink.”
“Sit down,” he said. I did. “Do you want to be a writer?”
“Yeah,” I said. But I hesitated.
“Do you want to be a writer?”
“Do you want to be a writer?!” Norman smacked the table. I’d never seen him so excited.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Good. Remember what we talked about way back? About thick skin?”
“Yes. I need thick skin.”
“Always. Even when you think you’re at the top of your game, someone will try to knock you off the mountain. If that person means anything to you, take their comments seriously. Do what you did with these notes. Sometimes editors make good recommendations. Your sentence is passive. Unless you want it that way, change it. Let your editor or producer challenge you. If it’s subjective or something you don’t want to change, tell them to go to hell. This is your show after all. You’re going to have to stand up for yourself. But it’s a balancing act. Now, let’s go through these one at a time.”
We sat at our table and went through each comment, one-by-one. We ate our eggs, drank our coffee, knocked around ideas, and completed the next draft. “I Feel better,” I said and sat back in my chair.
“Good. Editors are good at what they do. Let them help you be a better a writer. But they’re not writers, so if they try to be, tell them to scram. Got it?”
“Got it. Thanks.”
“Of course, I’m always willing to do this with you. At the least, I get a half-decent breakfast,” he said loudly.
“I’ll make you a reservation at Denny’s next time,” said the woman from behind the kitchen curtain.
“Service is too good there,” he said.
“I have to get to the office,” I said.
“Feel good to say that? The office. Sounds so official.”
“It’s so different,” I said. “Like I’m an adult.”
“You’re in a new stage of your life. A good one. Savor it.”
“I will.” I stuffed the script in my bag and slung the bag over my shoulder. “Do this again in a few days?”
“Sure,” said Norman.
I headed to the office reenergized. I wasn’t giving up.
A Moral Dilemma
In case you’re wondering, my nearly 16-year-old dog Patty is still alive. But sadly, her sphincter control has passed away. So I sleep on the couch and wake up throughout the night making sure she gets outside, just in case. She’s normally up and pacing the backyard between 2 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. and again at about 5 a.m. I’m right there with her. But this is also why my posting times are all over the place. I should just write while I’m in the yard with her.
Now from toilet humor to something more serious.
It’s crossed my mind many times that some might take offense to my posting of this story at a time when our world and our nation is in such turmoil. How could I write about a topic as simple as breakfast when fellow citizens are marching in the streets fighting – still – for the equal right to Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness? The dichotomy between my world and another’s world is one that has plagued me my entire adult life. Is it okay to experience joy when so many others are simultaneously experiencing pain and sorrow? It weighs on me… heavily. And more importantly, in a time like this, what is reality? Is it possible that two people can truly see the world through such different lenses that they fail to understand the other? In that situation, is right and wrong, morality, also different?
I’m going deep with this one, I know. But it is relevant and perhaps my first attempt at entering the current narrative. It’s also relevant because when my daughters catch a glimpse of the news or overhear my wife and I or others talking about current events, they inevitably ask the fundamental questions that adults skip over. “Dad, why are people so upset? Dad, why are those buildings on fire? Dad why are so many women marching down the street? What do I tell them? How do I tell them the truth? What is the truth? How do I give them information without inserting my own opinion? Dammit why is parenting so hard? Then I remember Norman’s advice on the topic… advice that stands true today.
I paced behind my desk. Everyone else was at lunch so it was quiet. I walked back and forth talking to myself. Writing non-fiction for kids as an audience was great, but for the first time the topic at hand challenged my own thinking. I needed guidance. So I called Norman.
“Hi. It’s the middle of the day. Is that producer giving you a hard time again?”
“No. I don’t need that stress on top of this.”
“On top of what?”
“I’m working on an episode about the Iraq War.”
“Current affairs. Interesting.”
“It is,” I said and sat in my chair and looked at the computer screen, “I’m really enjoying it. But this one scene, well, I’m not sure how to handle it. These army guys are rolling through Baghdad and they’re talking to the camera, smoking, and joking. A guy in the turret points to a large beige building and says ‘That’s where Bin Laden and Saddam made their plans and hung out together.’ He actually says that!”
“What do I do? I’m serious. This show is for kids. I have a responsibility to get it right and I want this scene in the show. But it should be accurate?”
“Bin Laden and Saddam didn’t work together. Everyone knows that.”
“Do they? You think everyone knows that?”
“Yeah, I mean – What are you getting at?”
“When the war first started, what did people think?”
“People thought a lot of things. A lot of it turned out to be wrong.”
“But what’s your job here? This is about teaching history. History isn’t just the chronology of events. Teaching, writing, is also about capturing the different views, mindsets, and lenses everyone had during those events. After 9/11 our mindset forever changed. So I’ll ask again, what’s your job here? Most important does it make sense to cut that line?”
I sighed. “No. I should keep the line and the scene. Kids should understand that in life people believe different things. There were so many perspectives.”
“Exactly. Sometimes it’s more important for us to capture an aspect of reality than it is to just write “facts” as they occurred in order. Facts are subject to change, especially in war. And when facts change every perspective is impacted – the soldiers, the politicians, the families, all of them.”
“It is shit,” I said.
“Worse. It’s war.”
“At some point today, I’ll walk on the beach and at the same time an American soldier will be killed in Iraq,” I said.
“Yes, and someone somewhere else will die of starvation or thirst. It’s a wicked world, Matt.”
“So how do I filter this for the kids? Should I? They should know what war is? I should try to make it as real as possible for them.”
“You just answered your own question. And it seems like you’re approaching that zone and I should let you write.”
“Thanks, Norman,” I said.
“Always willing to lend an ear.”
We hung up and a I spent the next few hours rewriting the show, I pulled in different senses of reality and throwing my own opinion in the shredder. Norman’s advice carried through when I spent an entire month writing about the civil war and then again writing about the civil rights movement.
How can I write about some so simple as having breakfast at The Cottage at a time like this? Norman and I never talked about our own voting records. We never argued about right and wrong. While originally writing this I had found this snippet:
Mr. Wolfson often stated that even the worst accused criminal is as entitled to competent public relations counsel as he or she is to legal counsel. As a result, almost as a dare, he was invited to represent a labor leader who had been indicted on more than 40 criminal accounts. After accepting the challenge, he failed to gain one inch of print or one second of airtime for his client’s side of the story. He always stood by his conviction and was eager to try again.
It’s all come together for me. As a writer, Norman had provided advice on how to capture the many points of view involved in a single event. As a person, Norman had approached life in the same way. We sat at our table, ate our eggs, drank our coffees, listened to one another, and absorbed one another’s perspectives. We learned to understand one another. Agree and disagree. It didn’t matter. We became good friends.
So how can I write about something so simple as breakfast? Maybe breakfast is just what we need.
Catch Up and New Challenge
The other day, while talking to a good friend – you know who you are – he mentioned reading one of my posts but not being able to follow it. I realized he was right. Unless you’ve read all 16 or so installments, you likely won’t understand what the hell is going on.
So I figured I’d sum it all up to this point.
First and foremost, this story is real. I shield a couple of names for privacy reasons. But everything else is true.
I had just graduated college, worked a few crazy jobs, and then landed a job scraping barnacles and painting boats at a marina. Because my salary put me below the poverty line, I also waited tables at a local restaurant called Marlins Cafe. I worked my ass off so that I could pay rent and eat. But I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a television writer. That’s what I had majored in.
One day while hustling at the marina, I helped an older man carry his groceries from his car to his condo – a nice complex that shared space with the marina. We got to chatting. I told him I wanted to write for a living and he told me I had met the right guy. His name was Norman Wolfson. “Meet me at The Cottage for breakfast tomorrow morning,” he said.
Over the course of a couple months Norman and I met at least once a week at The Cottage – a tiny place on the Manasquan Inlet. We ate eggs, drank coffee, and plotted my entry into the writing life. Each breakfast, Norman shared tidbits about his own life. He had been a New York City PR man. He’d worked for CEOs and Governors and Presidents. He also shared advice, wisdom he’d gained over decades of working and living. Some of it writing advice, some of it business advice, and some of it life advice.
Our plot worked. He, along with my wife, provided me the motivation to go after my dream and I landed a gig as a production assistant for a television production company. After only a few weeks, I was asked to write. I hadn’t proven myself yet. They just needed more writers and I was a body. They threw me in to sink or swim. It challenged me. So I continued meeting Norman for breakfast and he helped me through.
Now we’re caught up.
Over the course of another few months, I kept living my dream career and meeting Norman for early breakfasts. Then one morning I ran into The Cottage excited to show Norman positive feedback the executive producer wrote on my latest script. We ate our usual.
Norman leaned forward and reached into a thin briefcase. He pulled out a manilla envelop and lay it in front of me. “The Gamblers“, I said, reading the black writing scrolled across the front. “What’s this?”
“Open it up,” said Norman. He balanced on the edge of his seat and stared at me. He was more excited than I’d seen him in a while.
I laughed at him. “Settle down, man.” I pulled a thin paperback book out of the envelop and held it up to Norman, presenting it. “Is this a gift?”
“No. Well, that one is for you specifically, but as a whole, it’s not a gift.”
“Is this your final piece? What you’ve been working on?”
“You got it,” said Norman. He smiled uncontrollably. “My last baby.”
“Don’t think I’ll be alive long enough to write another book.”
“That’s the truth. But it’s my best work.”
“So what’s it about?” The cover had a picture of a faceless man standing with his pocket lining out and empty.
“Poker players. Real poker players and how they’re all a set of characters from all walks. Yet they all have a draw to a sport where they have less control. They’re all real people in that book. I asked if I could pen a piece about them. Mostly friends. Some of them are so good they could quit their jobs and just gamble. Others are so good they did quit their jobs. Poker is their job. It’s their way of life.”
“Thanks, Norman. So I get my own copy.”
“Of course. I even wrote a silly note for you in the front. But ignore that for now. Yes, I’m jubilant because I finished. I want you to consider something.”
“This would make great television. It would be an interesting sitcom, but there’s no reason to fictionalize these people. They’re engaging enough. Audiences would connect with them and watch episode after episode, wanting to know how their lives unfold. Poker, is part protagonist, part antagonist.”
“I bet you’re right. And each person said you could use their real name.”
“Of course. They’re proud.”
“So what do you want to do with it?”
Norman pulled his chair in and he leaned into me. “Let’s pitch it to your boss. Reality TV is getting bigger. There’s not much poker on yet, but I have a feeling that’s going to change. I also frequent those tables. Over the past few months, they’ve gotten more and more crowded. Sometimes you have to wait for a spot to open up. Last year, when I noticed the increased interest in playing, I said to myself, my friends will wring these novices dry. My friends don’t play for the money. They play for psychology. They play because it’s fun sitting at a table with strangers, reading them, and testing that skill. That was about a year ago. The wait times are longer now. I’ve had to change my schedule for playing, figure out when it’s a bit quieter. I’ve not noticed anyone else catching onto this growing trend. That’s where the television show comes in. Why not get ahead of it?”
He spoke with a passion, as if he was watching the show play out in his head. He moved around his chair, spinning, leaning, arms swinging. It was as excited as I’d ever seen him.
“So you want to pitch it? I’m sure she’d hear you out.”
“No, no. She’ll hear us out. I had the idea and wrote the book. But I picture us working on the show side by side. You have a talent for screenwriting that I just don’t have in my old bones.”
“So?” asked Norman.
“Let me think about it. She always says she’s looking for more content. But I’ve never seen her talk about reality shows before.”
“That’s not it. It’s just she’s my boss and I’m still pretty new. I don’t want her laughing at me.”
“Why would she laugh at you?”
“What if I bring her a bad idea?”
“No such thing.”
“There are plenty of bad ideas.”
“There are ideas. Some are executed at the wrong time. Others executed poorly.”
“So you want to do what?” I asked.
“Read the book,” said Norman. “Then we’ll put together a television series synopsis and write the first episode, maybe the second. Then we’ll bring those and the book to your boss. What do you think?”
“Okay. Let me read the book.
“Sure,” said Norman. “You should go.”
I packed my things and zippered The Gamblers inside my briefcase. “I’ll let you know,” I said and left The Cottage.
Norman had one last goal, one final mission. And while I wanted to partner with him, part of me felt used. I wondered if he had always intended to help me so that he could then help himself. But he was too nice. He was a gentle, old, smart man. I was also terrified of bringing a bad idea to my boss. At this point, I didn’t know if The Gamblers was good or bad. But I was still a rookie and my boss had decades of experience. I was afraid she’d laugh at me.
I had a decision to make.
Tenacity, Tenacity, Tenacity
The writing life is a tortuous one. Let me explain. It’s the ultimate rush pouring myself onto the page day after day, getting to a point where it almost feels like an out of body experience. I come out of that fog and feel like I just finished a workout, many times having sweat… a lot. That’s not tortuous though. It’s the days when I can’t or don’t write that eat away at me. I get grumpy if long spans of time go by and I produce little. I then question why I got into the craft anyway. Then I write again and all is good.
Getting it done isn’t always a high though. I finish something or submit something and within minutes, I go back to that work and critique the hell out of it, many times feeling it belongs in the bottom of the desk drawer and not out in public. With a tenacity, I go back at it. I write again. I edit again. I submit again. What the hell is wrong with me?
I’ve learned that it’s this tenacity that brings success. Does talent matter? Sure. But it’s the willingness to stand up after getting knocked out that separates successful writers from those who always wish they’d get something published. Am I successful? Maybe. But I’ll never stop writing long enough to really measure my success.
I keep getting up. Sometimes spurred by my own drive and other times I get inspiration like surprise drawings I find in my notebooks.
Other times, the inspiration comes from reading something else. And other times it comes from getting a good kick in the ass.
All of the above drove my decision to Norman’s challenge – “Let’s turn my book The Gamblers into show.”
I sat up in my bed, Brittany beside me.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Norman’s pretty excited about this book.”
“Start by reading it.”
“I’m going to,” I said.
“So what’s going on?”
“I don’t know. In some ways, I feel like she won’t hear us out.”
“Yeah, what if it’s a bad idea?”
“Bad ideas get made into books and shows and movies all the time. Werewolves fall in love. A mermaid turns into a human being. They all seem crazy but someone put pen to paper and created a decent story. You know how?”
I picked up the book and flipped open the cover. “I have to read this,” I said. “Norman persisted. He wrote this book and he’s ancient. He doesn’t stop.” I flipped the page and saw a note and smiled…
At five in the morning, I finished the book and got out of bed, waking Brittany. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“Writing the outline for the first episode,” I said. We’re going to make this a show.” I wrote for an hour and then called Norman. “I’m in,” I said to him. Let’s get breakfast. I’m hungry.”
Beginning the End
It’s been four weeks since I’ve posted. And yes I am a bit grumpy because of my lack of creative output. When I popped open my last post to catch myself up I laughed at the title – Tenacity, Tenacity, Tenacity. Where the hell did my tenacity go? Over the years, I’ve learned something about my own muse – I need to step away and refill the well. I need to focus on living life to its fullest – making the girls pancakes, taking family bike rides, building lego princess castles. It’s a choice that I make. Write or soak in the living. If I have to chose between the two, I pick living every time. No apologies.
The well is full and so it’s time to get back to it.
A lot has happened in these past four weeks, both personally and in the world. Personally, my dog Patty is somehow still kicking. I have no idea how actually. There’ve been a few times when we’ve had our girls say their goodbyes, giving her one last loving hug. Next morning Patty is rip roaring and ready to go. But she still wakes up at least once a night. I’ve not slept through the night, probably no more than three hours a clip, since July. That’s caught up to me.
I attended my first board of education meeting, interested in asking board members and the superintendent about their reopening plan. I’ll leave this one alone except for saying that I was disappointed. Yes in their answers, but more disappointed in my fellow parents. I was the only one there. These are not normal times. I, maybe foolishly, assumed more parents would be interested in hearing how schools will address their kids’ and their teachers’ lives.
And as mentioned, a lot has gone on in the world, as everyone knows. I’ll leave my own personal feelings in the matter out of it. Except Biden made one statement in his speech last night that struck me, one that immediately made me think of Norman. Biden said “It is time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again, and to make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as an enemy. They are not our enemies: They are Americans — they are Americans.”
This struck me because of all the wisdom Norman shared, openly or just by example, the one lesson that has stayed with me is this – everyone has a right to be heard, to be represented both by law and by story, regardless of how much we may disagree with their points of view or their beliefs. If we never stop to listen, we will never have the opportunity to find out where we do agree.
You see, it is this lesson that propelled me to write this story, to put it to paper. I hope I’ve shared all the various learnings about writing and business, and about life. But if that one lesson hasn’t come through then I’ve not achieved my goal.
Okay, okay, you’re probably thinking enough with the soapbox. Just go back to the simple story of two guys learning from one another over breakfast.
Here we go.
Norman threw down a challenge – work with him to write a pilot episode for a reality show based on his book and pitch it to my boss. A green writer/producer teamed up with a legend/dinosaur. But I didn’t care. The idea of partnering with Norman was exciting as reason as any. Shit, what could go wrong?
So Norman and I sat at our table at The Cottage… a lot. Instead of meeting once a week, we met two or three times a week. We set a goal for ourselves – Norman’s idea. “Always give yourself a deadline and stick to it. Otherwise you’ll let it go.” The Cottage owners, in all their love of Norman, must’ve been sick of us taking up space. We leaned over our eggs and coffee and covered the tabletop with pens and notebooks and index cards and bantered back and forth writing down possible story arcs for the pilot. We decided to write three episodes and not just one so that my boss could see the trajectory of the series.
It was fast and enjoyable and I got to see how his mind worked, how it all clicked together. We spent a few weeks working furiously together. At one point, I had my entire bedroom filled with index cards pinned to cork boards, each card representing a different scene or character.
When I fictionalized this in my book, I thought about what Norman worked on while at home and I built in some conflict between the two of us – fighting over scenes and plot lines, giving it some real grit. The reality is that we were cut from the same cloth and collaborated like we’d been writing partners for decades. There was little to no conflict. We had one debate – introduce all the characters in the beginning or introduce a few. We went back and forth and landed on showing all the characters in the first episode.
One morning we had finished our breakfast and sat drinking our coffee and looking out over the docks at the fishing boats as men hosed off their gear. “You know you can’t just spring this on your boss,” said Norman. “You have to pitch her the pitch. Otherwise you’ll catch her off guard. You have to tell her what you plan to do.”
“Now I’m nervous,” I said. “So I have to just walk up to her and tell her I want to pitch her an idea?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Easy as that.”
“You’re right,” I said, “easy as that. We sat back, proud of the work we had put into the pilot. I smiled at Norman. “Easy as that.”
I was lying. I was terrified. I believed in the pitch. I believed in Norman. As much as my boss and I got along and as much as I enjoyed working for her, she still had a presence. She was the boss. She just happened to be one who could also kick my ass. Now instead of being nervous for the pitch, I was nervous for the pitch to the pitch.
Once again, I left Norman sitting at our table, stretching out his morning. I drove to the office up in Sea Bright, went to my desk, and stared at my boss’s office. I watched her activity throughout the day, listened to when she was on calls or talking to one of my colleagues. Her door was always open. That’s how she was. I sweat. I heard her say goodbye and hang up the phone and walked to her glass door and knocked. “Hi, do you have a minute?” I said.
“Sure. Come on in,” she said.
And I walked into her office and sat on the chair in front of her desk.
Getting on the Calendar
First, I will catch you up on the story. Then I will catch you up on some other events in my life since I’ve been sharing them.
“Come on in,” said Nancy.
A quick recap. Norman and I wrote a few television episodes with the intention of pitching the idea of turning his book into a TV show. We wanted to pitch it to my boss Nancy, the owner of the production company that I worked for.
Nancy was a phenomenal business woman, boss, and mentor in her own way. I learned a lot from her leadership style. She knew how to build a team, knew when to challenge her employees, and knew when to exert a little muscle. In addition to all of that, she was a black belt and could easily beat the crap out of most of us.
She lead with her door open. She only ever closed it when she had important calls and so she expected her employees to take advantage of that. If she wasn’t in her office, she was walking around checking in. Again, a great leader.
But that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t nervous. I was very nervous. Sweaty nervous. Big deals make me nervous but I hide it well until I get comfortable. Then the nerves disappear. I sat down in front of her.
“I’ve been meaning to connect with you. You’ve been here a bit now. How are you doing?”
“Great,” I said. “Everyone has been very good to me as a newbie. Showed me the ropes and now mentoring me, teaching me the ins and outs. I’ve learned a lot. And then learning more when writing the episodes. Thank you so much for giving me the chance.”
It was a true statement. Yes I got the chance to write because they were stuck for options. But they still gave me all the support I needed.
“Well I’m glad everyone’s been good to you. We have a very solid team here. Not only do they create amazing content, but they support each other. Remember that as we get bigger.”
“Yeah. Bigger. We’re going to create a bunch of ancillary CDs for Harcourt’s high school history books. Do you like a challenge?”
I leaned forward showing my interest.
“Good. How’d you like to produce the entire CD series? They’re all history and from what I’ve heard that’s your strength.”
“And my passion,” I said.
“It’s settled then,” she said.
“Yes it is. Add series producer to your title. Now, you knocked because you had a question, I presume.”
“I did? I did. Yes, so speaking of growing, I have something I’d like to pitch you. A series idea. Kind of out of our element, but worth exploring.”
“How about this”, said Nancy, “how about I give you thirty minutes to pitch me instead of pre-pitching me. Next week. Monday. A week from today.”
“Really?” I said. I thought it was supposed to be difficult, more of a sale. It was too easy.
“Yes, but go before I change my mind. Get focused on your new series. We’ll send you more details today.”
I jumped up and headed for the door. “Thanks,” I said to her.
She was already working, but she looked up at me. “Thanks for your passion,” she said.
I walked to my desk and grabbed my phone and ran outside and down the street by the river. I called Norman. “Norman, we’re in. We have to pitch her next Monday.” I hung up and stood there, staring at the water and wondering how I’d gone from scarping barnacles to becoming a series producer and writer. To this day, I always remember my start – living below the poverty line. I had a phenomenal support system but I never wanted to rely on others.
It just dawned on me that during this same time – the few years between meeting Norman and getting the job as a writer – Brittany and I also adopted Patty, our adorable mutt from New Orleans. I use the word adopted lightly. Standing outside of Pat O’Brien’s, I gave forty-bucks to a shady guy. She was tiny and spray painted green. We learned from the police that she was a bait puppy, hung over fighting dogs to get them ready for battle. We paid for her, had a vet check her out, got her brother, and broke up a dog fighting ring. Then we flew home to New Jersey. She was part of our family for fifteen-years. Recently, her health deteriorated. Starting in early July, I slept on the couch every night, so I could hear if she needed help. I’d carry her down the stairs off the back porch and walk the yard with her, usually spending about an hour or so awake from 2 am to 3 am, just the two of us in the quietness of the early morning.
We said our final goodbye last Monday. Brittany warned me that that would be the worst day of my life. I should have taken her seriously. It was. I haven’t cried that much in a long time. I’ve realized all the little things I habitually did because of having a dog – checking the backdoor to see if she’s outside, checking my watch to see how long we’ve left her home, looking at her bowl corner to see if she needs water. I’m still doing this. And dammit if I don’t cry each time.
Looking back now, it’s amazing how much the few years from 2004 through 2006 impacted so much of my life moving forward. And I’m glad it did. We’ll miss you, Patty.
The Big Pitch
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.
Our Final Meal
We sat at our regular table, quietly eating our eggs and drinking our coffee. It was 6 a.m. A few fishermen sat at the counter and chatted with the owner and laughed and ignored the hard rain outside. They probably intended to ignore their near-future. Boats bobbed and sank in the chop, rubbing against their docks.
“You get some sleep last night?” I asked Norman.
“Sure did. Slept very well,” he said.
“Don’t let this bother you,” he said.
“I won’t.” I lied. Keeping thick skin is tough. “You?”
“It doesn’t bother me.”
“But you’re quitting,” I said.
Norman smiled at me. “I said I’d stop with the pitching and trying to sell my work. I’ll write till the day I die. Till I can see my Elizabeth again.” He looked at the fishermen. “See those guys?” He pointed with his head.
“They love what they do. It can be shit work, but they fish. I may put down the work for a few days or a few weeks, but I go back. But heck if I’m going to stop writing because one producer didn’t want to pick up my work. What about you?”
“What about me?” I said.
“What’s your next move? You were just as passionate about this as I was.”
“I’m going to produce this series. Get that under my belt. Then I’m going to decide if I pitch it again.”
The fishermen got up and hugged the owner and said farewell as they walked out the door into the downpour. “I’m going away for a bit, too,” said Norman. “Going to spend some time with the kids. We’ll get breakfast when I get back.”
“Great. When you get back, I’d love to get your eyes on the outline for my new series,” I said. “Maybe get your editing on the first few drafts.”
“I’d be happy to take a look for you. I’ll call when I get home. You can send the outline before that. It’ll give me something to do while I let my well fill back up.”
The owner walked up to us and filled our mugs. “If I were you, I’d stay her until that rain lets down,” she said.
“I wouldn’t stay here a minute longer than I need to,” said Norman.
“Good, my invitation was half-hearted.”
“You don’t do anything half-hearted,” said Norman.
“You’re right, she said. Did I hear you’re going away a bit?”
“Just a few weeks.”
“Where will you eat?”
“That’s a good question, said Norman.”
“Maybe you should order three weeks of takeout now,” I said.
“You know, Norm, we’d do it for you.”
Norman smiled, happy to hear her offer. “I know,” he said. “I won’t be gone that long. I need to venture out. The kids will be sure I do.”
“Well you come straight here when you get home. I expect you sitting in that chair. She walked from the table and disappeared behind the kitchen curtain.”
Norman drank his coffee and looked at his watch. “You should get going,” he said. “It’ll take you longer to get to work in this, unless thirty-six is underwater.”
“I’ll get going soon. Not too soon.”
We sat back in our chairs mirroring each other – legs crossed, shoulders drooped, mugs cupped in our hands, and half-smiles across our faces. The rain and wind smacked against the window.
Thirty minutes went by. I finished my coffee and lay down my mug and shook Norman’s hand as I stood up. “You have fun,” I said to Norman. Forget about here for a while. Unplug. Except for what I send you.”
“I will,” said Norman. “But you keep going. Don’t stop except to refuel.” We shook harder and then Norman pulled me in and hugged me. “I’ll see you soon,” he said. “Tell your boss I said hi.”
I smiled and left him there like i had all the other times before.
Looking back, I should have stayed longer and just enjoyed our time together. I didn’t realize it then. But I should have. A few weeks passed and I emailed Norman the series outline and the first episode drafts. But I didn’t hear anything back. I assumed he was having fun with his kids and grandkids, finally letting himself unwind a bit. A few more weeks went by and work consumed me. Early mornings at my desk turned into late nights in the editing room. My boss hired two younger writers to help and I spent a lot of time guiding them, giving them the same welcome I’d received. Norman still didn’t answer. I figured he’d extended his trip.
I’m not sure what made me do it. Late one night, I searched Norman’s name with the word obituary. There it was. His name scrawled across my screen with a few links to various obits. I cried as I read through them. He had just passed and his services were coming up. I wanted to go and say goodbye. I wanted to thank him for that first breakfast. I wanted to let him know just how much I appreciated all of his advice. I wanted to tell him that I’d never forget the old man from the marina. But his family didn’t know me. No one knew me. It was their time to mourn and remember his amazing life. To go or not to go. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. Over the course of the next few days I battled myself. Brittany assured me that he’d appreciate any decision I made. The night before his services, I sat staring at his obituary. In Lieu of flowers. He asked people to donate to a popular animal rescue organization. So I did. I made my decision. And to this day I question whether or not I made the one.
The next morning I went to The Cottage and walked in and sat at our table. The owner walked up and we hugged and cried and I drank coffee. Instead of an omelet, I ordered his eggs. And then I headed off to work. That afternoon one the younger writers stood by my desk and plopped her printed script in front of me. She looked distraught. “What’s wrong I asked?”
“The executive producer made her comments,” she said. “It’s covered in red.” She pointed to all the struck-through lines.
I looked up and laughed, likely insulting her. “You’re a good writer,” I said. “Don’t worry about the comments. We’ll go through them together. But most importantly,” I said, “this is a tough business. You have to have thick skin.”
The Cottage became my place. I went alone and Brittany and I went early in the morning so we could sit at our table. Ownership changed hands but I still went. Now we take our girls and I show them where it all started, where my writing life took shape. And they order their chocolate chip pancakes and Brittany orders her pork roll and cheese and I order my regular or Norman’s regular. And I will keep going back, no matter how many times ownership changes or how many coats of paint cover the memories. As sure as the walls are standing, Norman is there eating his eggs and sipping his coffee, his sweater keeping him warm.