I’ve had India on my mind lately. A year ago this week, I boarded an Emirates flight from LA to Dubai. After a 36-hour whirlwind tour of Dubai (a fascinating and audacious city) I hopped on another plane and arrived in India where I spent the next ten days in Bangalore and Kolkata. I was there to see firsthand the development work Compassion International is doing with children and families living in poverty and to meet, Reshma, a child that I have sponsored through the organization for several years. The trip has taken on new relevance in light of recent news. More on that later in this post.
I love to travel and the more exotic the better. (When I say “exotic” I mean different from what I’m used to, not weird. America would be considered an "exotic" place for many people in the world.) It is not only the sense of adventure and the heightened awareness that tingles down my spine when I first set foot in a new place, but it is the chance to leave my world for another. It engages my imagination. As a storyteller, that’s intoxicating.
Travel has become an important part of my writing life. It forces interactions with people who see the world differently. It forces me at times to feel uncomfortable, to feel the weight of life - both the burdens and joys - press against my being in new ways. Yes, it’s about walking in another person’s shoes, but it’s more than that. It’s about going to places where the rules are different, and communication is hard, where at best I’m a welcomed guest and worst an unknown foreigner. Either way, I learn to trust, and in doing so I discover beauty in the world’s diversity. I always return humbled. My time here on earth isn’t about me at all.
I could write a series of posts about my trip to India. It is a compelling place that gets under your skin: the vivid colors, the spicy food, the acute smells, the way the old world survives while the new world emerges, the sheer volume of its humanity, and, of course, the poverty.
I found Bangalore to be a more hopeful place; the colors were brighter and the smiles longer. Yes, it was still India, but the growing number of high rises and the bustling city center had me thinking that if one could get an education, they might have a chance here.
I met young a young woman who was excited to meet an American. She asked, “Do you know Target.com?” Her smile beamed in anticipation of my answer. I told her, “Yes, I know Target.com.” She informed me her job was customer service for Target.com. I hear this and suddenly my world gets smaller and I become more patient when I call a “1-800” number and a person with an Indian accent answers the phone. This is why I travel.
I met my sponsored child, Reshma and her mother at a women’s center in Bangalore. She wiped tears from her eyes and in broken English said, “I’m so happy.” We exchanged gifts. I shared photos of my family with her and she shared pictures of hers. I told her I was proud of her. She told me she prays for me every day. After about an hour we boarded a bus and went to a park where we spent the rest of afternoon. At lunch, I noticed Reshma, her mother, and our translator were eating their rice and chicken with their fingers. I thought, “When in India…” I set my utensils aside and made a complete mess of myself finishing my meal with rice down my shirt and lap and all over the ground beneath me. I think they appreciated the effort.
At the end of the day, Reshma and her mother returned to their lives and to the daily uncertainties and struggles that face the poor. I went back to my hotel and my iPad.
My time in Kolkata left a deep impression on me. It is impossible to ignore the heaviness of life there. The colors appeared more muted and the faces wearier. Hope is not a commodity here. I visited Mother Theresa’s home and orphanage and I start to understand the incredible self-sacrifice this woman made. Truly humbling.
Which brings me to the news I received this week. It is very likely that by mid-march the Compassion programs in India, serving 200,000+ kids and their families will be closed. The Indian government is no longer allowing fund transfers from foreign countries to many NGOs operating in the country. It’s a turn inward by the government that appears to be targeting Western non-profits that work in the areas of human rights and the environment. Compassion, as well as organizations like Greenpeace, Amnesty, and the Ford Foundation, have all been affected. The highest levels of both the US and the British government have pleaded the case to the Indian government to allow Compassion (and other NGOs) to continue their work. But so far hearts have not changed.
I am grateful I had the opportunity to go to India when I did. I’m thankful I was able to meet Reshma and her mother. Their story is now a part of mine and mine a part of theirs. Our time together was not filled with lofty conversation (let’s just say our translator did the best she could). It was mostly us sitting together and smiling; a simple universal gesture that says, “I see you. And you are not alone.”
I hope I never lose my courage to cross boundaries, to sit with a stranger, and smile.
I’ve heard something lately that I haven’t heard in a while: genuine interest from a management agency in my work. I picked up an insight at the Austin Film Festival last October and when I came back to LA I thought try something I’d never done before. I sent a query letter.
Query letters have been a tool for aspiring writers in Hollywood for decades. It’s a letter written to agents, managers, producers, or production companies that basically says, “I’m So-and-So and I have a script call ‘The Great American Screenplay’ and it’s about …“
For a myriad of legal reasons, very few companies accept unsolicited scripts. So the goal of the query is to pique the interest of the reader enough that they solicit your script.
Before the internet changed everything, these query letters were old school, requiring ink and paper, a roll of stamps, and a lot of envelope licking. It was common for aspiring writers to send dozens of query letters with the hope that someone would take interest and respond. The problem, as you might imagine, is that all these companies and agencies are bombarded with queries every day and the likelihood of a response is very low. So, the general perception among writers is that query letters don’t work.
I was somewhat surprised to hear from a literary manager speaking on a panel at the film festival that his agency still accepted queries via e-mail. I thought, my script pitches well, what do I have to lose?
In early November, I sent three query letters to three different talent management agencies with a short pitch for “The Resurrection of Dennis Munson.” Two weeks later, I got a response from one of the companies. They asked for the script. So, I sent them the script. Their instructions are explicit: don’t follow-up. If we’re interested, we’ll contact you. The holidays came and I didn’t hear anything. To be honest, I kind of forgot about it.
Last Friday, exactly two months after I submitted my script, an e-mail appeared in my inbox. “Thanks for sending your script to us – we enjoyed your writing and want to read more from you.” They asked if I had any other completed scripts that I could send a pitch, or logline, for. Fortunately, I did have another script called “The Tinker Dreamer” that I’m proud of and it’s a story that I think reflects my creative voice.
I worked on the pitch over the weekend and sent it to them Monday morning. That afternoon, they replied and asked for the script, which was great, except for one big problem. The script wasn’t done. I thought for sure if I heard anything back from them it would take a week or two, which would give me time to finish it. I did not anticipate they would reply in two hours.
Before the holidays, I started on a rewrite. It was a significant rewrite that I thought I’d have done, maybe, by the end of the January. I looked at the script sitting on my desk, bloodied with red ink. Oh crap, I thought. I have to finish this now.
I rewrote the script in 36 hours. It was intense and to be honest kind of fun. I wrote late into the night and got up early to keep going. Tuesday night I finished the new draft and sent it off to my editor for cleanup. Amazingly, my editor, who lives on the east coast, had the script edited by the time I awoke Wednesday morning. I addressed my editor’s notes and submitted the script to the agency Wednesday night. Phew.
Now I just have to wait and see what happens. I may never hear from the agency again. But then again, who knows? Anything is possible.
Here is the pitch I sent them for “The Tinker Dreamer.”
The Tinker Dreamer is a Capra-esque sci-fi drama set in rural post-war America of the 1950s, before Sputnik and the space race, in a time when mankind’s ideas of outer space were formed by science fiction comics and B-movies. Max, an inventive dreamer, comes of age longing to explore the outer reaches of the known universe, but entangled love and family loyalties keep his feet firmly on the ground. Max’s unconventional beliefs are put on trial after a mysterious machine he builds falls into the wrong hands. The town’s believers and cynics take sides as the fate of Max and those he loves rests on the flip of the machine’s switch.
After I crossed the finish line, I was immediately greeted by a small army of race volunteers. A finisher’s medal was placed around my neck and someone asked, “Are you okay?” My answer would determine where I would end up: on a stretcher in the medical tent or a seat in the recovery tent. I said I was fine. They draped a towel over my shoulders and then a young man grabbed my arm and led me to the recovery tent. I took a seat at a table and the volunteer asked if I wanted some pizza. “Sure," I mumbled. In truth, I didn’t know what I wanted. The young man returned with a slice of cold pizza. I took one bite and thought I would vomit.
I was feeling nauseous. I looked over at the port-a-potties and thought maybe I should just throw up and get it over with. But that would involve walking and I didn’t have the energy for that. I pulled the towel tight around my body and laid my head on the table. I slipped into a slumber that wasn’t quite sleep and wasn’t quite awake. After about 20 minutes I recognized the voice of my friend Heather who had just finished, “Nathan, are you okay?” I opened my eyes and looked at her. “Let’s get our picture taken.” She suggested. I stood up, put a smile on my face and got my finisher photo.
My legs were incredibly sore. Movement was slow and deliberate, but I was feeling better. The nausea had dissipated. I made my way out of the recovery tent and found my support crew at Endurance Sports Travel. I dropped off my gear and picked up a bag of clean, dry, warm clothes. I changed and resurrected, a new man. I connected with my other friends from the Disney Triathlon team. We did a roll-call: who’s in and who’s still out on the course? Where did you last see them? How did they look?
Local restaurants were serving meals to athletes, so we took a table at a Mexican/Italian restaurant and waited for a couple of friends to finish. I ordered the lasagna. When my food came, I ate about a third of the dish and couldn’t eat anymore. When you burn close to 10,000 calories on a liquid diet, the body is not ready to accept a heavy meal.
Three stairs led down to the dining area. When we finished eating, I hobbled over to the stairs and paused. Climbing three stairs or summiting Mount Everest, it was all the same to my weary legs. The hostess took pity on me and offered her hand. I took it and she helped up the stairs. I would have married her on the spot. That was the kindest thing anyone could have done for me at that moment.
Once everyone in our crew was accounted for, we loaded into a van and headed back to the resort. I took a hot shower and let the ocean, the grime, and the sweat wash off my body. I crawled into bed just before midnight. I was so tired I thought I would sleep for the next 15 hours.
I woke up at 3 am with a hunger so ravenous it was borderline painful. I found a Cliff Bar and consumed it in two bites. I woke up again 3 hours later with the same ferocious appetite. Breakfast was served at 7 am. I was up and waiting outside the dining room at 6:45 am. I wasn’t alone. The caloric deprivation of the all-day race makes the body crave fuel. There was a small crowd of athletes waiting for the doors to open. Food was more important than sleep.
I spent the next three days on the island moving from one beach chair to the next. My friends and I went out for dinner each night; we swapped stories and sang karaoke. After nine months of being focused, it was nice to finally allow myself to be unfocused.
It’s been three years and one month since I crossed the finish line. It’s only now that I have distance from the training, from the race, from the lifestyle of Ironman that I see how important that day was to me.
I’ve been in LA for eleven years. Like so many, I arrived with a head full of dreams and ideas for what I wanted my life to be. After a decade of NOs, I learned that a portion of my aspiration was dependent on other people’s YESes. Every artist in LA faces this struggle. As the years marched on the assault of the NOs takes a toll. You begin to take it personally.
Ironman was something I could do that no one could say NO to. I didn’t need anyone’s permission, affirmation, or connection to get my butt out of bed in the morning and train. I didn’t need anyone to discover me or introduce me to the finish line. I could get there myself. It was up to me. My question was: do I have the commitment, endurance, and focus to do something, which for me, was quite extraordinary? Training and finishing the Ironman was my way of telling myself YES.
On the days when I’m discouraged, when the self-doubt whispers bitter denials in my ear, I remember that voice I heard one night years ago. “You are an Ironman.”
A WRITER KEEPING THE FAITH IN LOS ANGELES