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After a Brief Period of Experimentation

Does Location Matter?

I start a lot of books but don’t finish them, and I don’t watch a ton of movies, because I don’t want to water down or drown out the few that really mean a lot to me.

            One of those few was a movie that came out in 1985, the year before I graduated from college – St. Elmo’s Fire. It was an ensemble piece about seven friends and the unexpected turns their life took in the first year after they graduated from Georgetown. Watching it, I thought, hey, that’s me up there. Along with Breakfast Club, which showcased many of the same actors, it launched the Brat Pack – they were going to be my generation’s actors. Rob Lowe played a drunk who tries and fails at about a half dozen jobs before finally going off to New York to chase his dream, playing the saxophone. Andrew McCarthy played a frustrated hack reporter who wanted to write about the meaning of life for a change – something deep. Something real.

            The screenplay had been penned by Carl Kurlander, with lots of help from the producer Joel Schumacher. Carl was 24 at the time, and the movie was based on a short story he had written during his senior year at Duke. Carl wasn’t enrolled in creative writing classes when he wrote the story – he’d been taking pre-med classes because all of his mom’s husbands had been gastroentologists, and he was probably looking for her approval. He was rescued from that fate when his short story fell into the hands of an English professor, and the next thing Carl knew, he had won an internship to come out to Hollywood for a year. During the filming of the movie, he went out for sushi with Andie McDowell, and then drove her up to Mulholland Drive in his Volkswagon Rabbit, where he parked in the dirt and showed her the view of Los Angeles at night. Carl was already sensing that Hollywood was going to betray his artistic integrity. Drunk on saki, he promised Andie that when the shooting wrapped he was moving home to Pittsburgh, where he had grown up, to write short stories about their generation, stories from the heart, something deep, something real.

            Carl didn’t live up to his promise.

I know this not because I am a student of the movie, but because Carl Kurlander was one of the first people who contacted me out of the blue when I spread the word I was writing this book. I didn’t recognize his name and had never heard of him, but he was happy to explain it because my topic fascinated him. It had been 17 years since he’d made that promise to Andie. Partly he was writing me out of concern that Hollywood would do to me what it did to him. He was living above Sunset Plaza in a house designed by the architect Robert Byrd, with David Schwimmer as one neighbor and Richard Simmons as the other. He drove a Land Rover with the vanity plate, “CK Lander.” C.K. Lander was the pen name he used for that first short story – he had created it to protect his identity and integrity. The pen name was to be a kind of temple, used only for real writing. What was once a temple had become a vanity plate! – what had he done? “I’d become an unlikeable narrator in my own story,” he told me with self-disgust. “I’ve become Holden Caulfield’s older brother, the phony, who wrote one good short story and went to Hollywood and never wrote anything else worth a damn.” Carl had written the lucrative sitcom for teens, Saved by the Bell. He sometimes wasn’t proud of this. By most people’s measure, he was a success – he was well-off, and he was well-known in his industry. But by his own measure, Carl had turned his back on his purpose in life.

Carl reiterated to me that it was always his fantasy to move back to Pittsburgh and regain the writing voice he’d lost along the way. I treated him kindly and promised if he ever did it, I would come see him – but I sort of blew him off, because I thought, fat chance. Carl got the hint, and after awhile our correspondence fell off. Seven months later, he copied me in on a mass-emailing, giving his new coordinates. The area code and the address were in Pittsburgh. The guy had finally done it! And I had to go see him. I waited three months, until some of the novelty had worn off. I was dying to know what had pushed him to finally take the improbable leap. I was also wondering if he really needed to be in a different city to find his voice – why couldn’t he write his stories from Beverly Hills?

I should make clear that Carl wouldn’t tell his story the way I’m telling it. He can’t seem to keep endless movie references out of his sentences – as if his own real life is too muddled to make sense of without allusions to popular culture (“It’s like that scene in _____, or, “It’s the same arc that was done in _____”) That’s part of the bad habit he needed to shake. He also can’t seem to avoid talking about a woman he long ago had an irrational crush on. She’s intersected his life a few times since, but in a circumstantial way only, not in a meaningful way, and I’m not going to mention her again. Carl’s been married a long time, and he has a two-year-old daughter.

Sometimes I just wanted to hug him and say, this is your story, Carl, not the sequel to some movie, and not some girl’s.

 

There is a building on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh that is so tall it can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. It is called The Cathedral of Learning, and at 535 feet, it is the second-tallest educational structure in the world. It was built in 1937, contains forty floors of offices and classrooms, and is truly a cathedral – the ground floor chamber vaults up in classic Gothic architecture, with a labyrinth of chapels and belfrys separated by equilateral arches. If you grow up in Pittsburgh, this building becomes an indelible symbol of all-things academic and pure.

            Carl had come here to teach for the year. His office and his classes were in this building, and he rarely left it during the day. “To me, this building is as glamorous as a studio lot,” he said. “I wanted to bathe in something altruistic and clean, and I think it’s having the desired effect. For years I told people in Hollywood I wanted to come back here, and they always said ‘Being in a different place isn’t going to make you any happier.’ But it has. I’m happy. I like the feel of the city. When it rains here, I’m even happier. Maybe it’ll wear off, but I’m reveling in the genuineness of what I feel here, and the power of my memories.”

            He was realizing his real journey had just started. Would he really be able to regain his voice? What would he do when the year was out? If he moved back to Hollywood, would he ever write movies about the meaning of life? Carl was panicked and obsessed with these concerns. He looks like a blonde, curly haired-version of Seinfeld’s George Costanza, and he talks like Woody Allen, rambling, repeating himself, zigzagging with his doubts. That’s his natural vocal style, and he wants to see himself writing in that voice again. Movies don’t get to ramble anymore. But his students love his digressions, and every hour he spends on his feet in front of his class is like an hour of voice workshop, this is your voice … He loves his creative writing class in particular, and like so many rookie teachers who aren’t yet burned out, he has an incredible gift of raw energy for the students. He’s fresh meat. They call him by his first name, and they all laugh at his jokes, and when he asked what they did over the Thanksgiving weekend, they let out with some incredibly honest and idiosyncratic stories. Real life! Carl’s loving it. Pitt is no Harvard; many of his students are the first generation in their family to go to college, which means Carl feels needed – these are students for whom he can make a difference.

            That’s the bright side. Undergrads. But the Cathedral of Learning has 20 floors of graduate students and professors who belong to the canon of Academia, one of the only cultures with a higher bullshit quotient than Hollywood. It turns out that since Carl went to college, academia has come up with something called the FreyTag Triangle, by which all short fiction can be diagrammed and piece by piece leeched of all mystery. It’s very important that the FreyTag Triangle be drawn on the chalkboard a few times during every class. It resembles a regular old 3-sided triangle in many ways, but apparently it requires a Ph.D. to tell the difference.

One night Carl had to deliver a colloquium for the graduate students in the Film Studies Program. On the way over, he kept wondering aloud, “What’s a Colloquium? How does it differ from a lecture?” To make fun of academicians’ manner of over-titling, he’d billed his speech as “An Anecdotal Analysis Inside a Post-Classical, Increasingly Globalized Hollywood, 1982-2001.” Nobody got the joke. He tried to conform to their conventions, following an outline and draining his analysis of any personal stories, but eventually he couldn’t help it and busted out the old scrapbook for some Show ‘N Tell. Carl would tell a funny story, and the graduate students would nod knowingly with recognition that Carl had clearly never been to graduate school.

His speech was interesting though. Carl’s thesis was that he was able to make St. Elmo’s Fire because he arrived in Hollywood during a brief period of experimentation. Studio executives had put out some expensive bombs, and it would be two years before the studios would figure out how to quadruple their revenue by exploiting soundtracks, video, foreign markets, and product tie-ins. Hollywood’s studio system today is not broken; it books more revenue than ever, and that’s the standard it measures everything by. Box office. It doesn’t need writers to experiment.

“How’d I do?” Carl asked, as we were walking out. It was a load off his shoulders to have it done. Somewhere during the hour, he and I both figured out that the difference between a colloquium and a lecture is that you deliver a lecture to just students, but in a colloquium other professors show up and sit in judgment.

When we reached the car, I asked, “Aren’t you afraid you’re going to swap Hollywood’s voice for Academia’s voice? The Three-Act Structure replaced by the FreyTag Triangle? Trying to impress lesbian erotic poets rather than studio executives?”

He paused, and took his response in a different direction. “See, how can you do that? Somehow you can not idolize a place like this. How come I can’t? You’ve been here one day, and you can see into the shadows better than I do after three months.”

“I just don’t want you to lose track of why you came here.”

“God, I wish I had your sincerity. Really. You’re like Gary Cooper.”

“Don’t idolize me now.”

Another pause. “How do I do it?” he asked.

“Not lose track?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t live for their approval. Don’t live for anyone’s approval.”

“Everyone wants approval.”

“That’s just argumentative.”

“They do!”

“Sure they do. But you can take a break from it. Not forever, but a while.” I told him about a recent year, in which I was trying to heal after my divorce. Remorse and guilt had nearly paralyzed me. I realized one of my problems was my parents were viewing my divorce through the lens of their own. Both thought I should handle mine the way they handled theirs. So for a year, I insisted my parents not express any judgment – approval or disapproval. About anything. I wanted them to know me, not to fix me.  It was exceedingly difficult to get the habit of, but I found I wanted to share with them a lot more. I shared out of desire, not responsibility. Because one of my books came out during this same year, I didn’t read any of its reviews. This had nothing to do with hostility towards reviewers, and nothing to do with that book. I needed a year where I could listen to my own inner voices and rediscover who I was. 

Carl found this experiment inconceivable. But he understood the concept. He said back in Hollywood he would sit by the phone, waiting for it to ring with business. If it rang a lot, it meant he was wanted and needed. If it didn’t ring, he would start to feel like nobody loved him anymore.

Carl said, “The phone doesn’t ring much here. But that doesn’t scare me anymore.”

Carl and I were uniquely uncensored with each other. His story didn’t reveal itself to me like a mystery, one clue at a time. Because of his rambling style, the whole story jumped out from our first minutes together. Time was flattened; events that occurred 21 years ago were as immediate as his hunger for lunch today. Long sentences would connect his parent-child relationship with producer Joel Schumacher to his mother’s multiple absent-husbands to the rarity of long-lasting marriages in Hollywood to the way he’s raising his daughter today. Since I’d had a bit of a broken childhood too, he viewed me as his alter-ego, and said so often. He was eager to read the stories I’d written of my childhood. “Where are the novels in which carpools appear?” he lamented. “Why is nobody writing about this stuff!?” (Of course, plenty of writers are writing about that stuff, and so his rant feels like a call to himself – “Why have I not been writing about that stuff?”)

We went out for some Chinese cuisine with his daughter and wife Natalie, who had indulged Carl’s need to return to Pittsburgh with grace, but she let it be known that one year here was more than enough for her.

“Somehow, $40,000 in Pittsburgh feels like $400,000 does in Beverly Hills,” Carl said, after he paid for our dinner with a twenty dollar bill.

“Not to me it doesn’t,” Natalie offered. “I miss cable.”

“We just have to adjust our expectations,” Carl suggested.

“I know. It’s good for us.”

It was like he’d dragged his family camping.

Later, Carl and I went out into the neighborhood. It was quiet and dark and peaceful. The rain had stopped. A few houses had already strung Christmas lights along their windows. The feeling was timeless. It could have a been any November night in the last 30 years. We were high schoolers out looking to score beer. We were grade schoolers out past our bedtime. We were parents looking for our kids. His rental house overlooked the elementary school playground where he used to get beat up by schoolyard bullies. Not far away was the apartment over a garage that he moved into with his Mom and little brother, after she got divorced (the first time).

“She would send me out to the bar around the corner at night to buy her a pack of smokes,” he said.

We went around the corner, and there was the bar, now a storefront.

“You were?”

“Twelve…. You?”

“Twelve.”

“See! You understand.”

“Tell me anyway.”

“It was another time of experimentation. The institution of the nuclear family was breaking down just as the working-class economy in Pittsburgh was breaking down. People thought, ‘hey, let’s get divorced.’ They had no idea about the consequences, they were just trying something different. In Pittsburgh, we were like the first. It was scandalous, for a prominent doctor to get divorced. Nobody lived in an apartment.”

And a few blocks later stood the house where they moved a couple years later.

“When I was fifteen, I walked home from school one day and there was a moving van in the driveway.”

“You were moving again?”

“No. My Mom told us she was running away to New York to be an actress.”

“Out of the blue?”

“Yes.”

“Without you?”

“She enrolled my little brother and me in Shady Side Academy, a prestigious boarding school outside of town, real old world conservative, the place where the Heinz’s and the Carnegie’s all sent their kids.” He got distracted for a moment talking about the school. They have a three million dollar ice hockey rink, but no stage theater, which tells you where their priorities were.

I’d heard about Shady Side Academy on my way in from the airport, and learned it didn’t board on weekends. I asked Carl where they went on Fridays through Mondays.

“Mom had signed me up to be the babysitter for the kids of a wealthy Arab man in town. He looked out for us. And in the summers, he took us to Chattaqua, a couple hours away, where he owned the St. Elmo’s Hotel. I worked as a bellhop. I developed the most abnormal-sized crush on a waitress. That was the basis for the short story I wrote at Duke that won me the internship in Hollywood.” Again he started to ramble about his years at Duke, his Marxist phase, going to Washington to protest … but I kept cutting him off, because I thought this stuff about his mother running away was too important, and it explained a lot of why he could never leave Hollywood, which placated him with its artificial affection. So we went back to his office over his garage, and he dug out his boxes of photos and mementos from his years in Hollywood. Carl had spent years of his life idolizing that waitress, and it was obvious to me that this self-generated illusion came from a deep longing created by the absence of his mother.

In Hollywood, that void was filled by Joel Schumacher, who became both the mother-figure and father-figure Carl needed. “We can’t be a minute late!” Joel would order him, hustling him out the door. Then in the car, Joel would offer inspiration, “Nobody writes as good as you, Carl.” While writing St. Elmo’s Fire, Carl was living in the laundry room of the Anarchists’ Collective. The pledge he made to Andie MacDowell was not the only of its kind – many times he told Joel that as soon as he’d made $50,000, he was moving back to Pittsburgh. He told everyone who asked, and many who didn’t, that he wasn’t going to stay in Hollywood. When the filming of St. Elmo’s Fire wrapped, Carl’s agent brought him a project that some studio wanted him to write. It was about a man who thinks he knows what babies are thinking. Carl had no interest. He was going to write the stories of his generation!

“Tell them I’m going back to Pittsburgh,” he instructed his agent.

“Well, this is how we say no in Hollywood,” the agent explained. “We ask for too much money. You get the same result, but you don’t insult anyone about the integrity of their project.” Hollywood has developed elaborate customs by which nobody ever quite has to say no or yes. Nobody wants to offend someone who might end up winning an Oscar or running a studio. The unfortunate result is people have a terrible time being direct. When new writers arrive in Hollywood, they get the impression their career is about to really take off, because it seems that everyone loves me! This partly explains why box office results have become the measure of success – all other forms of praise have lost their currency. Praise is cheap and plentiful.

So Carl’s agent asked for too much money, and the studio said okay, and paid him. Carl was on the hook for writing a movie about a man who could read babies’ minds.

“How much was too much money?” I asked.

“A hundred thousand. That was a lot of money back then.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Carl. No young writer could say no to that.”

“You could.”

“No way! Are you kidding? At 24?”

“But you turned down a lot more than that.”

“To be a salesman! Not to write!”

Hearing this from me seemed to alleviate some of his guilt.

Carl began writing the talking baby movie. He soon learned that getting hired to write a movie is still a huge leap away from that movie getting made. It was suggested that he might improve his movie’s chances if he did his “research” by hanging out with the babies of important studio executives. So C.K. Lander, great writer of his generation, became a babysitter again, schmoozing 8-month-olds and newborns, hoping they might put in a good word with Daddy or Mommy. All this did was humiliate Carl and destroy his self-respect; the project was shelved.

But there were other producers who wanted to hire Carl, other people eager to tell him how much they loved his work. Pittsburgh wasn’t going anywhere. Hollywood creates insecurity at a slightly higher rate than it fills the void with money and love. For every movie shot, there are a fifty in development that don’t get made, and for every two new television shows there are seventy writer-teams getting paid to write pilots that will never make it. It’s not just possible to make a decent living in Hollywood without ever having a movie in a theater or a TV show on the air – it’s commonplace. Writers are cut off from the feedback of the audience; they rarely get exposed to what real people think of their work. Well-paid writers like Carl end up starving for recognition and have to live off the crumbs of flattery from executives, who tell them repeatedly that what gets their movie made is having stars attached to the project. So the writers are asked to rewrite their scripts with a certain famous actor in mind.

“I got really good at imitating the voices of the stars,” Carl explained. “We chase success. We write in the style of last year’s Oscar winner. I could write in everybody’s voice but my own.”

As Carl described all this, I started to understand why he had to move away from Hollywood to regain his voice. My curiosity swung to wondering how he’d ever managed to leave.

“How’d you do it, Carl?”

“I’m not sure,” he said. “It still amazes me.”

“What do you think was the first trigger?”

“Yahoo.”

“Yahoo?”

“I was writing a script about Silicon Valley, the Great Gatsby reset in Sunnyvale, and I was allowed into Yahoo for a couple days to research the project.”

He arrived expecting to see an incredible ostentatious display of wealth. At the time, a full three-quarters of the employees were millionaires. “But they were still working in cubicles. Even the founders! And they were so nice!” One moment that stood out: an assistant had to get lunch for David Filo and Jerry Yang. She grabbed two pre-made turkey sandwiches from the cafeteria and threw them on the table in the conference room. Carl couldn’t believe she hadn’t asked them what they wanted, or let them customize their orders. When Carl was her age, he had to get lunch one day for Joel Schumacher and another executive. Joel ordered gazpacho with no croutons, no sour cream and chopped egg on the side. The other executive ordered a hamburger with grilled onions on the side. But the burger came by accident with the onions on the burger. The executive refused to eat it, and chewed Carl out for not checking the order to make sure it was accurate before presenting it.

“My few days at Yahoo really put Hollywood’s absurd values in perspective,” Carl said. “I’d assumed wealth ruined everybody, but it wasn’t everybody. They were all millionaires, and still had their values.”

That script died a slow death like all his others, but he became hypersensitive to his life in Beverly Hills. “That’s when I realized what I’d become. Like the vanity license plate – I suddenly wanted it off my car.”

He reached into a file drawer and pulled out the embarrassing culprit, “C K Lander.” He said, “I used to think this was so cool. Now it embarrasses me.”

Around the time Carl first contacted me, the Writer’s Guild appeared determined to strike. It was narrowly avoided, but in the approaching months, every writer in Hollywood was facing the possibility of not working for awhile. Carl pined for Pittsburgh. As he does every year, Carl filled out the card from his old high school that requested donations. He put down his credit card number beside a donation amount and mailed it off. Right after that, he lost his credit card. So he emailed Shady Side to provide his new credit card number, and after a woman there dug out his card and learned he worked in Hollywood, he wrote that he always had this fantasy he would come back there and teach. She emailed back that one of their English teachers was going on sabbatical – they needed a teacher for the year. She also knew the head of the department at Pitt, who invited Carl to visit and meet with some of the faculty.

“When we sold the house and moved here, I thought that was it, fade out, end of story. Man overcomes temptation, moves home, roll credits. I thought we would get here, and it would all click, and the rest would be easy. I never thought through what I’d do once I finally got here. But now I’m really aware that moving was only the first step. I’m kind of embarrassed. It took me seventeen years to take the first step.”

“Are you going to stay?”

“I have no idea. What do you think?”

“About what?”

“—About what’s going to happen to me?”

“Have you been writing?”

“I just started something.”

“A story or a script?”

“Uh, it’s a memoir.”

“Great! Good for you.”

“But it’s not my memoir.”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you know Louie Anderson?”

“The comedian? The host of Family Feud?”

“Yeah, but he also wrote that book, Dear Dad. The publisher wants the prequel, all the rich stuff about his childhood. A lot of amazing stuff happened to him.”

“So what the hell does this have to do with you?”

“He’s a close friend, and he asked me to write the book for him.”

I suddenly understood, and I was simultaneously deeply disappointed and frustrated and sorry for Carl. “You’re writing Louie Anderson’s memoirs,” I repeated in a hushed, astonished tone.

“It won’t take me more than a few months,” he said. “Right?”

“That’s pretty optimistic. Usually you get sucked into the editing cycle and it consumes twice the time you anticipated.”

“I was afraid of that.”

“Carl, why do it at all? Why give even three months to someone else’s story when you sold your house and moved across the country to write your own story? Any other writer, I’d say sure, take the work, it’s a paycheck. But you don’t need the money. You only have a year here. It’s not why you came.”

His wife had joined us, and I got the feeling she had made the same obvious point several times.

“I couldn’t turn him down,” Carl said. “He needed me.”

 “Tell him you can’t do it,” I insisted. “What kind of friend asks you to write his book when everyone knows you need to write your book? If you were an alcoholic, I’d call him an enabler.”

Carl admitted he’d grown scared whether he could really write his own story, and he thought this might be a good bridge – it would be a book, not another script, and it would be about early family material, which Carl also wanted to mine in his own story. Carl kept insisting he could write the book quickly.

I said, “I don’t know what to tell you, Carl. Since I write books, I find it kind of insulting that you believe you can just dash one off for a friend, not recognizing the amount of work that will be involved.”

This was a hard moment, because until that time, I was implicitly giving Carl my approval. I’d flown across the country, and we were fast becoming friends, and I could see this meant a lot to him. None of his friends in Hollywood had come to see him, and few probably would. Suddenly I was the Voice of Disapproval. In the moment, I just wanted to brush it away and be friends again, but in the back of my mind I was trying to remember, “This is the guy who wrote St. Elmo’s Fire! This is the guy who inspired me! Look out for him! Help him regain his courage!”

But how? I didn’t want to insult him. I told him the stories of others who had put their nose right up to their destiny, only to get sidetracked by last minute temptation, or in Carl’s lexicon, the Third Act Complication. We are our own worst enemies. I grew weary quickly, and I had to call it a night. I could have taken his extra bedroom, but I went to a hotel, where I proceeded to stare at the ceiling for about three hours. Why was I so worked up about this? Why did it matter? I don’t know. The stories of others had been brainwashing me, surely. I had been surrounding myself with acts of courage. Was I pushing Carl when really I needed to do something for myself? Had I betrayed my own artistic integrity? I lay there, working through the choices I’d made the last nine years. I’d resisted a lot of offers, but not always. I still had a long way to go. I woke up in my clothes late the next morning, wondering whether I should walk over to the Cathedral of Learning for another day. My sadness was gone. Carl had mentioned several times he would have lots of time for me today, because his students’ would be filling out teacher evaluations and grading him. I suddenly thought, it’s his Day of Judgment! And I knew what his students thought of him would matter a little too much to Carl. I called him at home, let it ring a few times, and then wavered and hung up.

A moment later my phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Po.”

“I just called you.”

“I know. I Star-69’d you.”

“I just wanted to say …” What was I trying to say? “… It means so much to me how you’ve let me into your life, Carl. Into your classes, into your marriage, into your past, into your house. I wasn’t sure if I should even say this, because I don’t want you to care what I think. But I think your story will mean something to people. You have a good story. Your story – I think it’s important.”

“I always thought it was meaningful.”

“It is, Carl, whether you write it or I. And …”

“And?”

Now I was rambling. “And I want you to know that what those students think of you doesn’t matter, Carl. You’re a good teacher, I’ve seen it. You keep doing what you’re doing, it’ll be all right.”

“Oh, I don’t care what those kids think.”

“You don’t?”

“Naw.”

“Oh. Well, good.”

I promised to come back to Pittsburgh with my wife and son that summer. Carl promised to not spend much time on Louie Anderson’s book. And in this way, our future was again bound tight in our hopes for it. It wasn’t wise to make these promises – they would be hard to live up to – but we seemed unable not to swear to them.