This post will largely be me working through and expressing things I haven’t much talked about publicly, so apologies in advance for the potentially rambling nature of what’s to come.
I just finished a screenplay I started writing over ten years ago. It’s called Switching Time, and it’s an adaptation of a book written by my father. When he was a practicing psychiatrist, he had a patient with Dissociative Identity Disorder (a.k.a. multiple personalities). She had 17 alters (one more than the famous Sybil), and after nearly a decade of treatment these alters were all reintegrated back into the whole. This woman whose psyche was split into distinct personas, each with their own drives, is now whole. One person.
As a child I didn’t engage much with the events that were depicted in the book. My father was very good at keeping his work and family lives separate, so I didn’t really have any clue what my father’s relationship to this woman was, other than that she was a patient (I met her briefly once or twice in passing toward the end of her treatment, well after the events of the book). It wasn’t until I read the book that I found out anything of my father’s experience. I am in the book, of course, but only briefly.
I did meet Karen (as she’s called in the book) for real, and I had a conversation with her, at my father’s wedding to his third (and current) wife. We are also friends on Facebook. She remains involved in further developments of the story, and she knows about my screenplay. She hasn’t read it yet, but she will soon. (The script isn’t actually DONE done, and her notes will be incorporated into the next draft.)
My father got a Master’s Degree in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Northwestern, during which he shaped the initial version of the book. He got an agent and sold the book very soon after graduating, which I’m told is quite the rarity. The book was bought by Random House and eventually published under their Crown imprint. This also was a big deal, as it’s their big-title bestseller label.
Random House apparently expected this book to do very well. Maybe not create the sensation that Sybil did, but they were prepared for a hit. My dad did the usual book tour rounds, appearing on NPR and Good Morning America, and the like. It was exciting!
The book was not a hit.
I don’t know what the sales numbers were, but they were not good. I don’t know if this was a result of bad marketing (though I do know that the SEO was poor, because it was hard to Google the book or its author and get the desired results), or if it simply didn’t strike a chord with readers. Whatever the case, the book became obscure pretty quickly, disappearing from Barnes & Noble shelves within weeks, though the website remained active for awhile, and people could submit questions to Karen that she would answer.
I had already long decided before this point that I wanted to be a writer and filmmaker. I was in film school at NYU, with several screenplays under my belt already. It seemed silly for me to not be the one to do the adaptation. So I took an adaptation screenwriting class one semester with the specific goal of turning this book into a screenplay (sort of like my father had with the original book). I got about 40 pages into a draft but stopped, because a finished feature script was not actually a requirement of the class. I didn’t really go back to it after that.
I didn’t anticipate what a struggle writing this story would be. It has a lot of characters. It’s also pretty brutal, with repeated graphic depictions of violent sexual abuse toward women and children. It doesn’t follow a traditional three-act structure, and the story meanders from time to time. I’d also never tried to adapt anything before, and I’d chosen to start my game on Hard Mode.
But none of these things were the real reason it took me so long.
Years after I’d set the script aside and my father had given up hope that I would finish it, a movie producer finally showed interest in it. He optioned the book and brought in his own writer to do a draft. I started to panic. This was supposed to be my script. Sure, I’d basically ignored it for a few years, but it was supposed to be mine. I’d spent years building up in my head the great piece of work the script was going to be. I was going to play around with reality; dream sequences, actors switching out playing the different parts, and all sorts of other tricks. It wasn’t going to be good, it was going to be magnificent.
But now someone else was going to write it.
Luck was on my side, however, because 12 months later my father was not pleased with the draft the other writer delivered. Nor the second draft. After that, he elected not to renew the option. I never read either of these drafts, because after my father told me he didn’t like them, I had a renewed hope that I would still be able to write it.
And that’s just what happened. The disappointment of getting a screenplay he didn’t like had lit a fire under my father, driving him to get the script done. “Let’s do it ourselves,” he said. YES! I was back in the game.
So he flew me back to Chicago, and we spent the better part of a week breaking down the book and creating an outline for the script. As the experienced screenwriter, I would go off and write the first draft.
That was almost three years ago.
What the hell was I doing in the meantime?
And doing some writing here and there. In fits and spurts.
And some more procrastinating. And bits of other scripts.
Switching Time was back in my hands, and for the most part it didn’t seem like I could be bothered to do anything about it. Again.
Slowly I clawed my way to the words FADE OUT. And about two and a half years after we finished the outline, I delievered the first draft. The first few pages of that original draft from film school still remained, barely changed. At some point I reached the place in the script where I could see the end, and that definitely made things easier, but it was a slog the whole. Damn. Time.
I’d gotten so in my head about this thing. Not only did it have to be mind-blowingly awesome, but it was going to make my career. It was going to get me an agent, more jobs, an Oscar... And the whole thing was relying on the approval of my father (which is already an idea fraught with tension), who is the one of the main characters of the story. My mother was in it too. I even wrote myself into the first draft! The fear of writing the script was paralyzing. And because I’d committed to writing this script I had to finish it before all others, which means my output over the last three years has been abysmal. It’s the only feature I’ve completed in that time.
But with the first draft done, I took myself out of LA on one of my quarter-annual writer’s retreats and I banged out a second draft in two days. I felt like a goddamn hero.
Is it the brilliant masterpiece I envisioned? Of course not. That script in my head was perfect. And that’s because it hadn’t been written yet.
But now it has been written.
I still have another draft to do, incorporating notes from Karen and a few other people whose opinions I trust and value. But my dad is pretty happy with it, and let’s be honest, that’s what really mattered to me.
Oh and by the way, growing up the child of a psychiatrist is really weird. I don’t recommend it.