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Words with Friends: On Writing Accountability Partnerships

When I was in college, my best friend and closest collaborator, Brandon Colvin, told me that most writer-directors make their first feature between the ages of 24 and 36, and that if he didn’t make one before then, he would off himself. Harsh as it is to say, when we were 22 that felt like a world away, and I didn’t fret for him. Brandon has since made three microbudgeted features, all willed into existence with student loans, credit card debt, crowdfunds and a few incredible friends and family angels. Two years ago, I turned 34. While I didn’t take Brandon’s oath, I couldn’t help but view the upcoming age-marker—“36”—with dread.

I produced and edited all of Brandon’s movies and am proud of the work we’ve done together. But what has stopped me not only from making a movie myself—the goal I’ve had for years—but from even starting one? Forget about financing; I couldn’t even convince myself to write a script. I would work up the nerve to face the blank page, but if I didn’t know the opening image or how the first few pages would develop, I would stare at the screen and eventually allow myself to be pulled away by any possible distraction. This cycle would invariably lead to thoughts of self-hatred and catastrophe: 

“I have nothing to say.” 

“I have no ideas.” 

“Any story I could tell does not matter.” 

“I am not a writer.”

When I lost my job during the pandemic, I believed it was the opportunity I needed—uninterrupted time to work on the script. But every day, rather than put words on the page, I would stare at my phone, gaze outside, go for walks, take showers. I would write down random images, re-read screenplay books and lay in bed. I’d watch a movie to “get inspired” or listen to philosophy podcasts when I didn’t feel I was going deep enough. And when I would actually sit down to write… nothing would happen.

Another year went by.

It was then that I reached out to my friend, the director Sophy Romvari, who I knew was also working on a script. I asked if she’d be interested in writing together over Zoom—if she’d be my accountability buddy? She was down. Thus began a consistent hour-long meeting for a couple months in which she, my wife Pisie Hochheim and I would show up, talk for a bit, put ourselves on mute and write independently. Sophy credits that time as the reason she was able to get through her own first draft, and Pisie did a lot of writing for the two of us, but I was mostly dead weight. Still, I saw the potential of this group practice. 

Eventually, Pisie got an editing job, and we stopped our sessions. (But we did make a short film out of the material we gathered in those sessions.) On my own again, I fell back into the same self-destructive routines. Then, undoubtedly fed to me by the advertising algorithm I had trained with my desperate searches, a YouTube ad popped up for Ela Thier’s The Independent Film School. I’ve done MasterClasses, lectures and workshops, so I knew what to expect. The fee was about $1,000, with a 30-day money back guarantee. I had lost my job and was in debt, but my 36th birthday was approaching fast. I put the course on my credit card, watched her videos religiously and tried to hold myself to her guidance, one piece of which was to freewrite for just 10 minutes a day. A few gems admittedly came from this process, but after a week or two I began to waver in my commitment to even that. It felt pointless. Nothing was coming together. 

One part of Thier’s program that I hadn’t taken advantage of was the “Writing Room,” a Zoom space for other people in the program in which the goal was not to share or workshop your projects, but to simply work alongside other writers, with very little discussion about the projects themselves—just a shared space to exist and write. I decided to give it a whirl. 

I was in a room with several strangers, older than me, all happy to be there and working on their screenplays. A breakout room put me together with one. We spoke briefly, placed ourselves on mute and just wrote, alone but together for an hour. Something clicked: I didn’t like what I wrote exactly, but I did stay locked in for the whole hour. Maybe because she was a stranger and not a friend or my wife? Maybe because I didn’t want to be the one who dropped the ball in the agreement we made there together? If I told her I was going to write and then surfed Twitter, I’d not only feel lazy, I’d feel like a liar. So, even when I was stuck, I freewrote whatever came to mind. 

I didn’t want to keep paying for the service (though I understand why it’s a service one would pay for), so I started my sessions with Sophy again. When she became less available, I opened up the practice to my small group of Twitter and Instagram followers: Would anyone be interested, even if we hadn’t spoken in years, in writing together? I didn’t mind if it was a journal entry, an academic paper, a letter to a friend, anything—as long as we logged in, talked in as little or as much detail as the person felt comfortable with, then reserved at least 40 minutes of the hour to write without stopping. 

I was amazed when a few people responded. Karyn Spencer, based in Costa Rica, was working on her own screenplay. Mike Sickels wanted to publish an article from his dissertation. Madhuri Sharma, a former coworker and producer I hadn’t seen or spoken to in 10 years, had started a successful business but wanted to reconnect to her creativity. Nathan Douglas, Wale Matuluko, Hannah Cheesman, Salem Hughes, Nora Stone, Nydia Simone, Sandra Manzanares, Karina Mohammad, Eric Bizzarri, Pooja Reddy: As writers from Nigeria to Vancouver joined, time zones became difficult to manage. Madhuri suggested I use the booking app Calendly to keep the sessions straight. I began to send out a formal link, which would autopopulate the bookings in my Google calendar, and the process became easier for me—albeit more obnoxious for the friends who had been joining me ad hoc from the early days. Time now had to be booked. 

In the beginning, sessions were one on one. I would start by asking about the other person’s relationship to writing while admitting my own struggles. Soon, engaging even briefly with other writers going through their version of my struggle became addicting. It quickly became clear that this was the safest space for me to creatively explore. As I trusted the other writer, I learned to trust myself, to believe I was as capable as I believed they were. 

I kept expressing that my goal was to never have a goal for the sessions, only an intention, and to state that intention up front. My friend Mike Meehan used the hour to work through his experience of being on a ventilator in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis. Ashley Adams used the time to process the grief of a recent tragedy in her life, working eventually toward a practice of poetry. Chris Kazarian worked diligently on an outline for a TV pilot. We would check in with each other on the hour to see how that session went and what we found beneficial or could be made better next time. 

Even in an age of Zoom fatigue, most people would return week after week. Many were more interested in group sessions, so I began to offer that as a booking option. Sometimes, I’d ask the next appointment if they were OK with company, and we’d all just roll through the day together. Occasionally, this approach had the potential to cause me some anxiety, as I feared different people wanted different things from the meetings. I’d try to read the room to see if someone was getting antsy. Did anyone want to talk in a breakout room? Were we all comfortable? Was it working for them as it was working for me? Understanding the vulnerability I was requesting of the people who joined, I felt protective of their process and never wanted to impose rules—sometimes we would talk for 20 minutes of the hour, sometimes only five. The one steadfast rule I felt strongly about (a holdover from Thier’s Writing Room) was that unless invited to by another person, no one should criticize another writer’s process or project. It would happen from time to time, though, and I’d wince.

Some writers would come in for one session, and I would never see them again. Others might meet a writer they connected with in a group and break away to form their own sessions together, causing misguided pangs of insecurity or jealousy. But I came to believe that these concerns came from a sinister, prideful place, and I’d never reach out to these departing writers, not wanting to pressure them to return. After all, these sessions weren’t “mine”—they can, should and still do exist without me.

As my personal network of filmmakers, writers, thinkers and journalers grew, the ideas Pisie and I had been circling around over the past year began to coalesce into something more concrete. Soon, we had an outline and, in five weeks, after back-to-back-to-back sessions that went from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. some days, I had completed the first draft of a brand new 89-page screenplay. I have the people who signed up to be on Zoom with me to thank for that, even the ones who never came back. 

I don’t know if the screenplay we will have at the end of this process will be any good—there are drafts and drafts to go. But wrangling myself and my schedule and finding the thing that forced me to sit through the discomfort of the unknown, stay at the keyboard, freewrite through the problem and be patiently faithful that if I was consistent, the process would bring results, has freed me from so much anguish I’ve been carrying for years. That it has also introduced me to dozens of incredibly talented and diverse writers and filmmakers, all making strides on their own work, has been a benefit I never imagined. If this movie we wrote gets made before I am 37, I’m sure I will be thrilled, but I feel much less pressure to do so now. Like any good hero’s journey, for me the goal has shifted: not to make a movie, necessarily, but to fall in love with the process of trying.

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