Pamela Harris

Posts in the Writing Category

Starting Out January 10, 2013

In the summer of 1997 I was getting ready for my first solo show and a heat wave hit. I had been in group shows and two person shows, but this was the first time I'd take over a whole gallery. The show was set for October and though I had finished the paintings I still needed to varnish them. The humidity was making things too sticky, so I couldn't work until the heat wave passed.

I paced around for two days, agitated, and then from nowhere - to this day I don't know why or what came over me - I decided to write a screenplay.

Though I had watched a lot of movies I had never seen a screenplay nor had ever tried to write anything. Two uncles were writers, one crazier than the other, and after seeing what writing did to them I wanted to flunk English and go straight to art. Writing wasn't just something I hadn't done; it was something I didn't want to ever do. But there I was, sitting at the kitchen table, opening a notebook. What would I write about? An image came to mind of the Paula Cooper gallery on Wooster Street. I wasn't interested in writing about her gallery or people I knew, but I saw I did want to write about a world I knew. That was enough. I started writing.

It was like I was possessed. Eight days later, barely eating or sleeping, I had a finished draft. It was a love story about failure, set in the art world, a blend of comedy and drama. Half way through it a title came to me, BIG WORLD. Painting had always gripped me, but the specificity of words was a whole new thing. Writing was as satisfying as painting.

I had guessed at screenplay format so I ran to B. Dalton Books. There was a book of screenplays by William Goldman that seemed good and since I had never seen a screenplay I didn't know that he was the only screenwriter ever to use his own format. When I got home I dragged out an old IBM Selectric and over the next two days transposed my notebooks to typed pages. I didn't know how to type and went through two boxes of correction ribbon, and when I was done stared pleased as pink at the first draft of my 185 page screenplay.

By this time the heat wave had lifted so I went back into the studio and finished the paintings. I also signed up for a class, Directing the Actor, since I was going to make the script myself. The 6-week class started in August and during the first half of the class I rewrote BIG WORLD. I also burned out the Selectric and bought a ProWriter, a typewriter that could remember about 40 words and had built in correction tape. Goodbye correction ribbon.

The new draft had a gaping hole I didn't know how to fill, so I put the script down since I had an idea for another. This new screenplay would be set in the mall I worked at in high school and would be a story where the bad guy gets away with it and the bad guy's a girl.

When my show opened a classmate of mine from the acting class came to the opening. He was producing an indie he co-wrote and I told him my new idea. Right then he optioned it. It meant I'd get paid to write it. While he went into production on the indie I wrote a draft and while he was in post production I showed him the finish. He loved it, I was happy with it, nothing could happen with it until the indie finished completely, so I went back into BIG WORLD.

Synchronicity is a wild thing. Right then I got called for jury duty and brought a copy of it with me since there'd be a lot of idle time. I read it while sitting in the jury pool area and noticed the guy next to me kept glancing at the script. We started talking, his name was Jim Denault, he was a D.P. (Director of Photography) and I told him I wanted to direct the screenplay. He suggested I crew to learn how a film set worked and gave me the name of a producer crewing up. I called her, she had nothing available, I asked her if she could suggest anyone else I might call and she gave me the name of a production designer, Sharon Lomofsky. I called a few times and found out Sharon was crewing up for a movie called BAD MANNERS. "I'm an artist and I can make anything out of string and duct tape," I begged and she brought me in as an intern, an on set prop assistant, unpaid.

Shortly after that film wrapped the indie producer's film hit the festival circuit and started winning audience awards. He got a big agent, moved to LA, and was going to remake the indie into a big budget movie. When the option on my script came up he didn't renew it and I started throwing it over the fences of production companies. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was doing it.

On the set of BAD MANNERS I noticed this girl, Jessica Lichtner, was always huddled close with the director and producers, was front row for watching the cast in action, took notes on every shot, remained on set when the set was cleared, etc. Her title was script supervisor and I started talking to her during meals, asking her about her job. This girl knew her shit and let me tail her one day so I could watch what she was doing. When filming ended she took me on a two day gig she was doing pro bono for an MFA student at Columbia University and after the first day she turned it over to me. That job led to other student films, then back to low budget features. Here and there I'd day play as a grip, a production manager, a location scout, set dresser, etc. but mostly script supervisor.

For three years I crewed and the most important thing I learned was someone had to have a clear vision for the project. If a director or producer didn't, the project always bombed. (The indie producer's big budget remake never happened, despite his having a very clear vision. I was also starting to learn all the ways a project can derail.)

Eight months after the option expired on my script I contacted a production co. with a first look deal at Sony. They agreed to read it, they liked it and I started rolling my rock of Sisyphus forward.

The Williamsburg Bridge January 3, 2013

Photo by Charles Dharapak

Joe is an excellent driver. Years ago he was a paramedic in the Bronx and often drove the ambulance, and though that's not proof of good driving skills he had a lot of opportunities to hone his skills behind the wheel.

We often drive to Long Island to visit his family, which means going over the Williamsburg Bridge. The lanes are narrow, the cars are fast and while hurtling over it Joe will sometimes glance over and say "How's that brake working?" I don't even realize I'm slamming my foot on an imaginary brake, making a racket while my shoe hits the floor mat. "Not very well" I'll answer, braking the whole time.

A lot of crazy thoughts go through my head on any given day and writing or drawing means I have buckets to dump them in. When I was a kid I just had me. At ten I became obsessed with quicksand and though we didn't have it in Danvers, Massachusetts nor were we geologically capable of having it, I knew it was out there in the woods behind my house. I'd run through the trees looking for snakes and pheasants and I’d suddenly freeze, positive the rock in front of me would give way if I put my foot on it. I knew the ground around it would cave in and I'd disappear, sucked down by natural causes. I could stand there for hours, my heart pounding, unsure of how I'd get home. Eventually my dog would come by, or Mr. Bellevue, our neighbor, would come through picking up trash, and I'd follow them out, stepping where they did.

At the same time I went through a white food phase that had been going on for a year. I would only eat white food, which meant no crusts on my marshmallow sandwiches. My mother was an great cook who put effort into each meal and she had zero tolerance for my food fetishes. I shed more tears over those crusts: she wouldn't cut them off, but since crusts were brown I wouldn't eat anything they touched. What made it worse was I had just come from a triangle shaped food only phase and she insisted on cutting my marshmallow sandwich into square quarters, not diagonal halves. There was a brief tube food phase -- mustard spread on baloney that I’d roll into a tube and eat like a jackrabbit, bite bite biting through. This ended when she slammed a plate of spaghetti in front of me and insisted the spaghetti was hollow and therefore a tube. It wasn't, but when I scraped the sauce off and saw all that non-tube whiteness, I found nirvana.

It wasn’t the taste of white food I obsessed over. White food was quiet. White food was a blank page. White food let me find my courage and not cave in. My father would make me a marshmallow sandwich or spaghetti and butter to calm her down and he was also the one who dealt with my quicksand obsession. For a whole summer he tried to appeal logically, then one Saturday afternoon a Western came on the television. In it, a cowboy got stuck in quicksand and my father walked me through the process of how to get out of it: lay flat, don't struggle and no matter what hold on to your horse.

Ten years ago I was positive I had worms. This followed a period where I was sure my hair was falling out. Before that, right after I quit smoking cigarettes it was "Do I have bird shit on me?" This coincided with being sure I was growing a mustache, to the point where I bought a mustache bleaching kit. I bleached, nothing changed and I had to concede that maybe, just maybe, I didn't have a mustache. Worms, though? I could have worms. When I felt one of these tics sinking its teeth in my flesh I'd ask my friend Bill "Quick question -- do I look bald to you?"

"No,” he’d say, “but your mustache is getting bushy."

When I quit drinking and drugs I started dealing with my shit and a lot of the noise in my head got loud enough to actually hear. It meant I could question it, which let it start to ebb. Once in a while when I'm stressed I hear new crazy thoughts, and in the car going over the Williamsburg Bridge it hit me that though I was afraid of crashing, what I was really doing was narrating my impending death. And had been doing so for a few weeks. I hope this elevator doesn't fall when I get on it and I hope my shirt doesn't light on fire as I stir a stew on the stove. Plugging in a charger I hope I don't get electrocuted and when it's raining I hope ball lightening doesn't roll around my living room. I hope a plane doesn't careen through the roof in the bedroom and I hope an axe doesn't fall from the wall and chop me up. We don't have an axe on the wall; I've never seen ball lightening; and the only time I've gotten an electric jolt was when I grabbed an electric fence on purpose to see what it'd feel like. I'm stressed because I'm finishing a new project and am gearing up to take it out and I want to control all that I'm powerless over. That's what this is.

What helps is to let it go through me and hug it along. In the car late at night when I'm hitting my friend the invisible brake, we listen to WFUV and I actually enjoy the ride thanks to Vin Scelsa's radio show 'Idiot's Delight' and Marshall Crenshaw's 'The Bottomless Pit.' Hearing the Ramones segue to Iron Butterfly or The Chemical Brothers followed by a band I don't know (Hundred Waters) always roots me back to earth. Music soothes the beast inside, no matter how hairy or wicked it be.

My Personal Dictionary November 14, 2012

Every so often I dig through the settings on my phone to get to my personal dictionary. This dictionary saves 'my' words - words I text, email or use to search - that aren't in the established dictionary. It saves misspells, too, which is why I go in now and then to clean it out.

I'm always surprised by how revealing the word list is. This week was a self-portrait: Amex, because I got hacked; Abeille is a restaurant where Dawn and I recently had breakfast; Addidas because I need new sneakers; blunch because we couldn't decide on breakfast or lunch and split the difference.

Scrolling down the list, ass is followed by asshat and I can't wait to get to shituation because I'll have to pass pooblem, a dictionary favorite. These etched their way in when I was struggling with something I was working on and texted Brian, a fellow writer:

Me: 'I have a pooblem.'

Brian: 'A shituation?'

Me: 'Deficately'

Brian: 'Ass me anything'

Me: 'I tip my shat to you'

I'm elegantly redeemed by Nauman, Guggenheim, Didion and DiSuvero, but barely, since suddenly there's fuckle. There's also Falafart, farted, Farticle, farting, Fartis and Harrfart. Stuck in the middle of this, next to Frankenstein, is Fluffyllis. I don't know what a Fluffyllis is, but I'm keeping it.

Chemo is still there from when my mom was still alive.

Dupchik is from THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN, LoM is for the American TV version of LIFE ON MARS, there's NUMB3RS and FREAKS - egad we watch a lot of TV. And we eat: avocado, Babbo, Citerella, cockles, cupcake, donut, edamame, greenmarket, hummus, lychees - I hit rigatoni and still, the food keeps coming.

CAA, WME, Miranda, ProdCo and FTVS let me feel optimistic workwise, as does shortlisted. Musicality makes me feel smart, but then there's narraring. Prunes makes me wonder how old I am, but craption tells me it'll all be okay. It's a curated document of a life, this dictionary. It says I like to eat, work, watch TV, read, look at art, make up words that celebrate bodily functions, and spend time with my beau and friends. That's pretty much right on the truth.

Running The Books November 12, 2012

In September 2011 I got offered a three-month freelance gig at Random House Books. I make my living as a writer and artist and my income has highs and lows. I was in the thick of a low when this gig came from nowhere, a true gift from above.

I hadn't worked for anyone in 20 years and had never worked in book publishing. My last job had been at Business Week Magazine as an assistant art director, a job I made part time then no time once I started exhibiting. This job was in the cookbook division, working on a new networking site centered around cooking. The website was in the test phase and I would be comparing print cookbooks to their digital versions. Any error, whether font or image or style or a 1/4 teaspoon that should be a 1/2, I would submit to be fixed.

My first week there I barely looked up. There were 8 freelancers and we were divvied between Mac and Microsoft to make sure the domain worked on both platforms. I got Microsoft, a foreign territory, and this mixed with publishing language, style sheets and the website itself made my focus absolute.

My second week there I was starting to get comfortable and while pondering lunch a fellow freelancer came in, wild eyed, carrying piles of books. She dropped the books on her desk and whispered, "They're free." Free? Heat started working its way up my face. She nodded. "5 floors are moving. Editors are cleaning out their offices and whatever they don't want go in red bookcases." My dignity and cool -- free books! -- chucked their dignity and cool and I quickly stood. I was going on a book run.

We hurried out of our office, then immediately slowed as we walked past offices, cubicles, conference rooms. I had a nonchalant smile pasted on, casual, calm, hello I live with ease. On the elevator my co-worker hit the button for 17 and our ID's got us through electronic doors. We entered the massive floor and my heart started hammering - there were red bookshelves everywhere. I took a second to case the floor and headed toward the back.

On the first red bookshelf I found PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austin and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES by Seth Grahame-Smith. Pluck pluck, my pile started. I added BRINGING OUT THE DEAD by Joe Connelly and SPARTINA by John Casey. OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout and A GATE AT THE STAIRS by Lorrie Moore. I love my job! TELL-ALL by Chuck Palahniuk, LAY THE FAVORITE by Beth Raymer, ROBOPOCALYPSE by Daniel H. Wilson, Claire Messud's THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN - these were hard cover first editions! Kate Christensen and Jonathan Tropper were piled on Tim O'Brien who was sitting on SUNDAY SUPPERS AT LUCQUES by Suzane Goin.

I looked around at empty boxes, but knew they were for editors. Living with spiritual principles means no stealing so I grabbed my load, told my co-worker I was heading back - she had a Picasso book by John Richardson! How did I miss that?! Oh my God was there another?! - and took the stairs down. My office had walls of empty bookshelves and I dumped my load then headed for the elevator. It was lunch time. I was on lunch.

A week later I had filled 12 bookshelves. The free books sitting idly 10 floors above had become an obsession, one I was coming in early for, leaving late for, not taking lunch for. And then I heard that Judith Jones, the editor for Julia Child, Madhur Jaffery, John Updike - the woman who wrote MY LIFE IN FOOD and had discovered THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK - had emptied her office, and my eyes rolled back and a full book seizure hit: I had to get up there. Right now.

I love to read and I love to cook and it means something to have THE BREAKFAST BOOK by Marion Cunningham with what might be Judith Jones's 'what the - ?' notes and corrections sprinkled throughout. I wasn't just grabbing to grab, but knew I was heading toward the shitter when one afternoon - by this point I was taking the stairs since I couldn't wait for the elevator - I got stuck in a stairwell, unable to enter a door I had gone through the day before. The move had begun and, panic rising, it took 15 floors of trying doors before I was able to enter a floor. Despite this, my fix was only brought under control when the move finished and the red bookcases disappeared.

Post move I wandered to the new floors and discovered that each floor had a shelf, sometimes a bookcase, that held free books. By now I was out of shelf space at home and roamed mostly to step away from the computer and clear my head. When the freelance job ended I was glad to be back home, though I would still twitch for those red shelves. When I get the itch now I glance over at THE DIVE FROM CLAUSEN'S PIER by Ann Packer, THE PESTHOUSE by Jim Crace, READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN by Azar Nafisi and THE COOKBOOK COLLECTOR by Allegra Goodman. They're books I've yet to read and they take the twitch away. Just for today.

First Job November 8, 2012

I came to New York a week after graduating from art school. Wearing a suit, bag and shoes my mother bought me I landed a job as an assistant to the owner of a by-appointment-only fashion salon. It was a glorified maid's job, but it was cash under the table. Plus, I could buy clothes at wholesale and I needed them.

The chain-smoking owner was a chic, fifty-something ex-Radio City Rockette. She ran her business illegally out of her posh twenty-fifth floor Lincoln Center pied-a-tierre, which she moved into after divorcing herself from her Long Island life as a doctor's wife. The two of us, plus Cocoa, her miniature poodle, made up her business.

My job consisted of offering tea to her semi-famous clients, vacuuming, discreetly retrieving and hanging up clothes as they were flung about, and feeding and walking Cocoa. Within two weeks I learned all there was to know about how not to run a business, and how to do it with Scarlet O'Hara pluck. The Rockette was at the tail end of her transformation from a suburban country clubber who nibbled lunch at the Nineteenth Hole to a cultured businesswoman with an urbane and exciting life. A dozen silly bill collectors weren't about to bust her fantasy, fiddle-de-dee.

Cocoa was as regal as the Rockette. When I'd run her out to do her business she'd glare if I tried to rush her, then she’d take her time choosing a perfect patch of grass that gave her lots of privacy.

One afternoon the Rockette was modeling clothes for her biggest client, a second tier TV talk show host. "Do you see how this blouse defines my bust?" the Rockette said, cupping her bosom to exaggerate her point. As she did, Cocoa began to heave. The Rockette snapped her fingers at me. "Pammy, please don't let Cocoa wretch on the rug." I scooped Cocoa up, grabbed her leash and ran for the elevator.

Outside, I gently put Cocoa down. She caught her breath as her heaving subsided, though her little body still jerked with each heartbeat. When she arched her back I saw she wasn't sick -- she had to poop. Cocoa looked around and she had to go so badly she could barely walk. There was no grass in sight but a tree had just been planted in front of a new, upscale restaurant. I carried Cocoa to the tree and she assumed the position.

A few seconds passed and she was still hunched over. A half-minute passed and she hadn't straightened up. I glanced down and found her big eyes pleading into mine. I had put her in full view of the restaurant! I blocked the diner's view, but Cocoa's expression didn't change. I stared at her, confused, then hesitantly glanced behind her. There, hanging out of her bum, was a three-inch hank of green yarn. People in the restaurant began to point, so I bent down, tilted her back until the string was on the ground, and placed my toe on the yarn. Ever so gently I stood, pulling her with me as I went. That yarn was over fifteen inches long and once Cocoa was relieved of it she wanted a cigarette as badly as I did. As I smoked, we couldn't look at each other.

I took Cocoa for a walk around the block to help her recover and she held her head high. If I just took the equivalent of a yarn dump in front of forty people, would I? Cocoa knew who she was and what she deserved and I wanted that. I wanted the expectation that I had a right to claim something for mine. That I could have this right was an epiphany. When the bill collectors came two months later the Rockette lost her business. She couldn't afford to pay me any severance so instead gave me a $1000 hand-made beaded belt. "Better you than the IRS, right Cocoa?" she said as she gave her little poodle a squeeze, then quickly dropped her on the bed and began to furiously pilfer her own stock. I gave Cocoa a little green sweater which she refused to try on, and as I left I saw Cocoa casually stroll onto a discarded $3000 cashmere jacket, hunch her little body up, and, ever faithful to her owner, take a massive crap on it.