“Life is a journey — not a destination.”
Every adult knows that cliche to be true. Every young person who hears it rolls their eyes.
The other day, Staples High School Class of 2002 graduate Max Lance looked back at his journey on Facebook. That’s normally not the place for long-form writing — but it’s fascinating, and worth passing along.
So this is for every parent who worries about a child’s life choices — and every teenager who wonders what the future may hold. Max writes:
Ten years ago, I was a caustic and combative 23-year-old kid who considered myself a complete failure and blamed everyone else for my mistakes. I dropped out of NYU 3 years earlier to pursue stand-up comedy for a living, because I was certain that was a sound life plan.
My career had gone nowhere, I had over $70,000 of student loans for a degree I never finished, I couldn’t hold down a relationship or a job. I watched a lot of my comedy friends get very successful, and it felt like everyone I went to high school with was working on Wall Street and had their own 2-bedroom apartments on 2nd Avenue in the 60s.
Realizing something had to change and maybe a college degree wouldn’t be a total waste, I applied to the USC School of Cinematic Arts for screenwriting. I figured that if I got in, I’d move to L.A. and finish my degree. I was admitted, but in my first week of orientation I learned I couldn’t just complete my last 2 years of college and get a bachelor’s. I had to attend 4 years of undergrad from the beginning.
I rebooted. I took on another $50,000 of debt and worked harder than I ever did in my life. I interned, I worked part-time jobs around my class schedule. And I wrote like crazy. Every single day, churning out features, pilots, and specs, all of them pretty terrible. I was especially proud of a script called “Eskimo a Go Go,” about a team of ragtag Alaskan strippers. The rights are still available.
I realized I lacked the natural talent for writing that a lot of my classmates had. If I wanted to make anything of my life and career, I would have to substitute extremely hard work, perseverance, and stubbornness. I would also have to get over my go-it-alone mentality and learn that maybe everyone else wasn’t a total idiot.
Max found a writer’s group on CraigsList. He continues:
I also volunteered with a non-profit called Young Storytellers, mentoring 5th graders to write a 5-page script that is then performed by professional actors in front of their whole school. Honestly, I only volunteered because I heard it was a good way to get a writer’s assistant job. I never really cared for kids that much.
While I never got the job, I did meet another volunteer. She was the happiest, most optimistic, funniest, most beautiful, and creative person I ever encountered. Three weeks later Jen Bailey and I had our first date, a picnic in the park because I was too poor (and cheap) to afford a real activity.
The small writers’ group met every Tuesday night for the past 8 years. Fellow members earned accolades and awards. Max did not.
After continuing to bang my head against the wall with comedies that went nowhere, I had an idea for a heartfelt dramedy with a female lead. I really wanted to write a great part for my actress fiancée, who had finally convinced me that marriage wasn’t the worst thing. As much as Jen supported my writing, and as much as she agreed that I was an expert on women, she thought she might be able to offer a bit of help when it came to writing the script’s female roles. We co-wrote our first movie together, “Best Funeral Ever,” and submitted it to Nicholl — the most prominent amateur screenwriting contest in the world — a few weeks before we got married in 2015.
That fall, after a failed career in stand-up and a decade in screenwriting that went nowhere, Jen and I reached the finals of the Nicholl with the first movie we wrote together. We got to the top 12 of the contest, but were not in the winning 5. There were a lot of silver linings — we got repped and the script went into development — but we didn’t win. And we weren’t making any money off writing.
Last winter, I came to terms that screenwriting would always be a fun and creative hobby on the side. I could write for an hour first thing every morning, but I had more of a gift for finance and accounting than storytelling. I got a part-time job doing finances for a book publisher, which I’ve really loved. But Jen decided we were having a baby and I needed to find a way to pay for the kid in her growing belly. I realized I would need to find a good salary, health insurance, and a 401(k). I put out a call for full-time accounting jobs.
Around that time we had an idea for a new script. We were huge fans of The People v OJ Simpson. We watched the show every Tuesday and drank a carton of orange juice. We thought it’d be fun to spec the O.J. show by writing the story of the “If I Did It,” book deal and TV interview between O.J. and publisher Judith Regan.
We wrote a badass, complicated and powerful female lead who carried the script. We took our writer’s group’s advice every step of the way. They suggested we tack an extra 40 pages to the TV script and submit the feature for the Nicholl.
In September Jen’s belly grew to the point where we both weighed the same. The job hunt had advanced to where I received multiple full-time accounting job offers. Meanwhile our script, “The Queen of Sleaze,” advanced in the contest, all the way to the top 10 finalists. It was only the 3rd time ever that anyone reached the finals twice with 2 different scripts.
On September 27, 2017, I got the best news of my life. Jen gave birth to our daughter, Bayley Makena Lance, at 3:07 p.m. She weighed 8 pounds, 13 ounces, looks exactly like her mother, sleeps for most of the night, and made me cry with joy more in the first 33 hours of her life than the first 33 years of mine. She is currently sleeping on my belly while I balance my computer on my lap and punch this out. It is the happiest and most content I have ever felt in my life.
Five days after giving birth, Jen and I were notified that we won the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting. It was the 10th time I entered the contest, with 8 different scripts. I turned down the full-time accounting jobs.
I wish I could feel like I’m amazing and really talented and lucky, but none of that mattered in the slightest. I stopped pretending that I knew everything. I put my faith and trust in other people, and surrounded myself with highly talented, smart and creative friends. I listened to what they had to say.
Rather than seeing someone new as competition or a contact, I started looking at other creative people as allies. I decided that quitting wasn’t an option, so I forced myself to wake up early every day, and write no matter what.
Best of all, when I met the most amazing woman in the world, I didn’t run away from the terrifying prospect of marriage and family. Granted, I wouldn’t say I sprinted towards it either. Jen dragged me toward family and stability like a lop-sided tug-of-war match. But when I fell into the mud, I dove head first.
I wouldn’t tell any of this to the pissed off 23-year-old version of myself who felt like his life was going nowhere. I wouldn’t ask for a do-over on any of the mistakes he made, or make any changes along the way. But with my baby girl on my stomach, some money in the bank, and the future looking brighter than ever, I am so unbelievably happy that he wasn’t as stupid as I thought.
(Hat tip: Jordan Schur)