The Level Ground team met Cheryl at the Gay Christian Network Conference in January. She's working on a narrative screenplay called GIRLIE about a young lesbian's struggle with identity comes to head when her conservative Christian family faces a crisis that cannot be prayed away.
Cheryl recently shared this story with us and we asked her to write about it because we believe the screenwriting process is an integral part of creating intimate, vulnerable, and transformational dialogue.
“Thereʼs a big hole in the middle. Youʼre hiding.”
I take this critique and let it roll around in my brain for a moment. Oh no. Heʼs right. I take a deep breath and remember that I asked for “real” feedback. Not the kind of feedback friends politely give you when they get around to reading your script and just want to say something nice. Not even the helpfully constructive notes my producing partner, who really believes in this story, normally sends back. This time, I asked him for the raw truth and he delivered.
To take a step back, I should probably mention that I love comedy. As a church leader, back in the day, I was known for waxing eloquent about the spiritual connection between laughter and tears - a soapbox Iʼll still gladly jump on. My writing tends to stop off at the funny bone on its way to wherever else it needs to go. So, when we had our first table read of the complete GIRLIE script at the GCN (Gay Christian Network) conference in Portland, it was the sounds of shared laughter around the room that warmed my heart the most.
Humor, when it evolves truthfully out of the oddball human mess we find ourselves in, can be vulnerable and beautiful. But in my case, with this story, it can also be a smokescreen. The character in GIRLIE who is closest to my own age and experience is Janet, the mother of my protagonist. She is confronted with the reality of her daughterʼs lesbian identity at a time when her own life is about to shipwreck. In order to write her with empathy and truth, I needed to be willing to “go there”, to return to a former version of myself and to sit with Janet in her pain and confusion. Instead, I chose to write some really funny stuff at her expense.
When the writer hides, her story hides as well. If Iʼm honest with myself, there was some subterranean avoidance going on as I wrote the turn into act three. Whole scenes were built just to keep everyone moving at a frantic pace toward the finale - heaven forbid we stop long enough to get into anything too serious. Little embellishments and clever character quirks became convenient distractions to sidestep the hard stuff. I didn't want to revisit the space where Christians, believing themselves to be on the side of rightness, have wounded me and people I care about. Even more, I didn't want to remember my own culpability - re-imagining when I stood, silent on the side of the wounders. My inner church lady just wants to let everyone off with a stern finger wag and a promise to do better.
But thatʼs not the truth.
So, its time to slink back into the writing cave. “Kill your darlings” is more than a writers trope, its a kind of death and resurrection enacted in a solitude. In the end I know this story is worth fighting for, so I will stop hiding. Iʼll cleanse the creative palette by writing something very different (the post-apocalyptic short about women and water I just cranked out may never see the light of day) and then get to work.