I was very confident, but I was also nervous. It was hard to say which feeling was stronger.
I was sitting in an auditorium on a late Saturday morning about 16 years ago. The auditorium was full. Maybe 600 people? 800? I don’t recall. We were waiting for a block of short films to start showing at the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in Birmingham. Most people were there to watch films. I was there to finally find out whether an audience liked my own first film.
My companion that morning was a girlfriend with whom I had a complicated relationship. Things didn’t end well for us, but I’ll always be grateful for her support that day.
I was nervous by the time the lights dimmed for the first short to start. My film was about the fourth in line, so I sat through several others first. I had never been to a film festival before, so I had just assumed the films would be good. I couldn’t tell anybody — because it would have sounded prideful — but I thought the other films were mostly terrible.
My film finally started. I held my breath. Would they laugh? We got to the first punchline. The audience roared with laughter. I was so happy that I wanted to cry.
I told you last night about the demons that pursue me when I try to do creative work and reach to achieve a dream. Tonight, I want to tell you about the flip side. When you can find enough motivation to push the demons away — and you do something that you’re proud of — the feeling can be magical.
I’ll never forget what it felt like to see my short film with a crowd for the first time. It was a great crowd, because it was supportive and maybe even easily amused. The festival had a question-and-answer session featuring directors after the block of films and I can’t remember anything about that. But I do remember I had trouble getting out of the place — because people kept stopping me to tell me they loved my film.
Even though I had tried to be completely confident before the session started, I think Gina knew I was nervous. She had a long history as a stage performer — acting and singing — so I think she understood. I’ll always appreciate one thing she did while the films were still going on.
During the film that was after mine, she quietly reached into her purse and found one of her business cards and a pen. Then she slipped me this note.
“I think yours went over brilliantly,” she wrote. “You should be very happy about it. I hadn’t watched it in awhile and it looked great. Writing was by far superior to the rest.”
I’m thinking about that tonight because I happened to find that old business card with that note. Even though she and I haven’t spoken for many years, it still makes me feel warm and happy inside. I’m glad I happened to save the note.
That short film was very flawed, of course. I really didn’t know what I was doing at the time — and I learned a lot from the experience. I could make far better work today — if I’d just allow myself to do it.
Taking creative risks is scary. I explained some of those fears — and some of the obstacles that come with them — in what I wrote last night. But that’s only half the story.
The other half is the thrill of success — and that’s what I’m remembering tonight.
I remember the joy from that first showing. I remember the joy of going to my first out-of-town festival — in Myrtle Beach, S.C. — where my film won “best in show” for the festival. It wasn’t just the best short. The judges thought it was better than any of the other features in the festival — all of which had far bigger budgets and far more experienced directors.
I remember the happiness and feeling of victory when my little film was accepted to festivals in Canada, Australia, England and New Zealand, as well as festivals all over the U.S. And I remember the amazement every time I would get a phone call or email from a festival director to tell me that my film had won an award at his or her festival.
At several minor film festivals, it was voted “audience favorite comedy.” Even after all these years, that excites me. It thrills me. It makes me want more.
I was brutally honest with you last night about where I’ve been lately — dealing with the shame and fear that try to stop me from moving forward. All of that is true.
But I have to be honest and say that the upside to taking a creative risk and winning is something like few other things in life. I’m eager for that sort of thrill again. I just hope there will be someone with me when that happens who can appreciate the win as much as I will.