THE BLOG
10/22/2014 08:54 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2014

Giving Publishing What it Demands -- In a Way I Could Live With

Almost 25 years ago, living in LA and working in the film industry, I decided to write a screenplay. I had abandoned prose writing somewhere in college, having been scared straight out of the writing habit via the tender ministrations of visiting New Yorker short story virtuosi creative writing instructors and my own mountainous insecurities and fears.

To my mind, there was nothing more horrible than the writing seminar. A combination encounter group and verbal paintball match, it was a bunch of people telling you how they would have written what you wrote and why you did it wrong. And since I lacked the temperament to allow others to actually know what I truly meant to communicate through any piece of writing (for that would have been far too revealing and potentially damaging to my porcelain ego) I offered my classmates a robust target for their opinions, theories, and amateur psychoanalysis, all of which left me ping-ponging wildly between teeth-grinding fury and murderous contempt-at and for both them and me.

Thus, prose long abandoned, I took to the screenplay. I had sorta kinda majored in film in college and learned to love the medium, or rather what its few masters could do with it. I had also grown up in the film industry 'golden age' of the 70s and had little inkling that the industry had changed radically over the ensuing decades. So the screenplay I wrote was an intimate chamber piece about a recent Harvard graduate with a big bank account and an amorphous dream to match it. I wanted to write about the sheltered world I'd known through high school and Harvard, and how cruelly the real world had intruded upon it. I wanted to imagine myself with the means and the balls to do things I hadn't the means or balls to do -- to endure consequences that I could not -- or rather, to have the luxury of not considering consequences that I, as a black man, could only too vividly imagine.

The screenplay was interesting. It promised and hinted at much more than it delivered, but it raised eyebrows. It was optioned for production; it got me meetings with agents and production executives; and as is often the case, got me nothing more.

Into the drawer it went. I made various attempts to correct its supposed deficiencies, but to no avail. Life ensued and I started writing prose again. Four novels later (2 of them published), I was wondering what the next piece would be, and pulled "In the Company..." out of the archive. The reasons for doing so were two-fold: I had always loved the story and felt I'd never really finished it; and I felt it had mainstream commercial potential.

I had written books that often received great feedback from publishing houses, but repelled publication offers. I wrote books that mirrored my experiences -- books with black main characters inhabiting overwhelmingly white worlds. However, these characters did not inhabit stories or behave in ways typically championed in the publishing industry. The books did not fit the industry template for novels with black principals, which include historical settings emphasizing slavery or the civil rights movement, longings for acceptance, or all-black environments. Simply by reflecting my experience, I had been producing "outsider" work, and hadn't even known it. To me, there had been nothing 'outside' about it.

I revisited "In the Company..." because, aside from being a story that I loved, it boasted an almost all-white cast. The principals' actions and reactions welled from mainstream mindsets. Nothing in the piece upset any typical American preconceptions about black or white folks' places in the world, or challenged prevailing images of the world we live in. Unlike my previous pieces, this was "insider art," but a kind that I could live with. More importantly, it was insider art that mainstream publishing houses and audiences might be able to live with and be proud of.

So I chose to revisit "In the Company..." because it allowed me to be mainstream. Here I had an insider piece that had a bit of my heart attached to it. Thirty years is a long time, and I was now able to fill in the gaps I'd previously left in the story, to acknowledge and paint the emotional consequences for the characters, tasks for which my younger self was ill-equipped. It's a very different beast from that old screenplay, but I hope the better for it.