At my most detached, music often fills in the blanks, becoming the understanding that I otherwise lack.
After a brief spring road trip to the beach in 2011, where my best friend rotated a Beach Boys’ Greatest Hits CD as a part of our soundtrack, I found myself easing into their discography for my own. It was a burgeoning love that exploded during that summer, when I was mere months away from making the most pivotal move of my life: from North Carolina, out to Los Angeles, California.
The Beach Boys were California personified for me, naturally. How could they not be, with their surf anthems and the classic “California Girls”? I’d open my sunroof and slip on my shades as I drove through the streets of High Point, NC, imagining where I’d be in just a few months - cruising along the PCH with the top down, obviously underestimating the traffic, the practicality of driving by the beach to get where I needed to go, and how much money I’d have.
At first, I thought of the Beach Boys as something like the One Direction of their time. I mean, none of them were cute, let’s be real, but they harmonized “happy go lucky” pop that lifted the spirits in moments, but didn’t seem to do too much for the mind. I was only familiar with the anthems featured on every mix of kid-friendly pop songs from “way back when” that would be featured in heavy rotation at summer camps I had gone to. I also have a bizarre story from when I was eight years old, when I had attended a weeklong performing arts camp that culminated in an awkward performance of kids wearing leis, singing the Beach Boys’ Kokomo with cringe-worthy swaying choreography.
But being the person I am, who often gets lost in trails for hours on Wikipedia because my mind becomes fixated on something, and I need to know absolutely every single detail and explore it fully until I’m satisfied, my brief affair with the lighter Beach Boys’ fare led me to the surprisingly discovery that they had put out what is widely considered one of the greatest albums of all time:
This was around the time that my love and obsession for The Beatles had begun to solidify, paired with the swell of my ambition as I prepared for a move that would hopefully launch my dreams fully into action. I wanted to create the best, and so I became utterly fascinated with the best.
I had already downloaded a Beach Boys’ greatest hits collection, but soon after, I added Pet Sounds to my discography.
I didn’t get it at first. Of course I was naturally drawn to songs like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” and “God Only Knows”, because those were the songs I’d known before, that everybody knew. But the rest of the album left me barely affected. I’d force myself to listen to it, hoping be infused by and understand its apparent genius, but I just didn’t like the album. I mean, I never thought it was bad, but you see, The Beatles, I got. Sgt Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band, I got. Abbey Road, I definitely got. But Pet Sounds...it eluded me.
And yet, I kept on coming back to it. And I don’t come back to everything. Like, The Rolling Stones just don’t do it for me. They just don’t. I thought Pet Sounds didn’t do it for me, and yet I kept revisiting it.
I don’t remember exactly when Pet Sounds finally clicked for me, as a whole. There probably wasn’t a very specific moment, but eventually it started to dawn on me that Pet Sounds was an album that understood me. So cohesively whole in tone - musically and lyrically - Brian Wilson had managed to weave the essence of my soul into an album. The longing, the melancholy, the ever-present feeling of detachment. It’s the work of someone who feels like they’ve never quite belonged, but was desperate to feel understood.
That’s historically me, but that was especially me in 2012, when I started to begin to feel like I was drowning in LA, wondering if I had already made a failure of myself, at least psychologically. And so there were my fears, laid out before me in “That’s Not Me”, coming off of the dissolution of a feature film that I’d put months of blood and sweat into and into the isolating chaos of being the very church-involved Christian, finally forced to come to grips with the fact that she was attracted to women.
There was also the escapism of “Let’s Go Away for Awhile”, the tainted romanticism of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows”, then refreshing lightness of “Sloop John B”, the regret of “Caroline No” - it all enraptured me, leading effortlessly from one track to another, taking me to a new place - not that I could escape the realities of my life, but I could at least for moments be fully understood in them. From that point and till this day, I still can’t listen to Pet Sounds without immediately listening to the album again.
But the most resonating anthem of Pet Sounds for me was the striking “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.”
Every little thing I’d felt since I had to awkwardly navigate elementary school as the odd one out was caught up into a sentiment that I still fell into so powerfully, over a decade later.
Beyond anything else, that was the song that understood me.
And so it became my refuge during the most emotionally difficult and isolating times of my life.
I don’t tend to sleep well as it is. It was even worse during the few weeks I was really started to reckon with my sexuality and that reckoning’s aftermath, circa late summer, 2012.
There was one night in particular, where late night bled into early, early morning, and I lied restless on my bed all throughout, caught up in so many thoughts, fears, questions and uncertainties. I had gone through an adolescent’s worth of changes and revelations in just a month, and in so many ways, it was so overwhelming. Though not going through it entirely alone, there was definitely a sense of detachment, because I was out of arm’s reach from anyone who had also gone through what I was trying to crawl through. I had to figure this all, all for myself.
As my insomnia mingled with my inner turmoil, a story began to form in my head. Vivid sightings of detailed scenes, starting right from the beginning and unfurling effortlessly from there. Hastily, I fumbled through the dark for a notebook (I shared a bedroom with my best friend at the time, and I didn’t want to disturb her), and spent the rest of the night scribbling a screenplay into it by cellphone light.
I don’t know if I slept at all that night. I wrote until I could, then dragged myself out of bed for an early morning at work, before returning home to pick up where I had left off.
With no prior forethought or planning, I wrote an entire feature length screenplay, linearly, in a notebook, in just three days. It was my therapy - I crafted a fictional narrative around the very real things that I was experiencing at the time. Picking and pulling from my own consciousness, then embellishing and elaborating, all through the eyes of my seventeen year old protagonist who was slowly stumbling her way through her sexuality and out of the closet in the same way I was attempting to.
The title seemed obvious: I Just Wasn't Made For These Times
It was the song my psyche had been latching onto during the emotionally tumultuous prior weeks, and so it was the song that my protagonist latched to during her own. Its thematic influence infiltrated the entire essence of the screenplay I had just completely.
That is probably one of three experiences, directly related to the narrative of coming into my sexuality, that makes me so certain that there is a God, flowing throughout us all. Don’t get me wrong - I’m a great writer. I know this, I’ve been told this, from the second I could hold a pencil, it has come very naturally to me.
But never quite that naturally. I had written two feature length screenplays prior to those three nights, both of which requiring extensive planning and outlining and tweaking, especially when it came to make sure the narrative structure flowed exactly right in a way that made sense, built in the right places, and accomplished with sense the themes I wanted to convey.
Yet with this screenplay, there was none of that. It quite literally came tumbling out of me like a river bursting through a dam, leaving me just to go with the flow and let it happen before me.
Something about it was so supernatural. Like something outside of me was flowing into me and through me, then onto those pages, the truest sense of collaboration. I just can’t feel God in church anymore. I really can’t. But in writing that, the divine was there.
After I had written it out on paper, I came back to it a few days later to transfer it to my computer, amazed by how much it actually made linear sense. There were no gaps, no inconsistencies. These characters were real, and their hearts beat through the pages. It wasn’t perfect, no, but it was solid. It was good. Especially for a screenplay I spat out randomly in the middle night.
That was about four years ago. I wrote it in three days, then let it sit there forever, moving on to different projects with the idea that I’d come back to it eventually, for revisions in the stuff.
It was just six months ago that I truly unearthed it - to apply for a screenwriting lab that my script fit perfectly for.
I fear that this has become a bit self-involved, and perhaps I’m the most contradictory Leo out there, because I really don’t like talking about myself (generally, at least), and especially not about my accomplishments (ask anyone how hard it is to get me to say I graduated from NYU unless I’m putting it on a resume or am directly asked), but I can’t help but be kind of amazed by this screenplay. Because in its first draft, I had gotten so much right. Of course I made some changes with many more to be made, but still four years later, and it’s mostly in its original form from when I wrote it down hastily in a notebook. The story structure is entirely the same - I mainly just had to tweak dialogue and expand on some scenes, but it sort of blows my mind.
And not even in a self-congratulatory way, but it’s incredible what the human mind is capable of us, especially when infused in what I believe was a bit of divine help. It’s amazing what the depth of human emotion and experience can breed under pressure. What art can come out of pain and processing. That the whirlwind of my coming out experience was able to be translated into such a therapeutic work of art. The beauty of creativity is mind-blowing.
Even more mind-blowing is where that experience and that little screenplay has taken me now.
It still leaves me flabbergasted, that I was one of the five chosen from 250 applicants to participate in the Outfest Screenwriting Lab last month.
But even more dumbfounding is the fact that a portion of my screenplay will be performed in a live staged read tonight by professional actors as a part of the Outfest Film Festival. More than anything, it’s humbling that somehow I have been given this absolutely amazing opportunity.
I think back to that freshly 23 year old, lying painfully awake in the bedroom she shared with her best friend, absolutely assaulted by her emotions as she tried to make sense of herself and how she now fit into the world, trepidatiously unsure as to if she’d ever make it through all this okay and doing the only thing she knew to do in that moment - write.
Back then, I thought the world was going to end if I ever came out publicly as gay. Back then, I was questioning if I had actually ruined my life by moving out to Los Angeles the year before. Back then, everything - including myself and certainly my social standing - seemed to be in question, and I had no idea how to answer it.
But damn, everything ended up kind of okay, huh?
And that’s absolutely astounding to me. Four years ago, I was at one of my absolute lowest.
Now, I’m here. I also just unintentionally paraphrased a Drake song, I think.
I don’t know. It just all feels meaningful and significant. Sometimes I get frustrated with things, but stuff like this reminds me to be grateful, and to appreciate the journey a bit more.
It’s easy to forsake the idea of hope when the darkness starts to close in around you, but I guess I’ve found that even in the midst of my doubts, things do get better. I don’t mean this thing to be completely self-involved. I really hope that that others can grasp something out of it. It takes time, and often times you look ahead and can only see darkness.
But past that, there’s good to come. It gets better.