Alex Payne is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

since 2001, al3x.net has served as his online home.

What the Woman in the Front Seat Predicted, and Other Stories

“So, when are you going to start writing your screenplay?”

I had met the woman in the front seat, now shooting me a mischievous smile over her shoulder, just minutes before. It was the standard-issue LA joke on a standard-issue LA day, last night’s heavy ocean air turning glassy under white sun.

Six years ago, my life exploded. After months living out of a suitcase, I wound up in LA, balmy and complicated and romantic, a place to diffuse into while I sought after some coherent future. In the intervening incoherency, I found myself packed into the rear of a sedan with mostly strangers, en route to that standard-issue LA destination, Disneyland.

My move was circular. I was born in LA, though my parents moved away when I was an infant. I grew up on the opposite coast, listening to dreamy dinner table reminiscences of beach life, better food, movie premiers, and innate understated cool – stories told with extra verve and wistfulness during sludgy, dull DC winters. Though periodic visits exposed me to the reality of the place, LA persisted in my mind as a mythic locale: the Pacific wellspring of happiness.

I once found happiness in my professional passion, a passion I came to strangely young. Like the Type A adults around me, I was a little careerist, obsessive and proud. I grew up backwards, secure in my sense of purpose while my peers were still “finding themselves.” By the time those peers had found it, I wasn’t sure where it had gone.

When the stranger in the car ribbed me about writing a screenplay – that supposed endeavor of every Angeleno – I hadn’t yet accepted that my identity as a “tech person” was beginning to lathe away. I scoffed, having long ago put away the little stories I was so proud of winning little awards for back in high school.

Writing has been a constant in my life. Anyone who’s asked me how I learned has received my stock answer: both my parents have PhDs in English. I learned at the end of a red pen, more concerned about the grade I’d get at home than how any teacher might mark me. I learned in the overflowing bookshelves that wallpapered our house.

Because writing was ever-present in my life, I came to think of it as just another skill, even as signals flashed that it could be a focus. Words were my refuge from professional and personal chaos, but I never recognized them as such. When I received kind and encouraging notes from readers of this blog, I smiled and went back to coding.

I clung to that ever-thinner “tech person” identity as long and as desperately as I could. I joined two early-stage companies, both of which proved to be false starts. I invested in startups, first in a flurry, eventually dwindling with my interest to practically nil. For a while, I went to the conferences. I began glazing over at news of who was getting bought and sold, hired and fired. I taught programming, but found little renewal in the students’ enthusiasm.

In those years, I took on projects I had little passion for. The alternative was terrifying: acknowledging that the thing I had spent my life to date doing – a career with seemingly ever-increasing financial reward and social capital – no longer fulfilled me.

What’s more, I had a growing sense that technology’s impact on society is not nearly net positive. That’s a common take now, even from tech insiders, but it was an alienating view to defend in the very recent past. Having started in tech so bizarrely young – twenty years of getting paid to write code, by my early thirties – maybe I had just been in it too damn long. Decades loomed ahead, I couldn’t fathom spending more of them arguing with a compiler.

It took time to find my way back to fiction. I wrote stories feverishly, back when. Though they were a new writer’s thin copy of the authors I adored, the flow state I swam in while producing them was blissful. I live for that flow state, and I can no longer find it buried in a stack trace.

I’m hardly alone in wanting to dedicate my life to writing. What’s unusual and arguably offensive is that I’m able to, happenstance of much luck and some labor and entirely too much unearned privilege. I can only attempt to counterbalance the unfairness of that by giving back, and by continuing to engage in political and artistic projects meant to dismantle the bulwarks of privilege.

With a story twisting around in my head, I set out late last year to write prose fiction. As my primary project morphed and shifted, it started coming to me cinematically, absent the interiority befitting a novel. Not knowing if I could write either a novel or a screenplay, it seemed no more foolhardy to adopt the form that the idea was asking to be born into.

Screenwriting fits my brain. A screenplay’s strict formatting resembles code, which I still find comforting, a restraint to cling to while dangling over infinite possibilities. A screenplay’s absolute requisite attention on the current moment evokes the state transformation model in programming languages like Clojure. It makes sense, and it feels right.

I recently finished my first screenplay, a horror-thriller feature set around the Bay Area and shot through with social commentary. (It’s on The Black List, for the curious and unsqueamish.) I’ve got a thick stack of projects in front of me, from short stories to television pilots. There aren’t enough hours.

This week, I’ll be attending the much-recommended screenwriting conference at the Austin Film Festival. I have everything to learn, so I’m there to listen. I’d love to meet other attendees, particularly folks working on horror, sci-fi, or most anything with a sharp social angle.

That teasing stranger in the front seat is now my wife. She claims to have predicted all this on the day we met. The irony is that we didn’t stay in LA, where so much professional screenwriting is done. Maybe I’ll find myself back there still – another turn around the circle. It remains to be seen whether anyone wants what I have to offer as a writer, but damned if I’m not enjoying the doing of it.

Check Your Sources, Animal Agriculture Edition