Night Shift
Night Shift
Catching up the hard way with my former film professor 

Returning to my favorite LSU professor's class a full 20 years after he taught me the fundamentals of screenwriting was not on my bucket list. I'm not that old.

When I was a student, back in my twenties, Rick Blackwood was an unexpected inspiration to me during my junior year—a time when I was simply out to graduate as fast as possible. So when I received an email from him saying that, at age 61, he was considering retirement, I saw an opportunity that made no practical sense whatsoever. At my own tender age of 46, while working a split shift during the day, I would take his graduate level English class at night.

Never mind that this would require me to write a complete screenplay of 120 pages in less than four months, or that I was in the middle of renovating my aging Mid City home. I could do it all, right?

I wouldn't embarrass myself or my revered teacher or bore my fellow classmates with dull scenes from my life disguised as clever art. No way. I'm too smart for that.

So, I enrolled and attended every Wednesday night from 7 to 10 p.m., only to wake before dawn the next day for work.

The hours were demanding, and anyone who thought they could skip an assignment would find little beads of sweat on his neck when this professor—a U.S. Navy Reserve intelligence officer—questioned him about a missed deadline.

I had to get these pages written in the proper script format and turned in punctually, or else I was wasting his time and mine.

Unlike any of the other students, I had a history with Blackwood. We went all the way back to 1991. Taking this night class, I saw a noticeable, comforting consistency about my old teacher. His garb was the same—blue jeans, a black T-shirt, and on colder nights, a leather motorcycle jacket. He told some of the same screenwriting tales that he had back in the day, stories that recalled the era of Terminator 2 and City Slickers but still felt relevant.

I spent much more time working on my script outside the class than in those three hours a week at LSU. I saw a pattern of struggle, floundering and improvement each week as my fellow students and I emailed dozens of script pages back and forth.

Blackwood required us to compose a one-page critique of each script every week and openly discuss our likes and dislikes with the entire class. This meant a lot more work, but it helped us answer questions like: Can I make this clearer without being clumsy? Is this scene too long? Would I really believe this dialogue if I overheard it in a coffee shop?

Many of my past college courses had stale measurements of knowledge absorbed from reading lists and lectures, but Blackwood's approach was a creative challenge that embraced taking risks, and I liked that.

I was so busy my smart phone gaming skills suffered—farewell Fruit Ninja—but I made peace with that, because something else unexpected happened on those Wednesday nights. As the weeks wore on, boundaries fell, and I could see reflections of my younger self in my younger classmates. It wasn't always a flattering flashback, but their struggles, their varied doubts and their creative break-throughs were all familiar to me from 20 years before.

Back then I used to wonder about “weekend warriors.” Why would dentists, lawyers and accountants in their forties and fifties give up countless hours of free time for band rehearsals or art classes?

The answer made much more sense to me as I parked my middle-aged tailbone on the narrow seat of a university desk. I wanted to take my favorite professor's class one more time, and just maybe discover something new.

Because now I can see that going back to school is not about simply preserving some crumb of former creativity or keeping intimidation in check. Getting in there and doing it doesn't leave any space for doubt. Spending time taming one's fear of failure can be its own surprising reward. I know that now.

Can there really be too many gray-templed garage bands filled with old pickers or screenplays penned by 46-year-old cinephiles? No. Because everyone is allowed to try, fail, try again and make progress. Rick Blackwood has taught me that twice.

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