The Colgate Scene
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|When learning doesn't work|
|by Julian Padowicz '54|
I hated school. And I hated myself for hating school. I wanted to be a writer,
and I'd been told frequently that I had talent, but I knew that in order to
write I had to read and I had to learn.
Only, reading and learning didn't work. I could read a paragraph of text 20 times and have no idea what it said. I could stare at a vocabulary list all night and not find a way to get it off the paper and into my head. In class, my mind would wander and I would curse myself for this and resolve to pay attention next time. Majoring in English, I could read silently no faster than I could out loud. And then, often, I would realize I hadn't assimilated anything I'd read. It would take a month to finish a novel. I found out how War And Peace came out only after seeing the movie. If they ever make a movie out of Magic Mountain, I'll learn what ever happened to Hans Castorp.
My family said it was lack of discipline. Because my father had died when I was a year old, the absence of a man's stern hand in my life had allowed me to grow up lazy and irresponsible and to embarrass my mother in front of other parents.
In the Air Force, I mostly embarrassed myself. As a navigator, I would reverse numbers and fix our position over the Gulf of Mexico, when downtown Dallas could be clearly seen below my window. I cursed my unwillingness to pay attention to what I was supposed to be doing. What kind of man was I?
After the Air Force, I set out on a writing career. A famous literary agent was impressed with my short stories and told me to write her a novel because there was no money in short stories. I wrote one, but she couldn't sell it. In the meantime I had started writing human interest features for a Massachusetts newspaper and found that they loved my stuff. I had bylines -- I got paid -- I was on my way!
Almost by accident I wandered into a Boston television station and tried out for a writing assignment. I got the job -- sole writer for a series of half-hour documentaries on the American way of life for the U.S. Information Agency to broadcast overseas. Documentary writing, I saw, was my medium. I was really on my way!
When the series was finished, I started looking for other documentary work. I job-hunted for two years in Boston and New York but I was told either that I lacked the appropriate credits or that I was overqualified. I knew I wasn't talking to the right people. But who the right people were and how one reached them was a total mystery.
Other writers were making these contacts and landing jobs, some with half the talent I had. What was wrong with me? My family said I wasn't trying hard enough. Friends were eager to tell me how they would have solved my problem, but none of it worked for me. Fortunately, my family was in a position to help with finances while I wrote feature stories and wandered from interview to interview. I got promises of jobs, but they fell through. I was even offered a job by the U.S. Information Agency with a bigger title and salary than I had hoped for. But it never materialized.
Finally I landed a job with a New York film production company, engaged primarily in the television commercials business. I moved my wife and daughters to Connecticut and became a commuter.
My business card said, "Producer/Writer," and I was to help develop an industrial film capacity for my employers. I was, they told me, their "writer in residence." My first task was to sell some corporation or agency on hiring us to make a film for them. That was the "Producer" part -- "People don't like talking to a salesman," my boss explained. Then I would get to write the script.
How one went about selling such a project, I had no idea, but I was determined that this time I would not fail. Criticism and advice from family and friends was again plentiful. I made appointments to see corporate public relations people and proceeded to describe the wonders that one of our two-hundred-thousand-dollar films would do for their image. I took people to lunch and fed them martinis. I wrote proposals. I received high praise for my proposals, but no business.
One day I discovered that the mayor of New York, Robert Wagner, I think, was planning to get married and would miss an important conference of mayors. I wrote a proposal for a film about New York to represent him at the conference. The mayor's people liked the proposal, and we got the job. My boss was delighted. He congratulated me -- then he hired an outside writer to do the script. I realized Madison Avenue was not for me.
But I had learned one thing in my 18 months working there. By and large, industrial films were gorgeous showcases for cinematic virtuosity, but they did little for their sponsors. They were under-conceived and overproduced. The two-hundred-thousand-dollar price tags that made them so hard to sell were really unnecessary. If I had to go out and sell, I might as well be selling for myself. I quit this dead-end job and began working out of my house as an independent writer/producer.
The idea was that I would pro-pose films on budgets of forty and fifty thousand dollars, write a script that would truly address the client's need, and then hire free-lance technical people to make the film. The problem was that I had no samples of my work.
Lo and behold, along came Colgate as my first client. This was 1966 or 1967, and they needed an admissions film to attract the high achievement students whom they were losing to the Ivies. They invited me to come and talk to them about it. After my visit I wrote that the film that they needed would cost forty thousand dollars to produce. Colgate answered, somewhat sheepishly, that all they had was ten.
But I needed the job and the sample reel desperately. Ten thousand dollars, I figured, could buy me some used production equipment and an awful lot of film and processing. I wrote back to say that for ten thousand dollars I could make the film single-handedly. I explained that I had never shot a 16mm camera in my life, nor recorded synchronized sound, nor edited a film. But I was a Colgate man, educated by the Core Curriculum to solve problems. I was the most surprised man in the world when they wrote back and said, "go ahead."
For a concept, I decided that this would not be the standard college film of that day, showing happy students listening to fascinating lectures, studying in a beautiful library, and enjoying seminars on the lawn. This film, I decided, would be driven by a soundtrack of stream-of consciousness voices, mostly complaining. They would complain that there wasn't enough time to get everything done, that they had come planning to major in psychology and now here they were considering economics, that they'd been told to prove the earth was round -- or flat, if they preferred. It would all, of course, add up to the picture of a very exciting and challenging experience.
Then, with some very used equipment, lots of instruction from the equipment salesmen, and miles of film to waste, I proceeded to make the film.
But again, despite my fine sample reels, despite my reasonable prices, jobs came my way very slowly. When they did come, I would usually quote them too low to make a decent profit. My clients were always more than pleased with their results; I won awards. But, somehow, that rarely translated into work.
Once, a friend accompanied me on a sales call. Afterwards she asked why I hadn't said such-and-such when the prospect had said so-and-so. I told her that it never occurred to me. I realized that things never occurred to me in a face-to-face situation. Things occurred to me when I was driving home or out running or trying to read. In a sales situation, I just followed a script. Why couldn't I have the good sense to adjust my presentation to the prospect's responses? I had no answer.
The completion of each film was a great joy followed by months of ever-deeper depression, as I realized that whatever it took to be successful, I didn't have -- that I lacked the discipline and other moral qualities of successful people -- that, except for my freak talent, I was a bum. My marriage fell apart.
I had written a second novel, but again, I couldn't get it published. A sympathetic editor explained to me that since a publisher had to print ten thousand copies at a blow, they were only interested in manuscripts that were potential best-sellers. I, of course, would have been happy with a moderate flop.
Then, in 1987, I made a discovery. It occurred to me that a training film for volunteer fundraisers, which I wanted to make and sell to colleges and hospitals, could be made just as well and much more cheaply as an audio recording. I wrote the script, hired a narrator for two hundred dollars, recorded him in my living room, and had a hundred dupe copies made for a dollar-fifty each. Then I sent flyers to colleges and hospitals, and orders began coming in. As I had hoped, they would order quantities for distribution to their volunteers. I sold a couple thousand, at between five and 17 dollars each.
I put my film equipment away, assembled something of a recording studio in my basement, taught myself to read my own material, and became an audio book author/producer/publisher. My personal catalog now lists 15 titles on everything from photography and computer literacy to anger management and the nature of cats. I even recorded a novella of mine that had been too long for a magazine story and too short for a novel. And because I can duplicate cassettes myself, one at a time as orders come in, I don't have to risk thousands of dollars on print runs. My audio books look every bit as good on the bookstore shelf as those of major publishers, and no one knows that there may only be 20 copies in existence.
I've enjoyed favorable reviews in national publications. My audio books are carried by major distributors and retailers, and I have a following and a positive cash flow. Because I write directly for my listeners, rather than an editor, I have the satisfaction of very close personal contact. And because I don't have to split the revenue with publishers, printers, editors and publicists, I can make ten times as much on each sale as a conventionally published author.
There is an epilog to this story. Five years ago I learned that I have some neurological impairments. I have attention deficit disorder, which gives me a very short attention span, I have heavy dyslexia, and I don't process information the way most people do. In a situation, I tend not to be aware of all the same things as others are. But it's only a loose screw in my head and not moral turpitude. For the first time in my life, I'm an honest man. I just have no business being in business. On the other hand, I do enjoy signing autographs at Barnes & Noble.
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