This is a story about sperm. Pray hang in there, Dear Reader — it’s only by way of analogy.
A sperm cell begins life in the testicle. The testicles create about 12 billion sperm a month, which is way, way more than I would have thought. Still, the average human ejaculate contains about 200 million sperm, so presumably our testicles are just trying to be prepared for the average man’s 60 ejaculations per month.
Just kidding, of course. Most of those sperm die inglorious deaths in the testes, never even leaving the curling tubeways of their biological hometowns. Still, let’s say a third or so get to go out into the world. We’ll assume that three-quarters of those actually find their way into the vagina, at least for a little while. But of those, only a very small number will be around on the right day/s — namely, during ovulation. Possibly only one or two ejaculates each month are really in the right place at the right time and get a shot at the grand prize — fertilization.
Still, 200 million is a lot, right? But sperm, it turns out, aren’t very good at figuring out where the egg is. Turns out their strategy is basically just:
- Swim around for a while.
- Hope to find an egg.
So obviously, right off the bat, at least half the little guys will be swimming in the wrong direction.
The other half go through more tests and trials than Odysseus trying to get back to Penelope. There are simple external factors like gravity, barriers to cross (the cervix, the uterotubal junction), hostile environments (the vagina itself, the uterus), and of course other sperm giving you bogus information about where the egg is hiding. Of course, sometimes the female body swoops down, godlike, and gives a few favored sperm a hand:
Studies in several species have shown that sperm are able to get from the distal uterus to the oviducts in times as short as a few minutes, which is much too fast to be explained by sperm motility. Moreover, dead sperm and inanimate sperm-sized particles are rather efficiently transported upward through the uterine lumen. The conclusion from these types of studies is that sperm transport in the uterus is largely a result of uterine contractions, and that sperm motility plays a minor if any role in the process.
Seriously, how did Joseph Campbell miss out on this? Especially when you consider the complex changes the sperm itself has to go through before it’s ready to fertilize an egg:
Capacitation is associated with removal of adherent seminal plasma proteins, reorganization of plasma membrane lipids and proteins. It also seems to involve an influx of extracellular calcium, increase in cyclic AMP, and decrease in intracellular pH.
Yes, it’s the stuff of myth, all right.
Anyway, only about 200 sperm — yes, literally one in a million — make it to the ovum intact. At this point you would think it would be like the last few rounds of a game of Diplomacy, with everybody turning on everybody else, but in fact during the process of breaking down the thick coating on the outside of the egg, some sperm sacrifice themselves for their (genomic) brothers:
The sperm then reaches the zona pellucida, which is an extra-cellular matrix of glycoproteins. A special complementary molecule on the surface of the sperm head then binds to a ZP2 glycoprotein in the zona pellucida. This binding triggers the acrosome to burst, releasing enzymes that help the sperm get through the zona pellucida.
Some sperm cells consume their acrosome prematurely on the surface of the egg cell, [assisting] other surrounding sperm cells, having on average 50% genome similarity, to penetrate the egg cell. It may be regarded as a mechanism of kin selection.
Or as Jesus would have said, had He been working in reproductive biology, “Greater love hath no sperm than this, that a sperm explode his own head for his friends.”
So it’s a team effort, that last push into the egg, but the fact remains that only one sperm cell’s actual DNA finally gets to merge with the egg’s DNA and make a person. Or, you know, a protoperson. It’s got a lot more hurdles to leap prior to birth. But out of 200 million eager, excited, busy little sperm cells, all of them dreaming the dream, exactly one gets to fulfill its goal. And it’s not by any means the best or most worthy sperm — there may have been tens of millions of sperm cells just as good, just as viable. But they ended up dying in the testicles, or being wasted in masturbation, or swimming the wrong way, or being polite and saying, “Oh, no, you take this uterine contraction — I’ll catch the next one,” or exploding their own heads to help the group. Whatever. Ultimately, getting to fertilize an egg is partly about innate worth, but mostly it’s about pure, dumb, chemical luck.
One out of 200 million. By comparison, trying to become a screenwriter almost makes good statistical sense.
Julie Gray muses here about what the actual ratio of aspiring screenwriters to paid screenwriters might be, but she stops a little short of laying out the full process, soup to nuts. So let’s try it here.
There are 300 million people in America who all think they can write screenplays — minus, I suppose, very small children and a few actuary types who never saw the point in making up stories. Most people will never actually try, of course, in the same way that most people who think they know how to take a guy down in a bar fight will never get around to testing their theories.
But some will. Of those, most will try once, show their script to a few friends, realize that even mediocre screenwriting is harder than it looks, and go back to work on Monday. A smaller subset still will write another script, and another, and another, and another. And of that group, some few thousand of them each year will move to L.A., which is universally acknowledged to be the only way to get to write a mainstream movie, ever, unless you’ve already become famous writing something else.
So now you’re in L.A. You’re in the right place. And so are three million other people. They all want to write, or they want to direct but think they need to be writer-directors to be taken seriously, or they still think, even after trying it a few times, that basically anybody can write. Every actor you meet, for example, has a screenplay he’s been working on for five years — usually inspired by something inspiring that happened to some inspiring person he knows.
Anyway, out of that giant, stewing morass of people who are trying, there’s an elite subset of aspiring writers, at any given moment, whose scripts are being read by People Who Matter. This is the first major barrier for a screenwriter to cross — someone Who Matters has to agree to read your script. If you’re lucky that will be an agent or a manager. (You might think, “Oh, but I’d really like a producer or a powerful executive to read my script, because what if s/he decides to Make It Into A Movie??” But you’d be wrong. No one, no matter how much they love your writing, is going to make your script into a movie. This is also the case if you are a TV writer passing around your spec pilot.)
Now here is the key point — at any given moment, thousands of scripts are being read by People Who Matter, and most of them them will be given a pass, including hundreds of good ones. If you ever thought about applying to Harvard, you may have noticed the little disclaimer in their materials that says, “Each year, we have many more qualified applicants than we can possibly accept.” This is like that.
But suppose you’re one of the lucky ones whose script reaches an agent or manager at just the right moment, when he or she is accepting new clients and is in the mood to tolerate your quirks and can see how your script works in all four quadrants. Now you’re done, right? Your own personal business shark will sell your script to the studios, and then bingo! — wheelbarrows of lucre.
Oh, but you’re so far from the wheelbarrows, and you don’t even know it yet. First your rep works with you on a new script — not the script you just showed him, but something different, something he can sell. So you’ll spend many months writing and re-writing that. Maybe eventually you and your rep part ways, but if not, eventually he may “take out” your shiny new script, a script that you and he have carefully tailored to the current market. And when that script goes out to all the most promising buyers, the end result of all that work is… meetings.
Yes, you go and meet with many, many people. These people are mostly development execs at various levels. Their job is to have meetings with hot new writers and develop relationships, in case their company needs anything written. Of course, the studio that funds their company will have its own ideas about what writers they trust to write a $100 million movie: to wit, there are five of them, and they’ve all written $100 million movies before. But the development execs still need to look like they’re doing something with their time, and so they’re totally willing to meet with you to discuss your “take” on the Korean vampire farce they bought the rights to several years ago. The previous six writers assigned to the project haven’t been able to polish this turd, but why don’t you do some free work on it and see if you really wow us with your fresh insights?
So if you’re going to meetings and being pitched crappy dead projects by development nimrods, you’ve basically made it. You’re in the inner circle. You’ve latched onto the egg, and it’s you and two or three hundred other little wigglers all competing for the same open writing assignment. Which, let’s be realistic, will probably go to David Koepp.
But let’s say it doesn’t. Let’s say it goes to some profoundly grateful baby’s-ass-new writer. What distinguishes that writer from his or her several hundred peers? Is it some margin of talent? Is it some slightly greater degree of excellence in structure or dialogue or pacing or just dazzling the right people in the right rooms? Is it the extra dollop of sheer, undeniable brilliance that he or she can bring to this particular adaptation of a minor arcade game from 1987? Or is the determining factor just whatever happens to flow through the empty, whistling skull of the congenital retard of the divine family… Luck?
Fortunately, I don’t have to try to answer this question. I’m one of the ones who never made it. Not to say I wasn’t in play — after a few years of mucking around, I moved to L.A. I moved there at the last possible moment, probably, a decade older than most of the other kids kicking around trying to get noticed. But I showed up to play. I moved into a crackerbox apartment in Venice with an aspiring actor and spent eight months writing every night in an internet-free cafe in Santa Monica. I got pretty good, too.
But it didn’t happen. Life intervened instead, and I never had to find out. I’m a full-time dad in less than 11 weeks now, and there’s no more mincing around with half-baked ideas of Chasing Tha Dreem.
Now get a job.
Now find some sort of well-rounded, satisfying professional career, probably in government.
Now dream of reasonable things, like making a difference and someday owning a few acres and half a dozen goats.
Elana’s still in the game, of course. She’s too close not to be. But there’s some kind of weird race between two different drafts of reality going on here — one in which we are still film people, L.A. people, talking and thinking in the language of America’s chaotic, robot-filled dreams… and the other in which all of that recedes into our colorful background as a couple of characters who did some wild stuff before becoming a respectable diplomatic or military family.
We’ve packed up our things, put most of it in storage in L.A. and fled across the country to stay with family until the baby’s born. God only knows what hapens next.