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Be brave

by Sean McGinly

In the summer before my last year of college I decided I wanted to write and make films.  I’m not sure where this idea came from.  I had never written anything before.  I wasn’t an especially avid film buff.  I’d seen a few films that had made a strong impact on me, most especially “Crimes and Misdemeanors”.  Over the course of a few months it was like this desire had just sprung up inside me and taken hold.

It’s difficult to fully express how far fetched this idea was at the time.  I didn’t know anyone who lived in Los Angeles or even New York.  I didn’t know a single person who worked in a creative endeavor.  I’d grown up just outside of Washington DC.  My parents and most of their friends were either teachers or they worked for the government or in a government related job.  If I’d wanted to join the FBI or land a job with a defense contractor, I would have been in a good position to make that happen.  As it was, I don’t think I could have picked an occupation in which I had less of a chance – at least on paper – of being successful.

Also, I was by no means a genius or a trailblazer.  I’d never done anything to distinguish myself as special in any way.  I’d gone to a good but not great college, where I’d gotten good but not great grades and mostly just tried to have fun.  I wouldn’t have even considered a semester abroad if someone had suggested it, which they didn’t.  It would have been too unfamiliar, too big of a stretch, living in a foreign country.  I was not the kind of person who stepped outside the norm and made things happen.

And it’s not as if I had a plan of action.  There was talk of going to film school but I didn’t even have it together enough to apply.  The whole plan basically boiled down to this: I would graduate from college and move to Los Angeles.  That was it.  I didn’t know what I’d do when I got there.  I didn’t know how I’d pay my bills.

My parents begged me not to go.  They threatened me.  They tried everything to stop me.  At the time I remember feeling like I was being treated unfairly, like they didn’t believe in me.  But I think they were just scared, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned above.  But I wasn’t to be deterred and I left for Los Angeles without their support.

I now realize that this story is not all that original.  Many, many people have gone to Los Angeles or New York or wherever with an unlikely dream.  Many of them I’m sure were far more alone with more at stake than me.  The day I moved to Los Angeles I was 22 and felt like I was the only one in the world who had ever gone through this.  I was by myself, my car packed with my every possession.  I didn’t know a soul in Los Angeles.  I didn’t know anyone who knew anyone in Los Angeles.  Hell, I didn’t know which way was north or south.

I never, before or since, have felt so vulnerable and alone.  Up until that point I’d had protective parents, lots of friends, a life that was structured around school, part time and summer jobs and other activities where, at least in some small way, I mattered.  Suddenly, I found myself driving around the city, not sure where anything was, if I should turn left or right or keep going straight.  No one cared I was there.  No one had asked me to come.

I suppose there are personality types that might have looked at this moment with exhilaration; the sense of freedom and possibility and the new adventures to come.  As for me, I felt none of those things.  I was just scared to death and completely freaked out.

I had no idea where I was at the time but later, when I got to know the city, I would figure out that it was the corner of Wilshire and San Vicente.  I was stopped at a red light, heading west, feeling extremely lost and fearful and, as I said, freaked out. This was before the internet and craigslist.  I had nowhere to stay that night.  I didn’t know where to look for an apartment, which areas were safe.  I had about $2000 saved up that I hoped would be enough to get an apartment and carry me until I could start earning some money.  It was all beginning to feel like too much when, suddenly, right in front of me, not 10 feet away, two cars collided head on, both of them totaled.  The sound was loud and jolting.  Traffic stopped.  People jumped out of their cars to check on the drivers.  I was sure I had just witnessed a death.  Both drivers got out of their cars though, shaken but not badly hurt.  I drove away.

Something about the collision just sent me spinning.  My eyes filled with tears.  My breathing became short.  I felt like I was in danger.  This was all just too crazy.  The world was this huge place and I had somehow wandered off course.  I didn’t know if I was going to pass out or break down crying.  I just kept driving, trying to find something to latch onto, something to help me pull it together.

I somehow found myself on Santa Monica Boulevard, just east of Sepulveda.  I pulled to a stop as all these feelings of anxiety and panic seemed to hit a crescendo.  For no reason, I turned my head to the right and I saw it.  It was a sign, on a bulletin board outside a church.  It said simply, “Be Brave” and nothing else.  I’m not really the Pollyanna type but, at that moment, I felt like that sign and those words were there just for me.  It was exactly what I needed to see.  I instantly felt calm and like I was going to be OK.

As I sat there in my car, getting a hold of myself, I was just this kid with some very big dreams that seemed so far away.  I dreamed of going to film school and learning to write and make films.  I dreamed of actually making these films and doing something I loved for a living.  I also had smaller dreams; of finding a place to live, of making friends and maybe eventually feeling like I was at home in Los Angeles.  And all of these dreams came true.

That’s not to say it was easy.  It all took way longer than I would have hoped and there were hard times along the way.  And it’s still not easy.  Every day I sit down to write and wonder if what I’m coming up with is any good, if anyone is going to care, if my current job is going to be my last.  I’ve had more good luck than bad but there have been setbacks and disappointments.  Nearly 20 years later, at the bleakest, most difficult moments – in business and in life – I’ve never come up with anything better than to just take a moment and remind myself to be brave.

Sean McGinly

About Sean McGinly

Sean McGinly was born in Philadelphia and raised in Northern Virginia. He graduated from Villanova University with a degree in Philosophy and went on to USC Film School where he got an MFA in Film Production. He wrote and directed the film, "The Great Buck Howard" starring John Malkovich and Colin Hanks. He also directed the documentary film, "Brothers Lost: Stories of 9/11" about men who lost their brothers on September 11th. He lives in Los Angeles.

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