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A Writer’s Voice

A reporter’s stories find new life during the writers guild strike.

By Dana Calvo ’92


Dana Calvo is a screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles with her husband, their 4-year-old daughter Annabel, and a gigantic pound dog named Gumbo.

It took a 100-day strike by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) to convince me that I was, indeed, a writer.

I don’t necessarily mean I’m a good one. Just that I am one. It’s what I do. It’s all I’ve ever really been trained to do.

I guess I should start in 2004, when my husband, Scott Gold, and I were living in Houston. I was about to be grounded under doctor’s orders because I was 7 1/2 months pregnant, so I hustled (OK, waddled) to take my last flight to a little Louisiana town where I was reporting a business story for the Los Angeles Times.

For 11 years, I had logged countless miles as a journalist, chronicling poverty throughout Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. I had covered two U.S. presidential campaigns, the occasional movie star, international drug trafficking, and immigration. Journalism is a way to see the world on someone else’s dime. Plus, after you see enough of the bad stuff, you’ll never again take for granted luxuries like air conditioning, clean water, and a progressive male companion.

I had always been ready—eager, even—to risk quite a bit of personal safety and a tremendous amount of my personal life for the thrill of typing the story’s exotic dateline in all capital letters under my byline. So, when I returned that night from Louisiana, it marked the first time since I was 23 that my desk was free of an airline ticket or a pending assignment. Six weeks later, we had our daughter, Annabel, and I immediately lost interest in responding to any phone calls or news events that didn’t originate with her.

Amid the fumbling chaos of a first child, I was most surprised by the sudden stillness of my new life as a mom. There was nowhere to “be,” except with her. And that’s exactly when my hard drive—the one filled with 11 years of reporting stories—began to download. I’d be feeding Annabel in the middle of the night, and I’d suddenly remember details about the destitute single mother in Mexicali, Mexico, whose son was one of several boys killed when a U.S. Marine drag raced through their neighborhood. He crossed the border back into California, wiped the blood off his headlights, and hoped no one would find him. I was writing for the Associated Press then, and it was a big deal when the Marine was sentenced to 40 years for mowing down a Mexican peasant no one knew.

I remember traveling with George W. Bush the day after he beat John McCain in South Carolina in 1999. I was interviewing him at the front of his campaign plane, and a humiliated but dutiful McCain—who was trying to present a unified GOP front—couldn’t get a word in edgewise because Bush kept cracking jokes at his expense. But what really got me was Laura Bush.

She sat across the aisle from us, pulled a blanket up to just under her chin and then—in a motion so discrete and expert I couldn’t stop staring—she pulled a tube of lipstick out of the breast pocket of her tailored suit and applied it without disrupting the blanket. Keeping her elbows pulled in tight to her sides, she put the cap back on the makeup, slid the tube back into the pocket, and flashed a smile at her husband. “Good night!” she chirped. It was early in the afternoon, and a woman had just applied lipstick before taking a nap on an airplane. It was the only thing I wanted to write about that day.

There was the lanky, Afro-Cuban girl walking down the street in Havana, barely able to tolerate the stroking hand of a middle-aged, pot-bellied, bald German. He was there on a sex vacation, something Fidel Castro actively enabled all the while talking about the pride of Cuba’s revolution. Cuba’s sex tourism industry meant the girl could use her body as currency for anything Fidel’s socialism wasn’t providing. Go on a “date,” which meant sex, and the man would take her to an optician shop and purchase lightweight prescription reading glasses that very same day. Castro’s healthcare system would have delivered glasses as well, but not for about a year from the time of her request.

These moments would come to me while I stirred rice cereal or soothed our daughter or waved the felt ladybug above her head. Motherhood has its moments of elation and tedium. Mine was also sprinkled with unprocessed dispatches and remnants of conversations in thousands of strangers’ homes. Suddenly, I didn’t want to be objective about anything. I had an opinion. I didn’t have the energy to see both sides of the argument when hundreds of Texans were burning Dixie Chicks CDs because their lead singer told the band’s fans she was ashamed of President Bush.

When Annabel was a few weeks old, I started writing creatively. And with the help of a supportive Hollywood screenwriter who hired me to help with an adaptation, I shifted into longer-form, more personal writing. By the time Annabel was 22 months old, we relocated to LA so I could take a job on a network television show.  Every single day in that writer’s room, I pulled from my memories as a reporter. It didn’t hurt that many of the issues in the show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, were about the media and politics.

Studio 60 was cancelled after one season, and I was hired on another “start-up” called Journeyman, about a newspaper writer who time traveled. OK, so at least I could contribute to part of his storylines. But last fall, about six weeks after Journeyman premiered on NBC, the WGA went on strike. Our union was demanding a pay structure that reflected changes in on-line—and previously uncompensated—viewership.

I took Annabel to one of the first WGA rallies with a homemade sign that read “SHARE,” which she held in the air during impassioned speeches by members of the guild leadership.

The thing I didn’t know about a strike was that it can get boring. I had caught up with good friends on “strike dates,” and then tuned out with my iPod on the picket line. At home, I became a proficient knitter and cooked big dinners for my other unemployed writer friends. It was a writer’s strike, and once you got past the bad jokes of not taking a phone message because that constituted writing, there really was supposed to be no writing. “Pencils down” was one of our slogans. What’s more, it became clear that Journeyman was going to die during the strike, leaving me no job to return to when the walkout ended. Great, now what?

We went back East for Thanksgiving. After spending the day with Adrienne Hollander ’91 and her two baby boys, Scott and I headed to South Philly for a wine-filled Italian dinner with John and Kate Lentz Crawford ’93. John is a doctor who works in an inner-city neighborhood. He also has a terrific sense of humor, and it gave me the idea for a TV pilot. It felt illicit to write under the “pencils down” mandate, but I had a story to tell. And as long as I didn’t try to sell anything during the strike, I couldn’t be considered a scab. I would take Annie to nursery school, head to one of the studios to picket and then write in the afternoon.

After 100 days, the WGA and the producers reached an agreement. I had no job to return to, but I did have a surer idea than I can ever remember having about what I want to be when I grow up. Within days, I was asked to be co-producer of a teen drama on ABC Family. The show is about a science geek who joins a fraternity because he wants to belong to a social group for the first time in his life. During the interview, I was asked if there were sororities at my college.

“No,” I said. “Just a Womyns’ Center, with a ‘Y’.”

I don’t know why they offered me a job, but I took it in a heartbeat. I want to work. I want to get better at writing and learn the business so that some day maybe I can have a show of my own or write a movie (one that actually gets made). And somewhere in those projects, I promise you, will be storylines with immigrant smugglers, girls who trade their virginity for eyeglasses, political wives, and late-night drag races. And maybe there will even be a tired new mom, trying to figure out how to write for a living without leaving home for the story.

One Response to “A Writer’s Voice”

  1. Dana, wonderful words. Maybe I'll run into you in L.A. one day and I can pick your brain about screenwriting?