A turning point in my writing came before I started taking my writing seriously. I was a freshman at Ball State University, the only school that would take me, and for my first semester I only wanted to take deathly cool classes, because I assumed I would never make it to the end of college, or if I did it would take a decade, so I decided to have a cool time. The classes I took that semester were Mythology, 20th Century American History (was always a history buff), Acting, Biology (I got to chop things up and see how they work), and Fencing. No, not "stealing," sword fighting. At the age of eighteen, appearance was important to me and I wanted to make certain people see me as a smart and cool rapscallion, even if I was a loser.
In high school I had "acted" in a few plays, and when I say "acted" I'm talking about yelling across a music pit at overprotective parents. This was fun, something I could do with my friends. We smoked a lot, drank a little, and made out with girls in a high school parking lot behind the auditorium. I thought that was a good enough reason to be an artist and I figured college "acting" would be similar. I was wrong. My acting teacher was an old, gay man from Detroit, who lost his teeth from drinking too much sugar. He gave me a book during my second week of classes called An Actor Prepares. It had a pink cover, the most uncool cover there could be, and was written by a Russian guy. My teacher told me not to read the whole book, knowing that I wouldn't. He directed me to a few chapters where the author was playing a black man on stage. The author smeared his face with chocolate cake to become something he wasn't, at least on the surface, and could never grasp the character. That is until he tripped on stage and stopped trying to be something else and started saying his lines and playing his character in a moment of panic from his guts, his heart, from himself. My teacher thought I would like the story. He said I was a bad actor, but I was good at telling stories and I should consider writing plays. At that time I could never think of a good enough reason to be a writer. I never saw a playwright make out with a girl in a parking lot.
Years later I was dating a girl and I did start writing plays, really bad ones, plays where I tried my damndest to be someone I wasn't, plays about cool and dangerous characters. I wrote plays about boxers (I can't take a punch), and ghosts (I'm not dead, yet), and all my titles I stole from albums by The Pixies, but nothing I wrote was sincere. It was all hollow and cosmetic and skin-deep. I used to wear a black motorcycle jacket when I wrote that was a size too big and I looked like a fraud. Then, my girl of two years broke up with me. It hurt. It hurt for three days. The kind of hurt where you sit in bed and shake. On the third night I wrote a play about our relationship and when I wrote I didn't wear the leather jacket. The dialogue wasn't hip, and it wasn't cool. The play was simple and how I saw things in that moment. In it a young man boarded a train for nowhere, leaving a girl behind who never loved him. With no sleep I printed the script and I showed it to my old toothless theatre teacher. I sat in his office as he read, and he told me this was my best play yet, and asked me if I thought about being a playwright.
"For a living?" I asked.
"No. You don't write plays for a living. Just 'being' a playwright."
"Weird," I thought. "But I'll think about it."
I got up, went home, lay down without shaking, and went to sleep for a few hours. When I woke up I started contacting graduate schools. I wasn't certain how to write, I had no technique, and knew I had to talk with more people, more professors, about all this writing business. I think back to that time when my teacher gave me Stanislavski to read and understand that acting, art, writing, is about being truthful with yourself and being vulnerable to your audience. I wear a gray cotton-blend jacket now. I got it at the Gap. On sale. And it fits nicely. I often tell my students that writing comes from between the lungs, not the ears.
And that is a good enough reason to write.
This essay originally ran as part of "Turning Points" on Nova Ren Suma's Distraction No. 99.
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