Thursday, June 5, 2014

"How Do You Know You're a Writer?"

Throughout your life, there are signals telling you you are a writer. Unless you are not a writer.  In which case, there are no signals whatever.  At least not signals telling you you are a writer.

There will likely be signals telling you you are something else.  Though such indicators are not always a guarantee.   I once knew a kid who from the earliest age took an inordinate pleasure in sweeping floors, but he wound up becoming a successful sound engineer for rock concerts rather than a maid.  So it is hardly a “slam dunk” correlation.

Though it turned out to be for me. 

First though, covering all the bases, sometimes people who harbor ambitions in a certain direction will experience prognosticators that are not actually there.  A polite compliment – “You are such a good singer” – may be wishful thinkingly interpreted as “You have an unquestionable future as a singer.”  That’s why you have to be careful with your compliments, especially with children, who, in their innocence, may confuse courtesy with a certitudinous prediction about the future.

As for me, I never wanted to be a writer.  As a child, I almost never read books, and I had no idea that the things the characters said on television were actually written by somebody else.  It’s not that I thought the actors made the lines up themselves.  Most of the time, I didn’t even know they were actors, believing instead that I was watching a documentary called “The Lone Ranger.”  I thought they were actual people. 

So, having no interest in being a writer, the signals I received were hardly projections of my innermost hopes and dreams.  They were just what was happening.

It started in Third Grade.  (Or as Canadians correctly I believe call it, “Grade Three.”)
We were assigned stories to write, in class or for homework.  And for some reason, because, I suppose, they showed…something, my teacher, Mrs. Knight, trotted me around to other classes, where I was required to stand on a chair and read my stories aloud to the assembled children.  (The only story whose name I remember was “Bugs Bunny And The Banana Factory.”  I do not recall the specifics, but I do, in retrospect, feel somewhat guilty, riding to Hebrew Day School acclaim courtesy of somebody else’s bunny.) 

My excitement derived not from the story, but from the attention I received reading it.  Indicating a promising future in performing.  Which I actually wanted, but that experience was about as predictive as that of the prodigy floor sweeper. 

(By the way, who wouldn’t rather be a performer than a writer?  I mean, would you rather be Columbus, or the guy making the maps?)

Early on, I was labeled a writer.  Whether I wanted to be one or not.

Years later, when I went to camp, the camp director named Joe continually nurtured my (non existent) writing aspirations.  Joe asked me (or was it ordered me) to write a story for the Visitors’ Day magazine.  So I did.  (A satirical piece about Gunsmoke’s Matt Dillon and Chester discovering dead bodies on the trail or shooting people and how much time they had to spend burying them.  Ah, the things I think about!)

Not only was my story published in the magazine, a copy of it was thumbtacked to a bulletin board near the drinking fountain, so people could look at it while they were waiting in line for a drink. 

Joe subsequently offered me my first “Writing Fee”, a hundred dollars for penning a play put on for the entire camp.  I did that too, as well as some form of play writing every summer from age sixteen to my early twenties.

I was building up quite a resume.  For someone who had no interest in being the thing they were building the resume for.  Which was probably why I never felt overly anxious about my writing chores.  They were assignments that I did not seriously care about. 

By contrast, when I acted, I was so nervous I was unable to eat dinner before going on.  Since the shows were generally performed on Saturday night, I would inevitably miss Saturday night dinner, which was hot dogs and French fries, the only meal of the week that I actually enjoyed. 

I always hated that.  Why couldn’t they serve Welsh rarebit on Saturday nights?

This last story is arguably the worst.  During the late 1960's, I was in New York, trying to be a comedian.  My brother and his partner Lorne Michaels (then Lorne Lipowitz) had connections with Woody Allen, as well as with his manager Jack Rollins.  (An early Woody enthusiast who still receives a producing credit on Allen’s movies.) 

I do not recall why I was going there, but for some reason, I had an appointment at Rollins’s office.  I knocked on the door, and Rollins himself answered it.  And before I could introduce myself, he said,

“You look like a writer to me.”

(Not the comedian I was trying to be.)

It was apparently that easy.  You just had to look at me and you knew what I was.

Perhaps if I had not unconsciously (and otherwise) aspired to be something else, I’d have noticed it myself.  But I didn’t.  In addition, it now occurs to me, I recall my mother’s words, concerning my academic achievements, but they apply equally well to my writing.

“For him, it’s easy,” she used to say. 

Which always infuriated me because it wasn’t, and it insulted the prodigious effort I had put in.

What I am thinking is, if you delete the word “easy” and replace it with the word, “doable” because it was doable, and being doable, I did not perceive it as anything special.  (“Special” was apparently reserved for the things I couldn’t do.)

Maybe that’s why I missed all the signals.

I was a writer.

But I was the last person around to realize it.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Yes, strange, that... I'm often accused of being a comedian.

Hi-yo, silver, away! (Includes drugs references & worse. Though I only wrote that to get people's attention.)