Tuesday, June 7, 2016

"When Did You Know You Were A Writer?"

You mean like Dickens or Shakespeare or Billy Wilder or James L. Brooks?

Similar to Inherit the Wind’s evangelical character’s questionable understanding of God, in the past although less so today, my perception of “writer” may very well have been “too high up and too far away.”

Leading me not to acknowledge – to others or to myself – that I was a writer till I was closing in on fifty.  Despite the concrete evidence that I was, having been remunerated for various forms of writing services for close to a quarter of a century.

Though I got paid for my writing, I still did not feel like a writer. 

Why not?  (Beyond that I did not see myself as any of the above?)

Writers reliably “delivered the mail”.  Every script I wrote felt like it might easily be my last and that the others before that were a fluke.  Or at best a pale imitation of what I had witnessed on television.

Signals I missed along the way that I was a writer:

– I am eight years old, and Mrs. Knight, my “Grade Three” teacher at the Toronto Hebrew Day School shuttles me from class to class, where I am forced to stand on a chair and read a story I had written in class.  That had to be stressful – a little kid on a chair, reading “Bugs Bunny and the Banana Factory”?  Rather than sending me a career-track message, I probably simply wanted it to stop.

– For years, I wrote mini-musicals at camp.  Why didn’t that make me think I was a writer?  Because it was camp!  I also swam at camp.  That did not make me Mark Spitz.

– During my early twenties, I wrote a weekly column for a Toronto newspaper.  The Managing Editor memoed my immediate superior, “He writes well.”  I was still dubious.  Mr. “He writes well” was receiving twenty-five dollars per column, a respectable stipend in 1932, but that was in 1969.

– Down here, I was recruited to write half-hour comedies.  The nagging question remained, was I really “writing” or simply copying my bosses?  (Recognizably less skillfully.)

I had worked consistently, I had won some prizes, I had signed lucrative studio deals to create sitcoms…

And I still refused to acknowledge I was a writer.

Then one day…

Okay, short backstory:

I had taken my eleven year-old daughter Anna to Sea World where, at her request, I had bought an “Inflatable Shamu” to float in our pool at home.  The first time we blew it up, however, we discovered a leak, leaving a deflated “Shamu” marooned poolside, a plastic puddle of wrinkled uselessness.

Equally deflated was my eleven year-old daughter Anna.

Paternally irate, I immediately put fingers to keyboard and I wrote Sea World a letter.  The message:  “‘Inflatable Shamu” arrived defective.  We want a free new one.”

I finished the letter, made some minor adjustments, and then read the completed version to myself.  What I noticed was that, virtually effortlessly, I had written exactly the letter I had intended to write. 

As a “Letter of Complaint and Demand for Immediate Redress”, what can tell you… it was a really good letter.  Full marks could easily be accorded.  For its honesty, its clarity, in its selection of language and its modulated “attack.”  It was also precisely the right length – not too many words, and not too few. 

Weird as it sounds, that’s when I finally realized I was a writer.  (And a pretty good one at that.)

For years, in my mind, that was the moral of that story: 

Being a writer meant competent execution. 

However, writing this post, I belatedly realized that I was wrong.

In Toronto Hebrew Day School, at Camp Ogama, for the Toronto Telegram and those dozens of sitcom scripts, they told me write something, and I wrote it.  It was an assignment.  I simply did as I was instructed.

But with the “Unusable Shamu” letter, the writing assignment came directly from myself.  What made me a writer, I came to see, was not my professionalism but my deliberate intention.  I had determined to throw a fastball on the outside corner, and I had accomplished just that.  

Only writers can do that.  

Therefore, I must be a writer.   

And then I thought about it some more.  (Look how I’m realizing things while I am writing about them.  That’s maybe the best part of doing this.) 

Yes, I was the “Master of my Assignment”, and I had successful pulled it off.  But it’s not the “intention” that makes you a writer.  There was, in fact, something significantly more basic.

The intention gets you to the keyboard, but that’s it.  To be a writer means to be, fundamentally, a conductor, a human conduit, staying out of the way and transcribing what comes out.

The issue is not control, but the surrender of control. 

Buttressed by learning and repetition.  

My “Unusable Shamu” letter had been twenty-five years in the making.  But it was worth it.

I finally accepted myself as a writer.

And now I, more accurately, know why.

(Postscript:  Sea World sent us a replacement “Shamu.”  Unfortunately, that one had a leak in it as well.  There were no follow-up letters.  Even good writers know when they are beat.) 

1 comment:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I remember reading Agatha Christie's autobiography, where she said that despite having sold multiple bestselling books, etc., she never felt she was a professional writer until she wrote The Blue Train - she as going through a divorce, didn't want to write it, didn't feel she was writing well - but had a contract and so she delivered.

For me, it was continuing to be paid over a number of years. But you know, 25 year son, they could still be wrong.