May 3, 2021

Careful the tale you tell

That is the spell,

Children will listen…


   I still remember the moment, as if it had just happened. I’m 17, and I’d been passing around to classmates some absurdist prose I’d begun experimenting with. The reaction I was getting from them surprised me. Big laughs. Really big. That explosive kind standup comedians hear when they’re on stage and own the audience. I didn’t know what I had.

   Decades later I would understand I had discovered what it meant to let go as a writer. I had a class assignment. I decided to submit one of these absurdist pieces. When I got my grade back, it was a C-, not at all the ringing endorsement I had expected based on my classmates’ response. As I left the classroom at the end of the period, my English teacher fixed a stern, judgemental eye on me and said, “Writing humor is hard, and should only be done by people who know what they’re doing.”

   Given my fragile eggshell psyche at the time (something I’ve spent a lifetime nurturing) I’m surprised that the teacher did not crush my spirit. But, like I say, I remember the moment like it happened yesterday.

On my best days as a person, writing is as natural as breathing. On my worst days, it’s a life vest that keeps me breathing.

   I contrast this with the experience of Lin-Manuel Miranda, recently interviewed for the NBC special “Inspiring America.” Manuel credits an 8th grade English teacher telling him the poems he was writing in the back of the class were “pretty good,” and that Lin should apply them to the class as a whole.

   Mind you, I am not comparing talents, just the moments of emergence. Miranda took what his teacher told him, and said, “He’s right!” I took what my teacher told me and said, “He’s wrong!”

   As the epigraph from Into the Woods at the top of this suggests, children are listening, especially to teachers. Fortunately, I possessed a stubborn, anti-authoritarian streak that somehow balanced that eggshell psyche, and I became a writer probably in part to to prove that teacher was the @$$hole I’m convinced he was.

   I think what these two examples show is that it begins with what’s in the heart. I don’t think you can inspire what’s not there. And if it is there, then inspiration can come either positively or negatively. I’m certainly proof that the negative works. In the end, inspiration is the fuel for an engine that already exists.

   Writing is the only work that has given me the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment that defines all human experience. On my best days as a person, writing is as natural as breathing. On my worst days, it’s a life vest that keeps me breathing. I really can’t do anything else, as my lack of hobbies, handyman skills and interest in any job I’ve ever had will attest.

   It’d be better, I’m sure, were I more well-rounded and skilled. But writing has turned out to be both the necessary and sufficient condition, as the philosophers say, of a truth. I am who I am, and I have a teacher who told me I shouldn’t be who I am to thank for it.

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