Friday, November 5, 2010

Second Nature

I wasn’t always a writer.

Calling myself that took me years, a very long time spent writing and rewriting before I could acknowledge that I‘d done enough to deserve the name. I found something late in life that wasn’t just something I wanted to be -- I found something I’d been all along.

I always told stories, in one way or another, long before I started stringing words together on paper. As a child I made my own action figures out of multi-colored pipe cleaners, masking tape and crepe paper, acted out my own episodes of Batman on a piece of slate flooring I’d salvaged along the way to act as a stage set. Complete with special effects, courtesy of stick on caps and a misguided experiment with a pool of rapidly evaporating pool of liquefied butane fuel and a lighter.

My pubescent brushes with pyromania aside, the focus of my play, no matter the props, alone or with friends, was always creative storytelling. When I drew pictures, there was always a back-story, an explanation of the image and its place in a larger event. Games with friends were reduced to role-playing as we acted out Batman episodes or Hardy Boy or Nancy Drew plots.

When I hit my twenties, fresh out of college, I had no real idea what I wanted to do. I’d fallen in love with movies in school, had a film teacher who gave me a referral for my first job on a low budget kids’ Public TV show that changed my life. I started writing scripts then, the perfect blending of my visual and verbal skills.

But fiction writing always lured me back -- the singular pleasure of telling tales not in pictures or words designed to direct pictures, but words as end product. I was a voracious reader -- New York made it easy, with lots of time spent on the subway, on trains or waiting in stations. The more I read, the more I wrote my own early attempts at short stories.

My day job was an education as well, a faster one, as I got notes on everything I’d written for filming -- notes that taught me how to develop deeper characters, establishing them in as little time as possible. I learned to pace a story, and most importantly, to finish one. I worked on children’s shows, but I wanted to make horror movies, like David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, Toby Hooper and Wes Craven.

And the fight was on. I did a lot of photography in there as well, exploring visual imagery and the effects of light and shadow on film. I figured out how to create a matte box for an old Graphlex 4x5 film camera I‘d bought a Kodak instant film back for, and made a series of imaginary twin self-portraits. This one was meant to be a take-off on the poster for Brian DePalma’s Sisters (seen in the background), but I couldn’t get the Siamese twin join clean enough then. I could fix it in Photoshop, but prefer to see it as a portrait of how I felt at the time, torn between two loves.

I made a few short films, expensive then when you shot in 16mm, between processing, mixing, negative matching and print charges. I started a LOT of short stories, some good, some bad, some in the middle. Over the years I did a lot of production work of many kinds, live action and animation, East and West Coast. It took me twenty years to take my fiction writing as seriously as I took my production work, but I feel like it wasn’t time wasted. One fed the other, and lessons I learned on my day job have helped me in my new vocation as a novelist. I hope that one day it will pay my bills as the TV work did for years, and still does.

In a way the photo captures the truth -- I’ll always be split between the two, even if the balance has flipped. Even as I’m writing more than I ever have, I’m also getting back into shooting and editing films on digital video. I still have two loves, writing and production, but they both connect on one level -- storytelling -- my one and only true love.


Liane Spicer said...

It seems many of us hesitate to call ourselves writers, no matter how long we've been doing it, even after we're published. I think it might have something to do with paying the bills; if writing isn't supporting me, how can I say I'm a writer? It's the hardest thing to tell people. It's much easier to say 'teacher', though I'm not doing that any more, or 'administrator', which is how I pay the bills these days.

I try to remember my agent's words when I'm feeling on a deep level that I don't have the right to call myself a writer. She said: "I've been in this business for a long time and I know. You're a writer; it's what you do."

Maybe I'll internalize it, stand proud one day and say it out loud to whoever asks: "I'm a writer."

Liane Spicer said...

PS: Interesting photo experiment. I wouldn't have recognized you without the back story. You've matured very well. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

I think a lot of us have at least two or three big interests in our lives. Writing has long been one for me, but within that field I'm really sort of split between fic and nonfic. When asked in general what I do I say I'm a teacher, but that's because I make a lot more money doing that than I do writing.

Shauna Roberts said...

I enjoyed learning more about your background. It's surprising how many and varied the paths people take before they come to be writers.