Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Richard Pryor: A role model for writers

This month marks the anniversaries of both the birth of Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III (December 1, 1940) and his death (December 10, 2005).

Richard Pryor has long been a hero of mine, and I would like to share with you some of the reasons why.

Pryor was the quintessential American hero who rose from adversity to achieve his dreams. As he himself said, "I live in racist America and I'm uneducated, yet a lot of people love me and like what I do, and I can make a living from it. You can't do much better than that."

And he made that rise from adversity repeatedly.

He started life as the son of a prostitute who abandoned him when he was only ten. He was then raised by his grandmother, the madam of a brothel, who beat him. That was not the worst of his childhood. He was also sexually molested as a six-year-old by a neighbor and later by a priest. At 14, Pryor was expelled from school. He spent some of his time in the Army in jail for beating up a racist white soldier. There was every reason to expect Pryor to be a failure.

Instead, after he left the Army, he began singing in clubs. He discovered his talent lay more in comedy and soon began appearing on TV variety shows and then in Las Vegas. By age 27, he had risen from rags to riches and was a well-known comic.

He would have to rise from the ashes (one time literally) many more times. The next time was in the mid-1960s when he sought a more authentic comic persona that would portray black life and race relations with brutal honesty. His race-related themes and his increasing use of profanity made him controversial, and opportunities to work dried up.

Instead of giving up, Pryor reinvented himself. He moved to Los Angeles and began appearing in movies. He generally had poor roles to work with, yet he was hired again and again, eventually appearing in forty-two movies.

Although he was perhaps the greatest stand-up comedian ever, his personal life was less successful. He married seven times and had five different wives. His drug use, his adultery, and his alleged mistreatment of most of his wives contributed to this turnover. He had a heart attack at age 36. He was not happy, and in a strange suicide attempt in 1980, Pryor poured rum over himself and set himself on fire after freebasing cocaine.
Despite the odds, he survived, badly burned. It's hard to imagine anyone bouncing back from such despair, severe injuries, and public humiliation. But he did. He even worked his freebasing incident into his comedy routine and got big laughs making fun of himself.

In 1986, Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. A long-time advocate for animals, he continued to oppose medical experimentation on animals even though such research might lead to better treatments for MS. He continued performing comedy and acting for years after his diagnosis.

Writers can learn many lessons from Pryor:
  • When life knocks you down, get back up. Repeat as necessary.
  • Take responsibility for your failures and turn them to your advantage.
  • Be willing to reinvent yourself.
  • Be true to your vision as an artist.
  • Reveal the truth, even if it hurts your career.
  • Don't take yourself too seriously.
  • Avoid self-pity.
  • Use your pain to understand and help fix the suffering of others.
  • Help those who are not as well off as you.
  • Hold true to your principles. 
These lessons have proven invaluable in my personal life too. As some of you know, I have many chronic illnesses that at times have made it difficult or impossible for me to work or to do the things I love. Each time, I thought about Richard Pryor and followed his example. No self-pity. Get back up. Reinvent myself to accommodate my new circumstances. Use my pain to help others. Repeat as necessary. Because Pryor bounced back, I knew I could too.

Thank you, Mr. Pryor.

I'll be blogging again at Novel Spaces on January 6, 2012, when my topic will be the use of details in fiction. I hope you have a wonderful New Year!

—Shauna Roberts


Anonymous said...

Your post caught me at an opportune moment; thanks for the reminder. I always like this quote by Henry Ford, Raymond Carver, Cole Porter, and whoever the hell else said it first - "Don't complain, don't explain."

William Doonan

Jewel Amethyst said...

Interesting post Shauna, and great advice I can definitely follow.

Shauna Roberts said...

WILLIAMDOONAN, thanks for sharing that quote. I think Nike's slogan is a good coda for it: "Just do it."

Thanks, JEWEL, for your comment.

Liane Spicer said...

That is so inspiring. I admire people who can reinvent themselves again and again and triumph over the odds.