That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

Watch me pull a rabbit outta my hat!

If you drink much from a bottle marked “poison” it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.

Posted by kozemp on October 26, 2010

We have finally reached  a bizarre sort of solipsistic point of no return, here: I am about to write about my own writing. If you are queasy about this, don’t worry, you’re not the only one.

Ten years ago I wrote a one-act play.

Okay, you know what, actually, let’s back up a little.

Twelve years ago I wrote a one-act play. There was a competition at LaSalle called, I believe, “Young Playwrights” run by the English department. Someone I knew – Brian Wiggins? Joe Jones? I can’t recall – had written a play for the competition, and me being me I certainly couldn’t let someone else be even remotely good at an idea I vaguely fancied for myself, so I decided that I would also write a one-act play. Me still being me, I sat down and wrote the entire one-act in about 9 hours the night before the competition deadline. I brought the finished pages into the Katherine’s lounge where we all hung out and people read them.

As near as I could figure I was the greatest playwright LaSalle University had ever seen.

Me yet STILL being me, I then proceeded to get drunk and sleep through the deadline. I’m not going to go into a ton of detail here – I have already written extensively about the genesis of the Maverick One-Acts and have no desire to do so again – but suffice it to say that Brian liked my play enough to produce it anyway, and he did so. That twelve years on I recognize that the play was absolute drivel isn’t material; the fact that it got produced and people came to Backstage (the coffee shop at LaSalle) to see it is. I had my first taste of people saying words I wrote, and other people laughing at them, and it was gooooooooood.

Over the following two years I wrote one-act plays at a speed that, in retrospect, is absolutely astonishing. There was a full-length three-act play in there at some point that actually got cast and rehearsed a couple times, but as the man says, that’s another show. For the most part I wrote one-acts and I wrote TONS of them. At the height of this, over Christmas break my senior year, I was banging them out at a rate of literally one a day. I would wake up in the morning, fire up a new Word document, and by dinner I would have a one-act play. Again, I look back on this rate with an amazement that borders on disbelief. Twenty pages a day! I would Faust away my eternal soul to be able to produce like that anymore.

Or at least I would if there were also some guarantee of quality with what came out. When you’re banging out a play a day, banging out a particularly good play, or even a particularly passable one, is not high on your list of priorities. Almost all of them were so eminently forgettable that I literally remember NOTHING about them save that they existed, on printouts Jim Lewis would strew all over our basement and on some long-lost hard drive from five computers ago. The only things I do remember are the titles and broadest plot elements of two of them.

(In fairness the two titles I recall are pretty good, and I still reference one of them in almost every work of fiction I create, which is admittedly not many.)

In the early winter of that year, 2000 it would have been, things took an odd turn for me personal-life-wise and I stopped writing for a bit. Those of you who were around for it might remember Crimes of the Heart and Mulan and High Fidelity and the page full of handwritten Springsteen lyrics on the wall and everything else; to those who were not, don’t worry about the inside joke. You’re not missing much. Things got weird, I got weird in response, lather-rinse-repeat for the next… [checks watch]… ten years and counting.

But then one day around the turn of spring I sat down at my computer and started a new one-act play. I was still at the tail end of something I desperately hope every writer goes through, a sort of “wretched autobiography” phase where everything is about whatever stupid crap was going on in my life at exactly that moment. The primary difficulty with the wretched autobiography phase is that very little that is remotely interesting goes on in the life of the average 22-year-old, and when it does you’re too young and too stupid to have anything valuable to say about it. The play I sat down to write in the spring of 2000 certainly fit the bill – it was little more than my reaction to the strangeness going on in my life at the time. But it was different than the stuff I had been churning out over Christmas break and before.

For starters it took me longer than a day to write it. I spent, as I recall, almost a week crafting those 15 pages, unheard of for a one-act play of mine at the time, and when I finally finished it I remember reading it and thinking, “hey, you know what, this is actually pretty good.”

It is important at this point to make a slight detour so I can clarify something: I hate almost everything I write. I HATE it. I realized a while ago that I totally fall into the cliché whereby I basically just write things I would like to read, but I fail the cliché in that while I may find it pleasing in a technical sort of way my aesthetic criticisms of my own work would, were I to unleash them on someone else, be considered unconscionably vicious and cruel. With very few exceptions, I am not a fan of my own writing.

But this one-act that I wrote that spring was different. I actually LIKED it. Even more than liking it, I thought it was GOOD. This was unheard of. Back then when people asked me why I wrote I routinely said, “because other people seem to like it.” Hell, that’s still a lot of the answer today. But this one-act, which eventually got the not-very-impressive title of “Valentine’s Day,” somehow managed to hit the sweet spot in the middle of my brain. Finally, I said to myself, I had written something good.

Here’s another interesting side note: I recently found a hard drive that, remarkably, has a copy of the play still on it. I read it just now. And you know what? It actually IS pretty good. I mean, I’ve done a lot better since – a LOT better – and I’m not saying I’d put it up at Studio 5 or anything, but for a one-act written by a confused 22-year old there’s a real play there with some surprisingly decent bits in it. Not the female part, obviously, I couldn’t write a woman to save my goddamned life back then.

But the two male parts…

The play concerned, ostensibly, the romantic/tragic/comic adventures of two brothers, Sean and Bobby McCall, who worked together as screenwriters. They cracked jokes. They cursed a lot. They made fun of each other. They were written and played for the most part with what could charitably be called exceptional broadness, though an awful lot of that was the fault of the play’s director and his utter lack of talent as such. (Guess.) Two brothers, one introverted and neurotic and obsessive, the other wacky and fun-loving and gregarious, both of them arrogant and obnoxious and short-tempered. Basically I took my own personality, split it in two right down the middle, and stuck it into two different characters.

I TOLD you the autobiography was pretty wretched.

We mounted the play as part of the Mavericks and I remember that we had almost more people than we could fit into Backstage. The place was mobbed. (This might have been one of the last years it was IN Backstage before they moved it to the theatre proper.) Even though this was my third one-act production in three years I was nervous as hell – there was a big audience, my first, and this time the play was actually good, or so I thought.

I needn’t have worried – the ovation Patrick and Chris and Reg got after the show almost knocked me over. It would have knocked Reg over if she wasn’t weighed down by that ridiculous coat she wore in it. The crowd loved it. (Well, all but one of them did, but that’s another story.) After the show I was milling about Backstage, talking to people and shaking hands, when Marianne came up to me and smiled and gave me a hug and just said, “you did it.” Those three words basically set in stone the course of the rest of my life.

Well, perhaps not the ACTUAL course necessarily; as we all know there were some mishaps along the way, but the overall direction, let’s say, for the rest of my life was locked in: I was a writer, or wanted to be at least, and no matter what other things I ever actually DID, a writer is what I would BE.

In the ten years since I’ve started more projects than I care to count. This computer, and the stack of hard drives sitting on my desk going back three computers before it, is loaded with tiny one- or two- or three-page Word documents that contain the beginnings of plays and novels and movies and comics and every other goddamn thing. There are a few, a very very precious few files that are finished, complete works. I keep the beginno-fragments because even something I never got back to can still have good tidbits in them that I can use in other things. Buried amongst all that are notes and scribbles for the few big-big-BIG projects of mine that I poke my head into now and then – three things in particular that I haven’t even figured out what they are yet, books or comics or whatever, one of which if I ever actually knuckle down and finish would legitimately be my magnum opus, if one can really have such a thing.

In the middle of all of this is one odd group of files, though.

All of them have, as a filename, some variation of the same phrase: “some kinda damn thing.” Whether it’s “some kinda damn thing movie” or “some kinda damn thing pilot” or “some kinda damn thing book” or whatever there’s a whole bunch of them, files that I make sure no matter what always get e-mailed to myself and transferred to a new computer as soon as I fire one up.

All the files labeled “some kinda damn thing” are stories that star Sean and Bobby.

I never meant to go back to them. They were characters in a one-act, and a wretched autobiographical one-act at that. I had bigger fish to fry! I was going to be a zillionaire screenwriter. I was going to win Oscars. I was going to have a mansion in Beverly Hills. I was going to be the next Andy Niccol or Scott Frank or Andrew Kevin Walker or Michael Mann. Oh, sweet merciful CHRIST how I wanted to be Michael Mann. I wasn’t about to muck around with guys from a one-act I wrote back in COLLEGE, for Chrissakes.

But, as we talked about earlier, there were some mishaps along that particular course, and when I found myself in Los Angeles, alone and frightened and miserable and perched right on the edge of a nervous breakdown, I sat in my dingy little room and started to write. I just needed to write something, ANYTHING, to get my mind off how unhappy I was and away from the fact that my reach had exceeded my grasp a little more than is practical, or healthy.

I sat there, pounding away on that giant old hand-me-down laptop from Chris’ parents that I had put a Jay and Silent Bob sticker on, and what eventually started to come out was a screenplay about Sean and Bobby. At the end of the one-act they make a big script sale and pack up and move to Los Angeles. In what I was working on when I was in Los Angeles they are there, arrived, and they hate it, and they begin to scheme themselves a way to get back to their old life.

The “wretched” phase may have lasted a little longer than I thought. The script did have a really good bit involving a fish tank full of cell phones, though; I reuse that one now and again.

Later, maybe a year after I got back from California, I found myself with a strong urge to write a novel. I still get this urge sometimes and I really don’t understand it – for whatever writing skills I will begrudgingly admit I have, the ability to craft good prose fiction is really just not among them. But every now and then I feel this urge, hear this voice that says, “you should just write a damn book.”

The first time I heard that voice, that year removed from Los Angeles, I sat down and started writing a book about Sean and Bobby, back home after their attempt and failure to make a go of it in California. Autobiographical to an extent, yes, but with almost no wretchedness left. I’ve actually put some decent work into that one over the years – there’s a solid 40 pages of it or so lying around that I go back and noodle with sometimes. I go back to that proto-novel, or the beginnings of the screenplays, or the first scenes of stage plays, or the whatevers that have Sean and Bobby in them, and I realize that aside from the characters, the one thing that ties all these stories and story fragments and half-formed ideas together is a simple yet almost-unbelievable fact: I actually like all of them. Ten years of hating almost everything I write, but anything with those two in it I have this very sentimental attachment to.

I’m not sure I necessarily believe in the idea of writing as therapy. If I could self-medicate with Microsoft Word I would have written myself into a perpetual state of Zen bliss years ago. And as my writing has changed, and Sean and Bobby have developed as characters, I don’t know if writing THEM as therapy would be especially useful. Despite the fact that their birth was as pure personifications of half each of my own personality, I’ve changed so much over the past ten years – far more than they have, or ever could have – that I actually see very little of myself in them anymore.

But in the intervening years I’ve come to recognize that Sean and Bobby McCall are sort of my personal literary comfort food. Even when things are at their worst, there is always SOME part of my brain that is writing something, and there is no small amount of pleasure in being stuck trying to figure out how to unkink whatever bizarre tangle my life has gotten itself into on any given day and suddenly being struck by the tetchy, obsessive thing Bobby would do if he were in my shoes, or by some bizarre behavior Sean would invent to get himself out of dealing with my problems if he had them.

Earlier tonight I was out for a walk – the recent damage to my back has subsided to a point where I can go back to doing that, thank god – and as I do when I walk late at night I tend to sort of let my mind run wild and process all the stuff that’s going on in there. As I was walking across the raised bit of sidewalk on the corner of Crispin and Oakmont, over the former roots of what used to be a giant tree, I was trying to work through a sticky issue when, unbidden, from nowhere, and fully-formed, this came into my head:

Sean looked at me with something on his face that might have approached sadness, if I thought he was capable of something like that. “Yeah, Bobby, people can change,” he said to me. “You just…” He paused. “You just gotta realize that means they can also change back.”

Good to see you again, boys. What’s new?

JLK

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