It’s now been exactly 30 years since I got a story idea that still occupies much of my creative heart. I wrote this blog post to show how long it sometimes takes for a story to reach its moment, its fullest potential, and how to never give up.
I first conceived of it 30 years ago, as a teenager. I outlined it that year and drafted it as a screenplay five years later, in college. After graduation, I decided to re-write it as a television miniseries. Since then I’ve written it as a novel (currently under editorial review) and have re-written the miniseries countless times (including a current rewrite I just submitted to an industry professional this week). I have outlined and drafted two sequels.
We all have a project we don’t want to give up on — but we still wonder what the heck is ever going to happen with it.
Taking a break from a few writing deadlines this past week, I visited our storage space over the weekend to do some overdue summer purging of ‘stuff’ in general — yes, I’m ashamed to say we have a storage space for endless old files, supplies, decorations, tools, and household items.
It’s also where I keep a lot of old writing drafts, manuscripts and notes. Some of the papers I uncovered this weekend were of outlines and ideas I had completely forgotten about — and I was excited to think about their possibilities going forward.
Then I found something else.
In my freshman year of college a few things happened where I felt I had to decide between being a musician and being a writer.
I had gotten to the point in the repertoire as a violinist where I’d either have to become a professional or keep it as a hobby. To take the professional route would require me to spend a dozen or more hours a day in practice and let go of most other time commitments in my life. I had concertized; I had been in orchestras, even toured a bit — but I wasn’t sure it was what I wanted above all else.
Alongside my musical studies in those years, I also studied theater, acting and playwriting. It just so happened that in this same period of my freshman year, I had entered a young playwrights festival contest and got word that I was one of the contest winners. The prize was to have my play produced professionally.
The process of seeing my play come to life for the first time — working with a director and dramaturg, doing revisions, watching actors audition to play my characters, seeing them bring the roles to life — all of it transformed me. My words, my thoughts, my voice were not only coming out but being affirmed by professional artists and by audiences.
As an 18-year old, this took me in a direction I didn’t quite expect. Music was always my main thing; theater was second. But winning that contest and seeing my play performed in front of me that year clarified my decision.
I decided to be a writer.
Why? For the “glory”? No. There were gloriously satisfying moments as a musician too — performing solo on stage to enthusiastic applause after hours of learning a piece, winning regional or national competitions, touring the country. It required my creativity, my being, poured into the work, just like with writing. I knew that either field would require a lot of un-glorious work, rejection, and persistence, like in any arts field.
What was different?
When I think of pure joy for our work, our art — the joy we feel when we create something good and it finds acceptance with an audience — I think of one of my favorite film scenes of the last 20 years.
In the 20th Century Fox film, That Thing You Do! (1996), a group of teenagers in 1964 Erie, Pennsylvania form a band, work hard to make a record and get the chance to go on tour, tasting a bit of success before conflicting dreams and personalities take them in different directions. School, jobs, military service, marriage, ego and all sorts of other things will divide them soon enough. But there’s one thing, during this one summer, that they all have in common: their music, their ‘thing.’ And as I’ve said before on this blog, we all have to have something that is ‘our thing,’ something that we love to do.
In this scene, the group discovers that the song they recorded (titled same as the movie) is on the radio for the first time.
I’d like to think that only an artist — writer, musician/composer, singer, painter, actor — can fully understand the sheer exuberance of this scene. Working and waiting and hoping for a chance. Having certain family or friends who just don’t get it. Having to work the day job while holding onto a dream. Finally getting accepted, getting noticed, getting an audience. (“I am Spartacus!” Victorious!) Despite the imperfect and blurry YouTube clip, the joy is palpable in this simple and sweet film, and I love how this scene captures it more beautifully than so many other films with the same plot (well-written and directed, Tom Hanks!)
Ultimately, though, the joy of this scene is not just for artists — anyone with a dream or passion deferred can relate to it. We all desire such joy in what we do, in living out our God-given gifts. So:
What would make you run down Main Street screaming with happiness?
What would you be willing to burst into a department store and announce to the world?
What victory would make you feel THAT much joy?
Whatever it is, do it. Create it, be an advocate for it, whatever ‘it’ is. Even if you have to keep the day job forever, get your passion incorporated into the schedule and fabric of your life somehow, even if just in small bits at first. If you haven’t started yet, start. If you’ve been at it for years and it’s just not getting anywhere, retool and try again. Just don’t stop that thing you do, that only you can do, that you were put on this earth to do.
(Disclaimer: I do not own this film; Posted from YouTube Video Account 1, 2, 3, 4, I declare a dance war… )
Welcome to my blog! This is certainly long overdue but I look forward to sharing here with you often about what’s going on in writing, film/theater, faith, culture and community – in my life and in the lives of those I admire!
We just finished screening a short film I adapted and directed, “Reflection Day,” at the Los Angeles Women’s International Film Festival, as well as the Western New York Black Film Festival.
The film is about Ms. Johnson, an elderly African American woman in a senior home, suffering from Alzheimer’s, who compels her caregiver Andre to ‘take her to vote’ on what she thinks is Election Day, to have peace with her past. It’s based on the stage play by Chuck Cummings.