|Edward Hopper, Solitary Figure in a Theatre|
Source: Cave to Canvas.
Today I'm thinking about....what draws someone to Art. Of any kind. I have a friend who acts and directs community theatre plays, other friends who write or do photography. I have a friend whose mom is just an amazingly gifted painter. I have a friend who's both a gifted writer and musician. Why those particular arts though? And I do think that people who are drawn to create are drawn to create in at least two different creative areas...writing/music, photography/writing, painting/music, acting/music; and sometimes more than two areas. I am drawn to storytelling via writing, but also film/tv storytelling, and music (though now I just like to listen more than create--though once upon a time, I created a lot of it).
Maybe it's the process of creating that's the thing, more than what is created. For example, research--I almost love the part of researching whatever it is that I'm writing more than the writing itself. And I love the writing itself more than the finished product (and this is because the finished product is something I will pick at and pick at and pick at until bleeding scabs are all over it; letting go is hard for me).
When I was 6, I discovered words. I remember being mystified at the decoding process of words. Sesame Street and The Electric Company taught me how to break them down. I remember when I realized some words have chunks of other words inside of them--oh my god! who thought to do that?! Such magic afoot, there. And I remember being on the playground before school one day, seeing my 1st grade teacher Mrs. Salmon walking into the school to get ready for the day, and running up to her to impress her with what I'd figure out: the word YOU.
"Mrs. Salmon, Mrs. Salmon!" I said all excited, "I know how to spell YOU. It's SO easy: U. Just the letter U. Because it says that!"
And Mrs. Salmon, kind and patient teacher Mrs. Salmon, gently smiled down at me and said, "Well, good thinking, Amy, but no. It's actually Y. O. U. YOU. Keep working!"
And I remember not feeling deflated or defeated at all when she corrected me, because I loved Mrs. Salmon with all my little heart because she always let me read ahead in all the little readers and she was the sweetest, kindest teacher I knew. But also because: holy crap! REALLY?! I never would have guessed that! Amazing. Mystical. HOW. DO. WORDS. FRICKIN'. WORK?!
My mom will tell you that, when I was 7, my dad got a subscription to the Wall Street Journal. And every Saturday morning, they'd come downstairs to find me sitting with it on my lap, "reading" the Wall Street Journal. I wasn't actually reading it of course--had I, I might have been better at Math, become a CPA, and today I'd be making exactly $100,000 more a year doing the same amount of stressful work but in a much quieter office setting and with longer lunch breaks. No. I was "reading" the Wall Street Journal for all the words I did know...picking them out, studying them, picking them apart.
When I was in 3rd grade, we moved from Oklahoma to Kentucky. This was a really hard move for me; I'd made tons of friends in Oklahoma, and it was sort of traumatizing to leave them. I've always been an introvert, but that move turned me completely shy. I had a really hard time making friends in 3rd grade, I think now because I was grieving the ones I'd left behind. And also the school in Kentucky didn't know how deeply I loved words; it didn't know I'd always been allowed to skip ahead in all the little readers; it didn't know that Mrs. Tippy in 2nd grade picked MY story about the owl family to display on the bulletin board as Best Written Story of the Year. The school in Kentucky stuck me in the lowest reading class, and I was surrounded by children I knew were not into words, hated words, hated books. And listening to them painstakingly read aloud was equivalent to having someone pull every strand of hair out of my head, one by one, slowly and methodically. And I know (now, as a teacher and an adult) my 3rd grade Reading teacher knew I didn't belong there, and I know (now) she probably tried to have me moved, but the school wouldn't do it. Not until the official transcripts came in.
And when they did, I was placed in the next-to-highest Reading class, not the highest. Because what the hell did Oklahoma know about reading? (Two things about this: 1, this is one of the times standardized testing works; it lets you know where kids are, what kids know...which is what it was invented for--NOT for rating schools and teachers and kids; and 2, as a teacher now, whenever I get a new kid, I make sure to get to know where they are in Math and Reading right away; I can't imagine anything worse than being stuck with a group of people you've got nothing in common with) (i.e., the grocery store--every time I go there and get stuck behind someone who can't make a choice between two brands of mustard, I think: I have absolutely nothing in common with about 90% of the people in this place...MAKE A CHOICE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.)
Third grade is when books and words and writing began to consume me. I always had a book on me. I liked fiction, but even more than that, I liked learning about the world and the people in it. At the school library, I read every single one of the biographies. When I ran out of those, I moved on to the Social Studies encyclopedias. When those were finished, I moved on Science books about topics that interested me. When those were done, I discovered plays. The school library had books of plays, written especially for kids my age, and I would take these and read them and then do monologues from them in my room on Saturday afternoons.
In my neighborhood, I was part of a motley group of children that made absolutely no sense hanging out together. There was a beautiful girl named Kirstie; Kirstie had stunning blue eyes and curly light brown hair and we connected because we were only 2 years apart in age...and we couldn't stop analyzing the storylines behind the soap opera GENERAL HOSPITAL (what were a 9 and 11 year old DOING, watching adult daytime television?! Ah, the 80's). There were two brothers--I forget their names now, but I remember they lived with their single mother and grandparents who they called MeeMaw and PawPaw and their mother always looked sad and tired. There was a really rough little boy from up the street who'd one day be the reason my brother fell off some monkey bars and broke his arm. And there was my little brother, a gentle little Kindergarten boy, and then there was me, in my I-will-ONLY-wear-dresses! phase, book always on me somewhere. And what all of us liked to do most, together, was create plays. Dramas.
Kirstie and I (being closest in age) came up with the script, the props, and did all the casting. We would practice our plays in the sinkhole of the empty lot in our neighborhood (what were a bunch of kids doing, playing in a SINKHOLE?! Ah, the 80's). Our plays were always incredibly elaborate and stunning yet confusing productions, because we stole many of our ideas from television shows we loved, mish-mashing them together in unsurprisingly bizarre ways, as only children, unaware of the complexities of the adult-themed stories they're re-creating, can do.
We had script read-throughs with the actors (and these actors were always the same, by the way...and I've noticed this happens a lot in Hollywood, too: people work with the same people again and again. I think because they realize they have a good working relationship, and it's enjoyable...we worked with the same actors like this, too. But not because it was enjoyable--it was because they were all we had available): my brother, the rough little boy, and the two brothers who lived with their sad mother and MeeMaw and PawPaw. And Kirstie and I. We were always the female romantic leads and/or the femme fatales. Once, one of the little brothers wanted to be a femme fatale, and the rough little boy threatened to beat him up if he did that. We've advanced so far these days in LGBT rights and understandings. (Ah, the 80's.)
We had rehearsals. Oh! We had rehearsals! Kirstie and I were ruthless as directors and stage managers--one afternoon, Kirstie told the rough little boy: don't even TRY to tell us you feel like hanging out in your bedroom with your Star Wars figurines--we will BURY you. You'll never play in this neighborhood again! Get your ass to rehearsal. NOW.
(She actually didn't use the word ass; we watched a lot of inappropriate adult romance on daytime TV, but we actually did not know about the word ass.) (For instance, I also did not know what the word FUCK was until I was 12, and a neighborhood child whispered something about the bad four letter F word...I spent the whole afternoon combing through my repetoire of four letter F words--four, five, fork, fury, flip, fist, fine...none of those words were bad. I finally asked my mother what was the four letter F word I wasn't supposed to know, and she rolled her eyes and told me to stop playing with that one neighborhood kid. Later, I found it in one of my mother's smutty romance books. And now I can't stop saying it. If only she'd just told me! I mean, it was the 80's).
I remember one play we wrote was based on a combination of Battlestar Galactica, the Luke & Laura/Robert Scorpio love triangle on General Hospital, and it also incorporated elements from The Wizard of Oz (that was me--I had a total artist hissy fit meltdown by refusing to play Cassiopeia if I wasn't also allowed to bring in the yellow brick road and glittery red shoes to the story.) We cut out cardboard boxes and used them as spaceships. Our theatre, our stage, was the humongous back yard of the two brothers. The audience sat on the porch. Probably, from the audience's perspective--given there was poor lighting and no microphones to project sound--we just looked like a bunch of kids running around with towels as capes, in cardboard boxes, making weird spaceship battle sounds. On a poorly colored, cardboard yellow brick road.
We made tickets, then walked the neighborhood, selling them for a dime each until the neighborhood mothers called our mothers complaining about price gauging and why did their child have to pay to see some kid play anyway. After that, we gave them away for free.
This is why artists are always poor.
And then, two summers later, Kirstie moved away to New York. And the magic was broken. The rough little boy got bored with Star Wars figurines, grew rougher, and found other little rough boys to hang out with; the two brothers--always kind of weird--decided they only wanted to play with each other, and my brother started hanging out with a neighbor boy down the street closer to his age who also had an obsession with Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Suddenly, I was on my own.
So I read. I read and wrote and read all the time. I read fiction and non-fiction, and if I couldn't find a good book to read, I'd find a dictionary or an encyclopedia, just to be soothed by words. I did monologues from plays I'd checked out of the library or ones I'd written myself in my bedroom on Saturdays. I re-enacted scenes and dance numbers from Broadway shows I loved (Funny Girl, The Wizard of Oz, West Side Story, Annie, The Sound of Music) on Sundays. I played the violin and the flute and later the piano, but I wish I'd stuck with the violin. I actually think I should have headed for the cello, because I think those have a beautiful sound and you get to sit while you play them and not have to hurt your jawline with a violin stuck underneath.
I think I'm writing all of this today because I'm home, sick, and also working on stuff my heart's not really into right now. I'm 43, a mommy to a ridiculously wonderful little girl, and I have a mortgage and other responsibilities. But my heart wishes it could sit and read and write and re-enact Broadway musical numbers and maybe call up some actors and yell at them to get their asses to rehearsal, NOW.
If you're a creative, drawn to Art, and you're stuck in a job that has become all about the opposite of being creative, that's a certain fresh kind of hell to be in. Isn't it? And so I'm just writing that here, typing it out loud. And maybe one day I shall do something about that. My life will not always look like this. (And if you are in the same position as I am, please repeat with me: Our lives will not always look like this. Let's meet for coffee and strategize ways to make that reality.)