It’s January 2021, the dead of winter during a still-raging pandemic. The assault on our Capitol still hangs heavy, weighed down further by the knowledge that a smooth transition of power may not occur. These be dark times.
Personally, I’d recently turned 40. My days at my previous job were already numbered - I had tried to leave earlier, but the job I thought was my way out died of COVID. I was unhappy and struggling to find my place on a team I’d help build up over many years, but which was now under new management with whom I have creative differences. I like things that are actually creative - and they…are different.
I signed up for a writing workshop with a local theater - a place I’ve been several times, housed in a former grist mill built in 1790.
Here I am on the stage at that very theater...many moons ago.
Eight weeks of Writing From Self - focusing on autobiographical stories for stage and memoir. I was the youngest on our Zoom calls by several decades, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Everyone had such rich stories and unique perspectives to share. My coursemates became some of my favorite writers as I heard them develop and pour more of themselves into their stories.
Each week, we’d write on some prompts the instructor - an experienced stage performer - would give us, share some of that writing with the group, and reflect on what we remembered. What stood out, not what was good or bad. It was all very supportive and encouraging. Listening to the language and feeling the feels.
I used it therapeutically.
The course ended up being a wonderful creative outlet, at a time when I desperately needed one. My job had provided that for so long…but I was losing my mind and fighting anxiety and depression dealing with heavy-handed micromanagement. Everything I had loved about my work had been taken away from me, until all I had left was the stress.
This was a different style of writing - I had been focused on short promo copy, and the occasional short-form story piece, for so long. This was longer-form work, more honest than typical playful marketing scripts. I learned not to couch everything in winking humor or self-deprecation. That’s apologizing for, or even undermining, the truth. When we try to stay likable with “ain’t I a stinker?” language, trying to be relatable…we lose what’s most interesting about our stories. Let the ugliness stand. Don’t varnish it. Share your honest truth, warts and all. It’s far more engaging.
Authenticity has always been really important to me. It was interesting to think about what that really means, and question whether or not I’d ever actually been authentic with anyone - myself included.
What a wonderful, cathartic, challenging exercise it ended up being.
I did some writing about the idea of myself as a narrator. 2020 was supposed to be the year I took back control of the actual narrative of my life and career…and COVID had other plans. But in 2021, I actually did it. I changed my habits. I started working on the first iteration of what would become Spec Communications. I ran for our local school board - a whole story in and of itself, but one that certainly saw me getting out of my comfort zone, getting out of my HOUSE after a year of relative isolation, and meeting interesting, new people.
At this point…January 2021…I wasn’t there, yet.
I was still kind of broken and drifting. Writing about myself as a narrator in my one life led to thoughts like the following:
I’m comfortable as a cartoon character. I’m most myself when I’m doing an impression of what I think I should sound like. My most confident voice is that of a faceless narrator, a voice that washes over you like a warm bubble bath. I don’t have a voice of my own. I can’t speak naturally, without sounding like I’m performing. This is just how I talk. When I’m speaking off-the-cuff, or just goofing with my kids, I’m sure there’s a sound that comes out that is the real, spontaneous me - but I can’t summon it. I don’t know what it sounds like. I am always doing an impression of myself. I speak like singers sing; there are notes to hit, a correct way to deliver and emphasize each syllable for maximum dramatic impact. Or entertainment value. Depends on what I’m trying to get across.
Sad stuff, right? It wasn’t just that I wasn’t in control of my life direction…I was barely present. Those are the words of a deeply sad person, who is happy to downplay all of his achievements, ignore all of his strengths, and write himself off as extraneous.
I’m damn good at what I do.
Back to the workshop...we talked about the old Hero’s Journey concept, and what it might look like to turn the ally or mentor character into the main character. If I’m only ever a support character in someone else’s story…what’s my journey?
Over the 8 weeks, I revisited several themes. Eventually, almost everything I had written blended into a final story that we actually discussed writing up for a stage production. How would I turn it into a live performance? I came up with a pretty cool concept, but…I also knew I wasn’t doing another workshop. I wasn’t going to put in the time - at least not then - to move that project forward.
Back then, I wrote:
I’ve been asking myself if I have a story worth hearing or a voice worth listening to for years - and I have made very little progress toward an answer. I’ve made progress, since then. I’m in a much better place now. But I still think the concept of always being a support character in someone else’s story IS, at the very least, a heavy theme of my life.
One last excerpt from my class writing, about being the narrator:
That role comes naturally to me. I’m constantly observing and, then, putting it into words. But in focusing on what’s around me, I neglect what’s happening TO me. It’s never MY story. I’m boring. I tell other people’s stories. I focus on what I can see, because what I feel is rarely relevant. Exciting things happen around me. I’m forever the bystander as important things happen in other people’s lives. People I love have fascinating stories, stories you could turn into plays or write books about. Not me. Annoyingly, I’m the writer. I’m just removed and observing – like a drone, hovering above someone with a harrowing, gut-wrenching tale to tell – but, useful for refilling water glasses, fetching Goldfish crackers, helping change a suddenly-paralyzed six-year-old’s diaper. My son. That’s a whole story. It’s not my story. But I’m in it. I keep being in it. One of Mister Rogers’ best-known quotes seems to resurface any time there’s some huge disaster. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” What people often forget is that the quote is for children – and we adults are supposed to BE the helpers they can look to. And Fred left out the part about how the helpers are tired as hell. Beaten down from carrying other people’s loads. And they can’t not do it. They will care and help and love and fall apart because the only thing they can’t help…is themselves. None of us is the main character, of course. Your inner diva may tell you otherwise, but it’s the truth. Best Supporting Role is the true highest honor we can attain. We only have a brief moment in this world, and the clock is always ticking on us making it count. Why am I so enamored with writing? With making something? What can I say or write or make that is even infinitesimally as important as what I do? Maybe the meaning in my life is in the quietly kind moments. It’s in being the helper. And like ol’ Fred Rogers, I prefer to make other people the hero. It’s about you, neighbor. Maybe I’ll never write the Next Great American Novel? Maybe I’ll never become a poet or a musician or a politician? Maybe the best I can hope for is ghostwriter, songwriter, political speechwriter. Facilitator of brilliance. Maybe I’m a stepping stone? An enabler? Maybe I’m full of it? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. When I get lost in thinking about myself, I lose my powers. I worry and overthink and fall down useless rabbit holes. Do I have one great thing in me to share? Maybe the one great story I’ve been trying to find in myself was never going to be my own? Maybe it’s not even a story! Maybe the greatest gift I can give in this life is to shut the hell up and play with my kids, so they grow up a little happier and more well-adjusted? Inspiring someone to feel, to act, to give, to improve, to fight for a cause...that’s what I already do. I use my creative spark in service of someone else. In doing so, I exhaust my desire to do so of my own accord and sandbag any chance I have of feeling like I’m making progress myself. Apologies to my therapist. (Sorry, Lisa.) Writing has always been my passion, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the thing I was meant to share. The act of my doing is what matters. Changing my kid’s diaper because he can’t move. Fetching water. Finding the remote in the hospital bed. Making my daughter laugh. Not the story. Not writing it down. But it’s what I’m driven to do. Moth. Flame. Never my story. I’m boring. I tell other people’s stories.
Okay, end of excerpt. A bit long, a bit of a whiny blog entry, but that was kind of the style of the whole thing.
Again, I’ve come a long way since then. Looking back on it makes me sad for the rut I was stuck in - the defeated mentality. I’m all for using darkness to spur creativity…but, honestly? I’m working on Starting Artists now, just for fun…and because I LOVE sharing the stories of other creative people.
I’m making something I want to make, AND the focus is helping to champion other people who have done cool things. And it’s making me really happy. I don’t have a big goal for it. I know that having content to put out there makes sense. A lot of brands have blogs, or post social video content. I like podcasting, and Starting Artists is a blast. Bonus that it serves as a platform for me to show that I can produce media and put my voice out there, for anyone who might be looking for, irony of ironies, a voice over guy or narrator.
I’m currently recording my first audiobook, with another hot on its heels.
See? Things DO work out if you don’t give up.
Embrace what you are, but don’t let it trap you. Don’t apologize for it. Don’t run from it. Take it and run.
Want to hear the audio version of this entry? Listen to episode three of Starting Artists here or wherever you podcast!