(Editor’s note: this should be mandatory reading for anyone with a serious writing bug. One word: brilliant.)
“I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written on it.”
– William Faulkner
More about the quote later.
I started my writing career as a 12 year old in San Jose, California when in 1968 I won a contest and had my one act play produced at a small San Francisco theater. The play, entitled “The Birnbaum Guide to Hell on Five Dollars a Day”, was a goof, a class project that I was goaded into writing by my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Hanzad. It was about an old married couple who were accidentally killed during a European vacation and ended up having a wonderful time touring the Afterlife.
The story had a devil and imps and smoke and brimstone and ended up being a gas to write. It also had a scene near the end where the husband has to say goodbye to the wife when it’s discovered that there was a clerical error and she was actually destined for Heaven. It was the only really emotional scene in an otherwise funny piece and it was this scene that sold the play, the judges said. I remember that it came out of me in a sudden rush and took me by surprise when I wrote it. I later thought several times that it should be taken out, that it had no place in the play.
I didn’t take it out. In retrospect, I knew that it was the only way the story worked. I also came to know that it was this scene was only reason I wrote the play in the first place.
I’ve thought about the Birnbaum play off and on as I wrote other things. In my professional career I’ve scripted animation for television, optioned a film treatment to a production company, written dozens of comic books and published many poems, essays and newspaper pieces. I came to write this piece today, in fact, at Larry’s invitation after I sent him a long overdue appreciation for his fantastic books and posts, many of which have gotten me over some difficult writing patches and have supplied excellent motivational pushes when they were needed the most. And once again, the play came to mind as I started to write this article.
Through it all, one thing has become clear: I believe that none of my art – my writing, publications and career – would have been possible had I not written that play and gotten that scene out of me.
Of course, I now know why I had to write the goodbye scene, where the husband has to let go of his wife of forty years. I had lost my mother to cancer several years earlier when I was six. And I came to realize why it was considered the most powerful scene in the play.
Because it came from the defining moment in my life so far.
Because it was real. Because it was actual.
It was the goodbye scene that I was never destined to have with my own mother, told by a child who had yet to learn how to keep such feelings to himself. The scene was part of me; part of my personal story arc, and it said more about me and my life than that 12 year old boy knew at the time.
Experts will tell you that a child who has lost a parent at an early age very often turns to the arts in later life; he or she is trying to make sense of their own stories, to explain their experiences to themselves and then learn how to share them with others. The pain and abandonment that comes with such a loss will always create some kind of dramatic reaction such as it did with me. And when I finally wrote that scene out — when I heard it spoken by an actor and felt the hush of the people seated around me in the theatre — I knew I’d found something meaningful to me. A pathway for my own personal stories. And through it, I moved one step farther as a writer and one step closer to understanding.
So . . . back to the quote.
Faulkner was right, of course. We don’t know who we are and what we know and feel until we write about it or paint it or sculpt it or dance it away into the cool, dark air. We must resist the urge to curb it and dismiss it as art-as-therapy because it can be the force behind the stories we tell. As writers, we must use every bit of whatever emotion is inside to tell our stories because, although we are each special, our experiences are not unique. Parents die; children grow up and all things eventually change. It is that common thread of shared burdens and joys that tie your readers to you and you to them. To ignore this is to shackle your talent; to use it as part of your natural gifts is to elevate your writing to the realm of the genuine and true.
Every piece you write tells you something about yourself that you had not actively known before. Make that knowledge part of your process. It will be the spark that leads to greater understanding and to a deeper and more authentic work.
So, ignore your inner critics.
Learn your craft . . .
But let that six year old in you . . . out.
Art Holcomb is a screenwriter whose work has appeared on the SHOWTIME Channel and has written for such comics as Marvel’s THE X-MEN and Acclaim’s ETERNAL WARRIORS. He has appeared as a guest and taught at San Diego Comic-Con and other conventions. His most recent work is THE MEADOWS (with Mark L. Haynes), a science fiction police procedural.
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