The simple answer is I don’t know how not to.
That’s not entirely true – there have been chunks of my adult life when I didn’t write. But it is in those times that I have not felt completely whole either.
I realized I wanted to be a writer in fourth grade. It was my grandmother’s birthday, and my present to her was a story I had written. An old lady who traveled a lot (back when flying was fun) was the central character – even back then I was using real people, real situations.
I still remember walking down the stairs with this precious gift in my hands. In the version in my head, the story was neatly typed. But when my grandparents died, my mom found the story tucked away in a file. Written in my 9 year-old handwriting. (Obviously, I was already adept at using creative license.)
The next year was the birth of The Bonnie Beschta News Studio. A couple of friends and I would spend recess creating and rehearsing skits to present to the class on Friday. Patterned after The Mary Tyler Moore Show, our version was named for the girl who came up with the idea. (Bonnie, if you’re out there, hit my facebook page.) The only skit I remember is the one where we decided to paint the studio. After fighting over paint colors and finally coming to an agreement, we each painted one wall. At the end, we realized that we had painted the studio in four different colors. We were cancelled after one season. God Bless Mrs. Allen – the teacher who encouraged this and gave us the time to present and an audience to present to.
Other than the requisite class assignments, some really bad poetry and a penchant for rewriting song lyrics, I did virtually no writing until I joined the URI paper. As a feature editor, I assigned myself the most fun feature articles. I loved it. Then I spent a summer in the Catskills as a stringer for The Ellenville Journal. I interviewed all kinds of interesting people with all kinds of interesting stories – a woman who was on the Carpathia when it picked up Titanic survivors, one of the first Episcopal woman ministers, a man whose hobby was building intricate models of James Bond’s nemesis’ lairs. I loved talking to these people. I loved hearing their stories. I loved shaping the article. But the job also required me to cover town hall meetings. And write about the new library. I realized this was the kind of work I would have to do until Life Magazine called. I hated it.
So I went into advertising – which, as it turns out, was a pretty lucrative way to write for a living. I wrote print, radio and tv ads. I produced radio. Went on TV shoots. Supervised editing. (Back when it was spliced together by hand – how ancient am I?) I won awards. I drank too much. I had a blast. And then I got bored.
I looked around and realized that for 20 years I had been surrounded by bright, amazing, funny people who all had creative outlets on the side. The art folks were, well, artsy. And the writers? They wrote film, theatre, music and restaurant reviews. Short stories. Travel articles. Novels. Everything I wrote sucked. It was pages of:
“Blah, blah, blah,” he said.
“Blah, blah, blah,” she replied.
Then one day a friend told me a story about her great-uncle trying to come to terms with his wife’s death. It struck me as the funniest thing. (I know, I know, that’s terrible.) I spent the entire lunch trying not to laugh. As I replayed the story over and over in my head, I suddenly realized that I was “seeing” it. So I wrote it as a play. It won a local contest and received a staged reading. At the first laugh I was hooked. Suddenly I was a playwright.
A playwright who knew nothing about writing plays. I had been involved in community theatre – as an actor, director, producer, set/hair/costume designer – virtually everything except tech. I didn’t know the first thing about format or character development or the arc of a story. But I could write dialogue. And I could tell a story. So even though I didn’t know who Wendy Wasserstein or Christopher Durang were, I pressed on.
I wrote 10-minute plays. I wrote full-length plays. I wrote chancel dramas. I wrote plays for kindergarteners. I read plays. Classics. Contemporary. And real out-there stuff that I never “got”. I won contests. I had plays produced. I was on my way.
I was in mid-sentence on a script when it all came to a screeching halt with one phone call.
I spent two years dealing with a personal crisis before I sat down at the computer again. Not to work on a play – but to begin an email conversation with an old friend. The emails flew back and forth. Long. Short. Funny. Heartbreaking. The story of my last 25 years poured out of me. I could hardly type fast enough. It was some of the best writing I have ever done. I figured the best way to keep the words coming was to marry my email buddy. So I did.
As I look back at those two years that I didn’t write, I realized I didn’t fully live. I didn’t fully feel. I didn’t fully inhabit myself. It was like living the EM Forster saying, “How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?” I wasn’t writing, so in a way, I didn’t know who I was.
My plays are not allegories. They are not stylistic. They are not gritty or challenging or push the bounds of theatricality. They are just stories. But there is also truth in them. They are my stories. My friend’s stories. Strangers’ stories I read or overheard. (I am very good at eavesdropping.) I find myself somewhere in every play. A line, an issue, a feeling, a character. The characters are real, too – friends and family and acquaintances and the guy I sat across from in the doctor’s waiting room.
I take all these little pieces of reality. And ponder. And imagine. And embellish. Then I sit back and watch what comes out of my MacBook Air. Because at my best, I am merely transcribing words, and I will look at the computer screen amazed at what has appeared there.
And, when I’m lucky – when it all comes together just right – I can sit in the dark and watch these characters that have lived in my head come out to meet the entire world. Then, like little velveteen rabbits, they become real.
And, because I write so I can breathe, I become real, too.