The Show Must Go On

Many years ago, I wrote a sketch comedy show with my brother, John, and my pianist friend, Dale. It was always a lot of fun creating the show. John and I would write the sketches and then share the drafts with one another, and we’d make them funnier together. Then we’d bring in Dale and he’d add music and we’d rehearse the pieces and they’d change again, altered organically as they moved from the two-dimensional page to the three-dimensional stage.

I was a bit surprised how much I enjoyed putting the show together. I was a writer first and an actor second, so I was used to creating things alone. As a fiction writer, I was every actor, director, lighting man, and choreographer. Yet I loved working with other people, loved watching how ideas I had had in the supreme privacy of my desk took on new shape in John and Dale’s imaginations, and I loved how their ideas inspired new ideas in me, and then my new ideas inspired ideas in them.

But plays are meant to be performed, so I had my artist friend Gorham make up some posters for us that John and I tacked up all over town. Eventually the night would come, and we three would be waiting back stage, listening to the building murmur of the arriving crowd. There was always a moment, shortly before the show began, when I would think, “What have I done?” I could feel the energy of the crowd, could feel how this night I had asked for and planned for was about to be turned over to something bigger than John, Dale, and me.

And then the curtain would rise, and we’d be in the lights, and there was the audience, the final ingredient in this creative stew. The show we rehearsed was never the show we performed. It was always different, because every crowd was different. The crowd was not aware of their role in the show, but I came to understand that the separation between actor and audience was an illusion. They finished what we had started, and every night we gave away what we had called ours, gave it to them, who gave us their attention and created something new.


If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.


Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
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Marching For Yourself

I have written from time to time in this space about the view of writing for oneself as opposed to writing for your audience. Generally, most writers fall into the camp of writing for themselves, by which they mean they write to please themselves and assume that if they do so others will be pleased as well. There are some writers, however, who keep their readers in mind as they write. Often this is a specific age group or gender, which in turn informs the language and pacing of a book.

My usual argument goes that since you are the only one in the room, you must be writing for yourself. But it becomes a matter of semantics. Yes, say those who write for their audience, I’m the only one in the room, but I write to be read, and the one doing the reading is someone else. On and on. In the end, however, getting where you need to go is all matters.

There is another side to this beyond the question of who the words on the page are intended to please. After all, the words on the page are only the end result of a lot of time spent not putting words on the page. There is the whole experience of writing – the waiting, the thinking, the cumulative process of turning an idea into words. For whom is that whole experience?

After all, you don’t have to write. There are so many other things you could do. You chose to do this, and by my count it is unlikely you will do it for very long unless the reason you are doing it is because you want to, or in other words – for yourself. Why else do anything?

This is selfishness at its finest. If you want to make the world a better place, do what pleases you most. The world will instantly be one happy person richer. I had a girlfriend in high school that felt I had a deplorable lack of social awareness. “I write,” was my answer at the time, which she considered a clear dodge to marching against nuclear proliferation. But I stand by my answer. The only reason anyone does anything is to be happy.

Wars are fought, heads decapitated, elections thrown all in the name of people being able to do or not do what makes them happy. If you love to march, then by all means, march until your feet bleed. But if marching does not make you happy, skip it. Otherwise, no matter how good the cause is in theory, you would in the end be marching in the name of duty and guilt, marching in the name of doing things because you must, because you wish to appear good – marching, in fact, in the name of people not doing what makes them happiest, which is the very thing that leads people to war in the first place.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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The Good Doctor

My parents divorced when I was seven, leaving me, technically, as the man of the house. By which I mean John, my younger brother, instinctively turned to me for guidance that would have otherwise been provided by our father. I think that for many years I resented this role and so was not a particularly gracious big brother. I was also fiercely competitive, and I was not going to allow John to be better than me at anything, which for a time he dutifully wasn’t. We eventually became quite close, and when I look back I believe this closeness started with the arrival of Dr. VonVickenvoctor.

Doctor, as we usually called him, was a purple muppet to which we had adhered two button eyes and a mustache made of yarn. I may have been moody and competitive, but I loved to be entertained, and one day John, age 10, sat down on the couch across from me and introduced me to Doctor.

What followed was the first of many shows. Doctor – a greedy, libidinous, self-absorbed billionaire – would tell me about the time he . . . and then the story. Doctor could travel at will through time and space, and wherever he went things always went askew. No matter, Doctor always came back for more, never changing, never learning, a purple ego muttering, “Me . . . me . . . me . . .” as he considered his next bizarre plan.

I loved him. My brother had a genius for improvisation and puppetry, and for the duration of those shows I became an eager audience, in the process handing the wheel of our friendship to my little brother. Doctor told me stories for years, and things between John and me grew steadily better.

John would go on to be an actor/writer/director, and at my wedding he gave a moving speech, during which he spoke about how I had been a kind of creative mentor to him. I have always had lots to say about writing and stories and the arts in general, and no doubt John was made to listen to much of it, but I believe in retrospect my gift to his artistic development was not my lectures and diatribes, but those puppet shows.

He must have glimpsed in entertaining me, the ferocious big brother, the power of laughter and of joy and his own capacity to harness that power. Talking is fine, but listening is always the greatest gift. Within the attentive audience’s perched silence the artist often hears his voice clearly for the first time. Your mind, after all, was given so you could talk to yourself; but your voice you were given to talk to others.

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A Pristine Relationship

One of the best pieces of writing I did when I was in high school was a brief speech I delivered as a part of my school’s graduation ceremony. When I sat down to write it, I not only knew that the words I wrote would reach an audience, but that this audience would be seated directly in front of me while I read it. This brought an immediacy to my work that was usually lacking, and I dropped all pretense and wrote as honestly and succinctly as I could.

My future experiences in front of audiences have often served as an excellent training ground for the very private work of writing stories. For a time I wrote and performed in my own theater show. Sometimes the audiences were big, sometimes they were small; sometimes the audiences laughed throughout, sometimes they did not. What I never did, however, was stand on stage and count who was laughing and who was not. I never wondered why person X in the front row laughed at Joke A but not Joke B.

And while I was constantly rewriting the show, I understood there was a difference between what wasn’t working on the whole and what simply wasn’t working well on a given night. Sometimes the wrong people have come to your show. This is never very pleasant, but I managed not to take the wrong crowd coming to my show particularly personally.

I’m a bit of a People Person, which can make writing a strange profession. The reader/writer relationship is as distant as a relationship can be when both parties are still alive. But it is a relationship nonetheless, and not all relationships are equal. I had a number of girlfriends, but I only wanted to marry one of them. Likewise, I have started reading many books, but I haven’t finished all of them.

Which is part of the beauty of the reader/writer relationship. It’s rude to leave a theater when you’ve wandered into the wrong show, but no one’s feelings will be hurt if you put down a book you should not have bothered picking up. There is, however, something delicious about picking up the right book. I always preferred bigger audiences because people tend to laugh when other people laugh, and so the larger the audiences the greater the opportunities for a wildfire effect. The reader’s relationship to a book is largely pristine; it is like a guided conversation with yourself – and why, I think, Hemmingway said that when you finish a book you love you always come away feeling as though you have been slightly changed.

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I was at a gathering recently and a friend and I got into a discussion about—education, I think it was. And I had a point to make. It was an important point and I had every intention of making it even though I believed—well, knew, really—this friend disagreed with the point. In fact, I wanted to make this point to this friend precisely because he disagreed with it.

So I made my point, and loudly, so as not to misunderstood. But about midway through this point-making I began actually hearing myself, and observing this friend’s reaction, and I thought, “Drop it. He isn’t your audience.”

I am all for the “exchange of ideas,” but I cannot say that in all my career of idea exchanging that I have ever flipped someone’s opinion. After all, I am not about to flip mine. Over time, what I believe evolves, and it has sometimes happened that this evolution eventually results in something very different, but this sort of change is almost always gradual.

It’s a useful thing for writers to remember. We are all looking for our readers. That is, those people Richard Bach described as our “intellectual family.” Not that we should preach to the choir, but rather we our putting our work and our ideas out there for those people who are looking for them. You can lose a lot of hair, and sleep, and weight fretting over all the people in the world who don’t agree with you, or who don’t read what you read, or read what you write. Let them be.

Everyone who argues is arguing with themselves. The foil we choose for our debate is some shadow version of ourselves, against whom we are testing what it is we have come to believe. If we could just get this other person to admit we are right then we would believe it ourselves. And so too we might summon editors or agents in our imagination to point out what our work is not. And these shadow agents and editors are right. Your work is always not something. But those shadows are not your readers. Your readers are those people interested in what your work is.

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