On Blogging, On Writing

A Purposeful Post

The young me and the noisiest typewriter on earth. Lordy, did I love it.
The young me and the noisiest typewriter on earth. Lordy, did I love that thing.

A couple weeks back, my blog pal, Harula, posted a writing exercise. The theme was “Purpose” and the idea was to complete the following four sentences with whatever spontaneous thoughts sprung to mind.

* When I was a child, I believed I was here to…

* As a teenager, I believed I was here to…

* As an adult, I believe I am here to…

* The most important thing life has taught me about why I’m here is…

I decided to give it a go. The answer to the first two prompts are below. I’ll post the next two soon:

***

When I was a child, I believed I was here to…

…become a “dinosaur expert.” I was fascinated by Stegosaurus and was rooting for the  poor devil in his Fantasia fight with Tyrannosaurs Rex. I loved Stegosaurus so much that at times I wanted to be a Stegosaurus. Is that odd?

I also was fascinated by the sheer size of Brontosaurus. He was as long as three city buses laid end to end! Dang! Who wouldn’t want to be a dinosaur expert?

Many years later that I learned that Stegosaurus was extinct by the time T-Rex appeared on the scene, making Fantasia scientifically inaccurate — despite what that egghead Deems Taylor would have you believe. Then I learned that Brontosauruses never existed at all. So The Flintstones? Lies. All lies.

I am still fascinated by dinosaurs today but now possess the self-awareness to understand that I am way too impatient to be a paleontologist.

By the way, my favorite dinosaur has since changed. I am now a fan of Triceratops. Especially the adorable and slightly derpy looking stuffed triceratops who sits on my son’s bed. This fellow has gone by many names over the years. When Alex was three, he called him Oscar Lotion. I have no idea why. Later the name changed to Susie, then Harold Lloyd, and now, simply Triceratops. I call him Oscar Lotion Susie Harold Lloyd Triceratops and pretend he is a prehistoric accountant.

No, Mr. Allegra. I'm afraid stuffed animal purchases are not deductible.
“Sorry, Mr. Allegra. I’m afraid stuffed animal purchases are not tax deductible.”

As a teenager, I believed I was here to…

…be an actor. At an early age I noticed that I had a sort of fearlessness in front of crowds and could quickly remember lines. I didn’t do much acting growing up, but what I did was intoxicating. My big high school break was when I played the voice of Audrey Two in our school’s presentation of Little Shop of Horrors. I wanted to be the sadistic dentist, Orin, but I was the only one in the school who could pull off that deep, Ron Taylor voice. In other words, my high school had way too many white people.

I was this guy.
I was this guy. It was awesome.

In college I lied my way into acting classes (Ha! Acting!). I soon recognized that I liked acting students much, much more than graphic design students. This was kind of a problem because graphic design was my major. Horrified by the idea of actually using this graphic design degree, I contemplated going to acting school. I auditioned for and got accepted into the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) in New York before deciding that I have already accrued enough debt, thank you. Besides, I knew that deep down, acting was too uncertain and unstable a career for my personality.

This turned out to be a wise decision, for in tandem with my passion for acting, I had developed a passion for writing. A person can write and hold a steady day job. Four short years after I graduated from college, my day job switched from graphic design to writing. I got my start as a newspaper man and found the experience to be amazing. I wrote during the day for a salary and then wrote at night and on the weekends to draw a supplementary income. In other words, I became a very happy person.

***

And there you have it! Part two is coming soon.

When you were a kid what did you believe you were meant to do? Tell me in the comments below! C’mon, be a sport!

On Writing

Why I Will Never be a Teacher

I’m crazy about teachers. They are selfless, fun, ridiculously dedicated, and a wee bit nutty. I should know, for I have been surrounded by teachers — either by choice or design — my entire life. Both of my parents were teachers. My older sister is a teacher. My wife, Ellen, is a teacher. And, for the past 15 years, I have worked in schools.

But I do not teach; I write and edit alumni magazines — and this is for the best. I would not be a good teacher.

To best explain why I feel this way, I need to tell you a little story:

***

Back in 1995, one of my short plays was accepted into a one-act festival. The cast and the director were selected without my input, which is pretty common. I also found everyone to be pleasant and fun, which is far less common. I especially liked the director, a weather-scarred longshoreman named Joe who was built like a vandalized brick house. He was tapping into his artistic side, apparently – and was very successful in doing so. He came up with many excellent ideas that I embraced without reservation.

The cast was also a pretty good fit. The actress playing the lead – let’s call her Marla – was playing slightly against type, but Joe, who had nothing to do with the casting either, was addressing the problem. He figured Marla would work out just fine. He turned out to be right; Marla was a quick study, and the rehearsal process proceeded apace.

But, as you probably guessed by now, something happened.

Something always happens.

On the week before opening night, the play was on its feet and the actors were off book. Now Joe was just working on little things — sharpening the timing and making sure that the actors not only remembered their lines but also understood why they were saying the lines as written.

It was at this very, very late point in the process that Marla started to forget large swaths of the play.

This surprised everyone — for Marla had her dialogue down pat for weeks — but no one was more surprised than Joe, who I discovered, to my delight, was even more control freaky and detail oriented than I was.

Joe decided that an interrogation was in order. He called for a break and pulled Marla aside while the rest of us sat around pretending to not eavesdrop. After a few minutes, the two of them broke away and, with a sigh, Joe called me over.

“She quit smoking,” Joe said.

“Does that affect memory?” I asked.

“It does if your brain keeps yelling, ‘I want a cigarette! I want a cigarette! I want a cigarette!’”

Despite everyone’s best efforts, Marla could never find any spare brain real estate for her lines. It was like watching a car wreck in slow motion. Short of pinning Marla down and blowing smoke into her mouth (and I’m pretty sure Joe considered this option), there was nothing any of us could do.

Our fears were realized on opening night as a jittery Marla regaled the audience with an improvisational nic-fit fueled monologue. It was quite remarkable, really; what she uttered was so dissimilar from any of the lines I had written, that the rest of the cast was too fascinated to interrupt. Their silence only seemed to prompt Marla to spew more words in the hope that something coming out of her mouth might eventually sound familiar.

It took a while — a very long while — but Marla did find her way back to the script. The rest of the cast lunged at this opportunity and wrestled the play away from their co-star.

At that moment, I heard Joe, who was sitting two rows behind me, groan, “Oh, thank God!”

Joe’s outburst prompted me to giggle like an idiot until the play was over.

***

I recently told that story to a teenage actress I was interviewing for The Lawrenceville School’s alumni magazine. After she stopped laughing, I asked her, “Do you smoke?”

“No,” she replied.

“Great!” I said. “Don’t start.”

Then I added, “But if you do start, don’t stop.”

Something tells me a teacher would never urge a smoker to keep on smoking.

But I do not teach; I write. And, as a writer, I stand by this advice, now and forever.

Waffles With Writers

Waffles With Writers: Vanessa-Jane Chapman

*drool*
*drool*

Welcome to the fourth installment of my interview show, Waffles with Writers, where I chat with a working writer over a nice, waffle-centric meal.

Today’s guest is the lovely Vanessa-Jane Chapman. She loosely calls herself a writer and actress, although she is currently devoting virtually every spare moment of her life on earning a master’s degree in education while working at a university on a project to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Her first brush with writing fame was at nine years old when her poem about autumn was selected for publication in her school magazine. Since then she has been a runner-up in short story, screenwriting, and poetry contests, and has had several magazine articles published. She does a little bit of singing, a little bit of baking, and a little bit of stand-up comedy. She has also set the world on fire with her advice about fudge

Vanessa Pizza
She also likes pizza.

Vanessa! Welcome! You are my very first international brunch guest! You must be exhausted with the jet lag and all. Sit. Eat. What toppings would you like on your waffles?

Ooh, gosh, I don’t know, I’m terrible with food decisions. I always wish I’d picked what the person next to me picked. So you pick what you want, and I’ll have the same. No wait, I’ll have strawberries and whipped cream.

It seems only right that I begin our chat with an international-ish question. What is the most quintessentially English thing about you?

Probably the difficulty I have with complaining in restaurants. These blueberry and ice-cream topped waffles are delicious by the way, just what I asked for.

Good. ‘Cause you’re gonna eat it and like it. Let’s talk writing. You’re a regular contributor to The Canterbury Index and other magazines. What are you working on these days?

Well I was a regular magazine contributor, but other things have overtaken me of late and I haven’t sent them anything for ages. The only things I’m writing at the moment, aside from blog posts, are essays. Oh, there is a poetry competition coming up soon though that I have previously been shortlisted in, so I plan to write and submit something for that, you know, for old times’ sake.

Ah. Well, since this is Waffles With Writers, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. No that’s unfair. Let me finish my coffee; then I’ll show you the door. Tell me a bit about your day job.

I’m part of the central team for a partnership of universities and schools, which works with students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I’m a communications manager, so I deal with how we communicate across the partnership and beyond (yes, rather like Buzz Lightyear). So that includes maintaining our website and Twitter, writing a fortnightly newsletter, keeping abreast of relevant education news and disseminating appropriately, you know, stuff like that.

That’s fantastic! I also like how your use the word “fortnight.” How Britishy. Tell me a bit about the first time you tried stand-up. What prompted you to give it a try?

I had wanted to try it for a long time, so when my acting agent, who also manages stand-up comedians, offered some of us general actors the opportunity to each have a little five-minute stand-up slot at a comedy evening in a pub, I took it! I did this twice. It was very scary, but really great when everyone laughed a lot. I’m glad I did it, but I don’t really have any desire to do more of it.

On your blog you have spoken out on behalf of vermin such as head lice and seagulls. Have you ever considered expanding on this theme?

All the time, I can think of little else. In fact I’m going to do a post about cilantro.

Cilantro is vermin?

It’s vermin to me I’m afraid. I know that’s controversial, but I don’t mind being controversial in the herb department.

You are also a gifted actress. What was the worst part your have ever had to play?

Well I’ve never really had any horrible parts. However, I spent a few years living in Las Vegas in my late 20s/early 30s, and I was in a few murder mystery dinner theatre shows in casinos. It should have been fun, and doing the performance part was fun, but while the people were eating we had to mingle and interact with them in character, and being the introvert that I am I really struggled with that; having to interrupt people while they’re eating and chat to them. I was very uncomfortable with that. I’m not a good mingler at any time.

Can we expect another film role where you show off your uvula?

If the price is right, sure.

I have to ask this. Once upon a time you took a picture of a softball-sized spider egg sack hanging in your garden shed. It alarmed me to my very core. Did you burn the building down?

No I didn’t, but one day I went in there and the whole web had fallen to the ground, and there was nothing in it. The alien spider creature had vanished. Where it went, nobody knows.

It’s probably in your house, so I’m going to politely decline your invitation to visit. Well, thanks so much for stopping by, Vanessa! Now that you’re in New Jersey, is there any place you would like to visit before you begin your journey home?

Ah yes, could you take me to a few of those well-known New Jersey places that I know all about already without having to quickly search on Google… Hang on a second, OK? I just have to go and do something… OK, I’m back. I would like to visit Cape May please. Also, can we have lunch one of the many diners your state has to offer, I knew already that New Jersey is sometimes referred to as the diner capital of the world (who doesn’t know that right?). Also the Six Flags Great Adventure & Wild Safari with its numerous rides, fun-packed events, and other entertainment options, the Six Flags Great Adventure & Wild Safari stands out as one of the best family-friendly attractions in New Jersey (I knew that already).

Thanks Mike this has been a fun trip! NOW can I have one of your doodles?

No. But you can have another waffle. And the rest of these blueberries. I think they’ve gone bad.