On Writing

Final Curtain

This is an old post that I removed from my blog after selling it to an anthology.

Now that the anthology is out of print, it’s time to bring it back. The message is important, I think. Plus it’s fun!

***

About 20 years ago, long before I became a children’s book author, I wrote for the stage. I found a little success soon after graduating from college, getting a number of my short plays produced in New York. The theatres were all small (79- to 99-seaters) and not in the best part of town, but I was ecstatic. Almost every weekend I was somewhere on 10th or 11th Avenue attending a rehearsal or seeing a show. I felt important, or, if not exactly important, busy enough to convince myself that I was on the cusp of importance.

And I was right to think this; for one day I was contacted by an artistic director. I won’t say which company this artistic director worked for, but it was a good one, a prestigious one. The theatre space they performed in was small—but not the same kind of small I was used to. The theatres I wrote for had difficulty filling the house. Sometimes the number of cast and crew exceeded the number of people in the audience.

This theatre, on the other hand, was not acquainted with half-filled houses. This theatre was small because it was exclusive. Its shows sold out. It advertised its plays in actual newspapers. Its stage was beautiful. This was the real deal.

The artistic director invited me to submit a script. The request could not have come at a better time; I was just putting the finishing touches on a 40-minute one-act titled Exacta Men that I knew would be a good fit for that stage. I mailed it off and then began my negotiations with God.

“What sins can I jettison to make this deal happen?” I asked Him. “How about if I stop saying the F-word? Would that work?”

My bargaining worked. Mr. Artistic Director liked what he saw and soon set up a backers’ meeting. A backers’ meeting, for those who don’t know (and at that time I sure didn’t), is an event where actors read a promising script to an audience of Rich People. If the Rich People like what they hear, they hand over money to Make The Play Happen.

The meeting was arranged in a comfortable and well-appointed office space in Midtown Manhattan with windows that proffered views of the Chrysler Building.

I approved. I like Midtown office buildings. I like the Chrysler Building. I like being in rooms filled with Rich People. Oh, yes, all of this suited me just fine.

There were several plays up for consideration that evening and Exacta Men was the first one to be read. Mr. Artistic Director got the Rich People settled into their chairs. He found me sitting in the front row, made me stand up, and introduced me to the crowd as “Michael James Allegra The Author Of The First Play We Are About To See This Evening.”

Let me digress for a moment to say that I really dislike such pre-play introductions. I don’t know how to respond to them; the audience doesn’t either. The audience hasn’t yet heard the script, so it doesn’t know whether to applaud or throw tomatoes. So they usually just stare at you—and that’s what this one did.

Believe me, that stare is excruciating.

“Would you like to discuss your play, Michael?” The Artistic Director asked.

I would’ve replied “F*** no,” but I had recently negotiated the F-word out of my vocabulary. So I shook my head and sat back down.

The reading began. The Rich People took to Exacta Men instantly. They were engaged. They were laughing in all the right places. I was very pleased with myself.

But things were about to take a turn.

Exacta Men is about three 20-somethings who have a guys-night-out tradition of going to the racetrack to bet on the horses. One of the men, however, named Sean, has upset the natural order of things by inviting his new girlfriend, Marla, along. The other two guys, Jim and Carl, are none too pleased with this new development. So, as soon as Sean and Marla are out of earshot, Carl starts grumping.

 

CARL

Why would anybody take a girl to the track on a date?

 

JIM

It’s not much of a date.

 

CARL

Exactly.

(He stews over this a moment. Then:)

First he blows us off for, like, what? Two months?

 

JIM

Couldn’t be two months.

 

CARL

I’ll bet it’s two. I’ll bet it is. And then when he starts to hang out with us again, he brings this girl along.

 

And then Carl says this:

 

And she’s pretty uppity for a chick who isn’t all that good looking.

 

As a writer, I liked this line because it does some heavy lifting in establishing Carl’s character. It illustrated Carl’s views toward Marla in particular and women in general. In short, it showed that Carl was a pig. Everything Carl said up to this point suggested this, but that line drove the point home. It was also supposed to be a laugh line. A line where you could laugh at Carl.

When the line came out, however, the audience gasped. The gasp was so long, so loud, and so violent, it frightened me.

I leaned over to my friend, Bill, who had accompanied me on this particular jaunt, and whispered, “I just lost the whole room.”

“No,” he whispered back, but Bill was not a theatre person. He wasn’t attuned to these things.

From that gasp onward, the audience sat in stony, arm-folded silence.

The reality of my situation could not have been more crystal clear. We were three minutes into my 40-minute play—and everyone in that room had every intention of hating the remaining 37 minutes of it. Carl’s line gave them permission to hate it. And they hated me for writing it. And they knew what I looked like. And they knew where I was siting. I was in the front row. Oh, why did I have to sit in the front row?

Then an idea popped into my head that almost made me vomit: “What if,” I thought, “these Rich People think I agree with Carl’s views?”

My head pounded. My stomach churned. I could feel Rich-Person Hatred burrowing into the back of my sweaty neck. Rich-Person-Back-Of-The-Neck Hatred is sharp, jackhammer-y, and fire poker hot.

At one point I was nearly overcome with the urge to yell, “I’m not like Carl! I want you to laugh at him! Let us mock him together! HAHAHA! What a dweeb he is!”

At another point I came up with the slightly more pragmatic idea of popping out of my chair to announce, “And then entire cast got trampled to death by a racehorse! The END!”

But I did neither of those things. I just sat there and soaked up the blurbling bile.

After several lifetimes, my play ended. I made a beeline for Mr. Artistic Director (who looked like he just witnessed a murder, and, in a way, he had), thanked him for the opportunity, and strode with great purpose to the exit.

“They didn’t seem to like it much,” Bill observed after the elevator doors closed behind us.

I then reneged on my agreement with God and used variations of a certain F-word to commend Bill on his acute powers of observation.

That evening was the most awful experience of my writing life—but I did take something valuable from it. It proved to me once and for all that I was supposed to do this writing thing for a living.

Big Honking Failures, I think, separate the wannabes from the gonnabes.

Up until that reading, I had nothing but success in my writing life. My successes were very modest, but they were still successes. It was easy to keep plugging along. I was getting positive feedback from actors and audiences. I was getting produced and having fun.

That reading on the other hand, shook me to my core. After that night, I could’ve walked away from writing forever and I don’t think anyone would’ve blamed me for doing so.

But I didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, I needed time to lick my wounds. And for years afterwards, whenever my mind flashed back to that night, my body turned on the flop sweat machine as if it was happening all over again. But I still wrote. Writing became a kind of therapy, I think. It was me saying, “My career is not going to end this way.”

Exacta Men eventually became a two-act play, titled Rebounders. Rebounders fared far better than its predecessor. Three years after my Exacta Men backers’ meeting, Rebounders won a fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. It’s been performed in front audiences, too, and those audiences laugh at Carl rather than hate my guts. I prefer this.

Big Honking Failures happen. You can’t always avoid them, but you can keep them from destroying you. And when that Big Honking Failure does arrive, take my advice: Be sure to have a few F-bombs at your disposal. Trust me; you’re gonna need ’em.

Family and/or Autobiography

Snow Story

We haven’t gotten much snow this year, but that hasn’t stopped the fine folks on the Weather Channel from predicting another ice age. Ellen, because she is a teacher, eats these reports up. On the night before an impending storm, she and my son huddle in front of the TV with their fingers crossed and pajamas turned inside out, hoping and praying for several feet of snow.

The fact that I would be the one shoveling all this snow is irrelevant.

Years ago, my mom was also a teacher. She was also a slavish Weather Channel devotee, but her reasons for watching were more complicated. Mom taught in Paterson, NJ, a place where they never closed the schools. So she watched the weather report to gage how aggravating her commute would be; that way she could plan ahead and lather up an appropriate amount of rage.

So when The Big Snowstorm approached Mom was on edge.

“Jim! Jim! The snow is coming! You have to get the tree out! NOW!”

I don’t remember the exact year of The Big Snowstorm, but I do remember that it took place shortly after the New Year, because our evergreen Christmas tree was now a naked everbrown. For some reason my parents waited for at least a week after New Year’s Day to get rid of the tree, which ensured that its journey to the front door would leave behind a mountain of needles.

Weather didn’t have the same peculiar effect on my Dad, but he had his own quirks. For one thing, he was not a big believer in seeing a job through to its conclusion. He would always get the job done, mind you, but if a one-day job could be completed in two, he was all over that idea.

So once he managed to get the disintegrating Christmas tree through the front door, he simply heaved it off the stoop and let it flop in the middle of our front yard.

“There!” Dad proclaimed, swelling with the satisfaction of a job half-done.

“Take it to the curb!” Mom demanded.

“I’ll take it to the curb on Saturday.”

It was Sunday.

Needless to say, Dad’s declaration prompted an argument. When Mom’s weather anxiety and Dad’s half-assed efforts came together, it was a deadly combination. It was the cue for me to go to my room.

A few hours later, in the mid-afternoon, the snow began to fall. And, right from the start, Mother Nature began to show off. The temperature was low, so the flakes were small and powdery, but the air was thick with them. We could barely see beyond our mailbox.

“They called a state of emergency,” Mom said grimly as she and I watched the snow accumulate. I was delighted – I wouldn’t have to go to school – but I tried to contain my glee. In Mom’s eyes it would’ve been traitorous for me to support the actions of The Enemy.

A state of emergency meant that Mom wouldn’t have to go to school either, which should have calmed her down, but it didn’t. Her ingrained sense of justice would not allow it; this storm had New Jersey at its mercy and that was wrong. Even with a day off, Mom did not like the situation. Not at all. Not. One. Bit.

“Jim?”

No answer. Dad was in his basement hidey hole reading a book on World War II and listening to Yanni.

“Jim!”

Still no answer.

“JIM!”

“Whaaat?”

“We need to call The Plow Guy!”

It was useless to call The Plow Guy, and all three of us knew it. The Plow Guy would be out. Plowing. Because that’s what he did in snowstorms.

Besides, The Plow Guy only plowed for his list of subscribers. When you signed up for The Plow Guy’s services, he’d plow your driveway whenever it snowed. It was a pretty straightforward business arrangement, but Dad didn’t like it. It was expensive — and vaguely emasculating.

“So when it snows two inches he’ll plow the driveway and make me pay?” Dad would sputter, aghast. “I can shovel two inches of snow. I can shovel two feet of snow. I only need The Plow Guy when it snows a lot.”

So we didn’t subscribe to The Plow Guy. And on those rare days when we wished we had, it was too late to do anything about it.

But not really. Dad had a Plan B. All of our neighbors subscribed to The Plow Guy’s services, so Dad’s strategy was to keep an eye out for The Plow Guy when he plowed our neighbors’ driveways. When he caught sight of him, Dad would pull on his work boots, throw on a coat, grab a handful of money, run through the snow to where The Plow Guy was plowing, and bribe him to clear our driveway.

So as the snow continued to fall and fall, the three of us kept watch. Sometimes we watched as a group, sometimes we watched in shifts, but never was our front window missing a lookout.

We watched, and we watched some more. But all we saw was accumulating snow.

One foot of snow.

Eighteen inches of snow.

Two feet of snow.

“We better not lose our electricity,” Mom said. Her words sounded like a threat, like she was trying to intimidate the overhead wires.

If there was one thing Mom hated more than weather it was a house without electricity. “If we lived in the pioneer era,” she often asserted, “this family would be dead within an hour.”

By 10 p.m., 30 inches of snow had fallen and it was still coming down. It was a snowy siege.

But then: The cavalry.

“JIM! THE PLOW!”

Dad was not a fast fellow. In 1971 he had shattered both of his legs in a particularly nasty fall, but Mom’s battle cry got him about as close to running as I’ve ever seen him. He thumped up the basement stairs with an uncharacteristic sense of purpose. He was in his pajamas, but he didn’t care. He slipped his feet into his work boots without bothering to tie the laces, swept his brown corduroy coat over his shoulders as if he was the fourth musketeer, and set out through the front door into the whipping winter winds to wave down the distant plow.

Dad raced down the porch stairs and plunged into snow up to his waist. Snow soaked through his pajamas and poured into his boots, but he didn’t cry out or show any sign of weakness. He just let out a low, determined growl of sorts as he half walked half hopped though the powdery drifts.

It was all pretty badass. I was impressed.

That is, until Dad fell over the Christmas tree.

It was a remarkable sight. One moment Dad was there in the deep snow churning his legs toward The Plow Guy and the next he was gone. Vanished. He fell flat on his face and mountains of dry snow fell in on top of him. The earth swallowed him whole without a trace. Buried alive.

Mom and I were too stunned to speak.

There was a long, unsteady pause.

Then, in a sudden and heroic burst of energy, there he was! Fighting the good fight! Flailing! And stumbling! And lurching! He flopped about like a rag doll in his open coat and flimsy pajamas, trying and repeatedly failing to get his footing. By the time he eventually staggered to his feet, he was caked with snow from head to foot looking quite a bit like a drunken Frosty the Snowman.

Mom was horrified, worried, panicked.

I, on the other hand, was laughing so hard I was hacking up mucus.

“It’s not funny!” Mom shouted, swatting me.

But it was! It was the funniest thing I had ever seen. Ever.

“Go out and help him!”

“Are you crazy?” I managed to sputter between wheezy gasps. “I’m not going out in that!”

“Oh, you are going out in that. Get your coat! Where are your boots?” She flung open the front closet door and pawed through it in search of my parka. Mom had lost her mind.

“What am I supposed to do once I’m out there?”

“Help your father up!”

“But he’s already up! Look!” I swung open the front door, ignored the stinging wind, and lunged my index finger through the opening.

Indeed, Frosty the Snow Dad was on his feet. We found him standing motionless at the far corner of our front yard silhouetted by the yellow glow of a street lamp. The dramatic lighting, Dad’s posture and the general air of melancholy that overwhelmed the scene reminded me of something I one saw in a Humphrey Bogart film.

Dad had tried but failed to get The Plow Guy’s attention. The Plow Guy had cleared all of the neighbors’ driveways. The Plow Guy was gone.

Dad’s valiant effort, his discomfort, his humiliation, was all for nothing. And the pain wasn’t even over yet. Now he had to come back to the house and listen to Mom yell at him.

His pace was slower now. Dad was defeated and numb and cold to his core. He was a sorry sight.

Until he fell over the Christmas tree again!

Again he fell face first into the snow! Again the snow swallowed him whole!

And it was even funnier the second time around!

Laughter exploded from deep within me. I made joyous noises I have never heard before or since – including something that sounded like “BWAAAAAAA!”

My insides ached. My lungs couldn’t get enough air. I was sure I was going to die – and I was totally OK with that, for I would die deliriously happy.

I knew right then and there that this was – and would always be – the Quintessential Dad Story – a delicious slapstick fiasco that never ever would have happened if Dad, for just one moment, did something slightly out of character. Like take the tree to the curb or subscribe to The Plow Guy or recognize that it was silly to leap out into nearly three feet of snow wearing pajamas.

But nope. Dad stuck to his life script and it was beautiful.

And, fear not. Dad was fine. In fact he was better than fine. Once he came back inside, Mom didn’t even think about yelling at him. Her anger wasn’t directed at Dad, or even that evil, awful weather.

Nope, her anger was directed squarely at insensitive me.

Mom fussed over Dad, helped him out of his coat and boots and got him new pajamas fresh from the dryer. She even made him cocoa.

As for me, I was in the doghouse. The next day Mom made me shovel the driveway by myself. It took all afternoon, but I didn’t mind. In fact, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The driveway was the only safe place for me to get out all of my stray giggles.