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.

On Writing

My Pest Friend

I don’t have a Best Friend. I don’t yearn for one, either.

I do, however, have a Pest Friend – and he is a treasure.

Pest Friends, if you need a definition, are friends who harass you into doing things you don’t want to do but know you should do. In their irksome, persistent way, they (metaphorically) make you eat your vegetables.

I’ve known My Pest Friend — also named Mike — since we were undergrads at Carnegie Mellon University. He and I first met in a playwriting class and the roots of our friendship began to grow once we admitted that we found each other’s scripts funny. This is about as good a way to begin a friendship as any. In fact, it is possibly the best way.

At that time I was taking playwriting very seriously. I wasn’t a good playwright, not even close, but I was serious. In fact, I shunned a number of social opportunities to read every last play that could be found in Hunt Library’s extensive collection. And when I wasn’t reading, I was writing. Not only did that allow me to hone my skills, but it also allowed me to indulge my Sullen Loner instincts.

Mike was different. He did not take playwriting seriously. He also was more of social animal than I. But he, too, exploited any free moment he had to pursue his passion – musical composition – with a rigor that equaled and perhaps even surpassed my own.

After graduation we continued our pursuits. Mike moved to L.A. and became a composer of some renown, and I went back to New Jersey where, by some kind of miracle, I learned how to make a decent living as a writer and editor.

Both of our passions evolved over time. I shifted from playwriting to children’s books. Mike, in addition to scoring movies and video games, began to drift into musical theatre. His drift in that direction, however, was slow, almost glacial. By the time he was fully committed to the idea of writing for the stage, I was no longer there to welcome him. Theatre didn’t interest me much anymore.

My actions, I’m afraid, vexed Mike. From that day to this, Mike became my Pest Friend.

Mike used to live in New York so, once or twice a year, he heads to the East Coast to visit his family. Once he arrives, we set up a time to have lunch.

I always look forward to these lunches, but, I must admit, I dread them a little, too. For one thing, Mike does not have children – or, to put it another way, his mind is not addled. His intellect and wit are every bit as sharp as they were in college. I used to be able to keep up with Mike’s lightening quick conversational skills, but those days are long gone. My mind is now as sharp as a billiard ball, and the closest I can come to “witty” these days is when I trot out my impressive collection of poop-related humor.

I also kinda dread these lunches because I know where our conversation will eventually lead. Mike will pester me into writing a short play.

First he softens me up. Mike always was one of my biggest fans, and he goes on for a bit about how I’m turning my back on my natural talents. This flatters me because I know he is sincere.

Mike then observes that a 10-minute play does not require a major time commitment. Which is true.

Mike then points out that online theatre databases make it easy for me to find acting companies that would produce my stuff. Which is also true.

Mike then reminds me that there is no financial outlay. This, too, is true. Unlike the old days, I can submit my scripts via email (so no snail mail costs). I also no longer need to pay dues to The Dramatist Guild.

“And you make money, don’t you?” he asks me.

Indeed I do. Usually, anyway.

Oh, I try to negotiate with Mike as he works me over. “Tell ya what,” I say. “I’ll write a new play as soon as you marry that girlfriend of yours. And, to sweeten the deal, I’ll write a full-length script as soon as you two have a baby.”

But these counteroffers roll off Mike like water off a duck’s butt. He knows they are just the ravings of a man who has already lost.

He also knows that I would never lose if I didn’t, somewhere deep down, want to lose.

“Writing for kids is great and you’re good at it,” he says to me telepathically. “But you, Allegra, need to write for grown-ups once in a while. Poop humor is fine, but your sense of humor used to make people bleed. You miss it.”

And, ugh, that’s true, too. Damn that Mike and his razor sharp brain!

Long story short, I’m writing another short play and Mike is the pestiest pest I know.

And, well, I don’t think I’d want it any other way. Thanks, buddy.