That First Taste of Creative Payoff

Originally posted to MySpace on:

April 22, 2007:

Last night I got to experience something that in times before I could only imagine: a chance to see something I wrote brought to life.

It was a beautiful thing, actually, to suffer countless hours, countless days, weeks, months and years under the same breath, hoping for a moment where it could all make sense, to have it all finally come together in one kiss of inspiration, an artist’s dream, as minimal as it may seem, sparking a sacred fire as the first taste of payoff came to light. It was beautiful, indeed.

But not that the taste missed the buds before, of course—the first true payoff hit me when my dad read my first story, called “City Walker,” out loud. The story was terrible, as one might expect from an amateurish thirteen-year-old. But to hear the characters and the lines spoken audibly—something that started from my head—was a cause for goose bumps.

Those goose bumps continued during my high school creative writing class whenever the teacher picked my short story out of the pile to read aloud. Most writers could identify with those early moments of public display, when the author was anonymous, but the story rung out like a chorus of “Jingle Bells,” getting laughs and hoots as if it were ushering in the biggest holiday of the year—or the hurt feelings that followed whenever the audience didn’t give a crap. The formidable years of writing often launched frenzies of turbulent emotion, and most writers in those early stages turned their emotion into new stories, to which he or she had another chance at wowing the class.

Such beginning regions were common fare to the growth of a writer—or any artist, for that matter—but the payoff still fell under the artist’s control, and thus the joy of sharing it became less prestigious over time.

In college, the next great “first” became reality, upping that dying level of prestige a notch: I published a poem called “Dungeon Johnny” in the college literary magazine. Again, the thrill returned, seeing the words I wrote laid out on a glossy sheet, accompanied by the drawing of a mysterious figure framed in shadow—a picture I didn’t choose, but could see how it fit with the poem, sort of. Just getting the pairing with another artist’s creation added to the bliss of seeing a project come to life. And, like the first out-loud reading of my story six years earlier, it was beautiful.

And yet, the thrill was limited: I was on the editing staff of the college literary magazine. Poems and short stories went in by vote, and I contributed one of the votes. Control was out of my hands, but not entirely. I knew it was coming. It was a first, but the wrong kind of first.

Nearly a decade later, another first hit me, another product of my own control: I printed my first collection of short stories in paperback. Up until this point, this had been the singularly best moment in my writing career, as now I could see what my name looked like on the front cover of a book. And to see my short stories in printed form—all of them from that first volume, with professional headers and everything—just felt like the coolest thing ever. For any writer, that’s like walking along the beaches of Utopia for the first time. And yet, no publisher had a say in the matter, nor did any editor. To see my name in print was cool, but the fact that I put it there myself felt like cheating. The bliss had power, but didn’t last very long.

And that was the way it had stayed for several years.

Artists often get the most satisfaction from just seeing their thoughts come to life. I have to admit that the joy I get most in the writing process is not so much in the showing it off, or doing something fancy with the design, but just getting it finished. It takes such a load off my shoulders when the project is done—and even more so when the editing process is finished, too. But there’s something special about sharing one’s thoughts with a group and having that group validate it with a laugh, or an “ooh,” or something that elicits the desired effect. My books might’ve done that, but I wasn’t there to hear it.

Last night I finally got to witness the moment I had only dreamed about in the past: I got to see a line of dialogue I wrote spoken in a movie. It wasn’t my movie, nor was it my characters, nor was it even my scene. But the writer/producer/director asked me to critique his script on three different occasions, and on the last one (the second before shooting), I gave him a handful of lines to make some scenes better, not really expecting him to use any of them.

Well, as I sat in the theatre, watching this local indie-film playing out—a story that I first read in the ‘90s, and was thrilled enough for this friend of mine to see his own vision come to life—two things happened: First, I saw a copy of my first book on the screen (which I new was coming, but still found it cool to see) and was happy just to have some contribution to the scene; and second, and more importantly, I saw my advice played out in action, which added to my satisfaction when I saw that it had worked. Perhaps the greatest satisfaction for me—and I know it sounds a bit like pride, but I felt such a weight lifted when I saw it that I’d consider it more relief than ego—was to see a line of dialogue that I wrote for the director (as a suggestion for the ending of a scene) played out by the on-screen actress (which, for the first time, was used outside of my control), and having at the end of the last word the entire theatre bursting from laughter. Though it was my friend’s movie, and though it was his scene, his character, and his production talents that brought the two to life, I still had to smile when the line I contributed received such a big response. For a moment I could feel what it was like to sit in Ben Stiller’s shoes (if one could sit in shoes) after viewing Zoolander with an audience. It was enough to get me thinking that maybe I can still do this.

Yes, there are still plenty of firsts to go in this volatile hobby of mine, but each journey, as distant as they can be, reminds me that they’re still in reach. I should’ve known that reality from the days of my living room when my dad read out loud a scene involving charred steak, putting in all the bravado that a thirty-seven-year-old man in his underwear could produce. But seeing my name in the special credits section of a movie (in the movie theatre), along with hearing the lines I’d contributed (which according to my critique, there were more than one—I just forgot about a couple of them: I thought the director’s use of a character responding to the line “k-i-s-s-i-n-g” with “k-i-s-s-off” was brilliant, until I went home to discover that it, too, was one of mine; then I just felt sick with pride) just made the future seem a heck of a lot shorter.

In the end, I realized every little moment is worth it because any of it can come back when you least expect it and make you smile. It took a lesbian character embarrassing her “friend” at the end of her poem to make me (and the audience) smile. What a strange way to get a “first.”

Maybe I should send out that novel of mine now.

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