Why I Don’t Write

December 28, 2008

The Paper Bag Players circa 1977

The Paper Bag Players circa 1977

I’ve spent years, I’ve spent decades, I’ve spent half a century wanting to be something, say something, act something creative. My mother said it all started when I was four and she took me downtown Cleveland to see The Paper Bag Players. On the way home I acted out the parts and insisted on playing with paperbags for the rest of the week. I don’t remember any of this so I must take it on faith that my mother is telling the truth. And I hope the story is real as it has shaped and mishapen my childhood, my adolescence and now, at 50, my middled age.

To be told as a child that you have a gift, that you are something special, that you reach for the players on the stage or the crayons in the box, to be told at age four that you have a destiny to fulfill and to find by age 50 that you have run away from every film idea, New York City job offer, book proposal and theater stage on the West and East Coasts, that is not the stuff of which legends are made.

At six my mother signed me up for weekly drawing classes at The Cleveland Museum of Art, one of Cleveland’s truly significant contributions to the country if not the world. The city known as the “mistake by the lake” and the place where the Cuyahoga River caught on fire may have been a great punchline for comedians and travel agents, but no one could deny the world-class collections at our art museum.

I would go every Saturday, along with other potentially gifted and Knight & His Horsetalented six year olds, to sit in the vast, stone cavern that housed the museum’s collection of suits of armor, swords, shields and even a cast iron chastity belt which we sensed was something we weren’t supposed to get to close to. Of course, a couple of small boys planted themselves directly in front of it and proceeded to elbow each other amidst grins and giggles as our drawing instructor did her best to re-focus their attention on the knight’s Medieval treasure trove of weapons – lances, battle hammers, metal axes and maces – which eventually proved to be a bigger draw to the boys who had been forced to leave their cap guns, pop guns and toy hand grenades at home.

The rest of us would sit quietly in front of whichever knight we had chosen, large drawing paper on our laps and pencils in our hands. I always chose the giant knight in the center of the room who sat on a life-sized (stuffed?) horse that was also covered with armor. We would draw quietly for 45 minutes (which felt like 45 hours in child years) and then compare our drawings with each other.

Unfortunately, I was forced to attend with the son of a friend of the family. The kid’s name was Walter and it turned out he was even more special, more talented and more entitled to the role of artist then me. As I compared my drawing to his, I could only see my mistakes, the horse was too big and the knight too small, my lines were stiff and coarse while his pencil seemed to flow across the page creating a relaxed, realistic picture of a Medieval knight striding into battle. And as I sat there realizing that someone else was better at this then I was, little nibbling voices started chattering in my head, telling me to quit now because why bother when you weren’t that good to begin with. The voices grew louder and louder until I crumpled up the paper on my lap, determined that I would allow no one else to see my ugly picture.

From drawing I graduated to piano lessons with my mother’s Russian piano teacher Margarita Jolles. A Russian Jew, Margarita had spent most of her young life as a child prodigy playing the great concert halls in Europe until threats of air raid shelters and death camps forced her and her mother to escape to America where she was relegated to teaching fussy, American children how to pound a piano. She was a small woman who dressed in woven wool suits with a fancy pewter pin on the lapel. She argued the finer points of music in her thickly accented voice and expected me to practice at least one hour per day. She dragged me through Czerny, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, Brahams, Listz and Chopin.

I resisted practicing; I hated recitals and nearly fainted each time I was asked to walk down an aisle surrounded by people who really loved classical music, to step up onto a stage and settle myself on a piano bench knowing that, like capital punishment, there was no escape from completing my memorized rendition of Aria in G from Bach’s: Little Notebook for Anna-Magdalena Bach.

Notebook for Anna-Magdalena Bach

Bach: Notebook for Anna-Magdalena Bach

My mother and Miss Jolles proclaimed that I had talent. That I was a gifted musician and if only I would practice eight hours a day (like her best student Ellen did) I might have a chance at concertizing. They wanted me to play Mozart while I wanted to pick out the chords for the latest Carole King song. The more they pushed, the more I pulled and at 13, found myself the lucky receipient of a badly broken arm, the result of a fall from a wild little pony named Flash that I rode on weekends. My arm was wrapped up for months, I had a stay in the hospital and enough warnings from the orthopedist to make the case to my mother that it was time to shut the lid on the baby grand.

And then I found my calling. The Paper Bag Players were long gone but the lure of the theater still called to me like the Sirens called to Ulysses (who blocked his ears to resist temptation) on his homeward voyage to return to his beloved wife Penelope. Since I had only my parent’s home which I hoped to be leaving soon and no Penelope or Pierre waiting for me on some exotic shore, I let the voices sing and cry and pull me into the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd.

And I fell. Hard. I built sets and learned to operate a lighting board, I took dance classes and voice lessons and acting workshops. I tried out for plays and got cast as part of the chorus. I saw every play I could, read every review I found and spent a summer at Northwestern University as a “cherub” at the National High School Institute held every summer in Evanston, Illinois to give kids a chance to work professionally in Debate, Speech, Journalism, Music, Film & Video and Theater Arts).

I was at my happiest as a cherub, working each day with professional actors, directors and other kids who were also determined to spend their future on and off Broadway, doing summer stock in upstate New York and joining improv companies in Chicago.

But even then I knew I was a lousy actress, reinforced by those little goblin voices warning me how foolish I was to consider that I had what it took to have a life filled with scripts and rehearsals, stage sets and playbills. I could never get out of playing myself, never lose myself to a character and never turn in the kind of performance that I saw in some of the other kids, the talented kids, the kids who would become professionals as opposed to the kids like me who would remain amateurs.

am-a-tuer, n
1. a person who engages in an art, study, science or athletic activity as a pastime rather than as a profession.
2. one lacking the skill of a professional , as in art.
adj.
1. not professional; unskillful.

The word amateur deflates me like a helium balloon losing its air and its balance. Call me anything but don’t call me amateur. I’d rather do nothing then be “unskillful.” I’d rather be anything but an amateur.

Throughout my life I found myself climbing a rung or two of various creative ladders. I went to film school, ended up at the top of my class, most likely to succeed, most likely to end up in NYC or Hollywood working on esoteric documentaries or little-screened independent features. I had the drive, the talent and the fatal flaw of not believing that I or anything that I produced was going to be worth watching let alone making. And so the goblins moved in again, took up household in my head and helped me rip apart my photo essay of the old amusement park in Cabin John, Maryland, the super-8 movie set to a Suzanne Vega song and the honorary Emmy I won as a grad student for making a PSA shown on local television

I dabbled in journalism and found myself getting published. My name and my words in print on a newstand in Portland’s Willamette Week or in an East Coast magazine for public broadcasters or as a cover story for Common Ground, a publication out of Seattle that focused on alternative lifestyles. People read my words and told me I was full of shit or that I had inspired them to do something they had been afraid to do until they read how I had attended a workshop on sacred sex even though I was terrified to be touched or remove my clothes.

And my friends told me that I was talented. That I was a good writer. That they were impressed with how witty and funny and fresh I sounded in print. And the more they complimented me, the less I believed them and the more I realized that sharing myself and my scribblings was like standing naked in front of group of supermodels who were there to pick apart my body tell me that one breast is bigger then the other, that my hips were turning into pears and that without make-up I really did look my age. It’s like having a doctor do a colonoscopy of your emotions and you watch the scope going down to illuminate the blood red corners of your shame and thick pockets of fear tucked away somewhere behind your stomach filled with anxious butterflies and depressed dreams.

And so I stopped writing to be read. Quieted the goblins in my head and got a job selling real estate. I’ve done my best to ignore the artistic flickers that invade my brain like summer fireflies – now you see them now you don’t – every day of my creatively limited life.

townshends-teahouse-logo2I still take notes on story ideas and have a wonderful writing coach

Coconut Matte & Bubble Tea

Coconut Matte & Bubble Tea

named Charlotte Dixon who calls herself the Word Strumpet. We meet once a month or so and she listens patiently while drinking Coconut Matte at Townshends Alberta Street Teahouse to my carefully-crafted excuses about why I can’t finish the outline for the literary mystery set in Dublin (I can’t write a good Irish accent) or how it really is too painful for me to write an essay about my long-lost best friend in a red silk suit listening to flamenco music on her birthday (brings up too many sad memories) or why I can’t really write a poem since the best poetry teacher I ever had was at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland some 15 years ago and I haven’t been able to find anyone in the very literary city of Portland, Oregon that measures up.

On Christmas day, at the prodding of my elegant and creative friend Shannon Baird, a design consultant and realtor, I started a blog. My second. The first crashed and burned some three years ago after I put in one entry. This blog, the BijouBlog, nearly didn’t happen because I was stuck trying to come up with the perfect blog name and, of course, all the perfect names have been taken and blogged on by bloggers who got on the blog track when blogging first began.

I was excited for two days. Woke up early, spent hours crafting my entries, huddled over my computer on the circa 1950s breakfast table, sitting next to the picture window watching the snow fall and now watching it melt, a half-drunk cup of ginger tea at my side and my cat curled up and asleep on the table, my dog Ramona wedged onto the back of my chair, her warm little body adding heat to my passion.

Suddenly I was doing something creative, not just thinking about it and not doing it, not just beating myself up inside for not using my so-called talent, not just passively falling asleep in my comfy down chair as I watched the world around me burn with realized ideas and executed works of art. For once I was actually doing something too. And it felt good.

Until I realized that people were actually reading it. Which is something I asked for, advertised it on facebook and sent emails to friends saying “Hey, check out my new blog.” A new mom so excited about the baby she created and wanting everyone to pick it up and bounce it on their knees and tell her “Yes, your new baby is just as beautiful as you think it is!”

So now the words come back – “Great blog,” “Well-written,” “Reading it religiously,” “Keep writing,” and the goblins of doubt start to crawl up my spine and into my brain again and tell me “They have to say that, don’t you see? They are just being nice because really, you are just a hack, a mimic with nothing original to say and they are humouring you.”

The goblins are green and have five fat stubby fingers on each hand, their faces have humongous frog lips through which a giant red

The Goblin

The Goblin

tongue comes lolling down past their chins and straight towards their rounded-bellies that explode into carnival faces with giant amethyst eyes, pinnochio noses and maniacal chesher cat grins with blood-colored lips and sharp white teeth. They can climb up the spine as fast as they can swim through the blood to the end of my toes and the entrance to the chambers of my heart. They are well-fed by my fears and take delight in watching me shrink under their fierce words.

I’ve faced down the goblins my whole life and they have always won, put me back in my comfy chair or behind an office desk or into endless hours of therapy as the shrink and I try to come up with practical ways to outsmart them.

Today I woke up and wrote again. While making my breakfast of Alpen and raspberries I discovered my subject and slogged through the wet muddy marsh of taking an idea from head to hand . The goblins are still here but seem smaller and less menacing. Maybe someone will jump on-line to find my blog and scroll down the lines as they read through the post. Maybe they will like it, maybe they won’t and maybe I can pull my hand away from my face, share my words, my newborn blog and get up and do it again tomorrow.

Because the best part of writing a blog is how I feel when I’ve finished. When I push the “publish” button and see it roll out with pictures, italics and bolded type. When I know that for one day at least, I’ve held back the goblins long enough to complete a journey within myself, uncover an idea, whisk it off with a sable brush, polish it with a cotton cloth and present it on the pedestal of a Fujitsu Tablet Notebook for an interested reader to discover. Or maybe, it’s just for me to admire as I open my blog page for the 50th time and re-read the words that I now know by heart, admire the pictures I’ve figured out how to upload and relish my own small work of art.

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10 Responses to “Why I Don’t Write”

  1. hublet Says:

    The precise words raced by. The images bright and in focus.

  2. bijoublog Says:

    Thank you hublet for giving me my first blog comment. You are a man among men.

  3. David Says:

    Don’t stop.

  4. Karen Shimada Says:

    In Bijou, I read the Rachel I know to be true. She has drunk the truth serum and oh, how truth becomes her.

  5. Ray Chesnick Says:

    Margarita Jolles was my piano teacher, too. I was doing a search on her today and discovered your blog. I was trying to remember how she was connected to Johannes Brahms. If you know, please let me know. Thanks! RAY rbc@juno.com

  6. Bijou Says:

    Oh too weird! Did you have an overbearing mother who forced you to take piano lessons or was it an act of love for you? I learned so much from Miss Jolles about music, but also about art (I would pour over her art books) and special teas, European pastries, cheeses and meats. It was always an event to go to her home for an afternoon tea after the lesson.

    As for her relationship to J.S. Bach, the only thing I remember is that she had a wonderful drawing of him over the piano which I always admired. Don’t, unfortunately, remember more then that.

    Happy pianos and thanks for stopping by the blog!

    Rachel

  7. Ray Chesnick Says:

    Rachel,

    I occasionally would have tea with Miss Jolles after lessons but it was in her studio at the Cleveland Music School Settlement. My lessons were part of my undergraduate studies at Case Western Reserve University, so they were a labor of love.

    I know that she enjoyed playing Bach, but she had some connection to Brahms. I cannot remember if she had been one of his last students, had received coaching from him on concert pieces, or had been a student of one of his students. However, I distinctly remember an association of some kind with him.

    I enjoyed reading your blog and will pop by from time-to-time. It’s such a small world!!!

    RAY

  8. Bijou Says:

    Ray,

    It is a small and funny world. What did you study at Case? Are you still in Cleveland? I left home for college as soon as I turned 18 and haven’t looked back. There are things I miss about Cleveland, but I was glad to leave.

    I’ll ask my mom about Miss Jolles and her relationship to Brahms. My mother and Miss Jolles were very close friends, in fact my mom was the executor of her will. I’ll see if connection between Margarita and Lullabye King.

    Thanks so much for reading my blog. It is a great escape from my day job. Ultimately I’d love to write full-time but that may be a ways off. For now the blog is a great way for me to work out ideas.

    Rachel


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