Careful Where You Step

Growing up in the cow pastures of southeast Texas, you learn to heed old people’s advice (“old” could be your seventy-five year old tobacco chewing/can-spitting grandfather or your brother who acted twenty years older than the year older he really was). Lessons you might learn: when you hear a rattle, don’t move! Don’t even breathe! Or, you can’t out run a bull, so don’t even try. Just lay down and get it over with (my brother actually told me that). Or, where cows graze, careful where you step or your mama’ll curse you to the high heavens ‘cause she’s got to power-wash your feet, shoes, socks and legs with a garden hose and a steaming bucket of Lysol.

Oddly enough, I was thinking about those very words -- “careful where you step” -- when I was in D.C. over the last two weeks, working with dramatists, young and old, at the Kennedy Center. The youngest playwright was eighteen; the oldest, in advance of sixty. This glorious human tapestry of creative energy and talent forgot their differences (age, gender, ethnicity, education) long enough to sit at the table, open their hearts and souls, stretch their imaginations and . . . dream. If I heard nothing else over those two weeks, I heard dreams – gorgeous visions of how life could be, should be if artistic effort -- and those who could advance that effort -- met on common, supportive ground.

Dreams: sometimes that’s all we have against the storm of rejection that comes flying at us; it’s often our only defense when the nagging nay-sayers batter us with their own bitter interpretation of how we should live our lives or pursue our art. A dream can keep us glued to the prospect of our future in ways nothing else will; they shine the light on the path forward. Some folks use them as motivators; others as liberators. And all stem from the very same dramatic imagination that helps us create our art – and are therefore subjected to the same fissures of vulnerability.

It all came sharply into focus for me when a room full of these expectants were looking for sound advice in their careers. I had a choice: I could do my usual, “It’s tough to get ahead. It’s hard to break through. It’s often frustrating.” – all that “toughen up the muscle” stuff that mentors, educators and advisors routinely fall into. Or, I could give them hope, sincere hope by exploring with them the same dream I’ve clung to myself for years.

The truth is, everyone knows how hard it is to be a writer: that’s the given. That’s the truth we live every day of our lives. But how many of us know how rewarding it can be? How many writers know what a noble profession it is to entertain a live audience and compel them to think the bigger thoughts? How many writers understand how necessary we are to the culture, how vital we are to politics and science? How many writers understand that our voices truly need to be heard because there is so much going on in the world that we truly don’t understand as a world populace? How many dramatists know that beyond all the rejection letters and rude phone calls and awkward meetings with Artistic Directors and producers, there really are people who still love the process of creating theatre and have an undying respect for the writer – the originator of the
dramatic idea?

Careful where you step, indeed.