Lately I’ve been very interested in personal narrative. The ongoing and constant story we tell ourselves about who we are or aren’t. What we would or would not do, what we like or don’t like, how we feel, and what we can or can’t do. Specifically, I’m fascinated by how this narrative gets in the way of actually being who we are or could be if we were open to the possibilities instead of defined by the limitations. Though there are so many external things that contribute to the personal narrative (gender norms, competition, societal pressures, etc.), I’m focusing here on an aspect that I’ve created or at least fostered.
As I built this site and started putting together pages and uploading my work, I was a little surprised to discover that my personal narrative is full of the things I’m not really. I was having an internal argument about posting my work and how definitive a statement I felt I was making about claiming those titles, simply by putting them out there. I shouldn’t be surprised. I voice it often enough; “Well I do this, but I’m not really a [fill in the blank],” but I don’t think I heard what I’m actually saying. It ticked me off, this realization that I’m still denying my artistic, theatrical life; producer, playwright, director, actor, part of this amazing theatrical community in San Francisco.
I realized that somehow I’d managed to let an old soundtrack inside my head just mumble along and I hadn’t bothered to change it.
When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I had a very definitive idea of what being an artist – actor, writer, director, etc. – meant. Whether it was simply informed by the attitudes of the late 1980s and early 1990s or an immature and inexperienced perspective, for me and most of my peers, you couldn’t call yourself an actor unless you made acting your primary activity. The side job had to be of a significantly minor (and tedious) enough level and one had to be auditioning, acting in things, taking classes, and otherwise living the life we saw portrayed in countless movies of the impoverished working-actor. Dustin Hoffman’s actor in Tootsie was the prime example of who an actor was. My mind was full of the stories of the young Clark Gable or Paul Newman or Tom Cruise or or or or or…
I didn’t fit this criteria. I had a full-time job that paid me well for my age and compared to my friends. I rarely auditioned, and therefore wasn’t cast in anything. I did take classes, but I decided that there was no way I could legitimately call myself an actor. Despite more than a decade involved in theatre and training. I wasn’t really an actor.
I started writing short fiction when I was ten, after reading a short story by Ursula K. Leguin that so transported me, I felt compelled to pick up a pen and start immediately. I wrote with some diligence and frequency for years. Received compliments and encouragement. By my mid-twenties I hadn’t submitted much and hadn’t been published yet. I didn’t meet the criteria. I wasn’t really a writer.
My mother started writing poetry seriously when she was in her early 30s. She wrote nearly a poem a day for years upon years. She hosted poetry readings, and made a name for herself in the San Francisco poetry community. She was (and is) a craftsman at poetry. Knowledgeable about form, precise and fluent in many genres. I would occasionally write a poem, stumbling upon them in the crowded space that my brain occupies. A few lines jotted down in haste. My mother encouraged me and offered guidance. I submitted and had a couple of poems published, received some positive and enthusiastic feedback from a publisher. But, I told myself repeatedly, “I don’t really know what I’m doing. The poems are almost accidental.” I’m not really a poet.
I’ve written a handful of plays, had most of them either given a reading or produced, served on the Board of Directors for the Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco, been involved in the Literary Committee for PCSF for almost seven years, and have read, critiqued and seen hundreds of new original works. But until I heard myself thinking it, and got mad at me, I said I’m not really a playwright.
I realize a lot of what I’ve described could be mistaken as simply a self-confidence problem. I really don’t think that’s the issue though. Really, if you simply think you aren’t something, then confidence doesn’t enter into the balance. I’m not judging whether I’m good at these things. Some things I think I’m much better at than others. The point is more that we spend a lot of our life boxing and labeling things, including ourselves. It’s good sometimes, but very prohibitive and limiting a lot of the time. So I decided I was going to rewrite that narrative – after all, I am a writer.
Now if I could just convince my bank account that I’m a millionaire.
How about you? What are you that you tell yourself you aren’t?