"As soon as I got the physical imperative to figure out exactly where to come from in my spirit when I made music ... as soon as I got that, everything else was a side project." -Jeff Buckley
I discovered this quote around the same time that I arrived in Los Angeles to enter the workforce in 2001. It was days before my father escaped Tower 1 on September 11th and mere months before I realized that I may have trekked too far down the wrong career path with everyone I loved cheering me on. For the next decade, Jeff's quote haunted me as I struggled to come to terms with what I was meant to do as an artist, and "where to come from in my spirit" when I did it. In the meantime I was making movies, but I was not fulfilled. I was living in California and my family was coming undone in New York.
Allow me to backtrack a moment.
I have always wanted to be a writer. I wrote my first short story in the second grade around the same time I fell in love with my first book, The War of the Worlds (condensed and illustrated). My stories were very much in this vane; I wrote tales about robots and aliens, magic and killer earthworms.
Unfortunately, in high school, somewhere between the Indian villages of Nectar in a Sieve and the bleak New England town of Ethan Frome, I lost my love of reading. You can see the dilemma this presented me:
Why become a writer when I had no interest in books?
Then, one day, a teacher walked into my English class to recruit students for the film club. I realized for the first time that movies aren’t born fully-formed in the Hollywood Hills, but they are stories written by actual humans. A year later, I was applying to film school.
I studied film production in Toronto, rather than New York or Los Angeles. I did this for many reasons, not the least of which had to do with finances. All in all it was a great experience, if not the best stepping-stone into the industry. I graduated with a couple of successful short films and a love for this new way of storytelling.
After commencement I moved to Los Angeles. Within days the twin towers fell and all I wanted to do was go home and see my parents. But I stayed, and right away two things happened simultaneously: I began experiencing “the industry”, and I rekindled my love of books, BIG TIME, particularly children’s literature.
I would go to pitch meetings during the day in which I would be treated like a sad, malformed child, and then return home to read Roald Dahl.
I witnessed crazy things during my three years in L.A. – sixteen year old pop singers getting final say over screenplays, a development executive telling me that the secret to his success was stealing other people’s movies and rewriting them for an urban (black) cast, a producer battling with an agent over whether or not his bald actor/client could wear a hair piece under another hair piece so that he wouldn’t look totally bald in the comedic on-screen reveal that his character is…bald.
And I just wanted to tell stories.
I knew I wasn’t in the right place, but on some level I blamed myself. After all, I was chasing the muse, right? I was doing the noble thing. Well, it didn't take long before I completely lost sight of why I wanted to be a storyteller in the first place.
Luckily, the instinct that followed wasn’t to quit the arts and go to law school. Instead, I moved back to New York and books became my obsession. I became a collector. I started writing prose again and reading all the things I should have read in my teens. It was wonderful. But I refused to give up on pursuing a film career. After all, I had poured seven years of my life into the medium, and there was still part of me that wanted to make a Goonies or a Labyrinth for the 21st Century.
Over the following decade, I parlayed my skills as a filmmaker into a freelance career, shooting, producing, and editing everything from commercials to television to corporate films. My own projects became darker and farther apart, while in private I dipped a toe into writing for children here and there. Whenever I did, it felt so right but there was a certain level of guilt involved in taking time away from my profession.
Then, in 2011 I became a father to a beautiful girl. Becoming a father is like transforming from Voltron into Robby The Robot. Life becomes a little tamer, sure, but you're much calmer and you don't feel so fragmented.
Suddenly, my future became clear. I realized that ambition is not passion. I realized that in me the public school system had destroyed a passionate reader, and that was sad*. But I had recovered from it, hadn't I? And therefore it is never too late to change course. I began to reflect on the cornerstones of my creative life and I began to see signs - signs which now seemed so obvious they were blinding.
I remembered how much I loved to publish my own books as a kid, and that filmmaking, for me, was a second choice. I realized that all of my films are about children, and that films, like picture books are stories told in images. I looked through my nonsense-filled journals, and my toys, and my library of antique children's books. I looked at my wife, an English teacher, and my beautiful daughter and then I remembered that in 1994, when I was 15, my mom bought me this book:
She knew what was up.
And now so did I. Slowly, timidly, I began to put more time into writing the stuff that was in my heart. I was taking baby steps.
Then, this past October, I stumbled across this:
This was it - I could feel it - the excuse I needed. A reason to do nothing for a month but be a children's author. I decided to to jump in whole hog, and immediately everything in me changed.
Here's what happened from the end of mid-October to the end of November:
- I joined SCBWI.
- I registered for PiBoIdMo.
- I created this website!
- I began to stay up WAY too late to write about awesome things like aliens and treasure.
- I started drawing again.
- I went to tea with a bunch of fellow SCBQI KidLit authors and told them my story. It was like therapy.
- I accompanied my wife to NCTE 2014 (National Council of Teachers of English), thinking I would spend my days swimming in the pool while she was in conference, only to discover that many of my literary heroes were there. Suddenly, things like this happened:
7. Finally, I completed PiBoIdMo with 31 ideas, one of which is almost ready for submission.
I always knew that when I found the right path, I would know it. There would be signs. Boy was I right. What a month! I now have a slew of ideas ranging in scope from titles to finished manuscripts, and who knows, maybe someday one of them will even become a movie!
In closing, I just want to say that the purpose of this longwinded post was two-fold. First, it will serve as a sort of "coming out" to my friends who know me only as a filmmaker. I hope they're ready for my new super-fantastic-awesomeness.
And second I want to thank Tara Lazar. She has created something so special with Picture Book Idea Month. The daily posts, the loving comments, and the assignment itself make for something seemingly impossible: a creative service that gives so much to its community and asks nothing in return. I hope that she reads this one day, and I hope she understands how much the simple gesture of creating PiBoIdMo has changed my life.
Finally, back to that quote at the top of this post. Have I figured out "exactly where to come from in my spirit" when I write? Well let's just say that if my creative demons had slowly metastasized into an 8bit Mike Tyson, my November would look exactly like this:
* I would be remiss if I didn't mention one High School teacher, Dr. Ascher, who not only made books interesting (I read every one he assigned), but who also inspired me to write from the heart.