I liked to be alone when I was a boy—coloring, drawing, reading, practicing the piano…secretly playing with my sisters’ dolls. And writing. From the time I was able to put simple sentences down in pencil, I kept a notebook I titled “My Book of Sayings,” it’s binding reinforced with masking tape.
And when an old Underwood 5 typewriter came into our house (my mother was an antiques dealer), I began to type out dark poems and mildly disturbing stories. Alone in my room I would read my stories aloud into a cassette recorder, play them back for my ears only, pretending the voice wasn’t me but someone I had invented.
Mostly, mine were tales of a young boy lost in a city who is befriended by a kind stranger, usually an older man grieving the recent death of his wife (make of that, dear reader, what you will). No, I didn’t play with other kids much when I was a boy. Like the tikes who showed up again and again in my stories, I preferred the company and troubles of adults. It appears my child-self fits a psychological profile for what I’ve become.
While the child’s world of play and pretend would seem the natural garden for the seeding and early growth of the playwright’s dramatic imagination, in Creativity in the Theatre: A Psychoanalytic Study, Philip Weissman tells us something different: “Accounts of the childhoods of playwrights do not record the unusual amount of play that characterizes the early years of actors.” Yes. Instead of joining their world of make-believe, detached and quizzical, I preferred to watch my sister’s at their play. They always acted the personae of boys in their games. Rambunctious Carla, the younger, played a boy called “Ricky”; contemplative Crystal invented for herself a character named “Jimmy Carter,” more fully imagined and nuanced than Carla’s “Ricky,” and two years older, as I recall, than her actual age.
I don’t have children; there was no small daughter who might have been blissfully unaware that I’m a writer; no son to sulk after me in my frequent absences to write; no little one curious about the light beneath my office door, mystified by the long quiet within; no child of mine I might have asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”; (and this I’ve begun to regret as of late) no child of my own I would surely have noticed beginning to gravitate, as I did as a boy, toward a passion for words, books, and time alone, the starting places, more than the playground, as Weissman tells us, for children condemned to grow into writers.
Recently, a former colleague emailed me a picture of a page of handwritten dramatic manuscript (see photo), the work of her daughter Lainey, eight years old and just beginning the third grade this fall. I read Lainey’s “seen,” with its carefree spelling errors and use of initials to represent the characters’ names, placed after their lines of dialogue, and I chided and then forgave myself for being moved close to tears by her miniature drama of two friends who’ve been apart from one another and who take the first opportunity to go on a journey together, a journey neither could make without the other, on a raft that appears out of nowhere other than Lainey’s instinctual understanding that in stories and dramas interesting things happen around arrivals and departures.
Maybe because I’m father to none, children have the power to break my heart simply for being children. And their creative expressions, so pure and unconsciously revealing, uncontrived by the tyrannies of intentional structure and craft, are among my favorite works to view, read, consider and to learn from.
And so I adopted Lainey as my own for a time, and through her mother I texted her the questions I would have asked a writer-child of my own. Lainey was kind enough to take time from her young and busy life to respond.
Q: I like your play very much. What made you want to write a play instead of a story you read in a book?
A: Because I wanted to act it out with my friend and Jonas [her older brother] will direct it.
Q: What made you write about two friends who haven’t seen each other for a long time?
A: Because Mischa [her best friend] and I didn’t see each other all summer.
Q: What was the hardest part about writing your play?
A: Getting the ideas to make it good.
Q: What was the easiest part about writing your play?
A: Picking the music for it [“Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake].
Q: What will your next play be about?
A: I don’t know yet. Probably something with talking animals.
Q: What do you want to be when you grow up?
A: An actor.
While neither of my playful sisters grew into an actor, Crystal took a few steps in that direction. The only black girl in an otherwise all-white high school (circa 1977), she was cast to play her blackness as Rheba the maid – opposite a white boy cast as Rheba’s boyfriend Donald when I refused the role – in a thoughtless production of You Can’t it With You. And though she first claimed theatre as her major in college, she abandoned it after her first semester. She graduated with a degree in psychology and is now, thirty years later, near the end of her career as a child psychologist in an elementary school where she has used play to gain a view to the frequently troubled inner lives of the students she calls “My kids.”