Making Risk-Taking Real
During the Covid-19 pandemic, a private zoo in Brussels closed its doors to the public for a time. A family of orangutans, accustomed to throngs of admiring humans, lapsed into serious depression. Their behavior grew more worrisome by the day, The quandary of how to save a species from permanent disability, the longer the zoo remained closed, brought on serious discussions. Finally, staff made an opening in the fence of the adjoining enclosure, inspiring a dozen river otters to swim into the primates’ living area. After initial wariness of their neighbors, the orang became happy show-offs again, and the otters were a fascinated audience that returned every day. Quite quickly, other zoos successfully tried coupling the two species.
I checked out some videos (see “orangutans and river otters are BFFs —YouTube”) which fortified my simple conclusion: It’s impossible to know what’s possible until you open your mind about everything.
Seeing yourself as a writer, objectively, can be tough. There are periods when everything flows and you experience euphoria. Other times, I get trapped in my memories, or on a spectrum of emotions ranging from positive to “is this really happening to me?” I always pray that on any given day I can find time to write, and that my imagination is working. A defiant, uncooperative, or half-aslep muse can take a week or two off your life, if not longer.
Before tackling these challenges, every so often I ask myself why I write. Over a fifty year career of publishing fiction and non-fiction, writing screenplays, and making films, the why can vary significantly. Creativity has many motivations. If you want to focus on one particular genre, or are fixated by characters that must appear in every book you write, great. If you want to explore multiple genres, terrific. When you are engrossed by different subjects as the world—and your world, too—changes, readers want to read what you have to say. If you chase fame and money and Instagram followers, you will likely comprise the integrity of the majority of novelists today.
I wrote my first short story at fifteen or sixteen, to escape the standard adolescent turmoil. Reading, music, and sports were helpful but only scratched the surface of discovery. Creating characters who could be my friends, who pulled me into their world to teach me things, brought me happiness that I found nowhere else. I had no ambition to show my writing to anyone. My work space in my bedroom was off limits. I taped a “no trespassing” sign to my typewriter.
In college, my why changed again. I wanted to read and learn from every great writer, including some peers in my creative writing classes. Arthur Miller, Joseph Conrad and William Burroughs were my favorites (a generational thing). When I compared my own writing with the super talented, I developed an anxiety that wouldn’t let me look in a mirror more than once a day.
Time passed. Married, with two wonderful kids, my wife and I took jobs as real estate agents, yet my muse was like a termite that kept burrowing deeper, looking for something. I wanted to give myself another chance at writing. By age 32, stealing time whenever possible, I managed to write and publish three novels. Two were reviewed in The New York Times, and one was made into a TV series. I thought of quitting my real estate job.