I was once a playwright.
Without any pragmatism, deliberation, or vanity, this is, apparently, according to my subconscious anyway, the defining phrase of my life to date. It bubbled up after but a moment’s idle consideration recently, with no forethought or restrictions, a gut reaction. I don’t know why this happened. I had simply begun to think about writing something to do with my personal mileage metre rolling over to the big five-oh, and was taking a little stock. With even the slightest amount of examination, a truer statement to overwrite it with would be “I was once a bartender,” for surely the list of one’s a/vocations must descend in order of hours spent plugging away at them, and tending bar is what I did full time for almost exactly thirty years. When it comes to taking the measure of our lives in retrospect, we can argue fear vs. aspiration and luck vs. opportunity and laziness vs. everything else until our entire history is ground to a fine powder and scattered to the four winds, but our past is still the accumulation of the things we did, not the things we aspired to, or could have done if not for [insert unfair landmine here]. Life moves pretty fast, quoth the prophet Bueller, and that turned out to be truer that I ever could have imagined, as I look backward from my approach to the toll booth of the age of fifty. I’ve been a bartender/bar manager, a playwright/director/actor/producer, a book editor, a building designer, a tennis player, a potato-chip-factory custodian, a stableboy and a paperboy, but “playwright” is what my base consciousness blasted into my cerebrum when pressed on the question, like a quick-draw shooter intent on asking questions later.
This strikes me as weird. I have, as near as I can tell, absolutely no inclination to write another play as long as I live; I can barely picture myself going to see another play if I’m not forced to, never mind craft one. I have a great many memories of my internment in the theatre, but I have lost the fire for it that once burned so fervidly through my thirties. When I exited stage left for good, I was wrung out and exhausted by it all, feeling that my aspirations for audience building and searing stagewrought cultureshift truthtelling were shorted by my limited reach, talent, financial resources—my inability to build a viable business out of it, basically. I had failed at establishing the required balance between creativity, company management, salesmanship, financial responsibility, relationship health, and actual rent-satisfying job, and I wanted to strap theatre to a rocket and blast it into outer space, never to be heard from again. And yet, ten years hence, “playwright” asserts itself as my primary source of pride.
All this rearview gazing is clearly symptomatic of some creeping anxiety around the impending arrival of my fiftieth birthday, now visible and relentlessly advancing on the horizon. Or rather, it’s patiently waiting there at the tail end of summer to welcome me over the line and shove me into what I’ve got in my head as “The Next Half.” I’d love to be the type of guy who accepts these things with a grace befitting my age, but at this point, four months out, it appears that I am anything but. I’m starting to fear regret now more than mortality, and I wonder if this is perhaps a defining condition of people from my generation who have seen their once-imperious dreams deflate, and abandoned them in a ditch somewhere along the road. If not playwriting, if not bartending, if not the rest of it, then what was It supposed to be?
After I shed that theatrical exoskeleton, concurrent with the flight from my forever spirit city, Vancouver, for yet another bar job in Victoria, I settled into, for the first time in memory, the acceptance of being simply a service employee, a situation I was comfortable with but always considered a necessary evil toward the life of being an artist who also liked to eat in good restaurants. And this was great for a while: I had a staff whom I loved deeply and management that gave me free rein to build something truly memorable, which I hoped would be—I hope it became—a monument to taking care of people; certainly an art unto itself but rarely treated as such, on either side of the transaction. But it too, a few years in, started to wear me down, and I separated myself from it feeling I had wrung out every ounce of joy and education it could offer me. I needed quiet now, a chance to navigate an inner life, having had the outer lives of so many splashed all over me for thirty years. I settled into a job editing a steady stream of books of wildly varying quality; not a dream perhaps, but a welcome respite and something I could get better at. But fifty is looming, and I’m feeling like folding my life in half and stepping with some purpose over the crease.
I, for whatever reason, for whatever influences I had and whatever chemical mix constitutes my brain, never once thought until recently that there would come a point in my life where I would turn around, gaze back on my accomplishments and take their measure, and as of this writing I cannot honestly say if I find them wanting or not. I may have had an enviable life. I may have wasted something. I know I don’t feel satisfied, but I’m open to the idea that this may be an intrinsic condition for creatives, even a healthy one. But this is what’s happening to me now, and I can see as I play the tapes in my mind that every day was only ever concerned with itself, and perhaps occasionally with some small distance into the future, to make sure I wasn’t late for something. And so I am also aware there’s another one of these checkpoints to come, where some slower, greyer version of this half-life incarnation of me is going to be judging what I’m doing now and what I’m about to do, which I’m hoping beyond hope includes making something out of my skills and dreams that I can look back on with delight.
So if the pride of accomplishment that my subconscious just blasted me with is any measure of what’s going on down there, it will clearly have something to do with a writing life. Knowing me as I do now, I think my love for theatre back then was misguided. I think it was a lifelong timorous disposition kicking and scratching at the walls, ashamed of its shyness and desperate to be validated, thrown into a blender with a true, pure, and honest infatuation with language, with the art of creating worlds full of gods and monsters and truth with the razor’s edge of well-chosen words. What came out wasn’t Frankenstinian, far from it, but it was an education that I wasn’t equipped to shape into a career, and so it was chased off with pitchforks and torches—with fear, essentially—and dealt with. But it was the dishonesty, the agenda, that was burned away in the end, leaving bare the truth, and at some point it came to me with a beautiful clarity that I wasn’t just hiding in the library as a kid, I was marinating in wordcraft. I was in residence. And it feels like it’s time to come home.
I’m starting with this here old blog again and heading into the unknown, finding my voice one word at a time. And to be honest, it makes me feel like a kid again. And maybe that’s the entire point of making it this far.