Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Scratching the Creative Itch

Sharon Wildwind

This week I’m leading off with the weekly quote:

That inner itch to just do it is the artist’s compass. Art is not linear, and neither is the artist’s life. There are no certain routes. You do not become a novelist by moving from A to B to C.
~Julia Cameron, writer, playwright, musical composer; Walking in This World

How old you were the first time you scratched that creative inner itch?

I was about nine. I rewrote the ending of one of the sub-plots in South Pacific so that Lt. Cable didn’t die on the spying mission, but lived to marry Liat, and they lived happily ever after.

I’m a little hazy on why a nine-year old child was taken to see South Pacific. The best I can come up with—and this may be scratching that itch again—was that my mother had acted in little theater before she got married. She wanted a night out with the girls, AKA her friends from the theater company. One of their number had the lead role of Nellie Forbush, so naturally they wanted to see the play.

The only other play I’d seen was the school Christmas pageant. It’s hard to appreciate the nuances of drama from the stage, especially while worrying if my tissue paper-and-coat-hanger angel wings were going to remain in place until the Wise Men arrived. I was eager to see a real play. Plus, we went to dinner with my mother’s friends, and I knew we weren’t going to get home until way past my bedtime. This seemed like a good deal all around.

Before the curtain rose, my mother warned me that this wasn’t like television. If I got bored, there was no way to change channels. I’d have to sit quietly until the end because it was impolite to leave in the middle of a performance. She promised that if I behaved, she’d take me back stage afterwards to meet the woman who played Nellie. She also warned me that there would be some loud gunfire, but that it was fake guns, like my cap pistol, and if the sound bothered me, I could cover my ears.

From the moment the curtain went up, I was in heaven. A play was so much more interesting than television. The costumes were like adults playing dress-up. There were actors a few away from my seat, saying and doing things to make the story happen. Nellie washed her hair, right on stage, with real soap and water. When Emile and Lieutenant Cable went off to spy on the Japanese ship movements, the actors performed behind a gauze curtain set up on one side of the stage. I figured out that was supposed to show that they were in another place, which I thought was very clever.

There was the predicted gunfire. Emile sent a radio message that Lt. Cable had been killed, and my heart broke. I told myself that he wasn’t really dead and that he would show up before the play ended. I waited, and waited, and waited, but he never showed up. The curtain came down and I realized he was going to stay dead.

That was so unfair. He and Liat had been in love with each other and they should have been allowed to get married.

When my mother took me back stage to meet her friend, I looked all around for the actor who had played Lieutenant Cable. Perhaps if I had seen him, I’d have made the connection that his death, like the gunfire, was fake. But when we left the theater without seeing him, it seemed as if he were really dead.

I didn’t like that idea at all.

When we got home, it was way past my bedtime, but instead of going to sleep, I took a notebook, ball point pen, and flashlight to bed with me and wrote and wrote until I’d manage to not only resurrect Lt. Cable, but to make him a hero who won a medal, and he and Liat got married, had lots of children, and lived long, happy lives.

Fortunately, I was blissfully unaware that the Civil Rights movement was about to explode around us, and that sub-plots featuring interracial love were so controversial that the state of Georgia had introduced legislation describing South Pacific as subversive and communist, thus preventing its production in that state.

I knew what the story should be, and I also realized it was within my power to write it a different way if I wanted to do that. All I had to do was just do it. That was a mighty powerful itch that got scratched that night.


Sheila Connolly said...

I was thinking like a sleuth by the age of nine or so (could it have been all those Nancy Drews?) I recall trying to reconstruct a serious injury based on a single bloody bandaid and a box of them abandoned under an apple tree; then there was the china poodle I mislaid at the shore, which I found by carefully reconstructing my earlier footsteps.

My first theater experience was Peter Pan--yes, the Mary Martin production. I think I was four. Did anyone tell me that Peter was a woman? Or that Tinkerbell was a fancy flashlight? I don't remember. I do remember trying to convince some of my friends to fly by jumping off a shed roof.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Speaking of new realizations about South Pacific and interracial love: it didn't occur to me until I recently watched an old South Pacific video that "Tonkinese" is what we'd now call Vietnamese and that the whole subplot in which Bloody Mary was going to make Liat "marry" an old rich man unless Cable intervened was a euphemism of the times. I have no doubt that she was really pimping and planned to sell her daughter to the highest bidder.

We didn't have TV till I was 10, and I don't remember changing the channel--there was only one thing to watch at a time, as I remember it. But I was playing "make-believe" as far back as I can remember and first said I wanted to be a writer when I was 7.

Sandra Parshall said...

I can't remember a time when I wasn't writing made-up stories. I liked to tell them too, and sometimes they were so real to me that I couldn't see the line between fantasy and reality. No grownup likes to see that in a child, I can tell you. :-)

lil Gluckstern said...

I loved this post. My friend and I would write stories in our heads. I wish I had written them down. Today, thanks to the Internet, people can rewrite and change the endings of stories through fan fiction sites, etc. What a determined, imaginative little girl you were. Sadly, the world wasn't and isn't quite so beautiful. By the way, all my stories ended with long happy lives, and lots of children, too.

Martha said...

What a great post. Thank you! Live theater is magic.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all of the positive comments. I formed the opinion long ago that all children should be exposed to live music and live theater at as early an age as possible.

I think we all wish we'd kept those first attempts at writing.