When I was in my early 20s, my younger brother and I created a two-man sketch comedy show that we performed around Providence, R.I. for a few years. The show, which we eventually called The American Basement Review, did not begin as sketch comedy, however. In fact, it didn’t begin as anything at all, which is why I liked it so much.
I had gone to see a show called The Final Incision at Art Space 220—a new, underground performance venue. I would never have gone to anything called The Final Incision except that I had a mild crush on the girl who invited me. I was glad I did go, though not because I enjoyed the evening. It was a strange, performance art cabaret that included, among other acts: an extremely long, rigorously monotone poetry reading; a scatological, semi-pornographic homemade film and a band that didn’t so much play their instruments as use them to find and sustain feedback for 40 minutes. These disparate acts were all stitched together by a common theme: Life stinks. I felt that I could complain with the best of them, but these guys showed me what full commitment looked like.
After the show, the girl and I had an uncomfortable debate on the way home about the value of this sort of art. I thought it was crap, while she thought it was needed. Our love was not meant to be. Still, the show stayed on my mind. If AS 220 will let those people do that, I reasoned, they’d let anyone do anything. A week later, my brother and I were lying to the owner about the other places we’d performed and telling him we’d like to do a night at the Art Space. He was game, and we booked our first show! Now, we just had to figure out what that show was.
It was a great way to create something. All we knew was that we’d have a blank stage and two performers. We could do literally anything we wanted. If our entire show consisted of burning a squadron of G.I. Joes in effigy, he’d have let us. We settled on a mixture of sketches and serious pieces, and it went OK. We kept doing the show, eventually adding a piano player and a lighting guy and dropping the more dramatic stuff and adding more philosophical comedy because that’s where we were the happiest. We called our show, “new vaudeville.”
A few years after we’d quit doing the show, I found myself in Seattle wondering what I should do next. My brother was still in Providence, and I was living with the woman I’d soon marry. Should I go back to school, audition for one of the local repertory companies, write a screenplay? None of it seemed right. I kept thinking about the The American Basement Review, how natural it felt to me, how it was similar to other stuff I’d seen but just different enough to be ours. But I was done with that show. I wanted to create something like it, but I had no idea what that something would be.
So, I started novel. I had no story idea, nothing burning I wanted to say. I wasn’t even particularly in love with fiction at that time. I just wanted to make something. It was tough sledding from word one, but I’d made my decision and once I was a couple years into the first draft of my first book, I didn’t feel I could turn back.
Twenty years and many unpublished books later, I’d hit a wall. I was sick of fiction, sick of how hard it felt, sick of almost publishing books. One night, out of pure frustration, I asked myself this question: “If you could write anything, regardless of whether it sold, what would it be?” In 20 years, I had never asked myself this very basic question. And I immediately had an answer. I didn’t know exactly what it form it would take, but I knew I would tell stories from my own life, and that every story would have the same message: Everything’s OK, even when it looks like everything is not okay.
I had begun every novel facing a blank page. Yet even looking directly at that perfectly clean field of white, I often misunderstood what I was seeing. In my mind were all the stories that had already been told, as well as the idea of the market, of what a reader or an agent or an editor might like. Now the page wasn’t blank anymore. Now I was trying to hit some imaginary target for which I would be rewarded. That target kept moving and moving and moving, and I called all my misses’ failure.
In retrospect, the biggest difference between The American Basement Review and my first novel was my age. With the show, I was still young enough not to worry about making a living. This is why writing takes a certain kind of courage. “Courage” comes from the Latin word for “heart.” Yes, we must lead from our heart, must go wherever it points us. The same as it led me to the woman I love, my heart has led me to the stories I want to tell—but only when I listened to it. The heart, after all, doesn’t care about money or fame or agents and editors. It only wants to be free to express itself, to go wherever love wants.