Many writers have a defining moment when they realize they want to be a writer. I’m still waiting for mine. But I do remember a moment when I realized I had GGS: Get Goofy Syndrome. One night, when I was six or seven, and my parents were subjecting us to the agony of listening to classical music on the radio, I lay on the floor in the dark and found myself conducting the music with my face. Don’t try it; you’ll end up with GGS.
The dream of becoming a face-conductor soon faded in the exhilarating rush of sports and girls. These two pursuits satisfied all my creative urges through junior high. Then, in tenth grade, I became a passionate writer. Not by choice. Having moved from Iowa to North Carolina, and having failed to kidnap my girlfriend and bring her along, I had to settle for the next best thing: writing an endless stream of love letters. A pattern was beginning to emerge: express yourself or perish from misery.
Then came the next blow that pivoted into blessing. Attending college in the Midwest, I was too small to play football or good enough to play any other sport. Thrashing about for some kind of outlet, who should appear but Zorro, the Ghost of Costumes Past. Raising his sword, he pointed to the theater and the dance studio. Before finishing college, I joined a theater company in Maine, barnstormed around the country for five years, then landed on Broadway in the mime and body-puppeteering show, “Mummenschanz.” The cloak of imagination was now figurative and literal.
Joining “Sesame Street” as Barkley, the big sheepdog, I was soon doing various Muppet characters, including Telly Monster, Grungetta, and the first attempt at Elmo. (When I left the show, another puppeteer took over Elmo and made him mega-famous. Does that make me Elmo’s father?) As Barkley, I frolicked thru China and Japan in specials with Big Bird. Work on several Jim Henson films included the chance to express myself and perish as the Dying Master in “The Dark Crystal.”
The downside of long hours in film and TV studios was all the downtime, the “Hurry up and wait.” I also had a wife and two young daughters I was seeing too little of. So I traded life in front of the camera for life behind it. I became a children’s television writer, working on such shows as “The Magic School Bus,” “Between the Lions,” and “Cyberchase.” After lugging home an Emmy for “Between the Lions” in 2004, my daughters said it all: “Cool.”
But every TV writer has a weakness. Mine is “writing long” (he said, stating the obvious). The cure arrived in writing a novel, Out of Patience, and continued with writing another, Suck It Up. Perhaps I’ll learn to “write short” someday, but in the meantime, I’m reveling in writing a third novel: The Book of Billy Allbright.
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