When writing gets leathery

Deep in the matrix of my psyche I associate writing with leather.  Not because of leather-bound volumes in oak paneled libraries, but because of coats—leather coats.

When I was a kid my dad had a friend who had a leather factory on the far south side of Chicago, near to where my dad had grown up.  The old Jewish quasi ghetto had morphed into an African American quasi ghetto.

Being middle class Jews trapped in some never-pay-retail internalized racism, it happened that my family once rode forever through a Chicago winter, arriving at a freezing warehouse filled with dead cow skin sewn into every variation of a coat that a pimp could want.

I did not want a full-length leather coat (I was twelve), but my dad insisted that we choose something because his rich leather-baron friend had gone to the trouble of opening his warehouse to us on a Saturday (the day they both should have been in Schul, if they hadn’t gone Willie Loman on their old rabbis’ asses).

I hardly ever wore that coat, not that it didn’t go well with my two-toned purple platform shoes and the quiana shirt with Peter Max clouds drifting over my pubescent boy-man boobs.

Well, I guess if your dad is a rich Jewish leather merchant of Venice (or at least south side Chicago), then your destiny, if you’re the son of the rich man with the smell of the tannery clinging to his hide, is to become an artist, perhaps the bard himself.

And so it was that the son of the leather man disappeared into the shimmer and chimera of California… sending word back to his father, who told my father, that the boy had become a big Hollywood writer.

My dad still had money back then, so it was also my destiny to live out his unlived dream of being a novelist (which I think meant smoking a pipe, but we won’t get into what sort of pipe), or at least to become some sort of artist.  In middle and high school I made little films and slide shows, which I presented to my father in our linoleum basement.  He was a man of taste and he concluded that his kid had talent.

And thus, to my dad’s credit, he encouraged me to follow an artists’ path when, during college, I told him that this was my desire.  My father knew that connections were important, so he tried to introduce me to everyone he knew—men who had nothing to do with the movie business and who made your stomach hurt too much to eat breakfast when you met them at Norms—guys with mirrored sunglasses, more Willie Lomans who sold a lot of whatever they sold and screwed women not their wives.  These guys always immediately sized me up as a pussy and a disappointment (particularly for being dumb enough to have anything to do with the arts in the first place).

Although I never thought I was actually a writer (I fancied myself a director), I learned from friends in film school that they thought I was a good writer (you had to write scripts in order to direct them, at least in film school, and mine were alright).  But these were all really short scripts for short movies.

To me, a real script was over a hundred pages (and I had no idea about what needed to be in those hundred pages beyond lots of words, mostly people talking and stuff happening).

So I resolved to sit down at my typewriter, yes typewriter, and write a one hundred and five page script.  I didn’t revise, I didn’t re-write.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but my dad suggested that he would see if the leather man would ask his big writer son to read my script.

The calls were made.  The busy man out in Hollywood took my call and said to send him my script.  Months passed.  I was home visiting in Chicago in the summer and the phone rang.  It was the big writer who wanted to talk to me about my script.  My heart leapt into my throat as I stood in the kitchen with my parents and brother staring at me, the tangled phone cord (yes phone cord) tangled all around itself.

And the big writer said to me:  “I read your script.  Some people have a natural ability to write.  You are not one of those people.  You have no natural ability whatsoever.  If you want to learn to be a writer you can—anyone can, it just takes years and a lot of hard work.”  I think that he added that he wouldn’t recommend that, as Hollywood was a terrible place.  He seemed to be a convincing spokesperson for that assessment.

I smiled awkwardly for the benefit of my kitchen audience and hung up the phone.  I sat back down and stared at the steak on my plate, meat missing its leather entirely, fat congealing like my easy Hollywood dreams into disgusting tallow.

Oh well, the big writer was quite right.  And I’m proud to say that after multiple scripts (some that I even got money for writing) and a book (even if not quite published) and a blog, I am a writer with no natural talent, but with soul.  And my skin is a tad thicker than it once was.

Today, I might even be man enough to wear that old coat.

So, here’s to the hard work of compensating for whatever it is we wish to accomplish, even when we are absolute beginners with no natural ability, only a fire in the belly and an insistent muse or host of spirits goading us to apprentice to a craft, perhaps one day to make a shoe for the king.

And here’s to toiling at the art of parenting, another craft for which we may feel as if we sometimes lack natural ability, persevering together in the service of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce

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4 Responses to “When writing gets leathery”

  1. BigLittleWolf Says:

    I loved every delicious detail in this piece, Bruce. And smiled at much of it, from a time I recognize, objects and attire that is (all too) familiar, and a culture I recognize as well – in all its contradictions.

    Now as for what are natural abilities and not, I imagine we could debate that, and all the measuring sticks and comparisons for any such assessment, especially when you stir in a spark of “fire in the belly.”

    Suffice it to say, you’re certainly a damn fine writer now, which, for us, happily, is a great deal. With or without a side of hide.

  2. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    I would argue that the rich details of this finely crafted piece suggest that you are a writer with both soul and talent (regardless of what you’re wearing…or smoking).

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