Singing Your Own Voice

THE SUMMER I WAS 19, I lived in Manhattan for the first time in my life. I worked two jobs as I aspired to write my first plays. I was a bellhop at a mid- town hotel and a waiter in a restaurant around the corner.  My weekend shifts at the hotel had me working sixteen hours straight and then going directly to the restaurant at 8 Monday morning. So one day a week I worked 24 hours straight. You’re 19.  You’ll sleep when you’re dead, right?  Plus you figure you might have a story to tell 50 years later. But something better happened on one of those Monday mornings. 34th Street and Broadway is one of the busiest corners in the world. I stopped for a second outside Macy’s, struck by the surge of humanity rising up out of the subway station. It was like a human lava flow.  I found myself focused on their faces.  They were angry. Discouraged. Resigned, Numb. It was the first hour of the first day of the workweek and THAT was already how they felt.

Something clicked in my brain. It was my Scarlet O’Hara moment: –“As God is my witness I’ll never go hungry again?” I vowed to myself I would do everything possible to go through my life doing what made me happy for as long as I could. What made me happy was making people laugh.  Annoying people.  Surprising them.  Maybe challenging a belief or two.  In short…BEING A WRITER. In that moment I made my commitment, despite my untested, unproven abilities, to devote my life to discovering who the writer would be that I might become. Maybe I’d be a child prodigy.  Maybe I’d be the voice of my generation.

There is a huge difference, between writing purely for one’s own pleasure and writing as a profession. Your work becomes a commodity.  People who might pay for your wares consider in the same way a venture capitalist considers a small business proposal.  How do you negotiate the inherent conflict between contributing to the body of literature versus contributing to the Gross National Product?  Do you envision your writing life as your source of adult survival? Or as a respite from your source of adult survival?

I have to ask myself if I had known at the age of twenty, when I made the decision to commit my life to being a writer, that I would not become the voice of  my generation, that my best screenplay would be optioned for twenty successive years by production entities that including two Academy Award winning producers and three film studios but that it would never be made; that it would be included in a book of the Ten Best Unproduced Screenplays in Hollywood but the book would never come out, that I had made a decent living but would not be in the memorium they play at the Oscars, that I would be writing this account from the Hollywood Home for the Nearly Known?  If I had known all that, would I have gone to the trouble?

The answer came to me during a New Year’s Day party at the home of my mentor, Leonard Stern, (who wrote The Honeymooners and Mad Libs) and his wife Gloria. As a waiter I had served drinks to Leonard Bernstein and Bobby Kennedy, had my butt patted by Tennessee Williams, made Ethel Merman laugh so hard she spit out a mouthful of double vodka and diet 7-up. I had been tipped ten dollars for a cup of coffee by Maurice Chevalier, inadvertently short-changed James Earl Jones, and seen a stage and screen star known for her wholesomeness perform a sex act under a table, but on this day I had my first close celebrity encounter without wearing a side towel.

I happened to have been closest to the front door when the bell rang.  George Burns was still a kid at the time, a mere 86 years old. He had just played Oh, God in the movie. He was small and fragile. But there was an actual aura emanating from him. He glowed with a perfect acceptance of everything that was life. After the initial buzz of greetings wore down, I intercepted him as he crossed the room. “George,” I said, “Everyone here says they love you. But I… love you.” He grinned at me and kissed me on the cheek. He asked what I did and I said I was a writer. I braced for him to ask the question that everyone asks writers–what had I written that he had heard of ?  That was not his question. In his sweet gravelly voice he said, “Tell me kid, do you love what you do?”

Nobody had ever asked me that before.

“Yeah,” I said, when I realized that I did. “I do.”

“That’s good,” he said. He patted me on the shoulder, and leaving a sweet comet tail of cigar smoke in his wake, he headed across the room toward several attractive women.

Hal Ackerman

HAL ACKERMAN is a former co-chair of the Screenwriting Program at University of California, Los Angeles. His play, Testosterone: How Prostate Cancer Made a Man of Me, was the recipient of the William Saroyan Centennial Prize for Drama. Under its new title, Prick, it won Best Script at the 2011 United Solo Festival. Ackerman has sold material to all the broadcast networks and major studios. His book Write Screenplays That Sell…The Ackerman Way is now in its third printing and is becoming the text of choice in a growing number of screen- writing programs around the country. Ackerman is a current Stage & Screen instructor at Queens University of Charlotte’s MFA Program in Creative Writing.

Contributions by Hal Ackerman