Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)

Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)
"A curious and wonderful work of great human value by a Danish master." Sebastian Barry, Man Booker finalist (Click on the picture to go to the book's Amazon page)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Why I'll Never Forget Sam Shepherd As Long As I Live

It happened on a hot day in July 1980.

Everybody was sitting at a long table waiting for the Master. And it wasn't just young students like me. It was professional actors and writers from Hollywood who were going to work on His play at the Padua Hills Playwriting Workshop outside L.A.

Sam Shepherd entered, tall and shy, and threw himself into a chair. He wasn't known as an actor back then but as a poet and playwright who'd just won the Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child. Everybody was ready to write down His words of wisdom, so we all could become instant artists and win the Pulitzer ourselves one day.

Sam Shepherd looked us over and said: "So what do you want to talk about?"

We all glanced at each other. What a strange thing for the Master to say. Wasn't He going to give us the recipe for greatness, the Keys to the Kingdom, the magic wand that could turn any cliche into pots of gold?

A few started to ask Him about Buried Child and other of His plays, but the Master shook His head, "I'm here to talk about your writing, not mine." Then He sent us out into the hills with an assignment. "Write what you feel in your body."

We looked disappointed at each other and walked into the hills, hoping not to come across one of the coyotes or rattle snakes that roamed in the area.

After an hour we came back, sat at the table, and read loud what we'd written. Sam Shepherd was honest and soft spoken. There wasn't any "what a great sense of place" bullshit here. There was no "Gosh, I loved it, but ..." Only a few crisp words from the Master to the dramatist students who now had been forced into poetry by the rugged hills.

We did this four days in a row. At every session the Master would praise two or three pieces, never more. To my huge surprise, I got encouraging feedback twice and was very proud of that. But more was to come.

The fourth and final time I read my piece, Sam Shepherd did something He hadn't done to anyone during His stay. He stared me down for a few seconds without saying a word. "Oh my God, what have I done?" I thought. Was America's greatest playwright going to punch me in the mouth?

There was a long pause, then He said, "You have an incredible sense of imagery. You should really cherish that." Pause. "Yeah, you should really cherish that."

My mouth dropped. I almost died of happiness on the spot. After all, I was just a foreign student and the only one out of twenty writing in my second language. And everybody had hated my funny stuff before Sam Shepherd had taken over the teaching.

The next two nights I couldn't sleep. I felt as if I was high on mushrooms. I wrote a short play that later was produced at my school, Cal State Fullerton - and when I moved back to Denmark, an altered version on DR, the national Danish TV-station in 1986 that did quite well.

In a certain sense, my professional career started when those words came out of Sam Shepherd's mouth. They became my antidote when I got disappointing reviews for my first novels in Denmark; they protected me against self-doubt and inferiority complexes when people accused me of being a light weight. It hurt me but I knew it wasn't true. Sam Shepherd had seen me, really seen me.

And what none of us could know was that my best work actually was going to be my serious novels. His words were a gift from God, and I won't forget them as long as I live.

So why am I writing this on my fluffy blog - to brag? Yes, absolutely, but also because I learned how important it is to encourage others, especially when you really mean it.

At The Padua Hills Playwriting Workshop, Sam Shepherd wanted people to write about what they'd experienced themselves. He didn't want any bullshit no matter how great or poetic it sounded. And his comments to us students reflected that.

I was reminded of all this a few days ago when I saw Shepherd in Black Hawk Dawn and The Notebook on TV. I got goosebumps all over when I saw Him because He has meant a lot to me as a writer and as a writing teacher.

Be honest in your writing. If you're funny, be funny. If you're poetic, be poetic. If you're weird, be weird. Write what you are; not what you want to be in ten years!

And remember to encourage students on your way when you see something in them that they might not even be aware of themselves ...