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)

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Three Days With Sam Shepard That Changed My Writing Life

It happened on a hot day in the beginning of the Eighties.

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 Shepard entered. He was tall and shy and threw himself into a chair. He wasn't much 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 Shepard 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 a tired cliche into a pot 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 rattlesnakes that roamed in the area. After an hour we came back, sat at the table, and read loud what we'd written. Sam Shepard 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 three or 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 day Shepard was around I read my piece, Sam Shepard 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 poet-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."

There wasn't a sound in the room, and 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 Shepard had taken over the workshop.

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, I wrote an altered version that I sold to DR, our national Danish TV station, and was broadcast in 1986. In a certain sense, my professional career started when those words came out of Sam Shepard's mouth. They became my antidote when I later 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 lightweight. It hurt me but I knew it wasn't true. Sam Shepard had seen me for what I was. And what I didn't know at that time was that my best work was going to be my serious novels, Flødeskumsfronten  (Le Front Chantilly, O Paraiso de Hitler) and Zarens dværg (The Tsar's Dwarf, La Naine du Tsar, A Anä Do Czar) that reflected some inner truths, if not outer about myself. His words were a gift, and I won't forget them as long as I live.

So why am I writing this on my fluffy blog - to brag?  Well, that, too, of course, but mostly because I learned how important it is to encourage others, especially when you really mean it.

At The Padua Hills playwriting workshop, Sam Shepard wanted people to write about what they'd experienced themselves. He didn't want any bullshit no matter how poetic it sounded. Once he actually scolded a black girl for writing about the slaves coming over from Africa.  He did it in a very polite way but his point was, you've never been a slave, so how can you write that?

I was reminded of this workshop when I saw Sam Shepard in Bloodline on Netflix as the old patriarch of a troubled family. I got goosebumps all over because my three days with him changed my writing life and also inspired me during the years I taught Advanced Fiction Writing at Portland State University.

Be honest in your writing. If you're funny, be funny. If you're poetic, be poetic.  Write what you are; not what you think you should be!  Or simply, write what's going on in your body, and be authentic. Let it come from within!

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