By Christopher Thornton
How one finds their way to the practice of any art or craft is often a bit of a mystery, but my path may be a little more unusual than most. I come from no family of writers or anyone with a literary bent, unlike many musicians, who often come of age in a family of musicians, or artists who grow up in the company of fellow painters and sculptors. Literary life was never a part of my background. I also admit that I never had a love of words or language, and still don’t. So how did I find myself pursuing a literary career?
I think the hook that grabbed me was the richness of storytelling and the stimulation of the imagination that was generated by reading. When I was in seventh and eighth grade my primary school subscribed to a book club to encourage reading among us pre-adolescents. Every few months an order form was passed around the class, we made our choices, and a few weeks later, when the books arrived, my desk usually was stacked with 8, 10, or 12 paperbacks, enough fodder for my imagination until—well, the next order. A few years later, in my third year of high school, a class in American literature exposed me to the icons of American letters—Thoreau and Emerson, Twain, Steinbeck, Hemingway. I liked what I read, and this seemed like a challenge to try it myself, to put whatever experiences I had gained at that point in life into words. I wrote a few stories.
I still had no love of language. To me, words were tools and nothing more, just as color is a painter’s medium and sound and rhythm the play toys of any musician. Words had one purpose: to recreate experience on paper. About the same time I became interested in classical music. I may not have grown up in a literary household, but my mother was a lover of Chopin, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and other classical composers. My father was a professional artist, so creative streak was in the air. As a child I dabbled in drawing, fiddling with my father’s art supplies, but I doubt that I ever displayed much talent. And I never tried to master a musical instrument. The maddeningly complexity of notes and scales, frets and flats, left me baffled. Human experience was much more accessible, far easier to come to terms with. So I directed my effort toward recreating these experiences in words.
After high school I studied at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop and continued to write stories, short stories, which meant working in prose, as most beginning writers do. But sometime after graduation something happened. I began to see my ideas for stories not as words on a page but as people saying things and doing things in physical space. The words were now spoken, and the story didn’t take place in some undefined past. It unfolded in front of observers, in real time. Something is going here—I thought. I started reading plays, by the Who’s Who of Western drama—Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekov. After reading a few dozen plays, maybe more, I tried my hand at writing one. All at once, it seemed that a weight had been lifted. Gone was the struggle with language and how the words appeared on a page. I only had to describe the action that I saw in my mind’s eye and transcribe the words I had heard in my heard, emerging from the mouths characters I created. My first attempt, a 30-minute one-act, got me into the Bay Area Playwright’s Festival in Mill Valley, California. After that I spent three years at Brandeis University, where I earned an MFA in theater.
After graduate school I started teaching both playwriting and screenwriting at Emerson College in Boston. The screenwriting assignment came about as a fluke, or twist of fate. Three days before the start of the semester an instructor assigned to teach the evening screenwriting course called to say he wasn’t returning. I was in the department head’s office when the news arrived late one Friday afternoon.
“It’s just like playwriting except for the screen instead of the stage. You can do this, can’t you?” he told me. “The books are already in the bookstore and it’s open for another half hour. You can pick them and charge them to the department. You can do this, can’t you?”
And so I became a screenwriting teacher.
Now words, by themselves, were virtually meaningless, except for that crisp line of dialogue that can make a cinematic scene sparkle. Words were meant only to describe a line of action and a pictorial vision that unfolded before an audience. But this was still storytelling, of the most fundamental kind, and it wasn’t far removed from mainstream fiction. Like a work of fiction it could explore complexities of character and lead the viewer on a journey that could play with the feints and tricks of plot. Only now the story was something we watched rather than read, and it had to be “told,” or presented, with a meticulously crafted rhythm and tone.
Over the last 30 years I’ve taught many forms of writing at the university level—playwriting, screenwriting, creative writing, and nonfiction, just about everything but poetry—and in the classes that focus on prose I’ve often described a piece of writing as a painting in words, and something that has an overall shape, rhythm, and tone, much like a musical composition. I still believe that words have no value in themselves. They acquire meaning only when they are woven together to create something larger than themselves. The same goes for works of art. Van Gogh’s brilliant yellow is only brilliant yellow until it depicts a sunflower, or the ragged stalks of a cornfield, in crude swaths of paint. If brilliant yellow isn’t used to represent something other than brilliant yellow, it is just that—brilliant yellow—nothing more, nothing less. The same goes for words.
Before concluding I must backtrack. In my 20s, while trying to pursue a writing career, I also became interested in photography. I loved capturing images in a frame and took a few courses to hone my skills, and decades later I still have a 20-year-old, 35 mm Nikon film camera, that I lug along on travels to take not snapshots, or selfies, but—photographs. As much as I enjoy photography, the notion of devoting myself to it wholeheartedly has always left me a little empty. Why? I think because photography, and painting, can be very effective at capturing a moment, but they can’t tell a story. They can suggest a story, and contain many of the elements of a story, but to pursue the story we have to leave the frame, and then the experience becomes not that of a photograph but a comic strip, or a movie—a story told in pictures.
So all these years I have stuck to storytelling, by whatever means and in whatever form these stories want to be told—on stage, on screen, or even as words on a page. And I still have no love of language. But I do love storytelling.
Christopher Thornton is a professor of writing at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates. His book, DESCENDANTS OF CYRUS: Dispatches From the Real Iran, will be released by Potomac Books in Fall 2019.