I was hanging out with my nephews over the weekend.
Jack and Henry are aged 8 and 4 respectively. A couple years back, Jack took tap dancing lessons.
When he outgrew his shoes, and became a wee bit self-conscious about being only boy in the dance class, he hung up his vaudeville dreams. But now the shoes fit Henry. And before I knew it, while we were all eating dinner, the tap shoes had been produced and Jack was giving Henry a crash course in everything tap.
“You go like this,” Jack instructed, kicking his lower leg back and forth while the rest of us tried to finish our pizza. “Click and click and click.”
Meal over, the boys disappeared. To treat Uncle Ethan, they had secretly decided to put on a show.
This was DIY at its best. They went over their routine somewhere upstairs. Total rehearsal time: about 15 minutes. They selected their costumes: a dress shirt, their Dad’s tie and silly hat and sunglasses for Henry; and just a shirt for Jack. Total time allotted for costume change: probably 5 minutes.
Then Jack returned to announce that the show would commence in the living room.
“Would you please, you know, shut off your phones and other noisy things,” Jack announced to his audience of three. The kid is 8, going on stage manager.
As for the spectacle itself, there was dancing, and hamming it up, and Jack whispering instructions to Henry as he clicked and clacked his way to tap dancing glory. “Now Henry will do something he’s been working on himself,” Jack announced as third act began: Henry pretended to pour tea, then blew out a candelabra of three lit candles.
Fred Astaire and Gregory Hines they were not, but the show was unbelievable in its own way.
The Uncle shouted “Encore!”
The parents shouted, “Bedtime!”
The impromptu performance reminded me of my summer days as a kid. I was always putting on a play, or a puppet show, or making a Super 8 claymation movie, or writing a new Dungeons & Dragons adventure, or painting a mural, or building a tree fort — or planning a D&D adventure/performance/movie in a tree fort. I would make grand pronouncements about some new creative direction I had decided to devoted my life to. Summer vacation was always a time for projects, a chance to try out new material. Even if my audience was three: my sister, brother and mother.
My nephew’s nutty, goofy, fearless example recalled those days, but also imparted a key lesson. Namely: be brave. Risk embarrassment. Put yourself out there. Try out that new material. Test it in front of real people (not just the real people in your mind.) Gussy up the barn, sew a curtain from that old bolt of gingham, reunite the jug band and put on a show!
Some writers crave limelight but sit back and wait for the light to find them. “I’ll just wait till someone calls me” is a common myth about building your literary career. It doesn’t work that way. You have to make your own calls.
Putting on your own event is also a good antidote to that grumpy feeling creative people can get. You know the one I’m talking about: that everyone else seems to be getting recognition except you. Miffed that you’re not being invited to read your poems for that new hot reading series? Bummed that the such-and-such bookstore or library or nightclub won’t host you? Find a non-conventional venue like a bar or church basement or backyard, write up a press release, make a Facebook event and invite your friends. (My pal Jane Roper hosted a great book launch for her novel about summer camp, Eden Lake. The event took place at a VFW hall and featured a sing-a-long and Sterno cookers for DIY s’mores.)
Put on your own show. It’s a great way to get experience performing your work, and to test out new material. One piece of advice: I do recommend writing and rehearsing for a bit longer than my nephews did.
[If you'd like to see my efforts in this gingham-and-jug-band arena, four performing pals and I are putting on a performance of writing, comedy and music called "Funny As a Crutch" on Monday June 13 in Cambridge, Mass. The show includes dirty limericks, educational raps, recipes for cooking raccoon, Dungeons & Dragons-inspired poetry, children's stories that shouldn't be read to children, and fiction about the miracle of motherhood as seen from the bottom of a martini. More information here. Hope to see you there.]