From Word to Word

Why I write

When I was a little boy my mom used to call me “little Elf”. I would run around the house, with sound effects and all, reciting spells and fighting dragons. An imaginative child indeed. So much so that my fantasy seemed to be reality. Art seemed to me a gateway to new, better worlds ripe for exploring. Most other kids only dipped their toes in once in a while, unnerved by this venture into imaginative danger, but to me it felt like I was coming home. I would lose all notions of the real world. I would read a book at school and my whole class would have to scream at me before I would notice anything going on around me at all. Time flows differently for us elves, it was hard to keep myself on the human timeline.

Life is boring. This is something I learned the day magic died, the day I found out “Sinterklaas” (the Dutch equivalent of Santa Clause) wasn’t real. After Sinterklaas’ helper had thrown candy into the living room to signal the arrival of the presents, I had rushed after him only to just barely see my dad’s bald head escape into the garage instead of the colorful hat I was expecting. I think this is what death feels like: you’re so convinced you’re alive that the realization of dying kills you. Finding out magic wasn’t real felt like dying. At the age of 6 I had passed away. My trust in a world of possibility had been scattered. I cried myself to sleep that night. That day had caused an irreversible change in me.

I remember one day later that year, when reading a book or watching a movie wouldn’t suffice. I sat down in front of a computer and began to write. Having no idea about what being a writer was or meant, (I assumed books and movies simply appeared like the magic they contained,) I cannot say that I made a choice to write. The occasion simply arose. Someone had to record this valuable elven lore before it was lost forever. And so I wrote, starting a long quest, unknowingly, towards a fantasy novel that would never be. I wrote for hours, taking an endless amount of pages to just describe a room. It must have looked silly, this literary toddler typing away, attacking his thoughts and forcing them into reality. Trying to write a fantasy novel at the age of 6 was the first aggressive thing I had ever done in my life.

In her work “Why I Write” Joan Didion states the following: “In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act.” While I agree that some (but not all) writing is aggressive and the writing I did at age 6 certainly was, I disagree with the reason. I do not and did not write to impose my will on other people. I write to impose my fantasy onto reality. While that may sound grandiose, it is actually a rather humbling experience. I think that to want to escape reality every now and again is a natural desire for most people, especially at a young age, but I realize now that I never wanted to escape reality. Even as a kid, I wanted to mold reality into something different. Something better. Magic had died, but maybe I could replace it with something else.

Often, I have felt like a child of contrast, which created conflict. After I found out magic wasn’t real, my road towards academics slowly but surely started taking control. I ended up going to a very high-ranked, competitive high school in the Netherlands and spend much of my time studying a great variety of subjects as back home we don’t really have a choice in what courses we do or do not take in high school. We have to take them all. Growing up in this environment revealed a lot of frustrating truths for me: I am emotional and rational, creative and scientific, nice and mean, concerned and apathetic, I am both ends of the spectrum. I feel that in modern society the idea of having one clear defined personality is idealized. We are taught that every person has a character, and that having a character meant that every person would have rules of behavior. What can you expect from another person? What can you expect from yourself? Because people and media had always told me that one day I’d find this mysterious character that represented who I was, I was utterly unprepared for the wildness of trying to figure out what living an authentic human life entailed. In “The Figure a Poem Makes” Robert Frost says:

“Then there is this wildness whereof it is spoken. Granted again that it has an equal claim with sound to being a poem’s better half. If it is a wild tune, it is a Poem. Our problem then is, as modern abstractionists, to have the wildness pure; to be wild with nothing to be wild about. We bring up as aberrationists, giving way to undirected associations and kicking ourselves from one chance suggestion to another in all directions as of a hot afternoon in the life of a grasshopper. Theme alone can steady us down. just as the first mystery was how a poem could have a tune in such a straightness as metre, so the second mystery is how a poem can have wildness and at the same time a subject that shall be fulfilled.”

How can who I am have a wildness and at the same time a subject that shall be fulfilled?

The search for this wildness as a substitute for magic lead me to performing. My mother had introduced me to dancing, singing and acting from a young age and while I viewed it purely as a hobby for most of my life, it was the one constant I could always come back to. No matter where I fell on the spectrum of my personality on any given day, when I performed I could be anybody, say anything, change my opinions as I pleased and not face scrutiny for the inconsistency of being a human being that’s constantly evolving and changing. In “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” Flannery O’ Connor writes, “The only parallel I can think of to this is having the zoo come to you, one animal at a time; and I suspect that what you hear one week from the giraffe is contradicted the next week by the baboon.” Don’t be surprised if the giraffe and the baboon turn out to be the same person.

Of course I didn’t realize these notions at the time, but as I neared the end of my high school experience I did uncover my love and drive for creative expression. I realized that all other possible career choice I could make were void. I had to be a performer. If I didn’t at least try, I would grow up to be one of those grandfathers that sat his grandchildren down by the fire place and mumbled from his rocking chair: “Once your grandfather had big dreams, but he didn’t do anything with them.”

Up until this point in my life I felt I had been very lazy. Because I viewed the knowledge I was gaining in school as merely a means to an end, I never was motivated to put in any more work than was necessary to reach the end. But my decision to become an actor changed that. No longer did I see an end, I saw the beginning. With that single decision I kick started the transition into being an adult. I became unrecognizably motivated and soon realized that my home country and its people couldn’t keep up with my passion. In the Netherlands “being normal is crazy enough,” and “anything that sticks out from the corn field should be cut off.” I refused to strive towards the mediocrity which my home country preached. I became a stranger in my own home and the gilded cage of being an only child to an upper middle class family didn’t help much either. I had to get out, and so I applied to performing arts conservatories in London and New York.

I entered the most exciting period of my life as I struggled to balance high school exams and auditioning for musical theatre programs. I felt alive, almost as much so as when I was a kid. I got accepted into a Performing Arts school in New York and graduated high school successfully. It was a wild process, like a giant primate climbing a sky scraper with a screaming blonde clutched in his fist. I had no idea where I was going, but the only way to go was up. It was a huge transition for me, moving to America. My suitcase was packed with little more than dreams and the bloody knife used to cut stability out of my heart.

I didn’t know anything. Who did I think I was moving to New York like that? I didn’t know anything about the craft I was pursuing except that I wanted it, whatever it was. American Pop culture felt alien to me. I ridiculed myself for being so naïve as to come here. But my naivety became anger and that anger became motivation. I managed to stick it out in New York for 3 years being a working actor and learning to be forgiving enough towards American culture that I managed to learn a thing or two. But alas, like anything else, wildness is hard to sustain because it is forever changing. I found myself at an impasse once again as I found that going from audition to audition for projects that I didn’t care about had stagnated me. I found that American musical theatre was superficial most of the time. I found that no one was writing about the kind of characters whose life I wanted to live. I found out that just acting and singing wasn’t enough for me. And so I did nothing.

Motionless I remained for months and I found myself back where I started, home, in the Netherlands, for 6 months. There seemed to be no way out. I had exhausted my passion for the one constant I had in my life and it felt like there was nothing left. Was that the amount of life I had to give? Was that all? The inside of my covers was all I saw.

There is no vulnerability in being dependent on other people, only desperation. Despair causes great fear and fear paralyzes. The root of my problem was that I had started to depend on other people to give me what I wanted. Up until then I had never truly empowered myself. Sure, I found strength in my dreams, my goals, my drive, but never myself. Being an actor, to me, was about not being myself and therefore I could avoid having to find strength in myself. Just like in real life, I was still grabbing at other people to supply me with all I needed. I moved to New York partially because I wanted to learn how not to be spoiled. How to not only recognize my privilege but also how to escape it. Rich people always talk about how poverty is keeping people from reaching their full potential. But privilege like adversity limits human growth. In my life I have always been overly aware of my privilege. My grandfather on my mother’s side was from the Moluccas in Indonesia, he fought in the Dutch-Indonesian army, he was banished from his own country and had to move to the Netherlands to be greeted with racism and poverty. He had to see his children get rejected for further education because they were deemed stupid and lazy because of their skin tone. My mother could not finish high school and had to give up her dream of becoming a dancer to get a job and feed her siblings. Who the hell did I think I was? My father had given me privilege with his white dynasty family upbringing and what was I doing with it? How dare I have all the opportunities in the world and not be the most successful motherfucker ever at age 22? My mother and grandfather did not have the luxury of depending or even hoping on someone else to make their dreams come true and I cannot allow myself that either. And so I got out of bed and wrote. Just like that 6 year old boy I had been, I wrote. I slammed my fingertips into the keys of my computer and wished I was free from the guilt of being useless. I wrote to be independent.

That summer back home, I started to write a play. My first play. It had been a long time since I had written anything creatively. I had stopped writing completely from since I was a teenager, but the occasion to write reared its head again. The play was a monster. A monster that I loved and fed and cleaned up after, put to bed every night and sang lullabies to until it slept. I find that it is never of any value to me when people say things like: “You should write about…” or “Why don’t you write about…” In my opinion a good writer does not write about things. A good writer writes “with” things. We write with pens, we write with ideas. It is a co-operation. To me writing feels like what I conceive raising a child to feel like. Writing is motherly. Yes, it is hard sometimes, yes the child can feel like the cruelest thing on the world and you desperately don’t want to care when it’s screaming and crying in the middle of the night, but you cannot. You love your baby for some reason which is inconceivable yet true, incomprehensible yet the most natural thing in a world. To bear a child is to create life. To be a mother is to come as close to god as any human being will ever be. It is a pleasure which every man of good sense has envy for. (Who the hell cares about having a penis?) To be a writer is the closest I will ever be to being a mother. I do not see it as torture. Maybe it is because I am still young, but to me writing gives great joy. It is a release of sorts and at the same time a wish for fantasy to become reality.

By putting the words of my play onto paper, it became a reality. The paper was real, and therefore my play was real. No one needed to read it for it to become real. Yes, art finds its worth in part by sharing among people, but there is also beauty to be found in sharing art with yourself. A musician might have songs written ages ago stored in the depths of his data drive, and once in a while he will pull them out in the middle of the night and revel in their imperfection from the comfort of his home. In “305 Marguerite Cartwright Avenue” Chimamanda Adichie wrote: “Your mother is your mother, even if one of her legs is broken. Of course, this love I profess must be qualified. There is much I do not love about Nigeria, much I wish I could change, much about which I feel by turns anger and shame and bewilderment and disgust. But love is an emotion that does not depend on perfection.”

In that same essay Chimamanda discusses the sometimes “elaborate” writing rituals writers have and it seems to me that a lot of writers favor solitude within these rituals. I cannot write in solitude. Writing is a co-operation. I don’t really have a ritual persé but during the occasion to write, I sit at a café or restaurant. I love hearing the sipping of coffee, the hush of conversation, the discovery of the Starbucks playlist of the day. I listen to the rhythm of life and it helps me find the weight of words. I couldn’t find the words to write about life without being a part of life. I do find ideas in solitude, but no words. Only images.

Inspiration is a tricky thing. To inspire inspiration I do feel a ritual is required. Reading is essential, and yet so many people limit themselves to books. Writing can be found everywhere nowadays. Movies, TV-shows, scripts, songs, videogames. I gain a lot of knowledge by playing videogames. By playing videogames with a focus on storytelling I learned how to read, write and speak English. I would play until late at night, a dictionary by my side, and every time I didn’t know what was happening or where to go, I looked up every word I didn’t understand. Videogames are the future of storytelling. They ask of the player to make choices themselves, which other stories only present as being made. When you purchase a book, it holds a singular story. When we purchase a videogame, we decide ourselves which version of a story will be told. Of course, this aspect of player choice is still young in the gaming industry and is often limited to very stereotypical displays of good and evil. But as soon as the player is presented with an option that has no right or wrong action, merely consequence, art is created. An example can be found in the game “Divinity: Original Sin”, when early in the game the player is presented with the following choice: Two men are dying of a mysterious disease. One of the men is older, has found love and started a family with two kids. He is well loved and has lived life to the fullest. The other man is young, has not fallen in love yet and is still eagerly searching for his purpose in life. The player has the ability to save one of them, but not the other. There is a very personal choice to be made. You won’t receive praise for your choice, there is simply consequence. Another good example about how player choice can create a unique connection to a videogame story can be found in the second episode of “Life is Strange” where your choices so far in the game can determine whether you are able to save a friend from killing herself or not. The results of your choices are either devastating or immensely relieving and the player is personally affected by the story he or she is actively pursuing. Writing a videogame would be a unique experience as we would have to write different outcomes for different events. This idea is very appealing to me as it allows us to expand the dimensions of our writing into alternative stories and it involves the “reader” more than ever. Perhaps one day a gamer will find themselves playing the role of a young boy called “little Elf” and they must make a choice on what to do with their lives. What are the chances that they might pick the same choice that I made? The options seem endless. What if I can make my imagination into reality through videogames?

I play my videogame and then I come back to my play. My tiny little monster. I find that it has matured enough to play a game of its own. I give it one finger and it takes my entire hand. We play together until I either figure out the rules or we both fall asleep of exhaustion and try again the next day. I still act and sing accompanied by vivid dreams, but now I hope to someday act within my own work. Like any artist I am still plagued by insecurities and flaws which I figure I could fill up with improvement. I struggle with finding the balance between simplicity and fantasy. Being unique and straightforward, between having a strong voice and being pretentious. With finding trust that my writing is strong enough that the reader will notice a sincere plight to the story I am trying to tell. An artist shall always be enriched and limited by a constantly changing perspective. Annie Dillard writes in “The Writing Life”, “Push it. Examine all things relentlessly. Probe and search each object in a piece of art. Do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength.”

Writing is wicked joy. It twists and turns as it parallels the life you lead and what we learn and know. Writing is a partner in crime that might shoot you in the back if you don’t uphold your part of the bargain. Writing is that one teacher that you hate-love, it pushes you to learn even when you don’t want to. Writing is a toddler that has fallen into a raging stream of water, that you jump after to save even though your fear of dying had ought to paralyze you still. Writing is a gift, it grants the space between words where we breathe with the anticipation of the next. I am back in New York singing, dancing, acting and writing in between words. From word to word, one step at a time.

Written By: Joris de Graaf

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