Another Facebook Status Update, turned essay, this one about the morning I spent giving “advice” to my fellow writers.

Today I started my day by talking to a group of playwrights who wanted insight and advice on the industry and how to break into it. They asked totally valid questions like “Is it worth it?” and “Will it lead anywhere?” and I replied with my standard response that only you can decide for yourself if it’s worth it, and that you have to determine what success means to you, whether that’s “making a living from your art” (not my measurement of success), or who you get to work with (more my measurement of success), or what you get to do and the potential impact that work may have (my ultimate measurement of success).

I then talked about all the various ways you can try to “ensure” that you will meet your goals (whatever they are) but cautioned that there was no sure fire way to predict or promise outcomes. I mentioned everything from how I once shared an agent with Thornton Wilder, but who did jack all for my career, to how I’d been lucky enough to work with a Nobel prize winner, two of my childhood idols, and have my work done on the other side of the planet, all because I’d taken the initiative to create relationships with people who I admired vs. trying to be strategic. I made it a point to say again and again that just because that approach worked for me, it didn’t mean it would work for them. In the end, we all have different values and different ways of trying to realize them.

But then I conceded that without doubt had my “upward mobility” been, at times, derailed by my “artistic principals”. Or my lack of shrewdness. Or my personal laziness. Or my unwillingness to play certain games, or get caught up in certain social and community politics. I admitted that all of these had contributed to a a somewhat stagnant trajectory probably due as much to not being as desirable a commodity as maybe I could have been (especially if one is a social climber) as anything to do with my talent or ability. Yet, as disappointing as my own career sometimes seemed to be by my standards, by some barometers I was not only successful but admirably if not even enviably. Still, at the end of the day, I often vacillated, like virtually every artist I knew, between feeling like I could point to a body of work and be proud of it, and despairing that I would ever create some of the things I most wanted to create or be recognized for a brilliance that, while debatable, wasn’t always being debated as often as some people, principally myself, wished it to be.

In a moment of utter truthfulness I even went so far as to say that if one was lucky enough to ever see even one of their works done well and to their liking, they were already in an elite group of playwrights because the vast majority of folks who aspire to create for the theater never get that far and that one of the greatest struggles of my own personal career was not so much finding opportunities or climbing any kind of ladder as truly being grateful for the opportunities I was given and recognizing the value of everything I achieved and letting that be enough. I admitted that what I personally found most elusive was not the common concerns of resume building or prestige cultivation or even financial gain, but rather feeling like I had ever made, for more than the briefest moments, art that made me feel as inspired as the artwork of the artists I most loved and admired. That I liked and believed in my work, I could say without flinching or fibbing, most of the time. That it caused in me the excitement I so often felt at everything from pop songs to medieval tapestries was definitely more of an occasional than a given. “But to be clear,” I clarified, “I say this not to disappoint, but in solidarity so those who know can know they’re not alone.”

Really, it’s a marvel that anyone asks me to speak on panels, isn’t it?

And then we talked about gatekeeping, and how if you let others determine your worthiness you will always be found lacking, but the fact of the industry often was and often would be (no matter how much anyone touted their inclusivity) a matter of both who you knew but also who knew you- and acknowledged that. I talked about how I’d found ways around some of those gates, and a way through others, but also still found myself running up against gates new and old and obvious and subtle, something which would always be the case and that was also, generally speaking, true of every artist I personally knew. At the end of the day it was rare to get to make what you wanted so long as someone else was paying for it, be the criteria for their patronage due to some checklist you had to meet to justify the grant money, or the fears you needed to assuage and the greed you needed to appeal to in order to convince them you were worth the gamble that they might make a killing because there is no making a living in Art in America. I tried to mitigate this fairly depressing reality with the comfort that rarely was someone not a success because they hadn’t tried hard enough or wasn’t good enough. Which on one hand means, Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down, but on the other means, Your Talent And Ability Aren’t The Variables In The Equation You’ve Been Lead To Believe They Should Be. And your passion doesn’t entitle you to anything, while we’re at it.

“So… do you actually have any like… advice?” someone asked.

All I could muster that, of all people, Tilda Swinton had once given me some (at a panel she was on) and it was basically to just keep putting yourself out there because it’s a numbers game and essentially you need to overwhelm the walls of opposition which will come in waves of varying frequency, but which will never ever cease entirely. And the pre-amble to this sage wisdom was that her own career had been a bit of a fluke: she had met Derek Jarman at a party, and he had needed an actress. But he was only able to make films because he had inherited a farm and enough money to turn it into a small movie studio. “You use what you have,” she said, and because she was an honest Puck, had added: “And it definitely helps when you have something to start with.”

She was also quick to point out, it didn’t have to be a lot.

And I agreed. So much so that I basically repeated this to a certain Chronicle journalist many years later when, while being interviewed in my stylish flat, I was asked how I’d managed to be myself, myself being someone worthy of an article in the Chronicle, that week, amongst other things. “By creating a body of work that couldn’t be ignored,” I’d replied, thinking on all those self-funded productions and lucky breaks, from the ones that only broke because I’d first self funded a production to the whole part where being able to do that was a lucky break unto itself. Of course, I’d funded it with the salary I made working at a hardware store while many of my colleagues went to grad school and have since turned out much better connected as a result, and work or no work, there are plenty of people who could and did (and do) ignore me anyway. “We’re all on the outside of something,” a character in my play, THE EXILED, says to her friend who in that moment is telling her something she’d rather not hear.

So I guess this is why I don’t get asked to do a lot of panels. But also, it’s important to remember my truth is a reflection of my experience. It’s open to debate, and it’s bound to change. And of course, hard truths often soften in the right circumstances at least for a time, and one of my favorite collaborators (one who understands not only what my characters are saying but why they talk at all) showed up half an hour after the panel ended, and we went down together to the humble little theater that took me in over a decade ago when I was just one more person who felt like there was stuff he needed to say no matter what it took to say it.

There in the bowels of a neighborhood some patrons deem too real for them to pass through in pursuit of a night’s entertainment, we sang snippets of Broadway musicals while we tore apart boxes and trunks and storage bins of prop weapons and fake flowers, old costumes and used curtains. At last we found those things which, while balanced on shaking ladders, we clamped into place at the back of the stage where a few weeks in the future, we will once more volley at telling a story against all odds for people who might or might not “understand it” let alone be happy they paid money for the experience.

In that moment, however, we remembered once again, laughing, that for all the tatted tatters and shoestring budgets, we were the lucky ones.