An out-of-the-blue letter from an ambitious ex (whom I haven’t spoken to in many years) recently got me thinking about how my career expectations have shifted since I was a wee thing in the city. About how my writing life has become less about milestones and more about the daily practice. About making room for the unexpected. Small, seemingly inconsequential experiences that continue to resonant. Big deal "water-shed moments" that were disappointments. How I tried to follow a more traditional path until it felt like I was flinging my body against closed doors. How I turned and walked another way.
Here is what I wish someone had told me when I was 24.
- You cannot wait for something to come and change your life. Your life is happening right now. Change the things about your life that you can control. Say it again: Your life is happening right now.
- Screw the schmooze. Find people you care about and can critically engage with on a deep level. Cultivate genuine friendships. (And like Taylor Mac says, people you dig will eventually have cooler jobs.)
- Those blanket pieces of advice like: Form a writing group! Go to grad school! Have a production! Get an agent! Only do these things if they make sense. The right people, place and time. Otherwise, they are undercooked pasta on the wall of life. They will not stick.
- Say no. Don't take every opportunity that comes your way. Be precious about your time. Learn how to direct the fierce fire of your energy. This will make you unstoppable.
- As a woman, an artist, a person--not everyone has to like you. Wear this like a badge of honor.
- Say number 5 again. Not everyone has to like you. Sometimes, directors will try to pull fucked-up shit, like asking women in your play to be perpetually naked as an “edgy choice”. Sometimes, actors will think you are upset with them because you do not smile constantly. Sometimes, casting directors will try to cast a 31-year-old for a character in her 50s because she’s “got a quirky look.” Speak your mind clearly and without guile. Then allow yourself to be surprised—the relationships worth keeping don't mind a little rocking. And everyone needs to be called out, sometimes. Because #7.
- Recognize that, no matter how well-intentioned, you too have grown up inside white-supremacist, patriarchal capitalism. It is the air that you breathe. As a writer, you must interrogate your own assumptions. You will get it wrong sometimes. Listen louder than you sing.
- Present yourself as authentically as possible. There is no image to cultivate. No one else can be you or write the things you write. You are not in competition. Not with your peers, not with Lena Dunham or any other person who you think had more access to opportunities. You are simply yourself, and the path you are carving is your own.
- Use your writing practice as a fierce investigation of your own mind. Go deep. Scare yourself. If your play runs away from your original intention, you’re probably doing it right. Art should surprise the maker. Be unapologetic in your wildness. We have many tidy, well-made plays already in the canon. Remember, Shakespeare was weird as fuck. Brecht broke so many rules he wrote his own. Your play is not a static, literary object. It is a blueprint for a theatrical experience, meant to be expanded by other great collaborators. Leave room.
- Cultivate a bodily practice that gets you out of your head. Once a day will go a long way to keeping you sane, especially when the opportunities you’ve been striving towards actually start happening.
- Keep finding ways to do your work without the need for outside validation. The poet Bhanu Kapil once said that when you make a work you are sending a future interaction into the world, like a lover walking down a road to meet you. Trust that the meeting is already in motion.
- But, after all that, outcomes are unpredictable. I come from a nice, Jewish family that pushed getting a law degree, no matter what you were interested in— everyone should get law degrees! (And they are very supportive of my being an artist, hi Mom and Dad.) Our world is tremendously uncertain, even for the lawyers. The middle class is largely fiction. You might die tomorrow. Why not dedicate your life to what you love?
Chana Porter is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn. Her plays and performance pieces have been developed and occasionally produced at Cloud City, 3LD, Rattlestick Playwright’s Theatre, Cherry Lane, The Invisible Dog, Primary Stages, Movement Research, PS122, and The White Bear in London. She has been an Artist-In-Residence at Space On White, CAVE, and Dixon Place. She is currently shopping her first novel, SEEP, book one of her queer-pagan-punk science fiction trilogy, POST HUMAN CLASSICS. Chana is the co-founder of the Octavia Project, a free SF/F summer program for Brooklyn teenage girls. Learn more: www.octaviaproject.org