Every so often, in the course of my life, someone has looked at me sideways and said these helpful words: “What is WRONG with you?” Ever been asked that question? There really isn’t an answer to it because it’s not a question. It’s a judgment, an insult, an attack. But the other night, I was lying in bed late night watching TV and came across the movie All That Jazz with Roy Scheider playing the destructive dance legend Bob Fosse. I got a warm cozy feeling and propped up in bed to enjoy a few hours of pure bliss, as I’d LOVED that movie as a kid. My parents took me to see it. I had the soundtrack and knew every word to every song– used to dance around my bedroom to the music. This was going to be a treat.
But by the end of the movie I was in a state of shock. I did quick math: Please tell me it didn’t come out until at least 1982. When I would have been 16-ish. When I would have been able to process the idea of a womanizing/drug addicted/artist being courted by death and gyrating his way through his final days with a cigarette in his mouth. The credits rolled. 1979. I was thirteen when I fell in love with that movie.
I remember thinking it was the most profound expression of what I felt deep inside me, I just didn’t know what it was yet. I cried at the end in that movie theater. My parents thought it was because I was traumatized by it and apologized for taking me to see it in the first place. “Are you kidding me? I LOVED it,” I said. If I had known how to say, Those are my people I would have. If they’d been less kind, they might have said, What’s wrong with you? But I’m pretty sure I saw it in their eyes.
Lying there in my bed the other night, a whole host of questions got answered. Old ones. Like, “When did I know I was an artist?” “With no artists in my family, how did I get my footing, my inspiration, and most importantly, PERMISSION?” You see, as a thirteen year old, I wasn’t thinking about the sexual nature of Fosse’s choreography or that drugs and cigarettes were bad for you or that his moral compass was wonky. I was feeling his passion for living and the tragedy that he had to leave his art. I was feeling the power of creativity working in human flesh. Dying human flesh. I was realizing that I had work to do and had better get started pronto. I had no interest in being a dancer, but I understood what was behind the dancing. I had it too. And I had it bad. I just didn’t know what my IT was.
The movie FAME didn’t help. I was in a full sweat the whole time. It was like a Baptist spiritual revival. I was a believer. The artist’s life was for me. I was a misfit in mainstream society. I needed to find my people. But where? It was 1980. I was fourteen. I was learning how to play tennis. I hated tennis. I wanted to go to the FAME school. I wanted to sing in the streets and dance on cafeteria tables and do monologues on a stage and have openly gay friends.
But it was Flashdance that put me over the edge. I cried through the whole thing. I raced home and opened my journal and wrote the quote “If you lose your dream, you’re dead.” I was crying, because I knew what was at stake, but I didn’t know what my dream was. I had to figure it out. Time was fleeting. It was 1983. I was seventeen. I thought maybe I was born to act and was in as many plays as possible. But acting wasn’t exactly “it.” I loved to sing too and I got a guitar and wrote some songs, but that wasn’t exactly “it” either. I felt desperate. Which is the perfect mood in which to enter college.
If Glee had been on TV when I was growing up, I would have watched it addictively. Thank goodness for people like me, that Glee has arrived. Lives will be saved. I am adamant about this. The artist does not have to be alone. We do not have to be misfits. And most important, we do not have to be tortured. The paradigm can change. I remember seeing the original Star is Born when we got a VHS, lying on the bean bag chair in the basement in the dark, weeping. So tragic. The older movie star helping the young singer/actress played by Judy Garland find fame, as his own career goes down the tank in a puddle of alcohol. I didn’t want my passion to be my tragedy; my bondage. I wanted my passion to be my joy. My bliss. My freedom. MY GLEE! That’s the brilliance of the show: it upholds the misfits and makes them into icons!
When I finally figured out I was a writer, it was 1988. I was twenty-one. Nine years from All That Jazz. Nine important foundational years. I dearly wish I’d had back-up from the world that the gleeful artist’s life is possible. Moreover, that artists are important, essential, as is their art—not just extra-curricular folly. To see that the artist is part of the realm of “normal.” No, the artist did NOT have to be tortured. The artist could live in a society that upheld her. But that’s not the message I got growing up from the institutions and people around me (even though I won the art, speaking, writing, and drama awards, I still felt fringe). I didn’t know yet how to take a stand for my passion. I didn’t have shows like Glee mirroring my hopes and dreams and a pop-culture going crazy for it.
By and by, I found my “it.” And I have found my glee with my “it.” I write.
Like Cynthia Ozik said, “I wanted to use what I was, to be what I was born to be—not to have a “career,” but to be that straightforward obvious unmistakable animal, a writer.”
To anyone out there who can relate, I say: welcome sister/brother. We don’t have to bleed. We can laugh and play. Thank you to the creators of Glee for helping.