The year I was born Albert Einstein died and Disneyland opened. This might be coincidence or, it might explain something; the silly and serious have always collided in my work. ("A tap-dancing in hell quality," according to Stanley Lindberg.) Growing up in Brooklyn, sharing a room with my grandmother, Fanny, playing in the streets, on the rooftops of apartment buildings, in empty lots...shaped my entire understanding of the world.
I began my creative writing "career" as a poet at age 11. The old people in my building wondered what a young kid like me had to say. Apparently by age 11 I had a lot to say. Over the years I had some poems in various little and literary magazines. I took a course with Kofi Awoonor, the Ghanian poet, when I was at SUNY Stonybrook, and he encouraged me to continue to write poetry. Which I did.
When my older brother died suddenly at the age of 33, (See "Dirge") I felt a need to write longer "pieces." Eventually I decided to see what fiction was all about and so I enrolled in the MFA program at Brooklyn College. I studied with Jonathan Baumbach (yes, he was Noah's dad) and Peter Spielberg, who created the original Fiction Collective, now “FC2.” As a poet, I did not think in terms of plot. In fact, the first time I was introduced to the concept of "story structure" I thought my instructor had made it up! Silly me. I thought I could just ignore him/it. (Read "The God of Fiction")
Learning about plot was torture for someone who couldn't care less what happened. All I cared about was character and dialogue. Plot seemed like pure contrivance. I never cared "WHO DONE IT," rather, I cared about "WHY THEY DONE IT." When I learned that characters create plot it started to make sense. The third time I rewrote BROOKLYN VALENTINE, this time with a plot, I got an agent. (That's another story.) And when I rewrote "Aint No Word But Lonely" for the umpteenth time (that's somewhere between 4 and 100) I won 1st prize in the International Short Story Project's contest. So it seems that this thing called story structure works after all. (That doesn't mean I like it. But I can do it.)
The good news is that when I decided to learn to write teleplays, screenplays, and stage plays I knew going in that there would be a structure I would have to learn. After the first screenwriting class, 3/4 of the class dropped out. It was like boot camp and I passed! I even came to love those genres.
Creativity in general is a mystery which is why I often protest when anyone tries to assign rules to it. (See my blog.) Also why when I teach fiction/memoir I explain that the only good advice is the advice that keeps you writing.There is ONE rule that I DO believe in about writing and life in general, and it was my grandma Fanny who said it: "If you don't ask, you don't get." So always ask questions and learn about your craft, ask for help, ask for endorsements, ask for everything you want or need in order to keep writing. (Of course, be polite...but ask.)