The answer is a simple one to those who are writers and a complex one to those who are not. You see, the truth is that I never “became” a writer. I always was one; I just didn’t know it. I’d always had a relationship with words; I’d always had ideas that progressed into actual stories. But the journey between me being a novice and getting paid to write requires that I explore some pivotal moments in my life to more sufficiently answer the question.
I was born in Annapolis, Maryland, a small town outside of Baltimore and Washington D.C. As a child, I quickly gravitated to comic books, superhero style primarily (although I must attest to a few Archie and Disney comics amongst my vast collection). Then, horror and science fiction quickly joined the fold (I can remember reaching up on a paperback spiral and grabbing a copy of Stephen King’s Carrie. I often wondered why, of all books, I managed to choose that one. But, it was love at first read). Many of my friends spent their summers improving as an athlete, but I could be found in either the Circle Theatre or the Eastpoint Cinema. It was there that John Carpenter, George Lucas and Ridley Scott became the muses of my imagination.
I wish I could say that all was good and recount romantic memories of the birth of a writer. Such was not the case.
I was a painfully insecure child. The aforementioned interests helped me to endure what was mostly a lonely childhood. For my love of fantasy and literature, I was branded a “white boy.” You see, for some in my culture, imagination is unnecessary. Their belief is that life is purely about survival. To be black, is to focus on the basics: money, materialism, and survival. Subject matter such as science fiction, horror, or fantasy is avant-garde at best. I’m sure this point-of-view was cultivated in slavery and the struggle we’ve had as a people to gain respect and prominence in this society. Nevertheless, I believe a healthy imagination is key to self-actualization both as an individual and as a culture. But…I digress…the “white boy” thing never stopped me from indulging; it just fertilized the aforementioned insecurity. I never stopped reading; writing and waiting impatiently for the next Frank Miller or Alan Moore run on a comic series. Things pretty much stayed in that lane until my teen years, when hormones and troubles at home forced many bad decisions and pushed what little sanity I had to the edge. What saved me through it all were my constant companions: comic books, horror and science fiction movies, books and now a new friend joined the bunch: music! I fondly remember when my childhood friend Mike Jackson suggested I listen to the Police album “Synchronicity.” He actually purchased the cassette for me, and I’m glad he did. From the first listen, I was hooked and I am happy to say that Sting’s music has gotten me through some really dark periods in my life.
It was during high school that writing came calling, but I ignored it convinced that writing was for white people. The Gods knew better. My 11th grade journalism teacher, Mr. Jay Silberberg, as a punishment for being the class clown, sentenced me to write the cover article for the school newspaper about the basketball team. Now, I confess to being competitive so when I was assigned this task I’m sure he thought that I wouldn’t do it or I wouldn’t do it well. In defiance, I worked at the article. I interviewed the coach, teammates and gave my personal/commentary with stats of the previous season to support my assertions. A few days after I turned in the article, Mr. Silberberg called me to the front of the class. As he slowly walked towards me, I smiled because I knew it was good and felt in some twisted way that I proved a point. His eyes locked onto mine and he said that if I put as much work into being a writer as I did in being the class clown, I might be able write for a living. I tried to look away and joke off his words, but he wouldn’t let me. He grabbed my arm and said, “You’re better than you think you are.” I’ll never forget that. From that moment, anytime anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I said, “A writer.” Thank you Mr. Silberberg.
I wish I could say that from that moment the “Rocky” music went off in my head and I started writing, but I didn’t.
I spent years toiling. I went to community college and worked odd jobs. Finally, I convinced my girlfriend to marry me in the hopes that maybe she could make life decisions that I was unable or unwilling to make.
I was, in no way, prepared to be a husband or father and a few years in, we divorced. I found myself alone, with little purpose and no direction. I was lost. When I hit the bottom, I called a friend, Eric Goods. Eric always saw something in me and constantly worked to get me to self-actualize. But on this day there weren’t many words shared. He just looked at me and asked if I could do anything with my life what would it be? I responded with no hesitation, “I’d write movies and TV shows.” He said, “Why don’t you just go do that?” I made a million excuses why it wouldn’t work like my age, location, not good enough, black, too tall, etc. He just stared at me and repeated, “Just do that.”
So I did.
I moved from my little house in Arnold, Md to Greenbelt, Md, which is right outside of Washington, D.C. I enrolled in Howard University, and I began reading about writing, studying film, dreaming…. It felt good. I got a job at Georgetown University as a campus policeman at the law center and at night, I worked at Wal-Mart stocking shelves. I struggled financially but it was the most creative time of my life. For the first time, I felt hope.
Then, the film The Pelican Brief came to the law center to shoot scenes. I signed up for the overtime detail. I met the film’s stars, Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts. That was cool, but another very important introduction was made that day to Gary Fiorelli. Gary was the key set production assistant, which meant he took direction from the Assistant Directors to set background actors, lock up traffic, etc. He was a tornado of energy and we bonded immediately. I was in awe of him and the film crew. They seemed to love what they did, and that energy drew me in. I asked him for a job as a production assistant (P.A.) and he helped to make that happen. I worked harder at that job than I had at any in my life. I’d found a world that felt right to me and I was determined to be a part of it.
So… I quit my job at Georgetown and joined the crew at The Pelican Brief. I went on to work with Gary on a number of films: Major League 2, Quiz Show, Clear and Present Danger, to name a few.
One day, I read in the Hollywood reporter that the film Major Payne starring Damon Wayans was coming to Virginia to film. I sent in my resume and got the job as key production assistant. Three days into the shoot, Damon approached me and said, “What do you want to do in this business?” He pointed to the headset I was wearing (essential equipment to being a production assistant) and said, ”It can’t be just that. You’re smart, and you’re funny. Certainly, you want more.” Well he was right and he was wrong. He was right in the sense that I did want more (although writing had taken a back seat), but at that time I didn’t need to be a writer. I was relatively content working on movies, rubbing elbows with celebrities and making a hundred dollars a day. But I told him, ”I want to be writer.” He smiled that big Damon Wayans smile and said, “Really? Well, we’ll see how bad you want it.” So… for the next three years, I followed him around the country working on his films and writing jokes for his stand up routines.
In between, he taught me how to think, how to dress, and how to conduct myself in regards to the Hollywood mindset and standard. (You see, in Hollywood, no one tells you the truth. You can be silently assessed by a smiling judge and never even know it until you are not asked to come back.) He taught me that I was good enough. He never allowed me to get comfortable. Many times I slept in my car. I made very little money. It was hard, but it was necessary. On the film Bullet proof, Damon leveled with me and confided that if I truly wanted to write for a living, I would have to move to Hollywood. I knew no one in the industry and had no relatives or friends there. I thought about it long and hard.
But…I packed my things and moved to Los Angeles.
I lived in my car for months until my ex-wife sent my 11 year-old son to live with me. Then, I was forced to get a place. I worked odd jobs as a production assistant, security guard to pay the rent; I even had a small garbage company picking up trash from various movie sets at the end of the production day. This continued until I got the job that really changed me: The Green Mile.
Although I look nothing like him, I got a job as a stand-in on the movie for Michael Clark Duncan. I’d lobbied to get a job by hiding in the 1939 paddy wagon the transportation captain on the film had acquired, and jumping out when the director Frank Darabont came to check it out. Although I scared him, he respected the effort to get the gig and thus, he hired me. Everyday I would sit in the studio hallway and talk to Frank. We’d talk comics, Stephen King, John Carpenter and life in the movie business.
One of the reasons I wanted to be on the film so badly was to meet my favorite author, Stephen King. I’d brought my books for him to sign and just wanted to confirm that he was really real. But, I ended up getting something much more valuable than an autograph. The day of his visit to the set, I was asked to do the off camera work for Michael. That meant when the camera was on the other actors, and “John Coffey” was in the scene but off camera, the other actors would react and look at me. So on this day, the scene is about to begin and we rehearse. The character “Percy” is to walk in, hit his mark, step on the mouse Mr. Jingles, and say his line. Then, Tom Hanks picks up the dead mouse, and I stick out my hand through the cell bars and say, “Give ‘em to me boss.” I was ready. So Frank calls, “Action!” Percy steps on the mouse, Tom Hanks picks up the mouse and looks at me and… time stops. I look to Tom, the emotion in his face, his focus on this scene, and his dedication to the craft. Then, I looked at Frank focused behind the camera. I looked at Stephen King and producer David Valdez slightly away from camera, and “I got it.”
I suddenly understood the difference between me and them.
They were committed. Stephen’s writing, Frank’s directing, Tom’s acting—all shared a fierce commitment. They’d worked hard and relentlessly to be at the top of their professions. They sacrificed and had taken risks and the moment embodied that commitment. (Now, I’m sure this example had been before me previously, but I couldn’t see or appreciate it then). I realized that I had just been happy to be there, to talk to Frank, to have Stephen King sign my books, and to live in Hollywood. I had yet to accept the responsibility of being great myself.
It was then that the “Rocky” bells finally went off.
I focused. I studied. I read. Most importantly, I wrote. I became a better writer. I reconnected with Damon Wayans who gave me the opportunity to work on his TV show My Wife and Kids. There, I met Don Reo, who along with Damon, taught me what being a professional writer was. Don, a legend in the world of television, made me a bona fide TV writer. He held me to a standard. He never allowed me to behave or perform in a way that was beneath me. Without Damon Wayans and Don Reo, I wouldn’t be here. For four seasons, I wrote on that show. Then I went on to write for Everybody Hates Chris. Chris Rock’s work ethic and brilliance built on the strong foundation that Damon and Don laid. Then came The Boondocks. My greatest creative partner to date has been Aaron McGruder. His creation of the animated TV series The Boondocks actually allowed me to hone my comedic voice. Network TV shows have strict limits as to what can be said or the types of stories that can be told. With The Boondocks, there are no such constraints. And thus, this creative freedom became the cornerstone of my maturation process as a professional writer.
There’s much more of course. My journey is far from complete. More stories, more lessons learned and if you’re interested, I may tell another tale or two. I’d be remiss if I didn’t confess that this occupation is a very difficult one. There is constant pressure and bouts of unemployment that must be handled professionally. By that, I mean that even if you don’t have a gig, you still have to keep writing. But then…that’s what writers do, professional or otherwise…we write.