Becoming a screenwriter was never a life plan of mine, though I have always been interested in writing. I enrolled in a gifted writing program at the age of eight, where I learned how to tell basic stories and how to bind books with cardboard and thread. My father would drop me off at Georgia State University on Saturday mornings after treating me to cheese toast, scrambled eggs, and kielbasa at the school’s cafeteria, and then pick me up in the early afternoon, where I would jabber the whole ride home, abuzz with some new writing assignment usually involving two cats named Pussy and Smarty. One day, my father glanced over at my newest creation and saw that I had colored “Written by Casey M” on the cover.
“Is that going to be your pen name?” he asked.
“I hadn’t thought about it. Maybe,” I replied.
“But you are going to be a writer.”
“Well, I’m probably not going to write a novel until I’m about 40. I need experience first.”
Out of the mouths of babes… Well, this 8-year-old babe turned out to be kind of right. As that age quickly approaches, my thoughts are turning increasingly toward novel writing. It was a strange thing for me to anticipate that early—both a desire to write novels and the knowledge that I would need that much time to feel at home in the genre of the novel.
My mother went back to work soon after I was born, and she left me in the care of an older neighborhood woman who would greet me after school with Pringles and Little Debbies, and then settle down with me to indulge her narrative addictions—As The World Turns and Guiding Light. Soap operas were, in fact, some of my first sustained memories. While I might be a little fuzzy on my first days of kindergarten, I have a crystal clear recollection of Alan and Hope’s reconciliation after he cheated on her with Rita on the beaches of Jamaica. I was four at the time. I was a relatively sophisticated kid, knew early on that these were in fact stories, fabrications spat out by committee in New York City. When I announced to my mother that I wanted to grow up to be a soap opera writer, she greeted the news with her practiced artificial smile and her practiced “This too shall pass” wringing of hands. It did, in fact, pass onto other aspirations like advertising and lawyering.
I say that I never had intentions to write screenplays, and yet I ran across an old journal entry from about 15 years ago, where I simultaneously heaped praise on a film and cursed the writer of it for getting there before I did. This observation doesn’t jibe with my memory, so either I’m missing large chunks of my memory, or I was being pretentious. I was in my early 20s, so either explanation could hold up. So, I’ll allow for the possibility that in my early 20s, I played with the idea of writing scripts, though it was never part of my aspirational identity in any significant way.
My foray into screenwriting can be attributed to two things, neither of which would have spurred me into action by itself. I spent the majority of my 20s in graduate school, studying the Classics, learning Deconstruction, and taking out every loan available to a 20-something. Looking back, I have to assume that I was not expecting to live into my 30s, as the future never seemed to be a concern in my financial planning. I came out with a PhD and a bill for 140,000 dollars, which crept up to 170,000 with interest in no time at all. The payment plan thrust on me involved shelling out 750 bucks a month for the next 32 years. This is depressing math, and it kind of craps on my aspiration to live a regret-free life as much as possible. I have no rich relatives; I don’t have the networking skills to sell drugs; and man-cellulite and modesty are keeping me from a life in front of the camera. So screenwriting began to look like a possible option to combat my debtor’s woes.
On top of this chronic financial situation, I was pretty brutally attacked on the streets of Kalamazoo in 2007. The attack came out of nowhere; it was the work of neighborhood kids who, I suppose, had nothing better to do on a Thursday afternoon. Later I was to find out that I was one of 14 men attacked over a 3-month period—a sign that this group was trying to announce itself publicly as a gang. I had spent 18 years living near metropolitan Atlanta, 5 years in Houston, 9 years in Austin, and 4 months in Miami, all without incident, and I succumb to the mean streets of Kalamazoo, Michigan? Unreal. Anyways, I found myself lying in the snow, with a broken back, 3 broken ribs, and 2 fractures in my nose. The police took a good 25 minutes to reach me after they were called; to my horror, they had waited because the attack happened in a Black neighborhood, and they assumed the victim was Black. I think the racism of that supposition hit me harder than the teenaged assailants did.
This attack changed the game for me in several ways. I’m not a religious guy, so I luckily skipped all the “Why, God, why me?!” moments which plague many attack victims and usually get them less than nowhere. (“Everything happens for a reason” may be the phrase I hold in the highest contempt.) I didn’t take any time off from work, just a few days in order for my face to heal to the point of being recognizable again. I took painkillers, walked with a crutch, put concealing make-up on in the morning and at noon, and tried to go about my business. My friends were concerned about me, not only because of the physical damage done, but also because I had an atypical response to the trauma. I experienced very little anger over the incident. A friend, rather unhelpful though well-intentioned, explained that my lack of outrage over being wronged said something very disturbing about me as a person. So here I was, trying to heal, trying to avoid the ever-present police who were bullying me into trying to pick perps out of a line-up when I had no memory of anyone’s faces, trying to teach without showing pain and discomfort, and feeling bad about myself for not being angry enough as a victim of a violent crime.
It wasn’t a fun time. For months, I showed embarrassing and debilitating symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. If someone began to act unpredictably in public, whether it was raising their voice, or breaking a glass, or moving suddenly, I would retreat into a panicked shell. In the strangest and most unlikely places, my head would go back to the afternoon of the beating, and it would take several seconds to shake off the sensation of hands and feet raining down on me. Walking into meetings and student appointments, I would begin to worry that my head still looked swollen and bloody, that somehow it still bore the goriness of the initial moments of contact by these kids. I felt like apologizing for my appearance all the time, when in reality there was probably not much disturbing about my external appearance apart from the story my eyes were telling.
I couldn’t control what had happened to me, and I also suddenly found I couldn’t control people’s perceptions of me. In the face of this powerlessness and accumulating sadness, I began to activate one of my oldest resources and most familiar coping mechanisms. I began to write.
I started with a short prose piece. It was a story about a hustler named Grief whom I took home one night and who ended up never leaving. It was a way of coping with some of my feelings, through humor, through self-assertion, through the comfort of re-making reality in my own tongue and my own time. I shared it with a few friends, and it felt good.
Soon after, I went to Target and bought a couple of writing journals. There’s no better feeling in my mind than going to a store and picking out an awesome, beautifully patterned, hardbound journal filled with white pages. The world is vibrant with possibilities at such moments. As much as I had loved graduate school and would take not a moment back from those years, my critical, academic voice had long supplanted my creative one for most of my 20s. It was time to regain control of that voice, to craft worlds on the page that were missing from the one I inhabited every day. This accident made several things very clear to me; life’s brevity, the urgency of meaningful expression, the beauty and utility of words as therapeutic practice, the act of writing as survival and a testimony that I matter—these were things I could no longer afford to ignore.
I started with poems, essays, snippets of dialogue from a scenario I had not yet fully painted. Some of it was good, some horrible, but filling those pages filled something in me. I grew more confident. I grew more generous and patient and even occasionally impressed with myself.
It may not be the kind of thing I’d want to admit on Oprah—that I got started writing because of my close encounters with bankruptcy and death—but since it got me inspired and dedicated to the art of writing again, I will take it. Not to be too Pollyanna about it, but there was a silver lining to this cloud. This beating and this economic hardship—they were a bitch, but they produced at least one good outcome. (They still didn’t happen for a reason.)