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by Hedgebrook Staff

Mentors come at unexpected times and in surprising places. Sometimes we seek them, and sometimes they just show up and offer exactly what we need.

My most unexpected meeting with a mentor happened by chance in a Seattle coffee shop.

The time was 2003, and the place was Victrola, a favorite Capitol Hill espresso bar, around the corner from my apartment. I’d moved to Seattle from grad school in the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, and was supporting myself with odd jobs I’d cobbled together: a couple of teaching gigs, and a part-time job in the receiving department of the City People’s Mercantile. Making ends meet.

Back then, the kind folks at Victrola would let you buy a cup of coffee and nurse it along most of the day, which I did, as I worked on a draft of my play.

One day, I noticed a nicely dressed man sitting alone at a table, writing feverishly on the back of a stack of postcards he’d picked up by the door. He stood out, not only because of his dapper attire (nice slacks, a black turtleneck under a tweed blazer, and a smart “newsboy” cap), but because…well, I recognized him instantly.

Amy and August_1August Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, lived, as it turned out, in my neighborhood. He was deep in thought that day, so I didn’t bother him. But he showed up again, several days later, and tossed me a friendly smile as he took the table next to mine and began leafing through The New York Times.

I mustered up my courage, approached his table and introduced myself to him as a playwright. We chatted about productions of his plays that I’d seen in New York, and theatre in general. Then he invited me to sit with him and we talked for over an hour about our current projects.

August was working on Gem of the Ocean, the second to last play in his 10 play cycle. His routine was to write in the early morning, stroll to Victrola and mull over his notes with several cups of black drip coffee, then head back home to write again before his wife and daughter got home.

After several random encounters, we began to meet regularly. Our conversations were lively and inspiring. August did most of the talking—and he was fascinating to listen to—an animated storyteller who became his characters, transforming into them as he recited full monologues right there at the table.

Amy-at-August-Winter's-door-1-webHe’d talk about his process, and how his stories flowed from one line about a character, who then began to tell his or her story, which led to other characters, which gradually became a play. His rewriting was rigorous, and his characters often surprised him with unexpected actions that caused him to change course altogether.

Sometimes he would bring me gifts: a collection by his favorite poet Jorge Luis Gorges, a jazz CD, a favorite image.

We were an unlikely pair. Him: an African American man in his late 50’s, at the top of his writing game. Me: a white lesbian, twenty years younger and still discovering my process. Our writing styles, stories and subject matter were vastly different.

So I questioned, at first, why we’d come together. What was I supposed to learn from this man, who was so different from me as a writer and a person? Not having an answer, I continued to show up, to listen and ask questions, to accept his blunt, sometimes even harsh critique of my work, because his insights made my work stronger. I learned from his ambitious, bold vision, and from his relentless practice of his art.

We only knew each other those two years, which as it happened, were to be his last ones on earth.

Amy-at-August-Winter's-door-2-webWhen I got to see Gem of the Ocean on Broadway after August died, I knew those characters like they were friends. I knew things they had done or said or thought that didn’t end up in the play, but that shaped who they were. I knew them off the page and in the mind of the writer.

Here is what I came to understand: the learning itself was intangible. And by that I mean, supernatural, incorporeal and transcendent.

August Wilson continues to teach me. He wasn’t offering me advice on the craft of playwriting. He was giving me something much more rare: the gift of being inside his process with him.

This man, a seasoned traveler of theatrical worlds, continually embarking on his own hero’s journey, called me to show up and be present to the gift of time, storytelling and conversation.

And this is what gifted mentors do: they share themselves.

 

This post is part of a series by Amy, featured in our monthly newsletter. Stay tuned in September for the next piece in this series: “Crossing the Threshold.”

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About the Author:

AmyWheelerAmy Wheeler is a playwright and Executive Director of Hedgebrook. Amy’s plays have been produced and developed at theatres and in festivals around the country, and published in Rain City Project’s MANIFESTO series Vols 1 & 2. An alumna of Hedgebrook and Yaddo, Amy holds an MFA from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop.

 

 

 

 

 


 

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Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.

Hedgebrook Staff
About Hedgebrook Staff

11 Comments

  • Renee Humphrey
    9:46 AM - 6 August, 2015

    I saw Gem of the Ocean at the Mark Taper Forum in LA many years ago, and it was one of the most extraordinary theater experiences I’ve had. Maybe the only other play I’ve seen that was as impactful was M Butterfly, on Broadway, many, many, many years ago! How wonderful that you got to learn from him.

  • Lori L. Lake
    9:54 AM - 6 August, 2015

    Very inspiring article Amy has written about learning from August Wilson!

  • Aricia Lee
    10:22 AM - 6 August, 2015

    I love the synchronicity…I have been trying to get up the nerve to ask a woman I respect a great deal and had no earthly idea how to approach such a request. I will be going to her writing workshop this coming week. So THANK you for your insights.

  • Meeta Kaur
    10:40 AM - 6 August, 2015

    Fully absorbed your story, Amy. It was beautiful, magical, and timely for my own process. I am ready to enter my apprenticeship as a writer. It took awhile but I am now ready! 🙂 Thank you for bringing light into my own process.

  • Joni Takanikos
    11:45 AM - 6 August, 2015

    Thanks Amy! What a beautiful experience for you and August ,and now all of us who read about it and are inspired by the encounter. I’m glad you had the courage to approach the great man! I once had a short visit with Lucille Clifton on the morning of my first day visiting NYC. She was so gracious and encouraging and I was glad that I got the nerve up to approach her.

  • Amy Wheeler
    11:59 AM - 6 August, 2015

    Thanks so much for the comments, everyone! It’s a good reminder (for me, too) that when we put ourselves out there and ask for what we need, it usually shows up, and often in a form we don’t immediately recognize. And that we need to see ourselves as mentors, too, and stay open to who’s showing up to us, asking for our attention and gifts.

  • Mary Tang
    2:12 PM - 6 August, 2015

    Thanks, Amy. Yes, we learn from teachers, we learn from teaching and we learn from students. Yesterday a multicultural centre offered me an opportunity to teach Chinese Calligraphy as a volunteer tutor. I thought I’d retired from that post two years ago 🙂 Now I think I will say ‘yes’.

  • D.D. Wood
    4:27 PM - 6 August, 2015

    Amy,
    I love this so much… right place right time… true connection and I laughed when you said “unlikely pair” I felt that way when I met Walter Dean Myers at a YA conference. He sounded like James Earl Jones… had over 100 books published… intimidating… and was someone I really respected as a writer and when I told him I was just starting my first novel… he actually stepped out of a book signing line, told people he would be back later, and sat with me for over an hour and helped me outline my book. I will never forget that act of kindness and on the spot mentoring by someone I truly admired… thank you for sharing this… D.

  • Lauren Goodman
    4:28 PM - 6 August, 2015

    What I heard the loudest from your story was your willingness to stay open to the unexpected. This is invaluable because writing is often such a solitary endeavor, along with the fact that I personally fall under the category of the socially awkward writer. However, as proof from your story, staying open is incredibly important, not just for one’s growth as a writer, but also because one never knows how the simplest interaction can grow into something profound, living beyond the page. This is incredibly timely for me personally. Thank you for sharing your story,Amy..

  • Suzanne Lafontaine
    8:22 AM - 10 August, 2015

    Life is good! That’s what I thought as I read about your story. There was a very generous man. Then again, he was most probably getting something out of your encournters too. That’s for sure. He is just not here to tell his part of the story. Thanks for telling us. Very inspiring.
    Just came accross July 29th Incidental comic. Very relevant to all of us in here :
    http://www.incidentalcomics.com/2015/07/great-aspirations.html

  • Sharon Van Epps
    10:33 AM - 13 August, 2015

    Wow, this is beautiful, Amy! Thanks for sharing with us.

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