Thursday, June 23rd, 2011
While in line for customs in Toronto on my way back from hanging out with Morris Ertman in Rosebud last October, I initiated a conversation with an older gentleman who was also in line. This was a famous man whose face I immediately recognized. The tag on his luggage confirmed it: I was standing next to Wallace Shawn, the actor and writer.
Think “Princess Bride”, think the drinking game with Andre the Giant, think “inconceivable.” That guy!
We chatted for a couple of minutes, then the serpentine line moved, forcing us to separate from each other. Minutes later, we were reunited and continued our chat. This happened 5 times before we got to the customs desk.
Round one. After the requisite and sincere, I really like your writing, I told him to tell me that writing is worth it. He asked my name, and I said he wouldn’t know it. And he assured me that he might not know it even if he should.
I like this guy.
As the line moved, the person immediately to my right asked, “Who is that guy? His face looks familiar.” “Princess Bride”, I said. “Inconceivable!”
Round two. True to Wallace Shawn form, he was thoughtful and wise with a twinkle in his eye. He likened writing to being a monk. He said one has to write in order to really know who one is. People who don’t write have less to offer the world.
Round three, he said – unsolicited – that it’s a game to go for success. It’s fun when it comes your way but ultimately that’s a meaningless pursuit. He doesn’t feel he’s had enough success to warrant the headaches and difficulties of writing. “You’re more likely to fail than not.”
Round four, he went on to say – again unsolicited – it’s not worth wasting your time comparing yourself to other writers or their seeming success. “Look what happened to Ernest Hemingway.” (Success, misery, suicide.)
Did I mention I like this guy? And how does he know me so well, I wonder.
In our final round, Mr. Shawn described how delightful it is to communicate, even if you’re only communicating with 10 people. If 20, even better. But if only 10, it’s still delightful. His smile was mischievous and his eyes wide. “If you have some insight that might benefit the planet,” says Mr. Shawn, “The world really needs it.”
I mentioned about a play of mine that had been performed earlier than weekend in Calgary, and he said, “Who knows, you might have had a very profound impact on somebody who saw your play and never know it.”
After passing through customs, I waited for him so that I could say: “I don’t know if you consider yourself a person of faith, but I feel like God sent you to talk to me today, and I’m grateful for that gift.” He wished me well and we went our separate ways.
I’ve thought often of Wallace Shawn’s wise words in these past several months. The motivation to write. The delightfulness of communication. Embracing the actual size of one’s audience without comparisons.
If you’ve never seen it (or even if you have), I’d recommend the vintage Wallace Shawn film, “My Dinner with Andre,” from the early 1980’s.