Lately I’ve been thinking about the power of “no.” By that, I don’t mean someone who refuses to stop making advances on an alarmed date—or “No don’t touch that hot pot, you frickin’ idiot.”
Instead I am referring to people who have been my mentors, who raised their hand in a big stop sign, making me take stock of my work, and how I could move past shortcomings into a vastly more inspired “place.”
Maybe there was an important person in your life who kept you out of jail. Or held you up by the scruff of your neck and made you get rid of those bad-boy friends and study hard—like Glenn Close’s grandma character in the movie HILLBILLY ELEGY.
That wasn’t the role that Richard T.T. Rusnock played in my life. But he certainly helped me find and hone my sense of imagination.
Mr. Rusnock (as I always called him) was an art and drama instructor in the tiny upstate school I attended as a kid, Franklin Central. He was a diminutive man, who might not have cracked five feet but had an oversized presence that sometimes made him seem about seven-feet tall. He was always meticulously dressed and could direct such withering glances at oversized teens raging with hormones that they turned into cowering balls of obedience.
His urbane gay presence was unique in our little town. Whatever LGBTQ people that were among us didn’t advertise the fact. Even Catholics and people of color were scarce.
The moments with Mr. Rusnock that I remember the most are the ones when he said, “No” or “You can’t do it.” Turned out those were fighting words for me.
He directed me in school plays—and made a point of not casting me when he thought my sense of self-worth and talent were over-inflated. He never complimented me that I can recall. His encouragement was conveyed in small beaming smiles.
A few years after I graduated from high school and went to Emerson College in Boston, another “stop sign” was directed at me by my first writing mentor, Larry Maness, an extremely talented author whose books include NANTUCKET REVENGE and THE VOICE OF GOD. When I was a sophomore, I took one of his fourth-level writing courses. In the first weeks of the class, there was a thinning-of-the-herd experience as various students realized how hard he was going to make it for them. They dropped out. But not me.
One day I met Maness in the hall, and he pretty much said to me, “Maybe you’re not cut out for writing.” The implication was, I might want to consider dropping his course and steer toward another career.
I’d known from the time I was a kid that I loved telling stories. But I didn’t quite “get” how passionate I was about it until that moment. One Maness course followed another one. I got tougher, and my writing improved.
To this day, I count Maness as a friend. In fact, he was one of the key people who gave me notes on my novel, THE JUICE, and it’s a much better work of fiction because of his input.
Then there’s Meg LeFauve, a screenwriter best known for writing INSIDE OUT, CAPTAIN MARVEL and THE GOOD DINOSAUR. We met six years ago when I was selected to be part of The Writers Lab, which is supported by Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Oprah Winfrey.
The 12 writers who won the lab competition that year were paired up with two mentors each, and as luck would have it, LeFauve was one of mine. Listening to her talk about my script was kind of like watching someone whack a pottery vase to smithereens—a vase that you lovingly shaped, glazed and fired over a long period of time.
One night during the lab, there was a gathering at the edge of Lake George. Fireworks were spraying out over the heavens. I was kind of shellshocked at that point, but I felt Meg standing behind me. We didn’t speak. She didn’t offer any sympathy and encouragement. But I felt her strength and her caring.
With Rusnock, Maness and LeFauve as guides, I’ve been able to create bigger fireworks of my own—to release myself into a sense of beauty. And the only way to really repay them, I think, is to do the work they expect, as deeply and with as much love and intelligence as I can muster.
In one sense, that’s what writing THE JUICE was all about.