David L. Robbins
Novelist, Educator, Playwright, Essayist
Native Son #15
by David L. Robbins on May 19th, 2014

A frequent comment I hear from folks who’d like to write a novel, movie or memoir but do not is that they lack the discipline.

Discipline is a function of motivation. The beauty of motivation is it can come from any number of places. The heart, head, soul, groin, any part of the human psyche or body that fears rejection enough can fuel surprising accomplishments.

I’ve published ten novels. I’m halfway through my next one. My motivation for thirty years of professional scribbling has always been a deep loathing of the notion of a job.

It’s a tradeoff. I wake up when I want, sleep when I’m tired, travel where I see fit. I get to make myself expert only in topics that interest me. I rarely wear socks and dress how I like because what I wear is, by definition, what a writer wears. I have the time to own a sailboat.

I also have no steady income. I work seven days a week for months on end when I’m in the heart of a project. I travel too much by myself. I work and live alone, which after enough years has made me socially awkward. I have more shirts with stains than without. And, like all sailors, I get skin cancers.

On the water for long stretches, the sun hits you twice: once on the way down, then again after bouncing off the water. We sailors have doctors and dermatologists who annually burn, freeze or cut from our faces blotches of sun damage, called actinic keratosis, or precancers.

Two years ago, over Christmas, my doctor said he was finished with the piecemeal approach to my skin damage. To knock it all out at once, he prescribed fluorouracil, a topical chemotherapy treatment. Applied twice a day for four weeks, the virulent stuff turns your face into a scabby, crimson mess.

For that miserable month, I thought about cancer, dying, misery. I cried and cussed from the agony of rubbing the stuff over my cheeks, nose, and bald scalp. I rarely left the house. I marveled at the courage of people who take chemotherapy on their insides, who really are at mortal risk, when just spreading chemo cream on my face hurt that much.

I mewled over my little injuries, my silly red face. I felt small, comparing myself to others who’ve stood up to actual cancer, win and lose.

I wanted to so something I’d never done before, before I lost the chance.

Yes, it got to the point of a bucket list.

So I wrote a play.

Actually, I adapted for the stage one of my novels, Scorched Earth, a small-town Southern whodunit about forgiveness. The book is one of my most sad and contemplative works. I was in the right frame of mind.

I wrote for two months while my face fried then healed. Soon after, the completed script made its way to the good folks at Theatre IV. By spring they’d decided to mount a full production. As of this writing, the play is being performed at Barksdale, Willow Lawn, to raves.

I’m very happy to add playwright to my life’s accomplishments. The experience has made me want to pen another play. It’s also made me a better, more urgent writer and, I think, person. That short, imagined race with my own mortality encourages me every day not to eat the apples off the ground, but to shake the tree for the good ones.

There’s no great revelation here. Loss, pain, fear of death – these aren’t strangers. They stand alongside love, need and ego as reasons behind most of what we do. Loss makes us strive for gain. Pain makes us heal. Thinking about dying makes us think about living.

I was fortunate; my brush with tragedy was a skin peel. I’m not too embarrassed to say it because, along with a cancer-free face, I got a play and freshened respect for my life out of it. It would be easier, of course, to have figured all this out without the fluorouracil.

So go ahead and write, travel, retire, start a new venture, go back to school. Throw away the bucket and pin that list to the refrigerator instead where you can look at it every day and start scratching items off it.

And wear sunscreen.


Posted in Boomer Mag, Boomer Articles    Tagged with boomer magazine, native son, writing, discipline, motivation, living, bucket list, richmond, rva


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