Tuesday, October 04, 2005
When I first met August Wilson, I thought, Here is a guy who can help me understand my craft. I was in a little mall on Seattle's Capital Hill and I looked over and there he was – a living legend. Mr. Wilson, as I called him then, was reading the paper and standing by himself. He was arguably America's greatest living playwright and undoubtedly the most successful African-American playwright ever. He was internationally respected and almost any dramatist would give anything to be standing where I was at that very moment; I decided that I could not let this opportunity pass by. I approached him nervously and asked if he was August Wilson. He looked at me like I was going to serve him a subpoena and nodded. I told him what I would witness many people telling him over the years: that he was great and his work was great, etc. He'd heard it all before and was polite, but didn't seem to want to talk about himself. August Wilson was not a self-centered man.
Over the next few years our conversations became longer. He was not just an interesting man – he was an interested man. He was much more at home talking to people about themselves than having them gush over him.
He even became a fan of my work. (It's still weird to write those words down.) He really liked a film I made called White Face and dashed across a busy street to tell me he had seen it and how much he liked it. He went on and on laughing and reciting lines from the film. From then on he treated me like a peer. I mentioned the story structure class that I teach and he suggested that he should take it. I was blown away. I said, "You have two Pulitzers to my zero! Why would you want to take my class?"
He told me a story about a guy he knew who had once met the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. The man sheepishly mentioned to Coltrane that that he too played the saxophone. Coltrane's response was: "What can you teach me?" August wanted to know what I could teach him. In fact, once I was on my cell phone and August approached and hovered around until I got off the phone. He then asked me for advice on his new play. I told him what I thought and he took notes and listened.
At first I thought I was part of an exclusive club, being friends with August Wilson. As it turned out, August was there for anyone who was courageous enough to approach. He made friends (real honest-to-goodness friends) with passing homeless people and crack addicts. He knew things about their lives that when revealed made these street people into three-dimensional human beings. Most of us avoid even making eye contact with these people, but August Wilson would engage them in conversation.
Of the people August would meet almost every morning for coffee, I was the only writer. He was not a cliquish man. Anyone was welcome into the circle. August Wilson was not the kind of writer who observed life without getting involved in it. He was both an observer and a participant.
When I first met August Wilson, I thought he would teach me about the craft of writing, but he ended up asking me more questions than I ever asked him. What I realize now is that he was teaching me that a writer is always learning and willing to learn. He taught me that living life is the best way gather material. He taught me that the crack addict on the street may teach you more about life than a college professor. He taught me that you can ask of anyone you meet: "What can you teach me?" He taught me that if you reach for the humanity in others that you will find it within yourself. All of these things will make you a better writer, and a better human being.
August Wilson died Sunday, October 2, of liver cancer.