Transforming Fortysomething Wunderkinds

Last week, I did drinks and a show with DD, an friend from undergrad. 20 years since we hung out. 20 years of grad studies, calamities, marriage, kids, divorce, novels published and plays produced, and now we’re here—reminiscing, flirting, joking, eager to erase the decades of uncomfortable maturity. After I dropped her at home, she texted: “Thank you for letting me feel like myself again.” Translated: “Thank you for letting me pretend I’m 21 again.”

Because that was the sweet spot, for me at least, and maybe for her too. Freedom and access and hardly any responsibilities. A culturally accepted pass, to flounder and fuck up and not learn lessons. But, at the same time, for bright young bulbs like us, it came with an intellect and insight and an energy that garnered the respect of mentors, the envy of peers, and perhaps the highest accolade a 21-year-old can earn: wunderkinds.

Up till about 23, every play I wrote, every show I directed, every festival I co-produced, came with that added congratulatory title. There were other wunderkinds in Edmonton’s arts scene, but the pool was not huge. In any given Fringe festival in the late 90s, there might be 10-20 plays by young writers, but only 2 or 3 of them had previous Fringe shows under their belts…and that meagre degree of stick-to-it-ness qualified us as wunderkinds, I guess. Even if our plays shared nothing in terms of subject or quality, the media could use our ages and our track records as common ground for a pithy preview article.

I can’t speak for DD, but I can keenly recall when that label expired. Liz Nicholls has been the empress of theatre journalism in Edmonton for as long as I’ve been a practitioner. She, more than anyone else, was liable to apply terms like “wunderkind,” partly because she would never use an English phrase when a foreign bon mot was available to her. But Liz also loved to support young artists, partly because she could vicariously feel some of our esprit, our élan, our je ne sais quoi for a while. Liz’s reviews could be inscrutable and filled with back-handed compliments, but her previews were universally enthusiastic. Until the ne plus ultra.

At 24, I was producing The Great Doughnut of Destiny, a play which I’d written while at the National Theatre School. Her preview article of Doughnut still bore her usual ebullient tone, but something had changed. “How rare,” she wrote then (and I paraphrase now), “for a playwright so young to already be able to talk about his ‘early period.’” She was probably quoting something I’d said in the interview, but that comment stuck in my craw. I should have taken it as a compliment—I was no longer a wunderkind, I was a “playwright,” full stop—but the direr implication was clear. My ‘early period’ was over. No more free rides.

A wunderkind is an artist who does approximately grownup-calibre work as a youth. When a wunderkind grows up, they not only lose the “kind,” they lose the “wunder”—a grownup doing grownup-calibre work is just another shmoe. Suddenly, I could no longer coast on raw talent. Now, creativity required skill and diligence to garner recognition…and even then, no guarantees. Welcome to the deep end of the pool.

DD stuck with it. When she was a new mother, she eschewed post-partum depression and wrote a novel. And then she did an even more grownup thing: she got it published. Now she’s writing another. But one of the inescapable rules, it seems, is that there’s always a bigger fish, a more luminary author. It’s hard to feel like a grownup when you’re always in some titan’s shadow. Yet if you ask the titan, they’ll probably complain about all those damn wunderkinds, running around and stealing the thunder.

I admire her for seeing it through. I’d love to write a novel—except, at 41, I know that loving the idea is not enough. What I’d really love to do is to be 41 and to have already written a novel, or two, or ten. Fait accomplit. And that’s my inner 21-year-old talking—the “myself” self, trapped in amber, holding my self-image hostage while I try to sort out the rest of my life. It’s almost like amnesia: waking up after 20 years, wondering where you’ve been all this time, or what you’ve been doing.

And the fact is, I’ve been busy—sometimes insanely busy—but I haven’t been wunderkind busy, and so none of it has felt quite real. I’ve felt like a kid wearing a grownup mask and accomplishing vaguely grownup things, and that would all be commendable except for the lie at the heart of it all. And now, to tear off the mask and find myself exactly the same age as the person I’ve been pretending to be…it’s confusing, and discouraging somehow. What a waste of a perfectly good delusion.

David Mamet writes that powerful, transformative stories result from ordinary people doing extraordinary things—feeling their own fear and inadequacy, but acting heroically in spite of those doubts. He scorns the youthful “power fantasy” narrative, in which a child becomes (say) a pro baseball player, or a normal person becomes a superhero. I had the status of “wunderkind” bequeathed upon me, like receiving a magic power ring or lucking my way onto the Mets lineup for a season. It was a delightful power fantasy, but the drawback came when I refused to let go of it. Because with that belief intact, I could never enact the other kind of drama. I need to be able to acknowledge my doubts and my shortcomings in order to act heroically.

Like DD, I felt like “myself” that night, reminiscing over beers. But I haven’t felt like myself since—and I think that’s a good thing. It means some other self is being born.

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