The seeds of my writing future were undeniably sowed my 10th grade year, when I was found out that I had Ms. Gautreau for English. She would become more than just my teacher. She would become my lifelong mentor, guiding me through a dream that would culminate with the publication of my first book 23 years later. She is to whom that book is dedicated.
If I were to pinpoint the exact demarcation point separating me from my bullies, it would during that same year. Though a huge growth spurt certainly helped, I really owe it to her. To put it succinctly, Ms. Gautreau epitomized everything that a teacher should be. From an instructional standpoint, her lessons were always engaging and inspiring. However, far more important than any lesson she ever taught me, was the fact that she helped me discover myself…and never stopped believing in me. By extension, I learned the value of believing in myself. And the power of creativity.
From the moment on, every decision, thought, and sacrifice made was built around a dream that I never, ever gave up on. Even when everyone else seemed to try and convince me otherwise.
Up until my 10th great year, I really had no idea what I really wanted to do with my life. My grandmother had always been my biggest influence, but she was determined that her first grandchild was destined for Harvard. As a not-so-subtle hint, she bought me a Harvard sweatshirt when I was 10. Though I was far from being the smartest kid, I was at least smart enough to know that I wasn’t Harvard material.
By the time I got to high school, my GPA (hindered mostly by poor math and science skills) obliterated any outside chance that I could get into Harvard – or any Ivy League school for that matter. I was horrible at math and science and only slightly above average in the other subjects.
Once I realized that I wanted to be a writer, it didn’t take long for me to receive my first rejection letter: from my school’s literary magazine, of which Ms. Gautreau was the advisor. Though the rejection letter was signed by a student, it was clearly written under the gentle guidance of Ms. Gautreau: “You and the others who submitted are among a special folk that carry with them the guts to take a chance and put your talents to the test…we have to sigh and set some pieces aside. Unfortunately, your work was among these. However, don’t stew over this minor pitfall. Writing is an art that can provide inner sanctum for a lifetime. It is a personal experience and sometimes is meant to reward you and not to satisfy others.”
Even her rejections are inspirational!
Fortunately, due to encouraging words of wisdom such as this, these early setbacks did nothing to rattle my resolve. My thick skin was already beginning to form.
Meanwhile, my grandmother, who had spent 50 years as a Ford Motor Company secretary, had a grandiose vision that her grandson would use his Harvard degree to become an engineer at her beloved hometown company. My grandmother’s influence was so deeply felt, it felt as though my fate was sealed: I was going to be an engineer, despite my disinterest and – more importantly – lackluster skill in all areas remotely related to that particular field.
“It’s just a matter of mind over matter,” my Grandma always told me. “If you put your mind to it, you can excel in anything you put your mind to.” Though she was referring specifically to math and science, she was right: putting my mind to something against all odds no doubt contributed to my eventual “success” as a writer.
To further prepare me for a career as an engineer, my grandmother signed me up for high school engineering workshops at a Ford engineering facility on Saturday mornings. Aside from having to wake up early on Saturday mornings, these workshops did nothing to inspire me (unless you count being inspired to do anything but engineering). I was completely bored, disinterested … and confused.
“Mind over matter,” my Grandma reminded me.
And my mind was made up. Engineering did not matter to me.
Yet, despite this minor detail, my grandmother continued to believe that somehow, against all scientific reason, I could train my mind to both like and excel in math and science. If that were the case, it wouldn’t have been a matter of science. It would have been magic.
Ms. Gautreau taught me the meaning of finding your true self and then using it to follow a dream with every ounce of your heart, mind, and soul. Her unbridled faith in my ability to succeed as a writer and filmmaker has kept me focused on my dream every step away and through every pitfall along my path. Despite a cavalcade of wholesale life changes I have encountered in my life, there has always been one constant: my dream…and the teacher who made it all possible.
I would go on to have Ms. Gautreau for the remainder of my high school years, including creative writing and film studies. In fact, it was in her creative writing class that I began writing my first screenplay – an adaptation of Robert Newton Peck’s Soup on Ice; a gift from my grandma from when I was little. She encouraged me to contact the author for permission. He not only wrote me back, but gave me the greenlight to write it.
This went far better than my correspondence with an Oscar-nominated screenwriter from Michigan who basically told me that it would be a waste of my time to even try.
This sort of cynicism prepared me for my encounter with another high school role model – a certain newspaper columnist and future best-selling author of whose program I interned on in college. One day after his show, I followed him back to his office and awkwardly mumbled:
“I just wanted to tell you that you are one of the reasons I got into writing.”
“I’m sorry,” he said in response.
“You have been a great influence.”
“If you will excuse me, I have work to do.”
I should point out that he never even looked at me during this conversation. I supposed I expected the author of cheesy, new-age books to treat you like a decent human being. But then again, I was only a lowly intern on his radio program.
But Ms. Gautreau prepared me to turn the other cheek against setbacks such as these. She taught me the true meaning resilience.
In addition to my writing career, I would be remiss to point out how much Ms. Gautreau has greatly influenced my teaching, as well. Though I can never come even close to reaching her level of greatness, I strive to do everything in my power to emulate her teaching style, with the sole mission of encouraging my own students to latch on to dreams of their own…and never let go.
When I was her student, she frequently gave me press clippings from various magazines and newspapers (New York Times and The New Yorker in particular) that pertained to writing, film, or baseball. I have saved every single one of them, stored in the same box as all of my writing from her classes. Now, yellowed and tattered, they comfort me like a tattered security blanket. She still sends me clippings till this day, along with a steady stream of e-mailed articles. The epitome of life-long learning.
Every year during the holidays, Ms. Gautreau and I get together to watch an Oscar contending film, usually followed by dinner. And with each visit, my creative juices are recharged and I walk away feeling like I can conquer the world.
Though Ms. Gautreau is now happily “retired”, she certainly hasn’t quit teaching. She currently teaches writing courses for senior citizens who realize that it’s never too late to discover their voice. And of course, there is no doubt her influence will continue to live on in the hearts of every student she has ever inspired. I hope that in my own small way, her legacy lives on through my own teaching (despite the limitations my dream puts on it). I remember how disappointed I was when she retired the year before I did my student teaching. Initially, I felt like I missed out on a golden opportunity to truly become the young Padawan to her Yoda. But I later realized, the power of her force everything was already buried deep within my soul. As it always will be. There was nothing left to learn.
I can actually pinpoint the precise moment when my dream truly set sail. And it all comes down to a blue notebook. My holy grail. Like most English teachers, Ms. Gautreau required students to keep a journal. Several times a week, we would either have to respond to a specific prompt, or write wherever our pubescent muse took us. Our notebooks would be turned at the end of each quarter for feedback. I didn’t really know what to expect. In fact, I probably wasn’t even consciously thinking about it. But when I got my notebook back the first go around, the margins were filled with numerous brief, witty comments that outweighed the A+ I earned. Even though many of her comments were usually one or two words, this written “conversation” provided the spark of inspiration I so desperately needed. And it made me feel excited about writing in a way that I had never felt before.
Suddenly, life was full of possibility.
“By wanting desperately to become a successful Hollywood filmmaker, I put myself at great risk. I believe in myself, however. I know I can do it, but it will be no easy road. While pursuing my dream, I look for inspiration wherever I go. I get most of my inspiration from Ms. Gautreau…I have never been told that I can’t make it, but I have been told that it is just a pipedream and that I have no big chance (not because of lack of talent, but because of the odds). Well, I’ll show them. Somebody has to make movies, right? Why can’t I be one of them? Life is all about taking risks. It is those risks that happiness is most commonly found.”
I went to say:
“I love to write because it allows me to escape the chaos of everyday life and relax. I take pride in my writing and if someone else doesn’t like it, I don’t get mad. I just work to improve it until it is as good as I can get it. I prefer to write light hearted comedy-dramas that make people good. I find that combining tears with laughter works good in any film. To me, making a person feel good about life is the best cure for anything. To me, literature is the best way to relax, whether you’re reading it, or writing it.”
The true impetus and value of this notebook came to light after Ms. Gautreau’s father passed mid-way through the year. While attending a viewing at the funeral home, she introduced me to her family with great enthusiasm:
“So you’re the one with the journal!,” one of her family members proclaimed.
I felt like a superstar!
As it turned out, Ms. Gautreau had shared my notebook with her family in the hospital’s waiting room. It was a tremendous feeling and it was at that moment that I knew right then where my destiny lay.
As Ms. Gautreau told my hometown paper, The Dearborn Press & Guide in an article that came out after I published my first book, “His journal was magic to read…I can still remember the delight and the wonderful quirky observations he would make about life and the wonderful, unique ways of articulating his ideas.
“He had this dead-on, droll sense of humor,” she continued. “He would always spot the absurdity of life. He was always the guy who was willing to go out there and take a chance, take a risk. But at the same time I think he was very honest in his own heart.”
Meanwhile on the homefront, my dream wasn’t exactly a greeted with open arms. The general consensus of my family toward my dream fell along the lines of: “It’s just a hobby,” (Bobby’s Hobby!) or “it’s only a pipe-dream.” It wasn’t so much that they didn’t support me. They just didn’t encourage me. Or is there any difference? But let me get one thing straight: I couldn’t ask more loving, generous parents and am extremely grateful for all they have done for me and all they continue to do. In some ways, their ambivalence toward my dream only added more fuel to the fire. And made me want to prove them wrong.
In the meantime, I just had to accept that “Bobby’s Hobby” was never going to be taken seriously. And with Ms. Gautreau’s guiding light, I was determined to prove their doubts wrongs (and for over 20 years, they were right). Even though it took that long, I never once doubted that it was only a matter of time. Just how much time was a whole other matter. Sometimes, I wonder how long I would have stuck with it if I knew how long it would actually take. I certainly never would guessed it would take as long as it did. And the longer it took, the harder it was going to be to turn back. You don’t put that much time into something, only to turn around with your tail between your legs.
Fortunately, there were always enough clues (contests, optioned scripts, publication of short stories, etc.) along the way that I was at least on the right track. That I wasn’t time on something I had no business trying to get involved with. As long as I kept trying, there was always going to be a chance – or at least more of a chance than somebody who never tried at all.
It all came down to one basic principle: my dream was never a matter of if…it was always a matter of when. No matter how many setbacks. It was this mindset that allowed me to freely sacrifice so much of my free time and social life over the years. My dream always lay ahead like a lighthouse beacon surrounded by a dark, stormy sea. I just had to follow one simple rule: “Never give up.” It’s no surprise that my daughter learned to say “Daddy doesn’t give up” at the age of two. My dream is that my children will follow their own dreams just as daddy did, despite the frustration that is bound to result.
From the time my dream was hatched in Ms. Gautreau’s classroom, I have done everything in my power protect it at all costs. I have directed most of my prayers toward it. In fact, every major decision has revolved around my dream, including my decision to become a teacher. After toiling around in the media business after college, I couldn’t resist the allure of summers off and frequent breaks. I even spend my planning period writing, rather than grading or making copies because it is when I know I will be at my creative peak for the day.
Though I never once considered throwing in the towel, I would often wonder if I was doing enough. Or I would ask myself why was I still in Michigan, rather than Hollywood? A decision I still regret from time to time.
Before my first marriage, whenever I felt the urge to follow my heart to Hollywood, I convinced myself that I could still make my dream come true…from the comfort of my parents’ couch. And since I stayed home for college, my parents had grave concerns that I would spend his weekend nights sitting at home on the couch writing. Not only were they were worried I would be single forever, they were worried I would be single and sitting on their couch forever.
“Writing my life away” some might say.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have any friends (that was so elementary school). It was just that I was under the spell of my dream. Though I could certainly see understand their concern, it was ultimately through writing that I fell in love (which in turn, ultimately made my dream come true).
Flashforward to Y2K: I was on the cusp of receiving my English degree and working part time at Ford Motor Company in public relations.
However, with graduation looming, I was at a crossroads in my life. Since it was clear that Ford would not be offering me full time employment anytime soon, it was time to get serious about my future. So, I decided to apply to the top graduate film programs and cast my fate to the wind. If, by some miracle, I got into one of the top programs, my decision would be made for me.
But life had other plans.
For my final spring break, I headed to Hollywood to take some film workshops, including Robert Mckee’s famous Story seminar. Little did I know my own personal Hollywood story was in the making.
My trip began with a fateful encounter with one of my childhood heroes while waiting at the gate for my flight. I spotted a man sitting across from me whom I was pretty sure was legendary Detroit Tigers manager Sparky Anderson.
“Is that Sparky Anderson?” I stuttered to the gate attendant.
“Yes, it is,” the attendant replied. Now that I knew for sure, I headed over to my boyhood idol, trying to keep my nerves under control.
“Yes?” he replied.
I offered my hand. He shook it.
“I am so happy to meet you. I am a big fan,” I said, before congratulating him on his recent induction into the Hall of Fame.
I thought for sure that he would brush me off, but instead we chatted for a few minutes about the Tigers and their upcoming season. I then offered him my pen and steno pad, which he signed on the first page: “To Bob. Thanks for being a great baseball fan. Sparky Anderson.”
He shook my hand and I returned to my seat, where I waited to board. I might as well have been on Cloud 9. The next and last time I saw him, I was heading down the aisle in search of my seat. Sparky was seated in first class, already asleep and I realized that I just had the rare privilege of seeing a Hall of Fame coach in repose.
When I finally located my seat, I scribbled in my journal: “My trip’s off to a good start already. Perhaps it’s an omen.”
Little did I know how much of an omen it truly was.
The workshops I was attending were on opposing weekends, leaving me with plenty of time to be a tourist and ponder whether I should roll the dice and move out west, or remain in my comfort zone back in Michigan.
And then came March 7, 2000.
The rain-soaked day (in fact, almost my entire trip was rain-soaked. I quickly learned that L.A. had a rainy season) began with a dream tour of The Price is Right, which had been arranged through a family friend of Ms. Gautreau (even though I would have much preferred if this contact was able to place my scripts in the right hands, this was a close second).
I should probably point out that I had a rather unhealthy obsession with this show … due in part to the fact that I had come to associate this show with being unhealthy, accompanied by chicken soup with crackers, chamomile tea and gag-inducing cold and cough syrup. And standing there, on the set, it was as though I walked right through my television set, just as I dreamed of in a fever-induced daydream. As I wrote in my journal, it was as though “I had stepped foot on sacred ground.”
I was taken aback by how small the studio was. It was as though I was standing on a miniature replica of the set – not the actual set itself. There was no way it could possibly be this small. But it was. Even the Holy Grail itself – the Plinko! board seemed too small to be real, not to mention the Showcase Showdown wheel. I asked her if I could give the wheel a test drive, but was told that CBS has a strict policy against spinning the wheel unless it was during game time. Beggars can’t be choosers. Years later, I got to attend a taping of the show – just a couple of years before Bob Barker retired. Since I was in attendance as a guest of a CBS employee, I would not be permitted to have a chance to “Come on down!,” but both experiences were the next best thing.
As magical as my Price is Right encounter was, it would pale in comparison to what happened next. After the tour, I debated whether or not to head to Universal Studios on the account off the damp weather, before ultimately deciding that a little rain wasn’t going to hurt me. So, I took a $80 cab ride (which caught me totally off guard). Though I immediately regretted by decision, it would turn out to be the best $80 I ever spent.
It was a rain-soaked day (I quickly learned that L.A. has a rainy season) and debated whether or not to head to Universal Studios, before ultimately deciding that a little rain wasn’t going to hurt me. So, I took a $80 cab ride (which caught me totally off
guard). Though I immediately regretted by decision, it would turn out to be the best $80 I ever spent.
After wandering the park for awhile in a melancholy daze, I spotted an attractive girl who also appeared to be by her lonesome on the Terminator ride. I lost sight of her and then later spotted her entering the E.T. ride. We were both eating peanut M & M’s. So, I followed her in (making me a quasi-stalker). As fate would have it, we would ride together. We struck up a conversation and I learned she was an exchange student from Ukraine, living in Mississippi. Twenty minutes later, we were going our separate ways, with contact info in hand.
We became pen pals. At first, we started writing one another. First monthly. Then weekly. Then daily. E-mails soon became instant messages. Perhaps most importantly, she had read all of my scripts, showing more interest in my writing than anyone ever had in my life with the exception of one special teacher. Before we knew what hit us, we had fallen in love…through writing. Before long, our love blossomed until it was too big for even distance to contain us. Just over a year later, I headed to Ukraine with an engagement ring in my pocket. (You can read all about it in Love & Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine. Or…wait for the movie)
Following the most amazing, magically surreal experience of my life, in which every moment felt like a cool indie rom-com, I immediately got to work on a semi-autobiographical screenplay based on this experience, in the cold, dark shadow of 9/11.
A few years later, I optioned the script to a producer (for a whopping $1.00). My dream was finally coming true!
But then it didn’t.
Following extensive, excruciating re-writes, the script became more and more fictionalized, but I was willing to go along with whatever changes the producer suggested. But then the producer suggested that the location of the script get changed to Asia, on the account of potential Asian investors that he had waiting in the wings. Because nothing says Ukraine like Asia. Perhaps if I were willing to change the title to Love & Sake…
Fortunately, the producer abandoned the project and the option expired. My script was an orphan again. And I was devastated. The rug had been completely pulled out from under me. Though I had fallen to my lowest point, I wasn’t willing to give up the ghost. Drawing upon the wisdom of the bestselling self-help book Who Moved My Cheese, I … moved my cheese and set screenwriting aside and try my hand at prose.
At first, I felt like I was abandoning my dream. But then I realized my end goal remained the same. I was just seeking an alternate route; I would have to enter Hollywood through the backdoor.
No longer bound by the constraints of screenplay structure, writing prose was an incredibly liberating experience. I was therefore able to go back to the original draft of my script and resurrect previously cut scenes. Furthermore, the script was essentially a skeleton outline, so all I had to do was add meat to the bones. The biggest challenge was to learn how to write prose that didn’t read like the sparse choppiness of a script. By the same token, the brevity of screenwriting also came in handy. It was just a matter of finding the proper balance. Over time, I got into the groove. And thus, beget a book.
Sadly, around the time I was completing my book, my marriage had begun to unravel. And I would be in denial if I didn’t admit that my writing had a lot to do with it. If you marry a writer, know that writing will be your spouse’s mistress. Perhaps, the best advice I could give any writer is not to marry. It only ends up hurting people.
During the last couple of years of my marriage, there was a lot of pressure to stop writing. To abandon a dream that clearly wasn’t ever going to happen. And at one point, I did. For the sake of my marriage. And I had never been more miserable in my life. I never felt more incomplete. I felt like an addict without a fix. When I’m writing, I never feel more alive. A literal high. In fact, I usually feel more awake and energized on the heels of a late-night writing session than I do on a full night’s sleep. So, once I lost that lifeline, I unraveled.
Dear God, did I unravel.
Asking somebody to give up on something you put in so many years and sacrifice into is just about the most selfish thing you can ask someone to do for them. Quitting would mean everything was all for naught. It would have been one thing if I lost all faith in myself. But my faith never wavered. Yet, I wanted to do what I could to spare my marriage. Consequentially, it destroyed it.
Though broken, I wasn’t completely beaten. And then I started writing again, but did so secretly. I was a closeted writer. A painful, daily reminder that the person who once shared in my dream – who I fell in love because of her support of my dream – had forsaken me. After holding on as long as I could, I pulled the plug after eight years of marriage. And just like that, I was left with an unpublished book about a love story that no longer existed in reality.
The craziest thing about this was the fact that my divorce – as tragic and painful as it was – wasn’t my lowest point. It was the period when I had stopped writing.
When I first fell in love, I wondered if my Hollywood dream was only a ruse by fate to lead me to my soul mate on that fateful, rainy day at Universal Studios. I now realize that falling in love was actually part of fate’s grand plan that would lead to the book that would later make my dream finally come true. With no shortage of sacrifice, pain, and tears from two people, who once upon a time promised live happily ever after.
Five years later, my book was published. And as exhilarating and magical the experienced has been, I would be remiss to ignore the bittersweet melancholy that has accompanied me on this journey. On one hand, with every revision, I got to re-live my life’s most amazing experience over and over again. It is as close to time travel as I will ever get. It is why I prefer writing memoir more than fiction. At the same time, these memories are soaked in regret when I think about how it all ended. And though I take comfort in the knowledge that this life-altering experience will live on forever in the pages of my book, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to the regret of not sharing in this experience with her by my side. No matter how many book signings I have done and no matter how many copies I will ultimately sell, there will always be a deep, melancholy hole in my heart.
When the time came to write a dedication, the choice was simple: I knew I couldn’t dedicate it to my ex-wife. And I certainly wasn’t going to dedicate a book about my ex to my second wife. So, it was only fitting I would dedicate it to Ms. Gautreau – the person who most made this publication possible.
. In an e-mail to her, I wrote:
“I never even had to deliberate my decision to dedicate the book to you. And seeing your name on the dedication page was almost equal to the feeling of holding the book itself for the first time.”
I sent her the first copy of my book along with the invite to my book launch (which fell on the eve of her 70th birthday). And here is what she wrote:
Who knew that that shared room with your grandfather and my father in residence at Oakwood Hospital would lead to such connections?
To find your book in the mail after returning from Japan was pure delight.
The dedication gave me a thrill shiver and goose bumps.
I never anticipated such an experience.
THANK YOU VERY MUCH!
This old gal is very touched and pleased!
Looking forward to seeing you soon.
All the very best to you and yours,
Consequentially, one of the most joyous moments of my life was being able to introduce Ms. Gautreau to the packed house at my book’s launch party. That very moment was the culmination of every ounce of sweat, blood, and tears shed over the past 20 years, going all the way back to the moment that an awkward, directionless boy first entered that 10th grade classroom, only to exit with laser beam focus.
The next day, Ms. Gautreau wrote this on a Facebook post:
“Bob, you were surrounded by autograph seekers after our launch; so I want to let you know how touched I was by your remarks. I felt as though I were going to burst into tears when you offered your kind remarks to me. Your reading was the best. I have attended a helluva lot of readings over the years. Yours hit all the right notes. The audience was enchanted and enthralled, tickled and touched. If I had ever had a son, I would have wanted him to be exactly like you. I marvel at your keen-quirky mind, your self-discipline, your willingness to be a risk taker, and your sheer determination. BRAVO! Also, it thrilled me to be inside a NEW independent bookstore. It tickled me to see a younger couple risk starting a new publishing company. It delighted me to see people scrambling to find copies of your book down on the first floor. Finally, I hope lots and lots and lots and lots of people realize that your novel would make great Christmas gifts. ALL THE VERY BEST TO YOU FOR A GREAT SUCCESS!”
With a constant bombardment of words such as those, Ms. Gautreau’s influence will always be felt through the deepest reaches of my soul every time I put pen to paper. Or, fingers to keyboard. I know she will always have my back. For example, out of the blue, I recently received this message (all in CAPS):
I HAVE ALWAYS ADMIRED HOW YOU CAN PUT YOUR HEAD DOWN AND TARGET YOUR WRITING OBJECTIVES.
Words of encouragement such as those go a long way and they serve as a reminder of what I need to be doing more often with my students.
No matter how much further my success carries me and no matter how many setbacks I must endure, every brick of my future will be built upon the foundation that my former teacher lay down for me.
I will conclude with a message she wrote in a Christmas card a few years ago On the envelope to the card were two rubber stamped Shakespeare quotes: “This above all; this thine own self be true.” Along with “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”
Inside the card, in her own magical handwriting:
“Continue to create. It’s significant energy, important to counterbalance the forces devoted to destruction on the planet. The creative process is necessary, meritorious and precious.”
All the best, Anne.”