Lucas stared quizzically at a little wire cage as if it was a crude object from bad sci fi movie.
He isn’t that tall a man, but there’s something about Lucas that reminds me of an ultra modern skyscraper, so narrow. And he has a sculpted sensitive face that suggests a Vietnamese or Cambodian heritage. When words stumble out of his mouth, he seems to be pushing against a solid wall of air, so intensely shy and just as intensely determined not to be that way.
That was why he was standing there before a crowd of about 30 people. We were at a Toastmasters Club meeting. I see him there about once a month as we both deliver speeches, fighting our fear of public speaking and (at least on my part) finding a good excuse to tell stories. And now he was looking weirdly at what everyone else in the group knew was your everyday, run-of-the-mill tea ball.
He’d picked it out of a bag and was tasked to tell a story about whatever surprise item he chose. He was incredulous when we told him the little cage was for encasing loose tealeaves. Why on earth, he asked, would anyone ever use something like that when you could just go out and buy tea bags?
He cracked us up. And suddenly I felt something click inside of me. Lucas was no longer a stranger. I “got” him in a way I hadn’t before. It wasn’t so much that he could be so unintentionally funny, but because I’d seen him tell a very intimate story about a month before. It was such a poignant tale about his mother, who had sent him away as a child because she was too poor to feed him.
In the days that followed the tea ball “aha moment,” I realized that Lucas had brought to life a key rule of writing: to really make a person come alive on the page, you need to display extremely different aspects of their personality or how they act. These elements may be even contradictory.
The play of light and shadow serves writers in other ways as well. That was underscored for me this last week as I listened to the great British film director Stephen Frears and actor/writer Steven Coogan speak at New York’s Lincoln Center.