Sunday, November 9, 2008

The History of Drama (Part Five): The Artist in the Family

Once when I was about seven years-old, I remember some strange doctor trying to make friendly chitchat with me as he looked into my seriously plugged-up ears. At the time, I couldn’t understand why he kept asking me all these dumb questions like “Did I like baseball?” “No,” I said. Did I like football or basketball? “No.” Was I in the scouts? Did I like camping, hunting, fishing, BB guns? Finally, my mother, who was looking a little embarrassed, chimed in, saying that I was very good at drawing and painting. Smiling weakly, she added that I was sort of “the artist in the family.” Sadly, that was probably the best explanation my mom could come up with for her increasingly weird child.

A funny thing happens once you take the opposite road in childhood – it’s very hard to get back. Each summer, I can remember thinking that maybe I should spend a little time trying to learn a few “normal” pastimes, but it never seemed to happen. Since our household was large and chaotic, nobody really paid much attention to how you amused yourself. As long as it didn’t cost money, offend Jesus or damage whatever ramshackle house we were renting, you were free to do whatever you liked.

Being the sickly sort, I could often be found lying on the sofa watching our old black & white Zenith. I loved it. It was my window to the universe. For my ninth birthday, I actually begged for (and received) my very own subscription to TV guide. Each week I read it cover-to-cover as if it were Tolstoy. I became obsessed with the programming grids and soon created my own imaginary TV network, “UBS.” With a ruler and an old notebook, I drafted an entire slate of UBS shows including comedies, dramas and variety hours -- all carefully counter-programmed against the competing networks. Like any good executive, I tried to spice up the schedule by adding specials and TV movies including one called “The Strange Death of Mrs. Thompson” in which the murder victim coincidentally had the same name as my much-hated 4th grade math teacher.

Given that the Bottrell family’s motto was always “We’re broke, so don’t ask,” I learned early on to become a connoisseur of cheap thrills. I was the first of my siblings to hold a library card. I dug prizes out of cereal boxes, clipped coupons and entered a zillion contests – once winning a cardboard lemonade stand. When I ran out of actual lemonade I managed to sell the neighborhood kids a few cups of what I called “Liquid Ice” (which miraculously came right out of our garden hose). It wasn’t long before I discovered the magic of catalogues. Anyone would send you a catalogue. All you had to do was ask. Soon I had stacks of them, filled with treasures I dreamed of one day possessing.

When I finished reading a comic book, I’d cut out the images with a pair of scissors; rearranging them and pasting them onto pages of typing paper in order to create a new comic with an original story. Wanting desperately to possess superpowers of my own, I would safety-pin a bath towel around my neck (to simulate a flowing cape) and then chase invisible evildoers around my back yard with a broken croquet mallet. Occasionally, I would encounter dangerous piles of Kryptonite (cleverly disguised as dog shit) and quickly pulverize them. Each bizarre obsession would gradually give way to another: Egyptian pyramids, coin collecting, mermaids, flying saucers, Ann-Margaret, Greek gods, garage sales, astronomy charts, road maps, old record albums. One afternoon, I remember pulling my arms inside my T-shirt and spending the next several hours seeing what it would be like to live without hands.

Oddly, nothing fascinated me as much as death. When a neighborhood cat became adept at catching sparrows, I began conducting numerous, well-attended bird funerals. What most of the six year-old mourners didn’t realize was that a week later I would dig up the remains to see what they looked like. Much of my voluminous artwork included pictures of my family walking hand-in-hand with our Savior (while Russian bombs fell overhead). Once when I was being punished for something, I took a marker and drew red lines across my wrists. Then I lay down on the floor of the hallway and waited for someone to discover my attempted suicide. Mostly, everyone just stepped over me on their way to the bathroom.

When the roof started leaking, I drew detailed floor plans for the massive homes we might someday inhabit. After I saw a copy of “House Beautiful”, I was allowed to rearrange the furniture (as long as I moved it back before my Dad got home from work). Somehow each change of season offered some kind of promise. I was the first to volunteer to stay inside during recess if it meant getting to decorate the bulletin board. I traced my hand to create Thanksgiving turkeys. I cut out leaves in fall colors. I made snow out of cotton and stars out of tin foil.

My first taste of show business arrived via a book on magic tricks found in the local library. Soon, my poor family couldn’t sit down with being forced to pick a card, any card. When made to share a bedroom with other kids, I’d use a flashlight to create creepy hand shadows on the ceiling while making up elaborate tales of escaped murderers still on the loose. Once when I moved to a new school, I told the other kids my parents were secretly rich, but extremely stingy.

As I sit here struggling to come up with that fabulous spec script that no one will be able to turn down, I feel a bit jealous of that weird little kid. Half of my artistic life has been spent trying to recapture that kind of abandon. Looking back, I can see that a lot of my childhood creations were in response to a world that never seemed too secure. One of my favorite essayists, Anne Lamott, advises her writing students to “write the world you want to live in, because by doing so, you will bring it into existence.” I’ve been quite lucky in my career, largely aided by a life that was once imagined by a geeky, asthmatic kid in a cape, smashing dog turds with a broken croquet mallet. Everything I write is, in one way or another, a small attempt to repay him.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

This essay can be emailed to a friend by clicking on the small “envelope” icon below. David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being delightfully middle-class in Hollywood at


David S. said...

Mrs. Thompson scolded you because you drew the numeral '9' differently than you were 'supposed' to. (Yours was the smooth clockwise loop, rather than the conventional counter-clockwise circle then straight line down.) I don't remember the cape or the mallet, but I do remember your superior '9' and still draw it that way.
Another thing I remember well is your discovery that if you hold a piece of chalk in a particular way, it will chatter across the board, thus making brilliant little dotted lines. You were covering the board with 'dottoes' while everybody else was out at recess. What geeks we were.

Sarah L. Knapp said...

I loved catalogs as kid! I would pick out huge wardrobes of clothes I would buy to wear to my fancy big city job or furniture I'd use to decorate my mansion and I'd even use a calculator to see what I'd have to spend. I loved daydreaming my time away - and I love that now, as a writer, I still get to do it.

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