Remembering Steven Bach: The Complex He Gave Me.

I think about Steven Bach every day.

Hard thing to admit about a person. Harder thing to believe, I think. If someone said that about one of their professors to me, I would probably nod and say sarcastically “uh-huh, right, bullshit,” because that’s one of those things that’s believable if you’re talking about a parent, sort of believable if you’re talking about a romantic interest, or someone you’ve seen every day of your life, or maybe someone you shot in ‘Nam, but otherwise, real difficult to swallow. Despite this, I mean it when I say not a day goes by I don’t think of Steven, specifically, something he said to me one day in Screenwriting class.

It was an odd situation to impart a life lesson. We were at this huge table, Steven at one end, near the door, and maybe twelve of gathered around a long table, with me and my friend Casey on the end. We usually had to shout so everyone could hear what we were saying, and if one of us was talking to Steven himself, well, god knows what was going to get lost in translation. But it was still a prime seat, in a lot of ways, sitting across from Bach, in a way, being the only student in front of him. When he was just talking about something, just lecturing, he would be looking right at you, and nothing in the world was better.

One day in class comic books came up. It’s not odd in writing classes that I’m in for the topic to rear its head, and Steven had a lot to say on the subject, and it seemed like nearly all his questions were pointed at me. I felt like I was doing pretty well, but suddenly, Steven reached out, and tapped his fist on a pile of paper’s -- someone’s screenplay, but not mine, which didn’t stop him from saying;

“Randall [he used to draw out the first ‘a’ when he pronounced it]… you screenplay, your people and their problems… when you write your comic books, do you write about the same thing?”

Seemed straightforward. Comically so, in fact, especially compared to all the technical questions he’d been asking before. And yet, I had been in college a couple years now, and this felt a little like a professor’s trap.


“Well, now, tell me, have you ever considered doing something else? Something like Maus?”

The question hit me like a knock-out punch. For those who don’t know, “Maus” is Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about the Holocaust, with the Jews portrayed as mice, and the Nazis as cats. The book is amazing, probably Spiegelman’s best [which is saying something], and a measuring stick for what’s “good” in the business of comics, being both a popular work, but also an artistically successful one too [boasting a compelling subject matter and an incredible successful narrative to boot]. Even the suggestion that you could just decide to do something like that seemed immediately unfair to me -- like asking a kid who just started playing with Legos to design the new building to go up on Ground Zero.

“I don’t… I don’t know if it works like that? I mean, I don’t think he just set out to write Maus.”

And Steven leaned over on the table, and motioned his hand out towards me, and smiled.

“Well, why not? Why don’t you just write Maus?”

I didn’t know what to say. The sunglasses hid how wide my eyes were at the suggestion, but I saved no face because my mouth was hanging open so wide. And there was no chance to press him on the subject, by the time I’d regrouped any at all, he had found another topic, another person to quiz about what they wanted to do, and I was left just sitting there, a little… well, let’s be honest. Livid.

I walked back to class that day alone, cursing at myself, pissed at Steven. The gall. “Why don’t you just write Maus?” I mean, if you could just decide to do something great in whatever medium you were working in, why would anything ever be bad at all? Why wouldn’t every creative thing out there break boundaries and impress everyone? It was impossible. There was nothing wrong with just writing, writing what you yourself wanted to read, or see. And if it was going to be a “Maus,” then it would be, because the time was right, because you were on top of your game. You didn’t make “Maus,” it came to you when it was ready, and maybe it was all just luck in the long run.

I thought about it for a long time – never asked, it didn’t seem like I was supposed to, in a way, and eventually, I think I came to it. I think – and I wonder, every day if this is really the case – that what Steven meant didn’t mean I needed to write some incredibly socially conscious work about a real life genocide, but rather that the story needed to be important, it needed to be told, what I was saying had to matter. And maybe, to write anything good, I had to actually have something to say.

This seemed to work. It seemed applicable. I’ve told a lot people this story, and I come to the same conclusion every time. And when I say it to myself, in my head, I always picture Steven smiling.

I got less angry. But I never put it out of my mind.

Talking to Steven’s students, my peers, the ones really touched by him, the ones who are actually pursuing careers using the skills Steven imparted, they all talk about things like “inciting incident” and “three-act structure.” And I learned all those things too, and I could certainly do to take them all a lot more to heart when I’m writing.

But every time I pick up a pen, open up word, scribble down some notes. I think of Steven, and I ask myself “Why don’t I just write Maus?”

And then a lot gets deleted. Knowing his feelings on drafts, I think Steven would want it that way.

1 comments :: Remembering Steven Bach: The Complex He Gave Me.

  1. ooooo..... good one! I hope to be one of the first people you send your "Maus" to when it is completed. Yes, this will haunt you because I suspect you know this already, but Steven had little use for the excuses and emotional incubation we all take to decide to do something... to wait for the perfect moment, "for it to come to us." Steven didn't wait. He followed the rabbit down the hole and lived a great adventure because of it. His writings came as a result of his own working out those adventures in his own mind and heart. We all would do well to follow his instruction and just write our "maus" or live our adventure or just be present in the moment, taking it all in, reflecting on it in the written word, song, artwork, etc. I think this will be a good complex for you to have. To me it says that he believed you had the talent/gifting/skills to do it. Don't take yourself too seriously... but its Steven's own intellectually elegant and un-athletic way of saying "just do it."