Before high school, my geek pedigree wasn’t too different from countless others: I’d been writing for years, starting my first novel with another friend when I was in 6th grade if I recall correctly. I sang in choir and both sang and acted in plays in various venues. I loved to read, to write, to sing, to create, and imagine. Once I got into Lindbergh High School, the creative geek quest continued. I sang in a garage band for a brief shining moment (which I remember quite fondly but I’m not sure my bandmates can say the same). I continued to make attempts at writing stories long and short.
My sophomore year I joined the Lindbergh theater group and worked both on- and back-stage, performing and running the lights. The theater group was under the direction of William John Quincy Lauder III, aka Willie. He was … a unique individual. I considered him a great mentor and inspiration. He suggested, to me and others in the theater group, that we check out the first year of the Minnesota Renaissance Festival Academy, to be held that summer of 1981. Many of us took him up on the suggestion and began the summer school with the goal of becoming a performer of some sort out at RenFest.
I had no clue that being at RenFest would change the course of my life.
And not just mine. Before high school ended, a huge percentage of the theater group was working out there every weekend.
Many continued to perform there for decades. My run lasted only about two full years, parts of two or three others. Perhaps, if I’d been in a position to continue out there as some of my friends did, I would have figured it out, gotten it out of my system. There are a few of those friends who are so done with the place they never want to step foot out there again. Not me. I now go back every year, and also go to my more-local Bristol Faire as well.
I was a writer before I went out to RenFest and I’ve been a writer since. But because of RenFest, I became a better writer once I discovered the impossible beauty of Shakespeare and other Renaissance poets and playwrights. I developed a love of history that leads me to try to understand the very alien culture of medieval and Renaissance Europe and add those facts into my stories. I became fascinated by the way our culture has changed over time: language, music, society, technology, beliefs. And how they don’t, for the foundation for so much of what we do today got its rebirth in the Renaissance from classical roots.
In college I stepped back from theater and performance and focused on writing. One of the primary classes I took was a creative writing class. But since the instructor for that class condescendingly volunteered that he had read, perhaps, “one or two good” fantasy stories, I pointed my quill at much more realistic stories than I had up to that point. I wrote and rewrote vague coming-of-age stories, some with romances, some with no dialog (one, memorable at least to me, with both a romance AND no dialog). These slice-of-life stories meandered for page after page and never really came to any conclusions.
I got all As.
But even during that time I began writing a series of vignettes that centered around the RenFest. I peopled these stories with characters that I’d met out at the faire and put them through various conflicts, only some of which I’d actually experienced myself (to the point where my memories of what I did and of what I wrote have overlapped to such an extent that I’m not sure which are which). The characters and the setting provided me with a surfeit of situations to explore, from the safety of my writing desk.
Most of those stories were coming-of-age issues. I was early 20s, in school and then recently married. I’d passed through many stages of life in a short time and I found the liminal space, the thresholds, to be utterly fascinating. Still do, even though I write about them far less often. But the questions that I struggled with then, as those vignettes coalesced into my first complete novel length work, were larger. When I found myself on a 22 acre stage doing improvisational street theater for 10 hours, or so, a day, it forced me to engage with what the question of who the fuck did I think I was to be doing such a thing?
Sometime, late in the run of that first year, that question stopped being rhetorical. I mentally took a step back and began examining the different facets of who I was. I had the great good fortune of being able to see that I presented a different facet of myself depending on where I was. If wearing the clothes of a 16th century peasant, then that’s who people took me as. Those of a 16 year old high school student? Same. Church choir, food service employee, son, brother: set the stage and put on the costume and I played the role as expected.
Again, however, it was the liminal spaces that brought me up short. Who was I when I was off-duty at RenFest but still on-site? Or off-site but with the others in the theater group who I knew on-duty? Transitioning from one space to the other made it apparent to me how much of who I was relied on where I was and who I was with. The, not artificiality of it so much as the constructedness of it, became a rough point in my consciousness.
Through my writing, I’ve been rubbing at that rough spot ever since.