Digby Wolfe taught me a lesson the very first time I met him. I was taking a playwriting class each semester in UNM’s Theatre Department. Digby had just been hired to teach dramatic writing here. I asked him if he’d work with me one-on-one for a project I had agreed to tackle.
“Sure, lad. What are you writing?” he said as he signed the necessary forms. I told him I was trying to write a piece for Mystery Cafe, but had never written a mystery before.
“Isn’t every play a mystery?” he asked. He chuckled at my puzzled look and sent me on my way.
As the semester progressed, I’d arrive at his office at our appointed hour and find him pecking away on his keyboard. I was gratified to see that he typed with fewer fingers than the four I used. “Terrence!” he’d sing out. (He always called me Terrence.) “Have a seat, lad.”
When he finished his writing (“Is a writer ever finished?” he mused frequently) he’d turn and ask, “What have you got for me?” We’d talk about what I’d written and where I was stuck. He’d send me away with titles for books to read or movies to watch. Sometimes they were mysteries — he liked the Matthew Scudder detective stories by Lawrence Block, a connection, I suspect, to his own admitted alcoholism — or sometimes they were just movies he loved for their writing — Truly Madly Deeply was one of his first recommendations. (He especially loved the title.)
What he was trying to show me through these examples is that you have to wade into the places you want to avoid at all costs. Matthew Scudder was a recovering alcoholic working as a private eye in New York's Hell’s Kitchen, so he ended up meeting people in a lot of bars where drinks tempted him sorely. Nina, the heroine in Truly Madly Deeply, keens for her deceased husband, a man she clings to even after his death, pitting her love for him against her will to live.
But Digby, I'd argue, I’m writing a comedy. Going to wrenching, emotional places isn’t funny. “Sure it is, lad. We laugh about the same things that make us cry. We make jokes about death, don’t we?”
Maybe not right now. Digby passed away last week. I took a lot of classes from him over the years and learned a lot from him. He encouraged me to just write. Don’t stop to edit. Don’t stop to correct. You never get to the deepest, darkest waters if you do. Not only should you lose sight of the shore, you must.
When I sit down at the keyboard, I can still be a timid sailor (so far this sentence proves that) but, thanks to Digby, I know the world is not flat and I will not fall off the edge. The monsters I will surely find out there might scare me, but when I get up close and see their pimples, I can laugh at them, too.
Thank you, Digby, for the great lessons in writing. And life.