In 2007 I met American filmmaker John Hughes for the second time, and now I’m an award-winning children’s author.
Sometime in early 1990, I had a friend whose younger sibling acted in the movie Home Alone. She played one of the McCallister sisters. Her parents invited me on set which at the time was inside a closed-down high school gym just north of Chicago. I was 11. The scene they were filming was when the entire family woke up late, rushing up and down the stairway trying not to miss their flight. I was standing behind the director, Chris Columbus who was calling out numbers for everyone to know when to run out. There was also a random man standing behind Chris. He seemed nice. He said hi. I said hi back, but I wanted to watch the actors. It was fascinating and the only time I had ever been on a real movie set.
Fast forward to 2007. I was 3 years into a new job at a retailer after leaving a teaching position to pursue creative endeavors when a gentleman walked in and asked about buying a new computer. We talked a little bit about his needs. I had a hunch who he was. When he handed me his credit card I confirmed he was John Hughes, the man who wrote and directed some of my favorite movies. I kept my cool but as I was finishing up the sale, I politely said, “Forgive me for saying something, but I wanted to tell you that I really appreciate your work and it brought me and my friends a lot of joy.”
He replied, “Oh you figured it out huh?” Implying who he was.
I said, “Well it was on your credit card.”
I continued, “I was actually on the set of Home Alone when it was being filmed. The scene where everyone runs around on the stairs. I was standing behind Chris Columbus controlling the camera.”
“I was standing behind Chris for that scene” he stated.
“I know,” I grinned.
Even though the sale was done, to my surprise he took me to the side of the store and we talked for another 30 minutes. He told me about random interactions with producers, studios, friends. It was a packed 30 minutes. He was pretty funny and even dropped an f-bomb here and there. I didn’t expect that, but looking back I now think for some reason that made him so much more human.
As our discussion continued he caught me off guard with two moments. One that showed me who he was and one that showed me who I was.
During the conversation I turned to one of my colleagues and asked them if they could snag me a bag. John stopped our conversation and asked me what that meant. I wasn’t sure what he was asking.
“That word, ‘snag’ what does that mean?” He asked.
I paused as I thought it was a common phrase but he seemed to not know it in context of asking someone to grab something. Weird for sure, but I gave him the definition.
He took out a notepad and a pen from his coat and wrote it down. The notebook was filled with random scribbles which I’m sure represented the many random thoughts he had that might one day become his next big hit.
It was a sign of humility and learning agility all in one gesture that showed me why he was so successful. I also felt extremely cool teaching John something. From that moment on, whenever someone says a word I don’t understand, I stop and ask them what it means.
Then the big moment came for me, an exchange that would change my life. John asked me what I wanted to do. I said, “I’m trying to be a writer.”
He replied, “Have you written anything?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Then you’re a writer. You don’t need anyone else to tell you that.”
He also shared that I shouldn’t quit my “day job” to write full-time. He had friends who did that and they just had more time to procrastinate. Made sense to me. He disclosed he liked to write his movies in 4 hours. Mind. Blown.
He wished me luck, we shook hands and he left.
He passed away suddenly a couple years later and I was extremely regretful I never reached out to let him know how much that 30 minute conversation with a random retail employee meant.
From that moment on, I realized that I could be a writer if I wanted to. That just because someone has a set of criteria to be considered “something,” doesn’t mean it defines you.
In context for me that meant I could pursue big publishing deals, but it wasn’t for permission “to be” a writer. I already was.
When I speak at schools that is the message I leave them with. You’re a writer the minute you put something down on paper. You’re a dancer the first time you move. If you want to be an artist, an athlete, a scientist, or anything else, be that. You don’t need a certificate, a degree, a contract, or an award to become something. But if you work hard and keep at it, you might just snag yourself one of those anyways.