I first met J.T. at NYU, but I didn’t discover his spiritual depth and artistic vision until after graduation. I’m grateful he is willing to be anonymous in order to unfilter his experiences.
How’s life been since graduation? It sounds like you’ve had a lot of other things to focus on [besides writing].
Yeah, like life stuff. The divorce and all my friends leaving the neighborhood.
How long have you been in New York?
I’ve been in Brooklyn for nine years, but I’ve been in New York longer. I was raised in the Bronx until I was 10 and then I lived in New Jersey until I was 20.
I’ve heard other friends talk about the era of friends moving away from each other after their 20’s.
How old are you?
Yeah, in about ten years you’re going to be like, “Remember Julio? He’s gone.” It just happens. What happens is marriage and kids. I love kids, but once they come, that’s it. It moves people.
You said your separation happened as you were graduating?
Right after. It was devastating, but on top of that, I took one of the pilots that I wrote in Charlie [Rubin]’s class and I started to do voiceovers for it. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I needed a project to keep me focused. Once the summer was over, I got a couple [contest placements] and I was asked to do something at the Labyrinth [Theater Company].
What brought you to NYU? What inspired to be a writer?
When I decided to quit acting in 2003, I produced 10 shows in New York out of my own pocket. I had done reality show pitches and treatments and short films. It was a lot of money going into it and nothing coming back, so I knew I had to go to a good school to get formal training. Once I saw the cross-training program at NYU and got in, I just knew. And it was awesome. To this day, no matter how much it cost, it was worth every penny.
You might not be in the majority, but to be honest, it’s how I feel.
That it was worth it?
I went there specifically to improve my writing, and I did. It wasn’t for connections or getting an agent.
You come out of that school with one of three things. You might come out with a contact, you’ll have that name on your resume, but mostly it’s the craft. That’s something that’s going to get you a job ten years from now. The one thing I can come away is to know why I do what I do and how I got there. That’s all I care about, really.
When did your spiritual experience start?
Weird things started to happen about five years ago, but what you and I talked about was the opening. That happened as I was leaving NYU. I just wrote it off as a weird day, but starting October of last year, I started to have some really weird experiences.
What was the catalyst?
The divorce, the separation. It was so painful and depressing, it forced me to deal with things I suppressed for so many years. They always say you come to Nirvana through Samsara. The great pain caused my ego death or whatever you want to call it. I was in denial for a while but I started to recognize it. I had seven days of being what they’d call blissed out—states of expansion where you’re kind of in another place. It’s like being high all day long. When it kept repeating itself, I looked up the symptoms and realized they get talked about when it comes to ascension or awakening. I realized it could have something to do with a shift, so I followed that.
The one way that I realized I could do it was by sitting for hours in a space of silence and not have my mind run my life for those few hours. Time didn’t really exist. It felt like you were in an environment that was nurturing. It still happens, but I’ve gotten so much better at it. It’s unbelievably peaceful like nothing else in the external world.
Are you saying there was stuff that got in the way of this and something about the marriage got stuff out of the way?
Yeah. When you are engaged with form or things on a relative level, it takes energy to keep up. Especially when you need an actual identity to hide behind. What it comes down to is our minds are busy running our lives and keeping things going that we can’t actually feel into what is already there. So it’s not that I’ve reached anything, it’s that I’ve shut my mind down. I’ve learned to begin the process of taking away what isn’t ultimately real. It’s relatively real, in terms of how we need to exist on the physical plane, but not ultimately real. I’m able to have brief moments of quiet and feel another kind of experience. I think that’s inherent; everyone has the ability to do that.
I’ve been listening to Adyashanti, Osho and we talked about Eckhart Tolle. I was reading those guys about five years ago, and it was almost like I would intellectualize it. But once you have one of these openings, it becomes a physical experience that then changes the way you perceive the normal day to day.
Why did you start reading them five years ago?
I was working as a casting assistant for a year and a half. Overnight shifts from 7:00 PM and I’d leave at 7:00 AM. A friend of mine kept saying, “You should read ‘Zen and the Art of Archery.'” I read it four times because I didn’t understand it. And then he said Eckhart Tolle, so I read that. For some reason I was very into them. There was something about sitting in the silent office in the middle of the night. I never did that before. And as I allowed myself to continue trying, I started to feel that there was something within the silence that was unbelievably nurturing. But I’ve been spiritual my entire life.
Oh yeah. I was born and raised Catholic; altar boy for seven years. When I was 17, for some reason I started reading the Bible and following these Christian friends. [I] left the church, became a Pentecostal Christian. Got baptized as a Pentecost. [I] wanted to be a preacher and all that stuff.
And then something horrible happened, which was losing a dear friend of mine. When I was 10, there was a girl I was infatuated with. She was 11. She moved away and went to Michigan, and we kept in touch for nine years through tapes and letters. She said when I was 19, “Why don’t you come out and visit me?” [I] drove there with my friend; he makes out with her. I go home, I get crushed and a year later, she was killed.
That dramatically affected me to the point where I stopped going to church, and I stopped all of it. That lasted for a very long time. I wrote plays that were against the idea of God. Eventually, after a couple of other negative things that happened in my life, I decided to change some things. I stopped drinking. The moment I did that, I started to come back.
When did you start writing?
In 2003. I was an actor first, [but] I started writing in acting class. I was writing a part for me, but what happened was I enjoyed watching them more than I enjoyed acting. So I never starred in any of my plays.
You’ve done acting, writing, directing, producing. Do they all feel like they come from the same muscle?
And reality show. I was hired to do a reality show concept that a woman paid me $10,000 to do. I directed and produced it. By some fate, someone on [the show] knew someone at a company in New York, and they liked it. They signed it and pitched it to the networks. I’ve done short films, I’ve done plays, I’ve written television. They do feel like they come from same muscle. It’s the same creative energy just placed into different shapes.
How do you pick which one to go for? The reason I ask is because I’m an eclectic person. It has its advantages but it can be tough.
Whatever challenges me. What I learned recently was that I must’ve had a learning disability when I was a kid. I was just terrible in school. I was pushed through three grades. I thought I sucked, but I realized I either had ADD or…I learned spatially. I told my roommate this recently and she said, “That’s not normal.”
I can see days of the week or months of the year in my mind, but I don’t see the calendar. I see them as landscapes. That’s how I categorized my life. You can tell me any day in a year and I could tell you where I was, what I was listening to and where I was in my life. If I meet somebody, I don’t write down anything. I memorize everything.
I think that’s called eidetic memory.
To bring it back to your question, when I see these projects, I see a structure in my head. I see the shape of the project and I see how much space is in the project. I build in my head. If I have a project that has enough cool things in it, that’ll be challenging, then I’m interested in it. I’m always looking for something different. How to build a different story. How to connect things that don’t normally go together.
So for someone with your unique attributes, what’s the hardest part of taking care of yourself?
Concentration. You would think not, but I have a very hard time concentrating. If I’m on a project, I always set deadlines for myself. I pride myself on deadlines because it’s how I learned to write. I was afraid of people laughing at my stuff, so I said to the actors, “Get the posters for this date and I’ll have the play finished.” That got me to focus, which I learned in the military.
It’s funny, I wasn’t a good student, but once I got out of the Marines, I made the Dean’s List in college. It was a focusing thing. So when I’m on a deadline, I’ll know I can do a draft in about two weeks. But what I do is, I rest and meditate during the day, but as I get closer to the night, I start to wind up by listening to music and visualizing the story. Eventually, I go into what you’d call this hyperfocus mode, where I would write for six hours. I’ll be exhausted; [I] sleep it off the next day like an energetic hangover, and I go back. That’s how I do it and it’s very difficult, because I think I might have some kind of attention problem. After I do this for about four or five weeks, I feel I’ve obsessed over a first draft of a piece. Then I take a break and either work with people for the rewrites, as in actors and directors, or I give it another pass.
What else did the military teach you that were beneficial to you?
I knew going into it I wouldn’t have a career in it. I just wanted to see what it was like, because it was the complete opposite place that I’d want. I did not belong in the military at all, but I didn’t have anything else to go to. So I decided to challenge myself, to try something out of the ordinary. And then I did it. It taught me endurance and focus. It helped me with putting myself out there. I’m not afraid to make moves for myself, creatively.
Were you always creative as a child?
Yeah. I was always trying to invent potions. Musically, I could play the guitar. I sing easily and dance easily. But I got made fun of for it. Where I came from in northwest Jersey, you were laughed at for that because you weren’t the football player. Once I got out of that town and came back to New York, I realized this was a powerful place for me to be.
Comparing yourself before your big shift to now, has your self-care routine changed a lot?
No, it’s in the middle of changing. Things need to improve. If I’m on something creative, a lot of other stuff can go to the wayside easily, and they do. I got a lot of work done this last year, but it’s time to take a break and come back to being a normal human being.
So you have a tendency to go into hyperdrive and become myopic?
Like insane. For instance, there was a thing where I was asked to write 25 pages of something. They said I had three weeks. I couldn’t start it until three days before, because I knew if I started any earlier, my life would be shit for three weeks. I’d just become obsessive about it. I used to call it “going in” to my ex-wife. It was like I went into a black hole. So, because I’m good with seeing space in relation to time in my head, I know what is expected of me. I use the pressure of time to build a momentum and then release it into the world.
If you decide to change the balance in your life, do you worry it’ll affect how much you produce?
I don’t think so. Even before grad school when I was doing that casting job, I still found ways to do stuff. Even with less time, you find ways to make things happen. I’m not afraid of that. What I’m more afraid of is going to an environment that’s going to suck my soul and take away my energy. Everyone’s always saying, “You can’t always do what you love.” I agree with that. You can’t always do what you love, but you can at least be aligned with some qualities in the same way. I don’t have to do something I absolutely hate because I want to be a writer. Maybe I can use some of the skillsets that I have. And then I have these other things, like I don’t like to be in high-stress situations. Like, I used to wait tables and bartend.
And it didn’t work for you?
I did it for years and I couldn’t do it anymore.
So it’s not that you’ve changed, it’s that you were just mustering through?
Exactly. My last job, I broke out in shingles.
That happened to me before I moved to New York.
That’s not healthy, man.
How has your spiritual transformation changed your writing?
It’s changing in the direction that I want to take my writing.
So it’s good.
It is. It’s starting to come through my work a little bit. My plays are always small. They’re always two-person full-length plays about working-class, struggling characters who are depressed. I’ve very intrigued by taking a very mundane setting and group, and bringing out something we haven’t seen with the naked eye. I think that’s life, so I’ve already been doing some of that. I’m not interested in small stuff. If you have a play where it’s in a New York apartment and there’s red wine, I can’t write that play because that’s not me. I’m much more interested in those plays where people think about the bigger picture. When you’re smacked with reality, all that superfluous stuff goes away and it comes down to what you’re made of. That’s the kind of stuff I want to write.
Is writing part of your spiritual practice or is your spiritual practice now a part of your writing? Are they one and the same?
I’m not writing to specifically express anything in spiritual practice. I’m trying to find the elements that are already in my writing that are spiritual, and teasing them out. I’m not trying to send a hard message to anyone here.
I remember you being very concerned about writing and art with regards to your awakening.
When I pulled [our friend] aside to speak to her about this stuff, she said, “I understand why you did that, because it can be like being in the closet.” You can’t speak about some of the things in front of certain people, because you’ll sound insane. And I’m sure, to some people reading this article, it may sound like that. But now and again you get someone who totally understands you. I just have to find my people.
I think that’s a perfect analogy.
Yet there we were at a DDW alumni event talking about dead people and stuff.
I’m sure there are other writers who are spiritual or religious, but it’s just not something people talk about very much.
I know. I don’t think I’m in the writing for the same reasons I went into it. Unfortunately, I’m not very motivated by money. Maybe it’s because I’ve never had much. It means paying the bills. I did the whole “I need to prove to the world” when I was 27 and I realized that was empty. Especially with these shifts that have been happening, you realize we’re spending most of our time pretending to be something that, at the core of our being, we’re not. We need the illusion of security, but in the end, it all has to come back to what we are. What we really are.
I noticed as I dove more into spirituality, that I can jump ahead and see what’s going to happen if I do certain things, and it’s just not that worth it. It’s too obvious now that it’s not going to be satisfying.
At all! I remember saying, “I want to get on that show.” And I go on it and watched it, and I was so depressed. Now I realize it was because it didn’t do anything for me. It was this thing I built up. We place our power in these external things that give us brief moments of joy, and then we’re off to find the next thing. Going within and finding that experience allows you to feel your own abundance and not to take our fears so seriously.
What motivates you to write?
I want to teach at some point. I want to start a class for actors on how to approach auditions from a writer’s point of view. I have this idea of working with people who are very sick and dying, and having them write their story as a screenplay. I really want to help people through story. The thing is I love to write. I will probably write until the day I die. But I have to find something within a story that makes me write the story to find out why I’m writing it. It’s an expression, but the process of doing is where the real gold is.
I feel like a lot of artists I know have this intuition or sensitivity through which they express their writing. Sometimes these spiritual things are tied to people’s creative expression, so you immersing into both in tandem seems completely logical to me.
I think I said this in thesis class. I kind of knew a few years ago that I was just being used as the thing to write. I know that I have the sensitivity to tap into what I’d call creative source, as with all other artists. The better ones probably just let it flow through better. What I think of writing, I think it’s just being dictated to me.
It could be practice. As a kid, I was always trying to escape my present moment, so I used to do a lot of imagining as a kid. I think what happened was my imagination just went insane. Sometimes it’s hard, because you don’t know if you’re just thinking too much into something. My old roommate used to say, “You’re running off to end of the pier, Jimmy.”
Do you think it’s helpful for writers and artists to find whatever means to tap into that source?
It depends on their process and how they learn. There’s kinesthetic. What are the other two?
I mean, I’m more of an auditory learner.
So what does that mean?
I get triggered by music. I write with music. I can hear a word and I’ll get an idea.
When you see that idea, do you see it as something? There’s got to be something going on in your head that you’re aware of.
I start imagining a style. Recently, I’ve been working on this idea and I see it as a movie. But the word that prompted the idea was “wait.”
Some people that come out of that program will be suited with different strengths, whether it’s the medium, or some people might feel more satisfaction in teaching than they do moving around in the business of it all. When you ask whether they should tap more into it, tap more into whatever version it is for them. I’ve always been interested in process. How people process things, but also finding a process and being able to communicate that.
Let’s just create. When you sit back and you wait for someone to read something, I have to be honest, that’s never going to happen. The way the system works, people don’t read anymore. We have zero attention spans. Creating empowers you to at say, “Here I am. I exist.”
That’s a very important self-care tip. If you are solely banking on submissions and approval, you’re going to be miserable.
You need to feel empowered. Even if you’ve made something and no one cares about it, guess what, you made it. It exists. But if you’re just sitting at home waiting for someone to approve it, forget it.
Is this something you feel writers particularly struggle with?
Well, it’s tricky, because here’s the thing. You have to be delusional in order to believe in this journey. It will pay off; this country is built on that. But then you’re told to not be disappointed when it doesn’t happen. So it’s a very fine balance.
We’re here waiting on something to validate or get us something we feel is the next move in the business. By doing that waiting, you are giving up something, and it has to be worth it to you. So now, I’m only going to write the next project if I know it fails, that I’d still be happy I wrote it. If I’m not, then I won’t do it. In other words, let the external manifestation of your goals, be a byproduct.
If you saw a writer who was really struggling, what would you say to them?
I would say alignment. Sometimes what we want to happen kind of rules our life. It’s not until we’ve heard no enough times to realize maybe there’s another direction to take. Some things just feel right. Some things just feel they’re effortless and I think if you become more engaged with that feeling, you might be able to avoid a lot more pain. On a relative level, if someone was struggling or depressed, I would say find your power. Power is control, and the only power we have is to put our work out there.