Q&A with Eric John Morton and Lawrence Wood, Veterans in the Arts

AITAF StaffBridge Award

Q&A with Eric John Morton and Lawrence Wood, Veterans in the Arts

Eric John Morton, AITAF’s Spring 2021 Student Veteran Intern, is a former naval flight engineer from Vancouver, WA who just returned home after 3 years in NYC for graduate school to work on his first feature film. While in NYC, Eric was selected for the 2021 AT&T Veteran Media Fellowship, where he met fellow Veteran, Lawrence Wood.
Lawrence, a Navy Veteran, grew up in Harlem before going to medical school and then earning his commission and serving 30 years in the US Navy, retiring with the rank of Captain as an ophthalmologist. After retiring, he not only started his own medical practice, but also became a published author and successful filmmaker. When Lawrence told his emotional personal story as part of a group exercise within the Fellowship program, Eric immediately felt inspired and moved by it, and knew he had to help this amazing story be told.
For Eric’s AITAF internship project, he and Larry reconnected for an in-depth conversation, which we have shared below in condensed format. Additionally, Eric is preparing to launch his own podcast later this year which will feature their full conversation as well as other Veteran to Veteran transition stories.

Eric John Morton in Uniform Smiling in a Plane

Eric John Morton (US Navy)

Lawrence Wood in Uniform wearing Sunglasses at Lunch

Lawrence Wood (US Navy)

Eric John Morton: How do you think of yourself: who's Larry Wood to Larry Wood?

Lawrence Wood: Ay yay yay, how do I get that out? When I think of how to describe myself: I'm just a regular guy! ...I do have dreams, I have ambitions, and I've been accomplishing them all along. It's taken a while, but when I think back on my life, I've done everything I said I was gonna do. So, I don't know how to describe myself except just, a regular guy, hustling like everybody else.

EM: You were in the military for 30 years as a doctor. When you started medical school, or college, was that in the end of the tunnel as a goal, or was that something that came about later?

LW: I'm telling you, never in my life did I want to be a doctor...It never occurred to me, it never occured to my family, friends, teachers, or anybody--except one person. That's all it took. There was a doctor who one day came up to me and said, "You know I think you can be a doctor." And I thought she was out of her mind, really. I'm like, Who are you, lady, and how do you see that in me?

EM: When did you realize you were an artist? When did you become an artist, in your eyes?

LW: Well, I had been doing some writing all along, before the Navy...mostly poems. And at some point, I had written a one-act play...I was in North Carolina and I entered it into this contest, and, wow, I got third place! And then one of the suggestions was, Why don't you make it into a full length? And I was like, "Yeah yeah that's nice, that's very cute...shut up."

EM: It's funny how--I don't know if it's the same for you, but when people really believe in me, I'm like, "What's wrong with you?" [laughter]

LW: Yeah! [laughter]

EM: I don't know, was this an experience for you, like after you dealt with the [PTSD], was it harder for you to accept kindness?

LW: That may be just something that's been hard for me all my life: I just don't believe you. You're lying. You know, even after I got the third place it's like, "Really? Me? You're sure you want me to come up there?" I did write the full-length, but I just kept it to myself. And so, I went to Okinawa eventually, many years later, and [my wife] Vanessa and I are talking about writing. And she used to write some poems, and I said, "Oh yeah I like some poems." So you know, that was us bonding. And then at another point I said, "I got this play," and she said, "Well, let me read it," and so she read it and she said, "We gotta put this on!" And again, you know my response--

EM: Nah... [laughter]

LW: I'm like, "Shutttup. I'm not doing that."

EM: "You don't have to work any harder, you already got me, girl. You don't have to lie."

LW: But she meant it, and we put it on. I mean, we did everything that you do to get a play done: the advertisements, the interviews, the auditions and rehearsals and everything. We did all of that, just me and her together.

EM: And in Japan! Was that more difficult? Did you use like a Japanese cast? Or Americans on base?

LW: No, this was on base.

EM: Oh, okay.

LW: And the shock of it all for me was that: every performance was sold out...I'm like freaking out! I'm like, Wow! Wow...Like, maybe I can do this stuff. Maybe I really can.

EM: So you put that on, and it was sold out over and over and over again?

LW: Yeah, and so at that point, every once in a while I'd write a poem. You know, because now, I'm in love with Vanessa so I gotta write love poems.

EM: Gotta keep it fresh!

LW: That's right, so I'm keeping that going. And I came back before she did, and she came back, and we got married. And then guess what: we volunteered to go back to Okinawa.

EM: Is that when you were the admiral aide?

LW: Yeah, I went back, but I went back as an opthamologist...But at one point the XO says, "I think you should be the III MEF surgeon?...I think you really could do a good job as that." And I'm like, "Yeah yeah, that's nice, I don't know, I'll think about it." And one of my excuses that I used was, "Well, I haven't fulfilled my ophthalmology duration here. I'm supposed to be here for a full two years." And he said, "Pfff, you can break orders at any time." And I'm like, "Whaaa? You can?"

EM: [laughter] If an admiral's signing the paperwork, you can pretty much, I think, do anything.

LW: Yeah, so I put my hat in the ring, and yep, so they chose me to be the III MEF surgeon, so that was cool...But what was happening with that, was I wasn't doing ophthalmology, so my skills were falling.

EM: Oh, yeah.

LW: So when that's all done, and I come back to Pendelton, I have to get back in the habit of doing surgery. So that was kind of freaky for me--I started second guessing myself.  I'm like, "Wow, I used to be so good at this, and I'm not good at this anymore."

EM: Oh wow.

LW: And that's really scary...And there was one surgery where I didn't feel comfortable anymore, and that was cataract surgery. And that's the most common thing that we do... And my confidence, it started dropping.

EM: Yeah.

LW: And then, you know, I opened up a practice and it just wouldn't build, and my confidence kept dropping...And some practices, the partnerships never materialized, and it was me: they could see I had no confidence! I would never say it; they could see it...So I stopped trying to build a practice, and I just quit.

EM: Had you ever quit anything? You don't seem like a quitter to me.

LW: No. Not at all...You know, I'm the guy who, you told me I couldn't be a doctor, and I said, "Yes I can," and I went on and did it. I'm the guy who, put in the position of mass casualty, I'm there, and I can do it. Those things just build your confidence, and then finally something comes along and for the first time, I start saying: "I can't do this." And that hits you hard.

EM: But you didn't talk to anybody about it?

LW: No.

EM: You just knew everyone saw it.

LW: Yeah, yeah-- I used to be all that--and a bag of chips. And somebody took my chips away, and it's just me, and I'm not all that. It's just a mess. I was a mess...But again--who came to the rescue? My wife.

EM: Your wife...So she saw you were kinda lost, she was like, "Write!", or? Did she just suggest it casually or did she tell you to do it?

LW: I think how it happened--you know, the story that inspired the first book, I'd tell that story every now and then, and she'd heard it for the thirtieth time or whatever--

EM: What's that story? I guess I haven't heard it.

LW: Oh, okay! So when I was a kid in New York, there was a bum that used to come into our neighborhood every springtime. It was like clockwork, every spring. And by fall, he would disappear. Where he came from, why he came through our neighborhood, where he went to in the fall or winter, I have no idea. All I know is, when he showed up, we treated him badly...And then it finally dawned on me: I wonder who this guy is? So I decided: I'm gonna go find out what it was like to be homeless...So I'm trying to fill in all the blanks, answer all the questions now about this guy we called "John the Bum"--I have no idea if his name was John.

EM: Yeah. That's just what you called him.

LW: That's what we called him. So as I was speaking to homeless people, I'm thinking: I can formulate a story out of this...So I wrote the first book, and then the sequel, and then I started working on the third one. And by that time, we had gotten some interest from the commercial I had made about the first book. And that's where I am now.

EM: I saw that! So did you set that up? You were just like, I'm gonna make a commercial to promote my book--so people get an idea visually what I'm doing?

LW: Yes.

EM: Cool.

LW: Guess who suggested that?

EM: I'm gonna guess your wife.

LW: [laughter] So you see a pattern!

EM: I mean, you've done so much on your own. But what really stands out is that in these moments of anxiety and depression and frustration and loss, you fall back on the people that loved you and still love you.

LW: Yeah.

EM: So what came first, the organization or the book? It makes sense that the organization would come after you've done all this research to write the book.

LW: Yeah, so I did the book, and I remember the weekend that Vanessa and I, we were saying, "You know, let's do some media training. You be the reporter, and I'll be the author, start asking questions, right?"

EM: "Let's play pretend."

LW: Yeah, so she's just throwing out questions and I'm answering. Then, she asks the most important question of all of them. She says, "Well, you wrote this book about the homeless--what else have you done?"

EM: [laughter]

LW: And...that was it.

EM: Yeah. "I gotta do something now."

LW: So the very next day...we started brainstorming. And we knew what we wanted to do: open up a home. And that's where Fan of the Feather was born.

EM: And you ended up opening a home for--

LW: Homeless veterans, that's right.

EM: Okay, so then you do the commercial to promote the experience, or the character you're creating.

LW: That's right...And after a while, oh! At one point the ad was in competition for an Emmy. So it was rising up the ranks.

EM: Oh, okay, cool.

LW: Cause the plan was to make a four minute trailer. And [Gina, our producer] said we could make a commercial, and enter it. And so we did--and that got somebody's attention, and they went to Gina and said, "Hey, we like what you're doing, would you like to make a pilot?"

EM: Oh wow.

LW: And of course she said yes, and we all said yes, and we've been on that for--it's been two years now...In fact, we're supposed to find a budget out in the next week or two.

EM: Oh wow, you guys are moving along.

LW: We are, we are...But in that time period, you know: I've learned how to write. I've got the basics. I'm not a great screenwriter, but I know how to do it.

EM: So you have your confidence again.

LW: Yeah! That's right.

EM: It's funny how that, feeling like you're good at something can really define you in so many ways or whatever.

LW: You know, when you're once good at something, and getting accolades for it and people are telling you how good you are, and then you don't hear that anymore--you go, well, I've been doing this for thirty plus years and I'm not good at this anymore. What am I good at? So even when I was writing, it's like, well. I'm just writing. It don't mean nothing. But because it connected me to something I've always wanted to do, that's when I felt, well, wow: I don't know if I'm good at this or not, but I know I enjoy it.

EM: You found something you liked to do as opposed to anything else. You just found something you liked to do.

LW: Yep. That's what it was. I mean, I didn't want to disappoint Vanessa and just sit around on the couch today. So, you know, she had to see I was doing something. [laughter]

EM: It's like: you get out, and you were really f---ing good at something. Traveling the world, being amazing, getting good evals. Like, you know, it's funny, the Navy, for all its problems, it really has a way of making you feel good about yourself.

LW: Yeah, yeah, and you get promoted, and selected and--

EM: Chosen for things--

LW: Yeah.

EM: Even now, even now when I write--I'm like: am I any good? I write my world, and it's like does anybody care? And then if I'm all wrapped up in that, it's not even fun to do it, because I'm so paranoid about this other stuff.

LW: Mmhmm.

EM: So it's awesome that you were able to find enjoyment in it.

LW: It is enjoyment. You know, even when I'm writing, and agonizing over a word--"no, this is not the right word, oh, I should use another word, if I change the word oh it's gonna change the whole sentence, aww, I gotta change the whole sentence"--I like that. It's cool.

EM: That's cool. [pause] Is there anything that you would go back and tell your younger self now, knowing what you do?

LW: You heard the phrase, "follow the money"--but follow your passion. You know, in the Navy I was a physician and I was doing good stuff, but that really was not my passion. I got into all that cause I was just trying to prove somebody wrong. You know? But, passion is just not gonna leave you alone. You can ignore it, you can step on it, you can spray it. You can sweep it under the rug, you can shoot it--none of that stuff works. Cause it's like a zombie, it just stands right back up, and gets in your face.

EM: Reminds you that you're not happy.

LW: You know, so if it keeps coming back up, you better pay attention to it. You might as well.

EM: I'm just curious with Fan of the Feather, I know you brought that up from the old "John the Bum," but were you able to work through any of your own stuff, like writing yourself into that character? Or writing your own experiences or your own pain? Cause I always pick a character that--I use a lot of female characters or things like that, cause it's easier for me to write a woman going through it. Cause it's harder for me to write me going through it.

LW: Of course. But like I tell everybody, yeah, I'm in all of my books. I just dare you to find me. You don't know which one I am--but I'm there.

EM: I saw you have a screenplay you wrote, is it a completely different thing than your--

LW: Yeah, completely different. And I finished research on another screenplay, and I've been writing down scenes, and I'll put that together to make it into a movie at some point. Right now it's just a bunch of scenes, I have to arrange it to tell the story I want to tell, and then I'll start writing.

EM: When you write all these scenes, do you go back and you go, alright well--this scene works best here and this scene works best here, or....

LW: Yeah. Cause you write it out the way you think it is, and the one thing I've learned, certainly, is that the first draft is always the worst draft...I don't care how much research, I don't care how carefully you've thought out the words, it will always be the worst. But you gotta get it out. How else are you gonna do anything unless you get it out? And then you start reading it again, and you go, "Well, why would that person say that? That's the wrong person saying that. So and so wouldn't say that." So you go through that, and half the time the dialogue is way too much. You know? Cause this is a visual medium. So how in the world would you show that rather than the characters talk about it. So you go through that, and then sometimes you go: "That scene...if I really believe it belongs in the movie, does it belong at that spot?" So you go through that too. So, you just keep going through it, draft after draft after draft, and at some point you say, "I'm done with this. I'm sick of it. I'm sick of it right now."

EM: Yeah, they say you don't ever finish a screenplay, you just give up.

LW: Yeah, you don't! Even my first book, which is back in 2009...I still edit it in my head.

EM: That's good, because I still do that with--cause I still do that, I'm like, "I should have done this, or that," or "I messed up that scene," or...

LW: It doesn't end! But you gotta man up at some point, and say, "I'm done. I'm putting it out there." And either people like it or they don't.

EM: I mean, yeah, that's one thing--I guess my anxiety served me because I couldn't wait. The second I wrote something I had to make it. So everything I wrote was underwritten, but at least I was making it and getting out there.

LW: Yeah, yeah.

EM: You know, I was learning.

LW: The screenplay that I finished, it might be two months ago, maybe more, but anyway, that one I've entered into contests, I don't even know all the contests that there are.

EM: You have this pilot coming, so that's an incredible accomplishment with that, no matter what happens with that, that's pretty neat.

LW: Yeah.

EM: But I guess I'm just curious where you're at, where you wanna go, what's next for Larry?

LW: Well, of course I'm looking forward to the pilot being picked up. I'm looking for at least five years of the series...

EM: You've found your confidence, man! [laughter]

LW: I'm looking forward to walking down the aisle and picking up a statue...[laughs] I mean I've visualized all that. I see it. I hear the music. I see it, while I'm talking to you right now, I see me in my tux, I see it! But even if I don't--I'm doing what I like to do now.

EM: Yeah. You're happy. You and your wife do this together as like a partnership thing?

LW: Oh yeah. It's always, from the very beginning, when I first met her, been that way. There's nothing that we have not done together. The only thing we didn't do together is that she had the baby and I watched.

EM: So I guess if there's a lesson of any of this, it's: surround yourself with people that care about you and want the best for you and listen to those people.

LW: Certainly. I've learned now not to be around anything that's anxiety producing. Just like I use to prepare for the doorbell to ring so that I don't freak out? I do that in general. And if I'm around somebody that wants to fill my head with anxiety producing stuff, it's like: "Nice knowing you! Bye bye!"...I'm hanging around people that find joy in the world.

EM: Yeah, especially with everything going on in the world right now--it seems like it's more important now than ever to surround yourself with people that wanna be positive. It's easy to get stuck in that negative stuff, and that can be a real spiral. You don't wanna get trapped in that.

LW: No.

EM: I don't know, it's complicated. I mean I don't know what the right balance is.

LW: I'll tell you the right balance: Always Go Toward The Joy. Be overjoyed. And let the other people freak out.

EM: Don't let people interrupt your joy. That's cool man. It was really cool to just sit and have this conversation with you.

LW: It was fun. It was therapy. It was therapy for both of us.

Lawrence Wood on Set

Lawrence Wood behind the scenes of a project. 

Suzan-Lori Parks

Eric John Morton is a US Navy Veteran. He worked as a flight engineer on PC3 Orion Aircrafts for almost seven years. He holds a bachelor’s degree in radio, television, and film at the University of Texas in Austin. He has recently earned an MFA in screenwriting at Columbia University.

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