Playwright Oatman shares his story, advice with students

Originally posted on Sept. 22, 2010, for The Daily Eastern News.

“I’m blessed to be alive,” Michael Oatman, author and contributor to ‘This I Believe II,’ said. “I’ve done a collection of idiotic things that should’ve killed me.”

Bonnie Irwin, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, introduced Oatman as a journalist, playwright and someone who is very popular in Omaha, Neb. Tuesday in the Doudna Fine Arts Center Theater.

“Like David Hasselhoff,” Oatman added.

Oatman started off his lecture by telling everyone in the audience to move to the front section. Instead of having everyone separated throughout the auditorium, he said he wanted a more intimate setting with people sitting next to strangers.

“I have a homework assignment for you all,” he said. “Get your pens and paper out. Ready? Get the hell out of Eastern, as soon as possible. Leave, vanish, go away.”

He urged students to take advantage of study abroad programs and said traveling the world will change a person, in ways that they will not understand until they leave the country.

“Do it now,” he said. “Don’t wait. Responsibilities happen. You’ll have bills and children and no time to do it.”
Traveling and education go hand in hand as experiences that make people grow, he said.

“When I was thinking of what to talk to you young cats about, I was concerned about the lack of connection to the idea that education is transformational,” he said.

He said that if someone received a college degree but never really learned anything, it was a waste of time and money.

“Don’t get an education to get a job,” Oatman said. “Education is a doorway to the other side. When you come out, you’re a different person.”

He said that it frightens him that young people are being safe. He urges everyone to take risks and rebel a little.

“We are creating a generation of lambs,” he said. “You have your whole lives to be conformists.”

As he looked out into the audience, he noticed the clusters of people. White women sitting together, black men sitting together. He encouraged everyone to step out of his or her comfort zones and mingle with the other groups.

“Go make a fool of yourself,” he said. “Come out of your cocoons and see the world with new eyes.”

His contribution for “This I Believe II” was written because a mentor told him to write it while in a creative nonfiction class in college.

“I didn’t want to write about the poor black boy who pulled himself up by his boot straps,” he said.

After he wrote it, he said he was shocked by his dangerous experiences, which he did not realize at the time.

“I still wonder what happened to that happy-go-lucky semi-thug that used to hang out with drug dealers on dimly lit street corners. Well, I’m in the library parsing a Jane Austen novel looking for dramatic irony, while many of my old friends are dead or in jail,” he said in his essay.

When asked for his advice for writers, he simply said to keep writing and creating.

“When your piece is perfect and complete, rewrite it again. And again,” he said. “Keep rewriting and experiment.”

His biggest inspiration in life has been a fuel truck, alongside the idea of failure.

“Pumping jet fuel is a soul-sapping job,” he said. “I would watch people get off planes and wonder where they were coming from. And I wanted to go there.”

In a comical anecdote on his job, he said that he once spilled 103 gallons of jet fuel.

“And I didn’t get fired for it,” he said. “Which tells a lot about the level of experience necessary for jet fuelers.”

Megan Miller, freshman biological sciences major, had heard Oatman speak in one of her classes earlier in the day.

“He’s really funny and gave good advice,” Miller said. “He’s good to listen to; he’s not just preaching.”

Tiandra Burns, senior finance major, found Oatman very inspirational.

“Especially about being diverse and getting out of our comfort zones to experience different cultures,” Burns said.

Oatman said he hopes to keep writing plays and continue his teaching career.

“I’d like to write a novel, maybe a memoir, if I make it to 40,” he said.

Oatman has spoken to English and journalism classes while he has been at Eastern.

“Greatness lies in you, so wake the hell up. Start businesses, reach out and write more,” he said.