A guest post from Brad Willis: Wheaton’s Law Revisited

Brad Willis is a writer, reporter, and aspiring author. His personal blog is Rapid Eye Reality.

Let’s just deal with the elephant in the room right from the start, because it can get stompy, and I don’t want anything to get broken. I can hear you muttering at your screen, “Brad Willis? Who the hell is this guy? What’s he doing here?” This post should go a little way toward explaining how a guy Wil once watched eat Keno crayons (for money, of course) is guest-posting alongside so many familiar faces.

If you’re reading this, you likely know Wheaton’s Law (if not, he explained it here). You know it tells you exactly how not to act.  What it doesn’t say outright is what you should do next. Wil Wheaton knows the next part, and it’s how he has quietly changed more than a few lives, mine included. Wheaton’s Law will fit on a t-shirt. The next part takes a little more space. My part of the story begins with a dead man.

HIGHWAY STORYTELLER

When the coroner unzipped the body bag in the middle of the interstate, there was only half of a person inside.  A couple of hours earlier, he had been a 19 year-old man on his way to college. Now, he was half of a charred skeleton someone had pushed into a sack and left on a patch of hot South Carolina asphalt.

I spent ten years staring at some of the worst things fate dealt people—sickening twists of happenstance, soulless and selfish pride, unbelievable depravity. All of it is stuck in a place in my brain I try not to visit too often, but that sticky August day in 1999 comes calling more often than most. It’s what I think of when I think about my life before 2005.

See, I spent most of my life wanting only to be a storyteller. The goal has always been to write books. Somewhere along the way somebody convinced me it would be a lot more practical and meaningful to become a TV newsman, so that’s what I did for a decade. It was a fine profession and it let me do what I wanted, but the business was changing in way that didn’t necessarily suit me. What’s more, I’d seen enough dead people.

What happened in those intervening years isn’t so important as what happened almost exactly ten years ago when Wil Wheaton changed the direction of my life.

In 2004, the online poker company PokerStars wanted Wil to go down to the Bahamas and write about an annual poker festival the company hosts at Atlantis. Wil couldn’t make it, and though he’d never met me, he had been reading my stuff.

I started blogging in 2001, and some of my poker writing caught Wil’s eye. He recommended me for the Bahamas gig. It was meant to be a week of writing about poker in the Caribbean. It turned into a second career, one that’s allowed me to tell stories, support my family, and travel all over the world.

This story makes sense to very few people who hear it. Why would a man I’ve never met go out of his way to recommend me for a gig? Other people would’ve simply said, “I’m unavailable” and hung up. Wil didn’t do that, and that’s the part of his raison d’être you can’t necessarily divine from Wheaton’s Law. Apart from actively working to not be a bad guy, he quietly works as a life-changing good one.

THE HOLLYWOOD REFRAIN

Harold Ramis died yesterday leaving a lot of folks more than a little sad about the new laughs we’re going to miss. I read one bit from him in which he talked about how creatives—especially those from Hollywood—often don’t think about people other than themselves. In the process, they can miss out on some partnerships that would’ve made their art better.

How am I doing? How am I doing? Which is kind of a refrain in Hollywood, you know,” Ramis said on American Storytellers. “People are desperately trying to make their careers in isolation, independent of everyone around them.”

Wil’s life and career have evolved several times in the last 30 years, and he could’ve been forgiven if he had fallen victim to that Hollywood refrain. Instead, when he was square in the middle of a career shift of his own, Wil kicked open a door for some guy three time zones way.

I’ve thought a lot about that in the ten years I’ve known Wil, but his stealth kindness has felt more pronounced since my dad died unexpectedly a couple of years ago. When Wil called with his condolences, it occurred to me he was cut from the same cloth as my old man. Dad made sure people he cared about had jobs, no-interest loans, or advice when they needed it. When he died, everyone had a story about a quiet favor my dad did for them. Of all the wonderful things Dad did, his legacy is that selflessness attention to helping people for no reason other than he could.

If the lead on the poker gig had been the only kindness Wil offered me, it would’ve been more than enough. Instead, he became a friend and confidante. He introduced me to his treasured family. And one night, he helped me cross a line in my head that I couldn’t have crossed on my own.

HIBACHI

Several years ago, I sat with Wil and his family at a Hibachi joint. While the chef chopped and pounded on the grill, a man sharing our table asked Wil what he did for a living.

“I’m a writer,” he said.

The man turned to me. “What about you?”

“I’m a…”

I couldn’t finish the sentence, because I didn’t feel like there was any honest answer. I’d spent years and years getting paid to tell stories, but I hadn’t achieved what I wanted, and I certainly didn’t know how to answer the guy’s question. What was I? A blogger? A poker reporter? An aspiring novelist?

Wil looked at me, waited a second, and then turned back to the man.

“He’s a writer,” Wil said. And that was that. Back to the onion volcano, shrimp gymnastics, and knife juggling.

For reasons that still don’t make a lot of sense to me, Wil joined my closest friends and family in believing in my writing and championing me to people he knows. It confounds me to this day.

Now, not only have I spent the past ten years telling poker stories, but I’ve also managed to finish a novel and begin work on another. I’ve not yet gotten to where I want to be, but I’m a closer today than I was ten years ago when a guy I didn’t know changed my life. What’s more, I feel comfortable calling myself a writer, and Wil is one very big reason why.

Yeah, Wheaton’s Law may be Wil’s best-known axiom, and it makes for a fine meme. But this is the part that stands out for me: Wil can give a half-hour keynote on how not to be a bad person, but he’ll never tell you about the small kindnesses that make him who he really is. If there is a take-away for the rest of us it’s that we could all do a little better at lending a quiet hand when we don’t have to.

Now, if Wil had just stopped me from eating those crayons…

17 thoughts on “A guest post from Brad Willis: Wheaton’s Law Revisited”

  1. Welcome, Brad! Your tale of “Will’s Law” struck a note with me. It reminds me that as a Costume Designer at a local H.S., I have great power to help guide, mold and encourage my students. That I must ALWAYS be kind to them, no matter what. So thank you, Mr. Writer, for coming on aboard to tell me this.

  2. Wow, I am glad that I read this post. I think we all have friends like that who help you out unexpectedly, and without wanting anything in return. That is excellent, and I wish more people did that. My best friend is a man like Wil, who has helped me out on numerous occasions, and since then, I have helped in return. If every person just helped out others, just a little bit, the world would be a better place overall.

    Too many people think about just themselves. It’s a shame, too, because all of that focus on me me me ends up pushing everyone away. People generally don’t like that trait, and people like that are forgettable. The ones who do help others are remembered by people forever.

    My best friend is just like his dad, and his dad just passed away recently, and the funeral home couldn’t hold all of the people that came to pay their respect to a man that had helped them out, silently, like WIl helped you. They all had their own stories about him, and how he’d changed their lives.

    Thank you for this post, as it really hit home.

  3. What a timely reminder of how something small to one person can change a life of another. I think we all forget sometimes, as you point out, that if you focus on the ‘me’ all the time, you miss out of the connections and growth we can all achieve together. My mother would say ‘it’s just common courtesy’.. but we all know that like ‘common sense’ that it is in short supply these days.
    Thank you for sharing with us, and I hope that this inspires us all to carry out the ‘next part’.

    1. Agreed here. Well said. In the end, if life does indeed have meaning, it’s to stop or reduce suffering of others. Money, status, sex appeal, intelligence, education,charisma, ‘strong character’, popularity, etc. doesn’t actually matter. No matter how appealing these things are, they tell you nothing about the true worth of a person. We’ve all heard news and other stories about how people with a plethora of any one or more of these traits turn out to be very hurtful, hateful, even cruel people.

      As a character in a James Michener novel said, “..in due course [we'll all] be dead. Remembered for what? [your most impressive superficial trait here]? Who gives a damn?” In the end, how we’ll be remembered (deservedly) is for all the suffering we prevented or mitigated and/or good we did without causing suffering in others.

  4. Welcome Brad! Thanks for sharing your story, it reaffirms everything I’ve learned about Wil in the years I’ve been reading his blog and books. :)

  5. Brad,
    There is no doubt that you are a writer, and a damn good one. I was struck by one thing you wrote in this piece, and that was you words about the TV business “changing in a way that didn’t necessarily suit” you. I enjoyed my time in television news, but when the consultants began to take over newsroom operations and dictate decisions regarding stories, they fired me, and that turned out okay. As one newspaper writer, a good friend of mine, is fond of saying, “I don’t think you hear many children saying, tell me a package.” To me it has always been about the story. Keep up the good work.
    Bob

  6. Wonderful wonderful post. Thank you for the reminder that it’s not just about what you don’t do but what you do as well.

    And you are clearly a born writer. Eloquent, emotive, concise. I’d read a novel by you any time. Wishing you continued success.

  7. Collorary to Wheaton’s Law: Be a Jane? (As in: Silver Rule = Don’t do to other what you don’t want done to yourself; Golden Rule= Do to others what you want done to yourself)

  8. I think Brad has highlighted a need all of us need to contribute toward: Develop the corollaries to Wheaton’s Law.

    Maybe it could be part of Wil’s (or Brad’s… or Anne’s) next book. :-)

    Corollary 1: Not being a dick is more than not doing harm. One must make an effort to *do good* for/to others.

  9. I do not make my living with my words. However, someone once said to me, without a second thought in a casual conversation, “Yeah, but you’re a writer.” They meant it in reference to how I look at things, and it was relevant to the conversation, but it made me sit back, blink a few times, and think, ‘Yeah, I am.’ This moment of self realization, brought on by the casual comment of another, has stuck with me. I am many things, like most of us, but one thing I am is a writer. My journey to that end has been a twisty one, filled with people who have helped me along the way and enriched my life.

    For that, I am grateful. As I am to Wil for sometimes inspiring me, for remembering something important to me once, and for helping you, because anyone that helps another when they don’t have to is okay in my book.* I’m glad you have found your way here. Thank you for sharing your story.

    *That I have not yet published. *grin*

  10. Thanks Brad. I just had sort of a crummy week, and this made me feel better by just reading it. It’s nice to be reminded that there are indeed people out there who care. I have some people like that in my life, too; I think I need to go chat with one.

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