I’m not sure why, but it seems as if every writer I have ever known has been what I would call “damaged goods”. Those of you nodding your heads know what I’m talking about. You’ve probably noticed it when looking in the mirror. Writers are, for the most part, those people with social obstacles built in, like little ice-makers, in the freezer section of their brains.
Maybe it’s depression, maybe a weight problem, drinking, drugs, or some psychic pain born of an awful childhood. Your father didn’t appreciate you, Mom liked one of your siblings best and for some reason couldn’t remember your name a lot of the time. And now you’re the uneasy-looking guy or gal who can’t quite meet other people’s gazes head-on, with a twitch that started the day you found the family dog poisoned by the steak some nasty neighbor threw over the back fence to avenge his befouled lawn. You’re a writer, if you also happen to have the requisite desire to somehow right those scales, to make it all better through the stories you tell.
We writers tend to frequent the offices of those who practice psychopharmacology. We consume cocktails of soothing chemicals that “round the edges” for us. We’re that person in the family who never quite turned out the way everybody hoped we would. We see things in such a negative light. (Well, duh, yeah, because from our perspective, as walking emotional triage candidates, it’s a realistic light.) Woody Allen comes to mind, a man who has probably spent a significant percentage of his adult life making full body contact with leather couches or recliners in the presence of “doctor Somebody”. He’s a terrific writer. And as a human being? I’m not sure, but I suspect his head is just as frizzy on the inside as it is on the outside. He’s wise, to be sure. He’s even comfortable as a writer/director/actor… and yet… scuffed up, yes?
Writers attune themselves to pain, and it’s not an accident. If you feel it yourself, you go looking to find others who might share your affliction — or some affliction, please. A room full of half-hour sitcom writers (I speak from experience, here) is often among the most depressing places you can find that doesn’t say “cemetery” on the outside. Here groups of notoriously miserable souls convene and tell each other, in the flattest, most deadpan of monotones possible, “Yeah. That could be funny.” Or: “Big laugh, huge laugh.” They, of course, look more like they’re going to cry as they’re saying this. And it’s all between snack and lunch breaks during which they eat as if they were deprived when they were children, and which they have discussed nonstop since the moment they arrived in the morning. You think I’m kidding? You know I’m not.
Example. Me. I have, for whatever reason (some say it’s a gene with a quirk), stuttered since I was a little boy. Now this is not meant to be a clumsy attempt at garnering your sympathy, because I neither want nor need your sympathy. (Yes, I also have defiance issues.) It’s just a fact that has been present in my life and has, among other bonuses, given me the tendency to spot the discomforts that other people might be feeling more quickly than most. It’s also given me a heightened appreciation for words, since I’ve often found myself scrambling for one that I can say in place of whatever I’m hung-up on when talking. The benefits of this must be obvious to anyone who writes: it’s broadened my vocabulary. I don’t think it’s made me a good writer, if I am, because I think that’s an altogether different gene. But since I write fiction and walk around noticing the little pains and fears that might be lurking in others, I have a feeling it helps in building characters who might be interesting or, I hope, identifiable to the reader.
Which brings me to the crux of what will pass for my point: it’s possible to turn the damage done to you, the writer, to your advantage. All you have to do is recognize the absurdity of what you’ve been feeling over all those years where you wouldn’t make friends with anybody or talk to the neighbors. The sensitivity to the human predicament that your psychic wound enables you to see is your greatest source of… everything. You are the one who notices that the Barn is Red. You spot the three-legged dog and ruminate on how well he’s adapted and how noble and evocative his very existence, happy and content, really is. You see it all because you are the Red Barn. You are the Three-Legged Dog. You are the writer.
So how come you’re reading this instead of writing?
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Tom Szollosi is a native of Los Angeles, where he has written film and TV for many years. He taught screenwriting at UCLA Extension and has five produced films plus over 100 hours of television to his credit. He’s almost ready to unleash his third novel, Dead Set on Tuesday, and can be caught blogging irregularly at http://www.bloginafog.wordpress.com. You can learn more about Tom’s books on Amazon.com.