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The Trope of the Tortured Writer

September 23, 2018

When I first started writing – and I don’t mean playwriting; I mean any sort of writing, way back when I was an undergrad and didn’t know what I wanted to do – I imagined, and worshiped, writers as disheveled piles of human existence. I pictured them: Their hair probably stood straight up or ran rampant around their heads like stray seaweed, around their computers lie a pile of coffee cups and wine glasses from artsy bistros, and I’m almost certain that ash trays hid somewhere below their desks. These ideal writers of mine were destitute and tortured, but inured with extraordinary insight into the human condition through their downcast situations. Only through feeling pain can we write about pain, I thought! That’s the ticket! Be miserable and addicted and alone and you’ll be a great writer. It’s all so simple!

 

I’m not alone in falling for this trope. Many are quick to point out Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, Edgar Allen Poe and O’Neill. Even more recent writers, like Sam Shepherd, had drinking problems.

 

It seems true: Pain equals greatness.

But I gotta say, that’s a terrible, awful, miserable way to go through life. Worse yet, it’s not completely true. Take Stephen King, for example. I started reading his “On Writing” two weeks ago after a wonderfully talented friend of mine, Jared Eberlein, sent me a message asking if I’d ever read it. I said I hadn’t, although the book had been on the bookshelf next to my desk for at least a year. So I picked it up and started reading. One of the lines that jumped out to me was King saying he had been able to write so much because he stayed married – and part of his staying married was getting, and staying, sober.

 

Now, I don’t profess to be an expert on any of the writers I have mentioned. I’ve never read a whole Stephen King book or novel besides “On Writing,” even though I went past his house in Bangor, Maine, several times when I lived there in 2011 (Nice fence!). However, I do know that Stephen King is still working at the age of 71, and he’s still kicking ass. In comparison, Edgar Allen Poe died at 40 while stumbling around the streets of Baltimore in someone else’s clothes; O’Neill died at 65, but struggled to write during the last ten years of his life due to Parkinson’s like symptoms of alcoholism; Hemingway famously died at 61 when he stuck his favorite shotgun in his mouth; and Tennessee Williams made it to 71 before dying alone in a hotel room in NYC because he accidentally inhaled the top of a nasal spray bottle... You see what I’m saying...

And I often wonder how many novels, stories, and plays the world would’ve had if so many famous writers hadn’t burnout or fallen under the knives of depression and addiction and isolation. Of course, I’ve chosen male writers as examples, but Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, and other women writers have suffered similar fates, and the end loss was just as terrible. (And artists in other genres: Jackson Pollock, Vincent van Gogh, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin)

What also makes this idea particularly interesting to me is that I didn’t produce a cohesive sentence before my wife and I got married in 2012. I had always been a reader, always, but I had never been a writer before she gave me the base from which I could venture. And I gave up drinking, which gave me a clearer head and the ability to focus.

Granted, I’m not in the same league as the heavyweights I first mentioned. I’m not even in the league below their league. Hardly anyone is. But I think I’ve written enough, and deeply enough, to prove to myself, at least, that writing does not have to necessitate personal suffering. For sure, we should live life and use those experiences to develop our understanding of the human condition – but we should remember, also, that laughter and love and sunshine are equally, if not more, effective for inspiration.

And my wife and I just celebrated our 6th wedding anniversary last night. :)

On to the playwriting front...

November 2nd: I’ll be down in Tampa, Florida, for the premiere production of Rube Moats at Lab Theater Projects. Caroline Jett is directing, and we recently made the Tampa Bay Times listing of Fall Art to See!

January 20th-29th, 2019: Barter’s Festival of Appalachian Plays and Playwrights in Abingdon, Virginia! I mentioned this in my last post, but I can now say that I was once again selected to take part in this wonderful festival. And it’s LONGER this year, so I’ll get to hang out in beautiful, historical Abingdon for a few more days while developing Extraction.

April 2019 (TBA): Reading in NYC of Extraction! Can’t give more information yet, but I will soon. I’m beyond excited to finally have a play read in the Big City.

May 2019 (TBA): Production of Gracefully Ending. I’ll be directing a production at a local theater in Garrett County, Maryland. Again, I can’t really go into specifics until they say something. But then I will.

 

June/July 2019: 3rd Annual Old Red Barn (O.R.B.) New Play Reading Series with Theatre on the Lake. I never know what will happen, but I can promise it will be a good time (that’s what she said?). Speaking of which, we’ll be sending out the call for scripts in the next couple of weeks, so if you know any playwrights in MD, VA, or WV, let them know!

So 2019 is shaping up to be a great year, but none of it would’ve happened without the initial effort and work. And the work came from being supported and loved.

Until next time, Happy Autumn! May all your cups runneth over with Pumpkin Spice.

-- A.J.

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