Behind the Lines with DR: Is Every Writer in Pain?

I adore movie geeks. You know those guys. They’re the fan boys who, when not hooked up to their Xboxes and PlayStations or planning a two-week road trip to the next Comic-Con, take to the internet to blog or comment on the multitude of bulletin boards dedicated to discussing, dissing, or elevating movies. Were I still young, single and obsessed with motion pictures, I too might take to the web to satisfy my thirst by conversing about and commenting on the magical movie world to which I had yet figured out how to gain entry.

So now that we’ve established that I possess this soft spot, on with the story.

Not too many years ago, while ego-surfing bulletin boards associated with one of my movies I eventually found myself in an online chat with a fan. The fan was in his mid-twenties, a perpetual community college student, weekly contributor to his local small town newspaper, and master of a website dedicated to – wonder of wonders – film. I found the young man bright, cinema literate, and inquisitive to distraction. He was bursting with so many damned questions I finally asked for his number and hopped on the phone with him, only to find myself machine-gunned with even more breathless queries. I might’ve been turned off at the intensity of his attack but for his name-dropping of other working screenwriters he’d supposedly connected with. One of whom later assured me that “the kid is just a hardcore fan… harmless… a wealth of excitement. Guys like him should be encouraged.”

Good enough. So I remained in contact with the fan, sporadically communicating until I opened an email announcing he’d scored an official invitation to participate in a press junket for a big summer blockbuster.

“My newspaper is paying my plane fare,” said the note. “But they want more than just a movie review. Could I interview you while I’m in Los Angeles?”

I kindly agreed, made a notch on the date, and gave him my cell phone number. The plan was for him to ring me the day prior to our scheduled sit-down. I’d every intent of allowing him to conduct his interview in my home office, a mere nineteen steps from my back door.

Then I pressed pause.

I found myself strangely uncomfortable with the prospect of meeting this fan where my wife and kids slept. Call it instinct. Call it paranoia. Blame the little hairs I sometimes forget to shave on the back of my neck. For once I trusted my gut and asked if the fan could meet me down the street at Jerry’s Famous Deli in Studio City.

Agreed. Done. See ya there.

The fan met me in a corner booth. Tall and paunchy, he had sandy long hair and a constellation of acne scars, wore a jean jacket and Chuck Taylors so worn the rubber was on the sidewalls were shredding. We ordered up some lunch and began by picking up on one of our previous conversations. It was a thin slice of film geek heaven. At our marrow, we were movie lovers. And the fan’s depth of knowledge, not to mention the sheer catalogue of the films he’d seen was astonishing.

Sometime between a fifth round of sodas, bathroom breaks, and a restaurant shift change, the fan produced a small tape recorder and suggested we begin the interview.

“I thought this was the interview,” I laughed.

“I wish,” he said. “But I gotta pay for my trip.”

“By all means, let’s make your editor happy.”

Thus he proceeded with some questions. Initially banal. The basic background details such as what part of the United States I’d grown up in, did I have brothers or sisters, and were my parents married or divorced or even living? Eventually, my lunch date served up this honey of a query:

“So what about diseases or disorders? Do you have any?”

I laughed. “And what’s next on your list of questions?” I joked. “Injuries? Major surgeries? Potential or dangerous drug interactions?”

I wondered if the fan had briefly confused himself or flashed back to a moment when he’d been a triage nurse taking medical histories.

“Not a nurse, dude,” said the fan. “Where’d you get that?”

“Okay then,” I apologized for obviously misunderstanding him. “Carry on.”

He got around to asking me what my father was like. How solid was my relationship with him? Did my old man ever beat me? Surely this was a bizarre line of interrogation.

“My dad was old school. Pretty rough at times,” I finally answered, though slightly guarded. “But nothing out of the ordinary. Where are you going with this?”

The fan shifted tack, suddenly seeking to discover if I had any deep-seated issues with my mother. Or how about my siblings? Were my relationships with them malignant?

“Lemme ask you a question,” I glibly shot back. “How’s that PhD you’re working on?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re a psych major, right? You wanna be a shrink and this interview is for a paper you’re writing.”

“I told you,” said the fan, blinking rapidly. “It’s for my hometown newspaper.”

“That’s what you said. But your questions seem more appropriate for a psychiatric evaluation than a newspaper interview with a movie writer.”

“Okay,” he segued. “So what about drinking?”

“You wanna know if I drink?”

“Do you?”

“Occasional cocktail.”

“Sure. But you’re a writer.”

“Last time I checked,” I said. “But am I the type that writes with one hand on the keyboard and the other on a bottle of Jack? Sorry. That’s not me.”

“So what about pot or cocaine?”

“Seriously?”

“Why not?”

“Is this an interview or an intervention?”

“Do you need one?” the fan asked, the heartbeat of excitement raising his voice a half-octave.

Okay. The needle on my patience meter was tipping toward empty. This interview had somehow gone sideways and there wasn’t a waiter or a check in sight. This fan-cum-cub-reporter was turning over piles of my suburban, green sod life in hope of buried treasure that wasn’t there.

“What the hell are you digging for?” I finally said, all the while mentally dialing 1-800-GHANDI for a little interviewee tech support.

“C’mon. You know,” he said.

“Actually, no. I don’t know.”

“I’m looking for the pain.”

“What pain?”

“The pain that makes you write.”

I had to sit back and replay that exchange just to make certain I didn’t have mites nesting in my ears.

“Pain?” I clarified.

“Great pain,” he corrected. “All artists have it. Writers especially. It’s where all the creative comes from.”

“Really?” I said. “I hadn’t heard that.

“Oh, come on,” he prodded.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve studied plenty about the associations between inner pain and great art. And I can almost concur with the notion. After all, as I write this post, Edward Munch’s The Scream just shattered Picasso’s all time auction record for a single painting. And that’s in a bad economy, proving pain exacts prices on both our souls and pocketbooks.

“I can’t make any sense of you,” he said to me.

“What’s to make sense of? I’m here in front of you. What you see is what you get.”

“You seem… everything about you seems, well… normal.”

“So?”

“Normal isn’t good. Normal doesn’t make true art.”

“Maybe I’m not a true artist,” I posed.

“No. You are definitely an artist,” insisted my interrogator, looking as if he was about to bust the vinyl on his seat.

“How can you tell? I work in a collaborative medium. My movies are paganly commercial.”

“You also write books,” he argued. “I’ve read them and you’re definitely an artist.”

“Well, there goes your theory then,” I said.

“No,” he angrily insisted. “You’re just not letting me in.”

“This is an interview. Not a session with my shrink.”

“So you have a therapist?”

“Not presently.”

“So it’s there then,” he said with a lilting aha. “The pain. This whole married-suburban-dad-thing is just a mask.”

“Sorry. No mask. It’s me.”

“And what if I don’t believe you?”

That was pretty much the end of it. I couldn’t help the fan prove his theorem that beneath my skin was a tormented wrestler of demons. In order to speed up my exit, I paid cash for the meal, left a generous tip for taking up the table for so long, and walked away from the booth without even looking back.

Thankfully, the fan didn’t follow me.

If an article for the fan’s Podunk Weekly was ever generated, I was never copied on it. Nor did the fan ever phone or email me again. What a disappointment I must’ve been.

Yet I haven’t forgotten so much as a second of the encounter. Not just because it was such an odd occurrence in my life. I often recall the encounter when I stumble upon tortured souls either parading or posing as artists. Just the premise that a man or woman must suffer to carve something beautiful or moving or entertaining from a piece of unformed stone is annoying and narrow minded.

Not that I don’t have pain. Nor do I stuff it in places I can’t easily access. It’s just not necessarily what makes me who I am. Or why I write. Or what makes you who you are.

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2 thoughts on “Behind the Lines with DR: Is Every Writer in Pain?

  1. Lev David

    @Brenda Laying pipe isn’t easy. Answering phones isn’t easy. Any honest day’s work could find you facing your worst fears, your darkest places. The telltale sign of a pretender is that they’d rather talk about the anguish than talk about the work. Even a guy like Haneke — a very “serious” filmmaker — is more enthusiastic about talking about a tracking shot or the structure of a scene than he is about talking about the supposedly unique, supposedly exceptional anguish of creative work.

    Thanks for your work, Doug.

  2. Brenda

    I remember asking my very first acting teacher if one had to be neurotic in order to be an actor. He said no. I became neurotic pursuing acting surrounded by classes full of neurotic actors.

    I turned to writing, and my neuroses changed. I started having fun while filled with a whole new fear-set. One maybe does not need to be in pain to be artistic, but creativity ain’t easy.

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