Redefining north.

Writers on Writing #19: Cameron Contois

Writers on Writing #19: Cameron Contois


In an episode of Family Guy, Brian Griffin, the pet dog and wanna-be writer of the Griffin family, says he’s going to give up on his dream of writing a bestselling novel. Stewie Griffin replies, “What? Writing’s the only thing giving your alcoholism any credibility.” I keep this quote on my Facebook page because it is not only hilarious but, for many writers, also so true.

I’m a hard person to be friends with. As a casual acquaintance, I’m great. I’m happy to read over a colleague’s draft of his latest war poetry. This image is too abstract. Ending this poem on the word “forever” just doesn’t work for me. I’ll gladly listen to a classmate read me her latest nonfiction. Try starting your essay on the scene in the front porch with you drinking a beer with your ex-girlfriend’s father. Begin with dialogue. If you’re a casual friend, I’ll bring in an extra McCafe for you in the morning, pick you up when your car’s transmission is broken, and buy you a round of shots at the Verabar late at night.

However, the few people I really let in, sooner or later, see a whole different side. Once, on a vacation in Canada, I threw my shoe at the head of one of my best friends just because she had gone for a car ride without telling me. A few weeks ago, I’d heard a close friend had had friends over without inviting me. I slapped her and didn’t talk to her for a week. When feeling left out, my palms get wet, my breath gets shallow, and I become coated in sweat. I’ll lash out, send expletive laced texts, and leave cruel voice mails if you don’t pick up your cell.

In Sunset Boulevard, writer Joe Gillis ends up at faded silent movie star Norma Desmond’s mansion while trying to outrun men intent on repossessing his car. After learning that Gillis works in the movie industry, Norma Desmond deplores the addition of speech to film. Joe Gillis states: “Don’t blame me; I’m just a writer.” What Joe Gillis should have said was: “Don’t blame me. I’m just a writer. And just like you, Norma Desmond, us writers are fucking crazy.”

For years, I didn’t understand my madness. Then, a few years ago, a therapist explained to me that the fact I am an adopted child is to blame. After my birth, I was immediately taken from my biological mother. Soon after, I was sent to a foster home and would not be placed in a permanent home until months later, when my family adopted me. These events caused me to develop an insatiable need to feel protected. For a baby, abandonment equals death. I carry this feeling with me to this day. When a girl dumps me, when a friend doesn’t invite me to a party, when someone loses me at a bar and I find myself there alone, I equate this feeling with dying. This was a profound revelation. When feeling abandoned, my mind and body reacts as if I am dying.

Finally, I knew why I was so difficult to be friends with.

I also understood why I write.

I understand what it’s like to irrationally need something so bad if feels like death without it. This theme permeates my prose. To transfer this into words, to be able to be able to articulate this desperation into a story, this offers me a catharsis. It gives me a reason for it all. To write reminds my anxiety ridden mind that there is a whole world out there. I am not isolated with these awful feelings. I can express them, shape them, and let go of it into words. Like a Tobey Maguire’s Spiderman always said, “It is my gift. It is my curse.”

Maybe this is why so many people with fondness for the bottle, addiction, wanderlust, or unhealthy relationships also happen to also be writers. We flirt with, dance with, and sometime full on, tongue down throat, make out with self-destructive behavior. From Hemmingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Emily Dickenson, personal demons haunt us writers in one way or another, even if just in the nightmares of otherwise stable people. We know of emotions so great, so intense, that we need to put them into words to understand them.

The craziness that haunts us makes us the writers we are. Real or imagined, we’ve seen our comrade’s legs blown off in the middle of a foreign desert, we’ve cut at our wrists with shards of glass, drowned children in bathtubs, ax murdered coeds, and died time and time again.

We are desperate. We write our girlfriend’s papers for her, buy her groceries, and write her love poems in the off chance that she will change her crazy ways. We know we’d be happy if she would just love us back or if the sun would shine just a little brighter in winter. We search for something on remote islands, in little Finnish cafés, or on Europa, the ice moon of Jupiter. We know there’s something out there that will cure our unhappiness if we could just find it and make it corporeal enough to grasp.

We dare to glimpse into the heads of the vilest people. We explore the mind of Hitler, think as the man who buys a bag of Starbursts to lure a child into his rusty van, become the middle aged man who seduces Dolores Haze. We humanize those who others can simply write off as monsters.

We’re not here to make your life easy. We’ll give a face and backstory to the immigrant you want to send back to Mexico. We’ll tell you, in witty and intuitive prose, of the struggles of those marching on Wall Street. We won’t turn away from corporate greed and will tell the story of the girl in the ally with track marks that you have written off as just another addict.  We may expose you in our next nonfiction essay.

In our fiction, we create characters as real as our relatives, colleagues and friends. We imagine vampires with souls, explore the psyche of gods, and bring to life villains who just want to see the world burn. Through our words, we can resurrect historical figures, bring about the political winds of change, and even, as Harriet Beecher Stowe did, help start a war.

We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t at least a bit crazy. Future employment is scarce. We take a chance on a dream that our words will someday be published, let alone make us any money.  So the next time the writer in your life is being selfish, depressed, unreasonable, and, well, “crazy,” remember to cut us some slack. And if you ever call me out on it, I’ll simply say, “Don’t blame me. I’m just a writer.”

Going Through the Basics by Tom Rich

Going Through the Basics by Tom Rich

Writers on Writing #18: Luke Thominet

Writers on Writing #18: Luke Thominet