Do I write because I’m sick, or am I sick because I write?

EDIT: This was first published in 2005. Since then a few things have changed: for example, I actually HAVE gone to therapy.

I have a wonderful, eternally trusted friend who recently suggested that my plays might suggest something about my psyche that I’ve been avoiding facing in real life. In other words, she thinks I have a lot of issues, and only needs to look at my body of work for proof.

“Nonsense,” my defense mechanism (I call him Clark) says. “My plays are nothing more than an ideas taken to its natural conclusions. Pure fiction, concocted out of thin air, and the drama I see in society each day.”

But sometimes, the superego takes a nap, and I start to wonder if my friend might have a point. You could summarize my plays in many ways, but it’s hard to deny the thread of violence and cynicism that seems to waltz through some of them. Following are some perfectly legitimate capsule summaries and/or lessons of my most popular works:

    Lives in the Wind – an actor gets killed twice while a merry troupe of actors gleefully reenact every war they can think of. LESSON: War is romantic and fun. 4 deaths.Something Went Wrong – a wife comes to accept her husband’s psychopathic tendencies. LESSON: ultimately it’s easier to sweep such things under the rug than deal with them. 1 death (offstage, but the corpse remains on).The Trophy Wife – a woman discovers that suicide is a perfectly viable and acceptable alternative to guilt. The man who is to kill her agrees (although he might boff her first). Meanwhile, her husband gets away with murder and lives happily ever after. LESSON: Hey, murder and suicide happen, particularly in a marriage. No deaths DURING the play, but 2 murders, including the murder of a pregnant woman, play a crucial part in the action.

    A Curtain Call to Arms – don’t get me started. LESSON: Death is funny, and certainly worth the glory. Um…let’s see…7 deaths.

    Mediocreville – LESSON: suicide is funny!

    The Boy Who was Born With a Tail – child abuse leads to creative blocks. It’s a little obscure if anyone dies, but no one has a lot of fun.

And so on. To paraphrase Janeane Garofalo: “Get the boy a magazine rack, because he’s got a lot of issues.”

Okay. I admit the outlook looks bleak, and to be fair, therapy is definitely something I’ll probably explore. My parents might agree – after seeing The Trophy Wife, my father’s first words to me were “who raised you?” Something Went Wrong certainly didn’t reassure him of my sanity, and A Curtain Call to Arms inspired him to remark “where did we go wrong?” He may have a point.

Clark? You there? Ah, there you are. Thanks for coming back. Because it was time to tell you good people that I’m a good guy. I have a temper but it takes an awful lot to inspire it. I hate guns, hate war, love communication, I’m good to my friends, and I consider myself a romantic, not a cynic. I believe wholeheartedly in the goodness of people, think there is nothing more moving than watching someone struggle for his or her dignity (I cried – CRIED – at the slow closeup on Eddie Murphy’s face as the comic insulted him mercilessly during The Nutty Professor), and think the worst feeling in the world is the fear that I’ve somehow hurt or disappointed someone. To me, these are healthy qualities in a balding 33-year-old.

I submit, therefore, that writing gives me an outlet for my dark side. I’m not going to go so far as to say I write so that I don’t hurt people, but I will allow that I have occasionally ugly emotions that I’d rather not keep inside, and writing gives me a safe way of leeching them out of my system.

I’m not so big on entertainment that taps into various social ills to create drama (in my next essay, I’ll discuss the phenomenon of “Abuse Theatre” – that is, the theory that cruelty = good drama). Not that there aren’t a lot of ripe subjects out there that tap into the dark side of human potential, but in general, I tend to shy away from any topic that might be considered issue-related. It intrigues me, therefore, that so much of my work really does seem to mine, if not exploit, some dark and ugly aspects of humanity for entertainment. And more often than not, I seem to be making light of violence and cruelty.

This isn’t unusual. Lots of humor – the majority, maybe – is founded in cruelty. Look no further than cartoons. Making light of murder, though – ah, that’s a little different. Black humor is supposed to be a way of making death somehow more palatable, more acceptable. Think of Monty Python’s gleefully inhumane sketches, in which people and cute n’ fuzzy animals are routinely mutilated, and we laugh at the inappropriateness of it all. I’m certainly not the first writer to turn what appears to be a fixation on death into comedy.

There is supposed to be a point where people stop finding humor in “inappropriate” subjects. I’ve heard that it comes with age – I’ve been affected by cancer, for example, so it’s unlikely that I’ll find any cancer joke remotely funny. But a younger person, one who hasn’t had to deal with it in his or her life, might feel differently, and might therefore write whole skits and plays that find humor in disease and suffering. And, well, good for them! You SHOULD make light of such things when you’re young, because a time will come when you don’t find them funny anymore. Get your digs in while you can.

But then there’s me. As I mentioned, I’m pushing the age where soon enough, I’ll be eligible to run for President. When do I stop using death and cruelty as subjects in my plays? When do I face the fact that I clearly have some warped perception of the world, of people, of myself, that I really should face down?

Hopefully never. Clark says, and I agree, that writing IS my therapy for now. My characters are cruel so that I’m not. My characters feel pain so that I don’t have to. My friend is right – therapy is a wonderful thing, an excellent tool for getting at the heart of one’s problems and ultimately making one a better person. But I never want to fully give up that dark, cynical side, because I want to be able to get it down on paper. I want to be able to say, hey, Death Be Not Proud, but it sometimes be funny, and it sometimes shocks the viewer into accepting ideas he or she might not have accepted. Writing is a selfish act, which is exactly how it should be – I’m really not trying to make the world better with my plays. I’m trying to make myself better. And since I continue to tout my own sanity (I do NOT protest too much! Clark, make that voice stop!), I have to believe it’s working, at least somewhat.

When I’m a better, more confident writer, I like to think I’ll start producing work that inspires people to reflect on my intelligence and mental health. Of the three projects currently in the works, in fact, two of them have no room for violence, real or imagined, onstage or off (The PornoZombies, on the other hand…). So perhaps I’m growing right now, as you read this. That, or this is just a “healthy” phase that I’ll soon tire of. In the meantime, well, don’t cry for me. I may need help, but at least I have a method of inflicting my sickness on an audience. And really, what could be healthier than that?