The audience numbered less than twenty, and were scattered among the rickety chairs, whose battered desk flaps attested to the multiple uses to which the room was subjected.
As a group, the people gathered there were unexceptional, a cross section of American culture, though something, perhaps a slight tenseness around the eyes, and a reluctance to indulge in close conversation, indicated that this was not another Monday night literary association or religious group. These people were gathered for more serious purpose.
In the front portion of the room the inevitable rickety podium, and the also inevitable row of chairs for the comfort of those conducting the meeting, gathered. In the rear, the coffee pot burbled to itself as it prepared for the onslaught of the social period at the meeting’s end.
The ritual of opening the meeting and reading the minutes was completed, as was the equally dull invocation of God’s blessing on those gathered there. It was finally time for the introduction of the newest member.
The chairman glanced behind him, to verify that the man had not fled before the time of his presentation. In spite of a mental bet that the man would not be able to go through with his ordeal—a common occurrence among those who came to that room for help—he remained. It was a good sign. Those who stood to testify could not be coerced or cajoled into speech. When it was the right time for them they would know it. Until then, nothing on earth could drive them to stay. In this case, surprisingly, the man remained, although the tension lines on his face overshadowed the pain the chairman had seen there earlier, when the little man had quietly slipped into the room.
He could not long remain unnoticed, however. His dress alone gave him away: torn and patched pants below a shirt that displayed a veritable menu of his encounters with life. He wore shoes of a sort—cast off sneakers with gaping holes through which his toes peered—but socks were a luxury he obviously could not afford. In the life he had probably been living, even removing his shoes to sleep was not allowed, lest he wake to find those meager symbols of status gone.
His eyes, too, gave him away, the shifting distrustful eyes of the street-person, overlaid with the driving urgency of his need. He had hit bottom, and in his despair had finally admitted to himself that he could not go it alone. At last, he was ready to turn to others for help. It was his time.
The chairman turned back to the podium. His voice, as he began, was deliberately calm and matter of fact, and his words chosen with care. The man sitting behind him needed reassurance. He needed to know that he was not unusual, simply another in a long line of those seeking the support the people in that room could provide. There was warmth in the chairman’s voice when he said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a new brother with us tonight, a man who needs us, and the help we can give him. I’ve spoken with him, and have explained that each of us here in this room have, at one time, stood in his shoes. Each of us has taken the step of unburdening their souls to those who understand their suffering.”
He turned, motioning the little man forward; urging him, when his resolve seemed in danger of giving way. “Please, even I took my turn here,” he said, gently. “It’s easier than you think.” He smiled reassuringly. “Believe me, only the first few words are hard.”
The man finally sighed, and, seeming to steel himself against what was to come, stood and moved to join the chairman at the podium. That man smiled and patted his guest on the shoulder, whispering reassurance as he stepped to one side, motioning toward those seated and waiting. “Go on, Sam, you’ll do fine. I’ll be right here.”
Sam stepped to the podium, regretting his decision to come and wishing he could be almost anywhere else. But it was to late. Clutching tightly to the small rail at the rear of the podium, he centered himself defensively behind its feeble protection, distancing himself from those in the room.
He looked out over the faces gathered there, most smiling their own reassurance at him, some frowning as though in remembered pain. He took a long breath, in an attempt to steady himself for what was to come, his eyes darting toward the chairman, attempting to gain a measure of strength in his close presence. But that man had taken a step backward, making him the center of the room’s attention.
He slumped. There was nowhere to run, and no way to deny anymore. All he could do was clamp down on emotion, to keep the despair from his voice—if that was even possible.
But possible or not, he was committed. There was time only for a quick glance around for reassurance, a deep breath, and, “My name is Sam, and I’m…” He sighed, then bowed his head, shaking it in shame. “… I’m a writer.”
The words were said at last, and they hung over the room, the shame in them almost like a living presence. He raised his head then, and stared at those facing him, daring someone to laugh. But there was no laughter, only the warmth of their support for his pain. Shared pain.
He had named the devil, though, and now the words came easier.
“I started small; letters to the editor and stories for my kids. They never published the letters, but I assumed that it was because there were many responses on the same issues. He hesitated. It was time for the brutal truth. Time to stop lying to himself. He squared his shoulders and forced himself to go on, saying, “I couldn’t see…wouldn’t see…that it was because I simply had no talent for the written word.”
Ignoring the stir from the audience he plunged on. “I tried to improve the quality of my letters—to add humor and insight that might have been missing. It took a year, but then a disaster happened: I was published.” He leaned forward, gripping the podium. “My words had appeared in print!” His voice was strong now, as was he, filled with the self-loathing the admission brought. “No matter that the letter was heavily edited, it had been printed! My words were read by thousands! I was no longer an writer, I was an author!”
He snorted in disgust. “That simple letter was my undoing. After that it was just a matter of time. I began to carry a small pad, and, wherever I was I began to write down story ideas and thoughts for articles. I bought a word-processor and I learned to type. Slowly, the devil began to rule my life.”
He paused, breathing hard, the chairman’s steadying hand on his shoulder helping to bring him under control. Now that he was started, the story was bursting to be freed, a catharsis of his agony.
“You probably know the story… I began to write in the evenings, ignoring the television set and even my family, submitting my work to short-story magazines.” He laughed “I wasn’t rejected, I told myself, there were simply too many other good stories that month, and the professionals had the name that was necessary to break into the closed circle of authors. I couldn’t see!” He sighed. “I didn’t want to.
“Then came the novels, and even more time with the keyboard. Soon evenings became entire nights, as my life began to center on my addiction.” He shook his head. “Though I could never see it as an addiction. I still thought of it as a hobby.”
He sighed. “One by one I lost my friends. Not only did I stop returning their calls—I saw their calls as interruptions, you see…” He spread his hands. “When I did see them I saddled them with manuscripts, forcing friends to read them and then questioning them at length as to plot twists and characterization.” He laughed “They began to avoid me. I can’t say I blame them.”
He hung his head for a moment, before continuing, in a voice devoid of emotion.
“My regular work began to suffer as I daydreamed plots and story lines instead of paying attention to business. As time went on, and I sank deeper into addiction, I began to sneak a half-hour here and there to make story notes, finally abandoning all pretense of work.”
He closed his eyes in remembered pain. “When I lost my job for the first time I tried to give it up. I realized what writing was doing to me, even then, but I had sunk too far…too far. By that time I was reduced to carrying my short stories with me, maneuvering conversations with strangers to the subject of writing and then forcing copies on my unsuspecting victims.” He looked at nothing for a moment, lost in memories, then snorted, adding, “The money I wasted on duplicating, alone…”
He pressed his face into his hands as he gained strength for what had to come next. When he lowered his hands he made no effort to keep the resignation from his voice.
“It went quickly after that. My family left me, of course. They still loved me, I think, but they really had no choice. I know it was hard for them, but I hardly noticed.
“Without a job, and with no other source of income, I soon found myself on the street, begging for food money, but in reality, using it to buy paper and pencils to feed my addiction.
“Even that didn’t last… It couldn’t.” He stopped for a moment, eyes focused on nothing. Then, returning to the present, he shook himself awake with a short bark of a laugh. “I woke this morning to find myself under the platform of the subway.” His voice was strong now. “I tried to make myself get up and get something to eat, but I couldn’t; I had to write something first!” His voice was a reflection of the darkness inside. “Do you know? Have you felt the soul-searing need that grips your very being?” He stepped around the podium, arms stretched forward in supplication. “I-wrote-on-a-wall! I had no paper, and still I couldn’t stop doing it!” He sank to his knees, reaching out, pain a tearing shriek in his voice. “Please…please help me before I write again.” He collapsed on himself then, a miserable figure of a man, alone in his need, sobbing, face pressed against his hands.
But he was not to remain alone. Heedless of the stinking filth of his clothing, a woman hurried forward to gather him in her arms. Quickly, the others came forward to form a human bulwark against his pain, helping him to his seat and remaining for a moment, whispering individual words of encouragement to him before slipping back to their places.
Once more the chairman stood at the podium. He spoke to the group, but his words were really meant for the man behind him. “We all share that affliction with Sam, and well know his pain. For so many years, the disease of writership was unknown, masked by the success of that small group of people who possess an actual talent for writing. It was assumed that those of us who suffered and starved for the written word were simply misguided. It has only been a few years since Stafford’s great discovery that writing is an addiction, one as darkly destructive as alcohol or drugs…one that destroys more lives each year than even tobacco.”
He paused, nodding. “But now that the sickness has been identified for what it is, we can treat it, and even identify it in the young, preventing its taking hold in children; possibly the worst tragedy of all. With avoidance therapy, and the latest advance, ridicule therapy, those of us who have fallen may rise once more, to control those terrible urges and become productive members of society again.” He leaned forward, his eyes bright. “There is even hope that in time we will find a way to allow social writing by addicts without triggering a relapse in their condition.” That statement brought a stir of interest from the audience. He held up a warning hand. “Nothing definite yet, I’m afraid, but in the latest issue of Writer’s Anonymous, there was an article on just that possibility.
The meeting slowly dragged its way to a close, the closing prayer signaling a release from the hard chairs. With a final comment of, “Don’t forget to feed the coffee kitty,” the chairman turned to Sam, only to find him gone. With the prayer he had slipped quickly through the nearby door, unable to face the group on a personal basis. The chairman shrugged, then turned to the podium to collect his things. But the podium was bare. His notebook and pencil were gone. For a moment there was a flick of anger, but he suppressed it. The book was gone, and this was not really unexpected—though he had hoped that the little man was ready. Many of those who visited this room for the first time could not stay for long. But it was a start. There always had to be that start: an admitting of the problem. When he was ready he would be back. They always came back.
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Author’s note: Please…help me. Stop me before I write again.
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