psychic scars

A friend of mine is studying to be a screenwriter. The other night, we had a conversation about her graduate program.

She’s in her mid-thirties, while most of her classmates are in their early twenties, a disparity she claims is obvious in their writing. Much of the work her classmates produce is imaginative , but not reflective of inner-life and the subtle interior changes that make for great character development.

“It’s not a matter of feeling or being superior,” she said. “It’s simply the fact I’ve had ten more years of life. That’s ten more years of heartbreak and life experience and dialogue in my ears.”

I was certainly someone who generated a lot of not very good work in my early twenties. It took years of studying character and plot structures to understand that those hundred pages I vomited into a Word document didn’t count as a story. And one of the things missing was a key component of character: psychic scars.

I’ve heard Matt Weiner talk about learning this technique on The Sopranos (citation needed). The idea is that every character suffers trauma and will have small triggers to set them off.

The most obvious example from Mad Men: Peggy Olsen’s reaction to children following her unplanned pregnancy and giving her child up for adoption. It’s subtle story points like these that touch a character’s core wound and propel the character forward in the story.

Maybe our work in our early-twenties isn’t good because we’ve failed to find these things in ourselves. We don’t have as many psychic scars. Or if we do, we haven’t explored them. We haven’t yet plumbed the depths to understand them and as a result, ourselves.

Examples from my own life: I’m getting ready for my brother-in-law’s bachelor party, a weekend getaway at a lake house in a small Wisconsin town. A small Wisconsin town that shares its name with an ex-girlfriend’s last name.

You can’t write these things. You have to live them. And this is why the work in your early twenties isn’t up to snuff.

As Junot Diaz says, “Read more than you write. Live more than you read.”