Will writing drive you crazy?
May 14, 2012
Tampa police, in an attempt to sanitize that Florida city in anticipation of the upcoming national political convention, sent out patrols to round up the homeless. They housed many of them in makeshift shelters. They had special barracks for those who appeared to suffer from mental disorders.
In charge of the mental ward, psychiatrist Mason Whittlesee took his assignment seriously. He compiled files on each patient and reviewed their charts.
One inmate baffled him. So he requested the orderlies to bring him to his office for an interview.
When Robert Stephens arrived at Whittlesee’s door, he looked the part of a crazy street person. He wore a thread bare three piece suit, a three-month growth of gray beard, brown horn-rim glasses, the hinges held together with white cloth tape. Stephens refused to make eye-contact with the doctor when he sat down across the table from him. He hummed “God Bless the USA” under his breath, held his hands in his lap and twirled his thumbs counterclockwise while the shrink questioned him.
“Mr. Stephens, tell me a little bit about yourself,” Whittlesee asked to break the ice.
Stephens stopped twirling his thumbs as he looked up.
“What would you like to know, doc?” he asked. His voice was clear, his speech finely articulated. He caught Whittlesee off guard.
“Just give me some background information for starters.”
“I grew up in Houston, graduated high school in 1970 and then enrolled in Rice.”
“I see,” the doctor said. He knew not just anyone could enroll in that prestigious university. “What did you study?”
“I took my undergraduate degree in mathematics, my master’s in philosophy.”
“Two degrees from Rice?”
“Yeah. Then I transferred to Stanford for my Ph. D. in theoretical physics,” Stephens said.
“That’s quite a resume, Mr. Stephens.”
Whittlesee didn’t believe a word of it.
“Google me,” Stephens said as he motioned with his head toward the doctor’s computer monitor. “DOB is 4-23-1952.”
“All right, I will,” the psychiatrist said. He turned his back and pressed a few keys on the keyboard. Fourteen pages of hits appeared on Google under the search, Robert Stephens, dob 4-23-1952.
Whittlesee scanned the list of sites, clicked several of them. He saw pictures of the man sitting across the table from him that had been taken over the course of the last three decades. He read about his accomplishments, the articles he had authored in scientific journals and the many awards he had received. The trail went cold five years before when Stephens seemed to have dropped out of sight.
Whittlesee swiveled his chair and faced his patient with a new respect.
“What happened five years ago, Dr. Stephens?”
“I decided to become a fulltime writer.”
Stephens’ delivery was dead pan.
“What do you mean?”
“I quit my job at a scientific research center and turned my mind to writing novels. It took me six months to complete my first book. I obtained an agent, and she submitted the manuscript to several major New York publishers. I waited a year, then two years for any word. Meanwhile, I wrote my second and third novels. I submitted them and waited.”
“Certainly a man with your credentials would have no problem finding a publisher,” Whittlesee said.
Stephens ignored the remark. He continued.
“When Amazon introduced Kindle Direct Publishing, I got my books back from my agent and published them myself. I soon learned that today’s author must build his own platform, as they call it.”
“So what did you do?”
“I Twittered until I lost my mind,” Stephens said. He stood up and took a Blackberry out of his pocket. The battery had been removed from the back, and the front of the device looked as if someone had thrown it against a wall or flattened it with the heel of a boot or hit it with a hammer. Stephens placed the destroyed cell phone on Whittlesee’s desk.
“Can I go now, doc?” he asked.
The psychiatrist took his pen and scribbled something on a pad. He tore the sheet off and handed it to Dr. Stephens.
“Take this by the pharmacy,” Whittlesee said. “These pills should make life a little less painful for you.”
Stephens stuck the prescription in his coat pocket and turned to leave.
“Please close the door behind you, Dr. Stephens,” the shrink said.
When Stephens had departed, Whittlesee opened the bottom left drawer of his desk and pulled out a thick sheaf of papers, three hundred pages of a novel he had worked on for two years.
He threw the stack of papers in the trash can and sat for a long time looking at the smashed Blackberry.
(Written for The Writers Collection to the prompt, “The Homeless.”)