This is something I have never talked about publicly. Five years ago, shortly after my beautiful daughter’s third birthday, I was diagnosed with advanced SWS — Shit Writing Syndrome.
I’ll assume you’ve never heard of it. I hadn’t. Webster’s Dictionary defines Shit Writing Syndrome as “a disorder that turns one’s writing to shit, for example, by causing one to quote this dictionary when describing the disorder.”
The mechanics of the disease are still not well understood. Some experts believe that fecal matter leaks out of your colon and travels through your lymphatic system into your writing. Others think it’s figurative. But those distinctions matter little when you are looking at a page of your own writing and seeing shit.
They found it by accident. I had gone to the doctor for a routine penile enlargement procedure. I had filled out the standard Writers Guild insurance forms, and that’s where it turned up. When my doctor walked into the room, she had a hard time making eye contact.
“We won’t be enlarging your penis today,” she started, haltingly.
Ordinarily, she spoke with such clinical reserve. But this was different, personal. “When we looked at your paperwork, something seemed off. I took the liberty of sending it to a lab,” she continued. “Andy… your writing… it’s almost a hundred percent shit.”
“That can’t be,” I said. “I was writing just yesterday and it was fine.”
She asked me to write a simple sentence. I did. We both looked at it. I laughed nervously.
“L-let me try again.”
“Try some dialogue,” she encouraged.
I wrote a few lines of dialogue. I can’t remember them exactly, but I remember one of the characters said something kind of lame and then the other character said, “Really?” and repeated the lame thing that the first character had said.
My doctor looked at me. “Really?” she said. I hung my head in shame.
“I want you to know that this is not a death sentence,” she said, her words floating all around my head like antlers I guess. “Many SWS patients — those who work in non-writing fields, or in marketing — can go on to live long productive lives.”
“But I work in TV comedy,” I said. “Believe me,” she said, “I have plenty of SWS patients who work in TV comedy. Just get a job on a dramedy. Or one of those shows where the characters talk to the camera.”
“Those jobs are the hardest ones to get,” I said. “That’s so weird,” she said. “I know, right?” I said. “’I know right?’ That’s your punchline? Really?” she said.
She pulled out a piece of paper and scribbled something on it.
“There’s a program, it’s experimental. I might be able to get you on it.”
And she started to leave. “Wait, what about my penis enlargement procedure?” I said. “Andy. Ultimately, wasn’t that just a dick joke?” I nodded sadly and mumbled, “I know, right?”
And with that she was gone. Laughing like a banana. I looked at the paper she gave me. It said, “Dan Harmon, Community.”
In order to get a job on Community, I needed to prove that my writing hadn’t always been shit. That at some point, before I started imitating TV shows that I didn’t even like, before I started picking jokes and plots out of the Sears catalogue of jokes and plots, before I started bending characters to serve dialogue, rather than the other way around, there was something coming out of me that was unique and honest and joyous and good.
I sent in a couple writing samples from before I started sucking. From back when I was just writing for an audience of one. And somehow I got in.
I got in!
“I’m told you can cure my Shit Writing Syndrome,” I said when I first met Dan Harmon. He smirked. “You were told wrong.”
My heart sank. “Well then what do you do here?” I asked. He poured himself a drink. “I drink and complain and curse executives and yell about actors and I do this little dance like I’m three years old. Wanna see it?”
“Hell yes I want to see it,” I said.
He did the dance. It was great. Really fun. A really great little dance. Just adorable. I cannot overstate how super cute this dance was.
Then he poured me a drink too. “You drink?” he asked. “I’m afraid not,” I said. “Is that part of the therapy? Does that make my writing less shit?”
“No, come on, alcohol’s a depressant. It ruins your life. It kills you. But it helps with the symptoms.”
He pulled out a marker and went to the white board. He drew a circle. “If you—” Then the marker ran out of ink and he threw it across the room. Then he said, “Fuck it” and he sat back down. He opened Twitter on his phone and started typing stuff. About ten minutes went by. Then I think he fell asleep. He closed his eyes at least. Then he opened them, ate a hamburger, poured another drink, and picked up nowhere near where he left off.
“Look I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here. I’ll let you in on a little seeky-poo.”
“Is that a cute way of saying secret?” I asked. “Because I am eating it up. I am totally buying that. How did you do that? How do you make me adore something stupid like that?”
“I don’t know, you’re co-dependent, you worship monsters, your mom slept with sailors or something.”
I smiled, loving him like a French Horn loves a fist. And then he dropped the bombshell.
“I’m a shit writer.”
“You have it too? You have SWS?” I asked, incredulous.
“Everyone has it!” he said. “Everyone’s writing is ninety-eight percent shit. Well not everyone’s. Flannery O’Connor was around eighty. I’m making that up, I don’t even know who that is, I just pulled a name out of my 10th grade ass, fuck off for judging me.”
“I didn’t judge you.”
“Then fuck off for not judging me. Everyone’s writing is shit and it’s incurable. All you can do is manage it.”
And that’s when he told me the secret, the answer, the whole Kwanzaa.
“The first step, which you’ve already taken, is to open your eyes and see the shit on the page. The second step is to drink because it fucking sucks knowing how bad you are. It’s depressing. You can skip the drinking step if you want, it’s not a requirement. But the third step is also to drink, so you’ll have to skip two steps. You do pills? Weed?”
“I do Pop Tarts.”
“That shit’ll kill you.”
“I know, I’m working on it.”
“Okay, step four for you is sugar. Step five is delete. Keep the two percent that isn’t shit and delete the ninety-eight percent that’s shit. Rewrite it. Within your re-write, there will be two more percent that isn’t shit. Then just keep tossing the shit and replacing it until the ratio is tolerable.”
“How do I know when it’s tolerable?”
“I don’t know, make up your own answer, you’re the fucking hero in this, finish your own story, find your own Nemo, Schindle your own list.”
And that began the amazing exhausting process whereby Dan Harmon rewrote my shit, and his shit and everyone rewrote everyone’s shit until it was significantly less shit.
Have I slayed the dragon? No. I basically still suck. It’s still a daily struggle. And I’ll be honest, most days I just settle for shit so I can get home and see my daughter. She’s way more important than writing good. For Christ’s sake, it’s just television, it’s not life.
I’ll leave you with two documents. One is my original draft of the much beloved Community episode “Mixology Certification.” What you’ll see there is a script that many other shows would have just punched up and shot. And after that, take a look at a much later draft of that script (It still isn’t the final draft. The third act was re-written for the umpteenth time at around 2 a.m. the night before it was shot).
Community episode 209 “Mixology Certification” writer’s first draft.
Community episode 209 “Mixology Certification” Yellow Draft.
Just compare those scripts and tell me there isn’t a whole hell of a lot less shit in the second one.
BONUS UPDATE FOR SUPER DUPER COMMUNITY NERDS:
I just stumbled across a tag that I wrote for that episode. It was never shot. I don’t remember why. I think Dan just didn’t want to dwell on Shirley’s drunken days any longer. Or he just didn’t like it enough. But it’s not shit. Here’s the forgotten tag of Community episode 209: