Turn an embarrasment into a terrific story

A veteran television writer tells how he did just that for an episode of The Wonder Years
By Sy Rosen | Published: March 27, 2013


OK, I admit it: I often think about my childhood and teen years and wince with embarrassment at some of the things that happened to me. Being nicknamed “The Nose” wasn’t a compliment no matter how I tried to spin it. I’ve managed, however, to use many of those incidents, as well as more recent embarrassments, and turn them into television scripts, humorous personal essays and short stories. Along the way, I turned myself into a hero—at least on paper.

Incorporating my own writing experience with some of Sigmund Freud’s theory on creative writing, I’ve come up with a few suggestions on how to develop a satisfying, marketable story. It may seem a little pompous of me to use part of Freud’s theory to help illuminate my writing process, but since the great doctor said, in “Creative Writers and Daydreaming,” that he was discussing the kind of writers who do popular pulp, I figure I can squeeze in under the wire.

• The first step is being open to current feelings that will trigger a memory of an embarrassing experience. What happens in the present isn’t exactly what happened in the past, but it leads to the same feeling. For example, on one occasion I wasn’t invited to lunch with my fellow co-workers (the creeps), and that brought back a feeling of being an outcast and being ridiculed by some of my fellow high school students (younger creeps). And that led to the very beginning stages of The Wonders Years script called “The Nose.”

Another time, a very large guy, built like a 1984 Volvo, butted ahead of me in a supermarket line, and I didn’t say or do anything about it. This feeling of being a coward (although I prefer the term pacifist) led to my remembering a very specific teenage experience when I somehow managed to get a date with a very pretty, slightly nasty cheerleader. The date was going better than I ever could have hoped for until we went to the lake and were attacked by a gaggle of pecking geese. As the vicious birds closed in, I ran and left her there. This memory was the springboard for a short story I wrote about a man in his 50s going back to his high school reunion to seek redemption.

Being open to everyday embarrassments and what they trigger takes some practice, but it gets kind of easy the more you try it. And it eventually becomes almost second nature. That is, unless you’re a completely confident, secure person and nothing ever bothers you. If that’s the case, you’re unlike any writer I’ve ever known.

• Let that embarrassing memory wash over you, and then start jotting down specific details. For example, when I was 14, my parents took me to a plastic surgeon to see about a nose job. He said it wouldn’t do any good because my nose was still growing. I remember thinking, how big is this thing going to get? Will I be able to attend two classes at once?

I jotted down several of these scattered memories, only a few of which I ended up using. Whether I used   them or not, however, they helped form the structure and tone of my story. In addition, the details I did eventually use added a vividness and reality to my script.

• Disguise yourself. OK, you’re writing about your own experience, or a version of it, so of course you’re the protagonist. You probably, however, need to make some changes to your character. Freud said writers want to mask themselves in their writing to avoid the shame of revealing their true fantasies. With all due respect to the great doctor, I’m not sure I agree with this analysis, but at various times I have altered, exaggerated, distorted, tempered or dumbed down my main character in order to creatively fit the needs of the story.

In “The Nose” I changed my teenage self into a large-nosed, 16-year-old girl who was happier in her own skin than I could ever hope to be. And in the short story about the pecking geese, I altered the protagonist’s personality, making him a lot more even-tempered and sane than the real me. Not surprisingly, that wasn’t difficult—the real me does not set the sanity bar very high. Disguising myself has worked in all forms of my writing except the personal essays, in which, fortunately or unfortunately, I have to be me.

• This next step is something I’m really good at: Do nothing. Just let your thoughts settle for a couple of days and good things will eventually happen. You can daydream about the embarrassing experience, or, not think about it at all. Apart of your mind is still working on your story; kind of like when your digital video recorder is recording while you’re watching a different channel. The best part of this step is that you can tell people you’re working while you’re walking around the city daydreaming—or watching a lot of Judge Judy.

• Now let wish fulfillment kick in. This has happened to me several times, but I didn’t really identify it until I read Freud’s article. I guess the doc really was brilliant (although that Oedipal thing has gotten awfully trite). The embarrassing memory or experience starts to morph into one where you see yourself in a better light, often as the hero. Not only is this good for your psyche—it’s great for your story. It gives your protagonist an arc, a victorious place to go to.

In “The Nose,” the large-nosed teenage girl was ridiculed in high school. She remained true to herself, however, and eventually became one of the most popular kids in school. Near the end of the episode, she was at the prom and two younger girls passed her. One whispered to the other, “I’d kill for a nose like that.” You can’t get much more wish fulfillment than that.

In the short story about the pecking geese, I imagined that the middle-aged man attended his high school reunion and became heroic not by standing up to any vicious animals, but by defending himself against the former cheerleader, who had gotten nastier with the years and was herself now reminiscent of those angry birds.

• It’s time to start writing. OK, you’ve got the specific memory and some juicy details, and you’ve altered your own personality for the good of your story. You also know your protagonist will move from an embarrassing, sometimes humiliating situation, to some sort of wish-fulfilling victory. I would say it almost writes itself but I, like most writers, hate that expression. I could also say have fun with it, but that’s another expression most writers I know hate.

I don’t want you to think that this process only works with memories from one’s childhood or teen years, although some people, including my wife, have told me that I’m stuck in high school. The memory evoked could be much more recent.

For example, someone made a sarcastic comment about a checkered shirt I was wearing, saying it looked like it was waiting for a bowl of antipasto to be placed on it (that’s what you get for hanging out with comedy writers). This rather timid insult triggered a memory of a horrific review I once received from a notoriously nasty critic. And that in turn was the beginning step for my writing the humorous personal essay “How to Deal with a Critic.” My wish fulfillment for this critic? Fantasizing about putting 12 angry, ready-to-pounce squirrel monkeys in the evil gasbag’s bedroom closet.

The most important aspect of the process I’ve outlined is that it will help you create and sell stories from experiences that previously were solely humiliating. But there’s another very significant by-product. For me, it has been tremendously therapeutic to get these experiences out of the dark corners and tell them in such a way that makes me feel good about myself. It’s an exhilarating feeling to write a story about a version of me being the most popular kid in high school or getting one up on a nasty former cheerleader.

And, of course, there is nothing better than imagining a notoriously nasty critic being pummeled by 12 angry squirrel monkeys.

Sy Rosen has written for many top television shows, including The Bob Newhart Show, Taxi, MASH, Maude, Rhoda, Northern Exposure, The Wonder Years and Frasier, and has recently written numerous personal essays, short stories and plays.

  • Ermine Cunningham

    Thanks for a very helpful article for this Late Bloomer humor writer. You make a shame spiral sound beautiful. Do you have any suggestions for submission of a short humor story? (<2,000 words.) Thanks also for all the great shows you worked on–they brightened my life! :-)