You know the scene: the opening sequence of Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. A glum Woody sits in a dark, dingy train car, along with other lost souls. Homeless, bewildered, vacant-eyed fellow passengers, powerless to alter their miserable lives.

Looking out the window, Woody sees another train car—shining, brightly lit. Inside, beautiful men and women laugh and drink champagne, a festive vision of wit and privilege out of a Noel Coward play. Woody despairs. Why isn’t he in the sparkling car, with the sparkling people?

(A theme Allen continues to explore, as in his latest, Midnight in Paris, in which screenwriter Owen Wilson believes he’s unhappy and unfulfilled because he was born in the wrong era. Why couldn’t he have lived in 1920’s Paris?)

Anyway, I mention that opening scene from Stardust Memories because it comes up frequently in my private practice. Among the many myths, metaphors and fairy tales that inhabit the conscious lives of my creative patients, this particular scene—though from a film released many years ago—emerges again and again.

“I’m doing my life all wrong,” a patient laments. Usually he or she has just had lunch with an Oscar-winning producer or big-name TV showrunner—someone who simply radiates charm, confidence and the sense that life is one big party. (With the implication that there’s a pile of money somewhere in the background to keep the canapes coming.) “I feel like Woody Allen in that train car—the shitty one!” the patient says mournfully.

Rivaling this classic scene is another classic—roughly 2500 years old. At least once a month some creative patient compares him- or herself to Sisyphus, the poor schmuck in Greek mythology condemned to pushing a heavy rock up a steep hill—only to have it come rolling down, at which point his labors begin again. This one’s real popular with screenwriters.

The third most mentioned analogy comes from the world of children’s fairy tales—the story of the Emperor’s new clothes. A vain Emperor, clad only in his underwear, parades on horseback in front of his subjects, who’ve been told to marvel at his new, beautiful garments. Which they all do, until one brave little boy yells out that the Emperor’s actually riding around in his longjohns.

This feeling shows up in my therapy office every day. Patients who bristle at some announcement in the news about a heavily-hyped screenplay getting green-lighted for production, an unlikely actor nabbing the starring role in a new TV series, a much-maligned though wildly successful director landing a lucrative multi-picture deal.

“I read that script—it sucks!” a screenwriter patient rages. “Why am I the only one who sees it?”

“I was offered that series,” an actor patient sneers. “I couldn’t turn it down fast enough. It won’t last a month.”

That putz gets a three-picture deal?” a director patient fumes. “How many times can he make the same goddam movie? The Emperor’s got no clothes, buddy—trust me!”

Aside from their value as metaphors and analogues, these three concepts—the train car, Sisyphus and the Emperor’s new clothes—offer important clues to some of the underlying issues many creative people in Hollywood struggle with.

Take the train car: Once, when a sitcom writer used this scene to explain his feelings to me, what emerged was not only his sense of himself as inadequate, but something else more insidious and undermining. Namely, the idea that he’d been dealt a bad hand—“I’m in the wrong train car"— because of intrinsic defects in himself. Those happy, glittering people were in the shining car because they deserved to be there, while he did not.

Thereafter, in our work together, his self-sabotaging behaviors could be understood as a natural result of his belief in himself as basically defective. When this painful self-concept was successfully illuminated and challenged, things began to shift in his view of himself.

With another patient, a screenwriter who compared himself to Sisyphus, we stayed with this image as a framework to explores issues from within his family. As a child, he’d endured the impossible expectations of his critical, demanding father, a man embittered by business failures. Seeing his own life as valueless, his father placed a great burden on my patient to become rich and powerful. One day, during a session, this patient blurted out, “Dammit, it’s his rock I’m pushing up the hill! It’s not my rock at all.”

“Or maybe even your hill,” I offered.

This awareness helped move us in the direction of freeing him from the requirement to fulfill his father’s aspirations, and to begin parsing out those career goals that were genuinely his.

As for the story of the Emperor’s new clothes—well, I think there are two ways of looking at it. Sometimes a creative patient’s own vulnerabilities get the better of him or her. When hearing of a rival’s new film role, or new directing project, or new TV pilot script being ordered, authentic feelings of disdain for the limits of that person’s talent may indeed fuel his or her response. But what may be hidden are painful, unwelcome feelings of shame because his or her own career isn’t going so well. These shameful feelings are themselves so unacceptable that he or she covers them over with hearty, frequently sardonic comments about the rival’s new project—how untalented the person is, how foolish the network is, how perpetually gullible the viewing public is, and so on.

In psychoanalytic terms, this is often called having a grandiose self-ideal. You liken yourself to the child in the story about the Emperor’s new clothes because he’s seen as the truth-teller, the wisdom figure, the one person whose innate intelligence and good sense shatters the illusion. In short, this is just another defense mechanism.

But I believe there’s another, more congenial explanation for this story’s popularity among creative people. It’s because truly creative people often do assume precisely the role of the kid in the story. Ask any talented, accomplished actor, writer or director. Ask any knowledgeable composer, set designer, or cinematographer. Ask any Hollywood professional who actually knows what the hell he or she is doing, and you’ll hear the same sad story. The same tales of frustration and impotence.

Let’s take, for example, screenwriters: Every day, in offices and on conference calls, via emails and texts, veteran screenwriters have to fend off, try to interpret, and in a dozen other ways simply tolerate ludicrous and destructive script notes from various producers, movie stars, and studio heads. Perfectly fine narratives tinkered with by overpaid but anxious development execs. As in an exquisitely worked-out courtroom drama getting an unnecessary sex scene (or two). Or a searing, erotic screenplay getting its sex scenes deleted. And on and on.

The desecration of narrative sense, the elimination of personal style, the dilution of an idiosyncratic viewpoint that screenwriters have to endure—and usually acquiesce to—simply boggles the mind.

The truth is, the creative artist is frequently the smartest person in the room. And this is not always so wonderful. I’m thinking now of a scene from James Brooks’ movie, Broadcast News. News producer Holly Hunter has just explained to a network executive all the reasons why his decision to elevate William Hurt’s character to anchorman is a bad idea. The exec listens, then says sarcastically, “It must be wonderful to be the smartest person in the room.”

“No,” she replies. “It’s awful.”

Most creative people know the hard truth of this exchange, particularly when involved in a project whose problems seem apparent only to them. It can feel like watching a four-car pile-up unfolding in slow motion—you see everything about to happen; in fact, it seems inevitable—and you’re expected not only to shut up about it, but be a willing participant.

So whenever a creative patient compares him- or herself to the kid who points out the truth about the royal wardrobe, it’s a short jump to that patient’s issues of control, and the painful realization that he or she has in fact very little.

The only control an artist has is over himself or herself, the extent to which they practice their art truly and well, and the amount of craft and commitment that’s brought to a project. After that, it’s up to the gods.

Emperors, Greeks, Woody Allen. The things we make reference to, like the jokes and anecdotes we recount, all have something important to tell us. They deepen our awareness of ourselves as creative artists and as people. All we have to do is pay attention and do our best.

Which means that, like it or not, at any given moment, we’re probably riding the train we’re supposed to be on.

About the Author

Dennis Palumbo

Dennis Palumbo is a former Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter) turned licensed psychotherapist and mystery author.

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