Growing Pains
Ryan OConnell
Photo: Sarah Walker

If I had to guess where historians will look in 100 years for the most accurate portrayal of the 20-year-old’s experience in New York City circa 2011, I’d put my money on Thought Catalog alum Ryan O’Connell’s recent collection of personal essays, I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves (Simon & Schuster). One by one, he makes light of the cliches of the millennial generation — underemployment (mismatched with inflated egos), prescription drug abuse, and the false validation of Instagram likes — all while candidly revealing his lifelong struggle with cerebral palsy, a topic he avoided throughout all of his years of writing for the internet.

I chatted with Ryan — who speaks exactly the way he writes, by the way — just a few hours before a practice pitch with his producer (the TV rights to I’m Special were recently bought by Warner Bros.) about the strange calm that follows a book release, the merits of TV writing vs. online writing, and why he can’t wait to be in his 30s.

How does it feel to have your book out there in the world?

You know, it feels funny to me. It took me a long time to write it which is kind of embarrassing because it’s not like I wrote Moby Dick, you know what I’m saying? I toiled at my memoir and it was 400 pages. I got this book deal when I was 25 years old — you should never give a 25-year-old a book deal to write a memoir, it’s just a rule of thumb. The thing that I hated about a lot of memoirs was like, So I literally just used to like drink a lot and do lots of drugs and fuck lots of guys and now I’m like totally fine I like run marathons and I’m like in a good place! Obviously nothing is that clean of a narrative.

It’s funny, too, because you’re pregnant with this thing for three years, you give birth, you have a birth party, and people are excited about it for like a month, and then it just goes away. You have this whirlwind of press and activity. Last month I did all the rounds and it was all exciting and I gave some talks and I had a book party [in New York] and then I came back to Los Angeles and it was like, Oh, okay that’s done. It was kind of anticlimactic in a way. But I’m proud of it.

Was there something that you wrote about that you were really on the fence about revealing? 

Well, my cerebral palsy. I pitched this book as like How to Be a Twenty-Something Manual that you’d sell at like fucking Urban Outfitters; and then I realized when I got the book deal that I needed to write about my CP, which I’d never talked about before [in my writing]. It was something that was so locked inside myself, that to go from not talking about it to writing a book about it was like, honey, going from point A to point cray. It was very scary and very intimidating for me. And I remembered a lot of memories that I had repressed and a lot of shame and a lot of embarrassment. So that was not fun. But once I started doing it, it felt amazing and it felt very cathartic.

Have you received any surprising responses from that revelation?

Some gay guys with CP have contacted me, but at the same time it’s been very overwhelming because a lot of these gay guys with CP have very severe cases and they live kind of isolated, they’re confined to a chair. On one hand I want to be this poster child to bring awareness to gay disabled people because it’s something that no one ever talks about. But on the other hand I don’t feel like I can speak to anyone’s experience and I feel really overwhelmed by it. You know, it’s just complicado, as I’d say.

It’s nice that you can make people feel less alone, you know?

That’s what I hope to do. I can’t speak to the gay disabled experience. I’m not what being gay and disabled looks like; I’m just what I look like. I have a very mild case — so I walk with a limp, and I have the garden variety brain damage, or whatever — but I’ve been very, very fortunate to live this functional life that I know a lot of people with CP haven’t. So I think there’s a little bit of like survivor’s guilt about that, I don’t know. I actually never really thought about that.

You recently sold the rights to I’m Special to be made into a TV show about a gay character living with cerebral palsy — what was that process like?

It was so surreal. It happened so quickly. I wrote an article called Coming Out of the Disabled Closet for Thought Catalog where I just came clean about having cerebral palsy. That was when the book was done and it was available for preorder and I still wasn’t talking about my CP, really, I was still ashamed of it. And one night I was like, Fuck it, I’m just gonna write about this on Thought Catalog. It was literally just like, [sings] A new life, a new journey for me. It was just so exciting, the next day I get an email from my agent being like, Hey, Jim Parsons wants to meet with you about your book. And I was just like, What?

His boyfriend, Todd [Spiewak], is friends with my friend Adam and Adam had posted my article, and he read it and was like, I need to read this book. He and Jim got a copy of it from CAA, my agency at the time, and they read it and they loved it. I met with them and we connected so hardcore. They’re so fucking amazing. It was like, if you ever meet a famous person, they’re usually fucking insane. They are like, crazy.

A disappointment—

You accept that. So when I met Jim Parsons I was like, this could be really bad, who knows? And he was so amazing, so sweet, so thoughtful, so genuine, and so was Todd. And Jim being attached to the project created buzz — which you know is all bullshit, it’s all so awful. It’s all like, NEW HOT GAY CP SHOW, GOTTA GET A BITE! So I had like four studios make an offer. And then I went with Jim because it just felt like the best fit and then I talked to him and that’s how that happened.

I’ve been very fortunate to have some success, and writing for TV was always a dream of mine. I couldn’t believe it when I got Awkward and now I’m developing my own show. It feels really amazing, but it’s so funny because when you achieve different tiers of success it’s like you’re at the bottom of another tier. Okay, the rights are bought, now I have to put together a killer TV show, and I have to sell it, and I have to write a killer pilot, and then I have to make the pilot — there’s just so much. It’s like this whole other kind of thing. You’re never done.


In so many ways, for young writers, writing a book and having it turn into a TV show, that’s “the dream.” Does it feel like you hoped it would feel?

It has and it hasn’t. Everyone knows in this business that everything falls apart. So, like, the odds of this actually getting on the air are kinda slim — a lot of things get killed in development. Now that being said, the way that I work and I operate, is that I don’t go into things thinking it’s going to fail. I’m going into developing this TV show being like it will be on the air. And it’s not about ego or hubris or anything. I just don’t have room for the negative in my life. If I’m literally going to pour my heart and soul into something, of course I’m going to think that’s going to work out because, [otherwise] why am I doing it?

When I went out with my book I was like, I’m going to sell my book. There wasn’t a thought that I was never going to sell my book. It’s so fucking cheesy, but I’ve always been this way. I have this hippie producer on Awkward and she’s like, You’re like a manifester! I feel like it goes down to like The Secret — I’ve been Secret-ing without realizing it! It’s not like I’m going to sell my book because it’s the best book. Or I’m going to sell my TV show because it’s the best TV show. It’s like, well, this is what I’m going to do because this is why I’m doing it. Why would I think it’s NOT going to sell? Then what am I doing it for?

Who do you want to play you on TV?

When we were going out with this, people would always ask, Are you going to play you? And TBH, I don’t think I can do it. No, you know what? I think I could do it. I think I could do an adequate job because my voice is like v., v. specific so it’s going to be hard for anyone to pull it off or to fake a disability. It’s not like we have a fuckin’ bevy of gay disabled talent. You don’t grow up gay with CP being like, Mom, Dad, take me to acting camp! You don’t think that way. Even if there are really talented disabled actors I bet they’re going to be really hard to find. And for me it’s important that someone disabled plays the character — I think that’s going to be really hard.

You don’t write for Thought Catalog as much as you used to since you’re writing for TV. How does it feel to be removed from media culture?

I feel like I kind of go around now in a bulletproof SUV. I always hated internet culture, and when I was working at Thought Catalog I was really proud of the work I was doing most of the time, and it gave me the career that I have today. But at the same time I was like, When can I stop doing this so that I can write for television? I didn’t relate to how like the internet works, like the outrage culture. Harvesting someone and taking them down and being cruel, like a pack of savages. It was so toxic to me; it’s like you’re putting all your self-worth into something that will never love you back.

So, I felt like leaving the internet for television was like leaving an abusive lover. It feels very protected with TV; I can be creative and I can do what I love to do, but I also don’t have to be like spilling my guts for pageviews, which is a dark way to live your life.

It feels like it’s a similar thing to leaving New York for Los Angeles, which you did a couple years ago. What’s the writing culture in LA like verses New York?

Here’s the deal, I fucking love LA. New York is dead to me, obviously. But you have to search for culture here, honey. You have to search. It’s not gonna just drop into your lap. The writing culture here is very much like “the business:” TV writers, getting things developed and blah, blah, blah. It’s definitely not like a novelist culture. But I never related to that because I always felt like a bimbo. I always felt too dumb in New York and now I feel too smart in LA. It’s weird, I never related to intellectual culture at all, which is a lot of New York, and here everyone has like shit for brains. So writing culture here is not that great, in my experience.

You’re going to turn 29 soon. What are your feelings about turning 30 when most of your work has been focused around being a 20-year-old?

I’m so fucking excited to be 30, you have no idea. No one tells you this, but 28 is the best age to be. 29? I bet it’s pretty fuckin’ chic, too. I think that this age is kind of amazing — 28 to like early- to mid-30s — like, you’re still young and look hot and in a good place but you’re old enough to know better. So you can have all the fun that a 24-year-old has, but you aren’t going to fuck some random bozo in a hot dog costume at a Halloween party and then do like ten lines of cocaine. You’re going to get delightfully drunk off of like four watermelon cocktails and go home and fuck your boyfriend who loves you. I think that’s really nice.

When I moved to LA I became friends with some people in the early-to-mid-30s and I was like, Ooh! This is the life! That’s like the G-spot of age, early-to-mid-30s. Everything still works fine, you’re in working order, you just like own a house! And have your shit together, which is so cool.

I think so too. I love being 30. It’s cheesy, but feeling more comfortable with yourself — it’s a relief!

It’s true, I’m cozy in myself. My boyfriend was talking last night and he was like, Ryan, you don’t do anything you don’t want to do. I mean, I really don’t. I think you go through a period where you know what not to do, but you just aren’t mature enough to say no to any of it. So you’re stuck in this weird in-between where you’re old enough to know better, but not old enough to actually execute what you know.

What’s your advice for young writers?

Well, it’s to write every day. That’s not a joke. You should write every goddamn day. You need to hustle in a real way. People don’t understand how hard it is to make a living off of being a writer. There are a lot of people out there — and I feel partially responsible for this because of Thought Catalog and my own career — who are like, Oh, I’m just going to just be a personal essayist for a living and then I’ll be fine! That’s what I’ll do for a living! But, A, you can’t do that, unless you’re Joan Didion. You can’t make a career out of personal essays about a guy who broke your heart, that’s not going to pay the bills. And then, B, you’re going to have to find something else to write about because you’re going to get tired of writing about yourself, you know what I mean?

I didn’t make a living off of Thought Catalog. I had my settlement money from CP [that I won in a malpractice lawsuit against my delivery doctor] and I supplemented with [that]. And that’s how I was able to survive and live in New York. People really did believe that I was able to like live in the East Village and like make a living writing about anal sex and I’m like, Yeah, right. In your dreams.

If you really want to have a career as a writer I would say get interested in a variety of things and get ready to write about them; marry someone rich and hopefully they make enough to pay the bills. [Laughs]

Related Read: One Question With Ryan O'Connell

Photo: Sarah Walker