From brain surgery, a writer is born

Gary Ruffin can't recall his last meal. Friends tell him it was a seafood platter with oysters, shrimp and scallops. Still, the dish doesn't register.

"I don't remember, and it really ticks me off," the 58-year-old Ruffin quips as he thinks back to favorite foods he hasn't eaten in nine years.

Steak. Pizza. Popcorn. Particularly popcorn.

"I never go to a movie," the Snellville resident says, chuckling. "The smell of popcorn would be fatal."

In 2001, Ruffin was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor the size of a plum. Surgery saved his life but left him with a slew of disabilities. For nearly a decade, he has lived with double vision, fainting spells and an inability to swallow properly. He can't eat or drink and must absorb nutrients through a feeding tube.

In addition, he can no longer play guitar or sing in public, a painful reality for a working musician since age 12. But he doesn't complain. That's not his style.

"I miss it, but it's one of those crying-over-spilled-milk deals," he says. "You have to move on and concentrate on the things you can do."

Like writing.

On Sunday, Ruffin will have an informal book-signing of his first novel, "Hot Shot," a detective mystery. Part of a three-book deal with Overlook Press, "Hot Shot" is the story of a man who has had it easy for a long time, then gets slapped in the face with difficult situations. It sounds like Ruffin's life.

In 2002, Debra Rivard, a friend of Ruffin's and an English literature teacher in Indianapolis, told him he had a knack for writing and suggested he pen a book about his brain surgery.

"I just felt that if he started writing about his experience, it would be a catharsis to him and an inspiration to others," Rivard said. "He never groveled in self-pity. He just accepted his fate and even made fun of his Chewbacca voice."

Ruffin wrote a few pages about the surgery, then gave up.

"I realized it was depressing as all hell," he says. "It was difficult to tell my story without sounding like I was complaining."

Ruffin doesn't like to gripe or "play the crippled card." After all, he says, some people are worse off. Besides, the first 49 years of his life were amazing, he says.

Born in Atlanta, Ruffin grew up in the Chamblee and Doraville areas and attended Tucker and Henderson high schools. He started playing guitar and singing at age 12 when he realized he wasn't big enough to be a jock.

"If I had been a big kid, I probably would never have picked up a guitar," says Ruffin, who now owns 10 of them.

His first band, the Nomads, landed gigs at friends' parties and area high schools. The group made $40 a night.

In the 1970s, Ruffin moved to New York City, doing an off-Broadway show with his brothers called "The Survival of St. Joan." In 1991, he signed a songwriting contract with James Brown, who bought several of his songs but never recorded them.

One of those songs, "Positivity," expresses Ruffin's state of mind:

It's easy to say, 'Things are bad' ...
It's easy to say, 'I never had' ...
It's easy to put people down ....
But it's hard to pick yourself up off the ground
.

In October 1995, the Sunday after the Braves won the World Series, Ruffin woke up feeling strange. He had heart palpitations, dizziness and numbness in his hands and fingers. For the next 5 1/2 years, Ruffin saw six different doctors. One thought he had vertigo; another, a sinus infection.

Once the tumor was discovered, it was the size of a plum and encased in a bundle of nerves. After the surgery, Ruffin moved into his father's home on Norris Lake in Snellville.

In his room overlooking the lake, Ruffin is surrounded by the things he loves: books, music, a 55-inch flat-screen television for watching movies and football.

His hair, nearly shoulder-length, is brown with streaks of gray. Soaking wet, he weighs 135 pounds. Before the surgery, the 5-foot-9-inch Ruffin tipped the scale at 200 pounds. He says he loved to cook and, of course, eat.

Ruffin spends his days painting, strumming his guitars and writing. He estimates he has typed 275,000 words.

"Not bad for a guy with one eye," he says.

He says writing helps him pass the time, and he doesn't care whether he makes big bucks off the books.

"Even if I had a million bucks, nothing is going to change in my life," he says.

"People always say they want to be someone else," he adds. "I just want to be who I was 10 years ago. I want to be me when I could eat a sandwich."


If you go

What: Informal book-signing by Gary Ruffin
When: 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Barnes & Noble, 1350 Scenic Highway, Snellville

In his own words

"Writing is pleasure for me. I'm not trying to make money. Money won't change [my condition] at all."

"If I curled up in a ball, everyone would understand. But what would be the point? I was so happy for so long. I guess at some point you have to pay the piper."

"Giving up is the easiest thing to do, and the least rewarding. Everyone has problems. It's only a matter of degree."

"I get a lot of books on tape. I like to save my eyestrain for my own writing."