After busting a few writing myths last week it got me thinking about why writers are often seen as crazy – by others and themselves. Is there something about writing that leads people to become unhinged? Or do you have to be crazy to be a writer in the first place?
A Swedish study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research in 2012 looked into the links between creativity and mental illness and found that writers were more likely to suffer from a range of disorders, like schizophrenia and depression. They were also more likely to commit suicide.
Obviously not all writers suffer in this way. There must be plenty of happy, well-adjusted writers out there, writers who aren’t tormented by demons or driven to distraction by their neuroses. Surely we can’t all be nuts.
With that in mind, here are six reasons writers might end up losing the plot.
Writing can be a lonely occupation. You sit at your desk/kitchen table/wherever and stare into space listening to the echo chamber of your own thoughts. Nobody really cares whether you write your novel. Not even the people who actually like you, despite you being a writer. Who can you talk to about the difficulty you’re having with the plot of your latest genre mash-up? How can you talk about it when you’re not even sure what it is?
You are the only person who can figure out what is going on in your head. This applies to everybody, obviously. It’s just that writers make a living, or try to make a living, from what’s going on in their heads. Nobody has yet written the book you’re trying to write. That’s the whole point of you doing it. It hasn’t been done before.
No other profession has to deal with the level of rejection and failure endured by writers. The odds of success as a novelist or screenwriter are so low you have to be crazy to even consider a career as a writer. Competition is fierce and the industry dispassionate. But this doesn’t stop the crazy writers. Despite getting rejected over and over, you don’t give up. You fail time after time, yet still you keep trying.
Is it heroic? Courageous? Or a sign you’re several pens short of a full stationery set? After all, the definition of madness is to keep doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome. If the feedback you receive on your writing is consistently bad then perhaps you should quit. But if the feedback is good, what then? How long do you keep going in the face of unremitting indifference?
This happens to writers whether they are published or not. Mixed reviews or contradictory feedback. You send out your book or chapters or screenplay to get feedback from several different people. But when you finally receive it, confusion reigns. One person loves it, the next can’t stand it. One thinks the story is enthralling, the next can barely contain their ennui.
Were they even reading the same manuscript? It can be hard enough figuring out how you feel about your own work. It doesn’t help when others add to the confusion. And don’t get me started on feedback from one individual that contradicts itself. Talking of which…
Writers occupy a strange middle-ground between rampant ego and raging self-doubt. It takes courage to bare your soul and keep sending your darlings out into the world, especially in the face of so much rejection and mixed messages. You need a certain amount of ego to even consider sharing your thoughts on life, the universe and everything else.
But writers can also get stuck on the rollercoaster of self-doubt. Your feelings about your work can swing wildly from one day to the next, even without the aggressive criticism of others. Read through the manuscript on a good day and you think you’re a genius, it’s the best thing you’ve ever written. On a bad day the exact same words lie on the page like the rotting corpse of a beached whale. Perhaps the self-congratulatory fantasies and imagined acceptance speeches are an antidote to the crushing disappoint you feel when confronted by your own shortcomings. Or perhaps you’re just nuts.
But to write well you have to doubt yourself, challenge and push yourself to improve. It is impossible to write a good story without considering your theme from every conceivable angle, and to do that you must think against yourself. You can’t just pick one side of the argument and stick with it. To write well you must always consider the possibility that you are wrong. About everything.
We’ve all done it: you’re in mid-conversation with a friend/family member/dog when you are gripped by an idea. Not just any idea. The best idea you’ve had in, like, forever. You must write it down. Your eyes glaze over. You nod and pretend you’re listening while you surreptitiously scan your surroundings looking for a pen. You spot one, lunge for it and begin scribbling furiously, all pretence gone. Meanwhile your friend/family member/dog scowls and feels… oh, who cares what they feel, you’ve got to get this idea down.
Writers are prone to not being present in the presence of other people. This may be due to the fact that their heads are full of other people already. When you’re working on an idea it can become all consuming. Everything you do, see and hear somehow gets funnelled into your book or script. You begin to see and think like your main character, searching out the things they like or reacting against the things they hate.
Obviously this isn’t done in a mad way. You are not possessed. You don’t become a different person. It’s more subtle than that and many people probably wouldn’t even notice. That is until you suddenly absent yourself mid-conversation and start writing when all they want to do is tell you about their aunt’s gastric bypass surgery. Too much imagination can sometimes be a bad thing.
A vigorous imagination can also be your undoing when you’re not writing but waiting to hear back from somebody about your writing. You send out your work for feedback, or to an editor, an agent or publisher, and then you wait.
It can take months for people to get back to you, if they ever do. It’s very hard to not think about your work during this time, and worry about how it is being received or whether it is even being read at all. Things don’t improve much once your book has been accepted by a publisher. Many, many months can pass between the signing of the contract and the book finally hitting the shelves. It may take years. In the meantime, you wait.
How to be a Sane Writer (sort of)
It’s not looking good. Writers are a pretty crazy bunch. But there may be things you can do to mitigate the situation. There is no need to suffer or hide away in your garret, muttering under your breath about your unrecognised brilliance. Here are a few pointers that may restore sanity to an apparently lost cause:
Connect with other writers. There are tons of writers’ forums and networking possibilities online. Or if you need to get out of your garret once in a while, try writing conferences or book fairs.
Be realistic. Try to keep your feet on the ground by balancing your dreams with reality. It doesn’t matter if some people hate what you write. As long as you enjoy it, somebody else out there will too.
Consider your expectations. Are you aiming too high? Or not high enough? Do you need to learn new skills, like how to market your writing? If so, find out how to do the things you need to do, and then practise them. Don’t expect to get it right first time.
Let go. Don’t take it personally when your work is rejected. It’s not you being judged, even if it feels that way at times.
Just write. Make being a better writer your goal. Don’t worry about whether you’ll ever be published or make silly amounts of money. Try to detach from the outcome and just write for the sake of writing.
After all, it’s true what they say: writing is the most fun you can have with your clothes on. And if you’re enjoying yourself, who cares if you’re crazy?
Are you a crazy writer? Share your madness below…
Image: writer’s block