Article Copyright 2016 by Gabriel Connor Salter (feel free to share, but don’t plagiarize. I’m a writer, you have no idea what I can do to your reputation).
Shameless Promotion: I just finished the second draft of my spiritual memoir about my experiences on a missions trip to China and Mongolia. The book’s current title is Beside Me: Memories of a Six-Month Journey. I’ll let you know further details as I get it edited and find for a publisher.
All right then, back to our originally scheduled program –
All writers are insane. We’re also addicted to various substances, wracked with emotional issues, just raving deviants in general. At least that’s how the stereotype goes; and if anyone asks why the stereotype is that way, you just have to pick your favorite literary great (Dickens, Hemingway, Capote) to “prove” it.
The problem is, I think when readers and writers say this, we’re really mixing up two slightly different things: personal problems (emotional issues, mental disorders, addictions, whatever) and eccentricity.
No, they’re not the same, and I think we really need to make a distinction here because I know from personal experience it can be unhealthy not to. I’ve suffered from anxiety issues since I was about eleven years old, it took me most of my teenage years to really get a handle on my problems. There are a lot of reasons why it took so long, but one of the main ones was I figured it was perfectly fine to be a mess if I was a writer. Because after all, writers are crazy…
To start, let’s define “eccentric.” Merriam Webster states being eccentric is “deviating from conventional or accepted usage or conduct especially in odd or whimsical ways.” Therefore, it’s fair to say anyone who is an artist (as in someone who makes art, “something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings,”) is going to be eccentric. You are making a living creating art in a world where the conventional thing to do is have an office job or a blue-collar job, something with a steady paycheck. Even if you aren’t as quirky as Tim Burton, you are still being eccentric.
If you’re a fiction writer, you’re probably more eccentric because you have to live in a fantasy world. You spend considerable amounts of time inventing (and then spending time with) people who don’t exist, in places that aren’t real, in time periods that have never happened.
In that context, it’s not surprising many writers are kind of quirky. I’ll give an example from my own life – one of my current writing professors is a man named Dr. Hensley; he’s written multiple nonfiction books, novels, articles, and serves as head of Taylor University’s Professional Writing major. In short, he’s an exceptional writer and teacher. He’s also pretty nonconformist for a college professor. When you make mistakes, he’s like a drill sergeant berating his cadets. When you show you can meet his high standards, he’s more like a gruff but affectionate grandfather, asking how you’re doing,swapping jokes, playfully punching you on the shoulder. He also grades papers by hand and physically mails them to you.
Are these actions eccentric? Yes. Do they keep him from being a good writer and a healthy person? No.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are writers with personal problems. In this context I am defining “personal problems” to include mental disorders, emotional issues, and addictions.
Now it could be argued having personal problems gives you something to write about. You could even point out that some great writers took drugs because it gave them energy. But once you get past the surface, it turns out neither of those arguments are good reasons to be messed up.
I’ll tackle the drugs argument first. Various great writers have been addicts – for example, Phillip K. Dick wrote A Scanner Darkly based on his own experiences with amphetamines, and admitted to using drugs to finish projects. But does it follow that taking drugs made Dick a better writer? Unlikely, especially since he said in his author’s note to A Scanner Darkly that “the punishment was beyond belief.”
It’s even clearer with other writers that drugs don’t actually aid writing. Truman Capote used plenty of drugs and alcohol in the last decade of his life. Did this improve his writing? Well, no. He spent that time barely writing but always promising to bring out a novel called Answered Prayers, which never fully appeared. Stephen King has freely admitted to using cocaine for for roughly a decade. How did it effect his work? He commented in 2014 that when he thinks about The Tommyknockers, his last book before he quit, he tells himself:
“There’s really a good book in here, underneath all the sort of spurious energy that cocaine provides… the book is about 700 pages long, and I’m thinking, ‘There’s probably a good 350-page novel in there.’”
So, drugs aren’t quite what they’re cracked up to be (surprise, surprise). What about the argument that living a hard life can be good so you have story material? That might be reasonable, except the most important secret about writing is it’s never really about the ideas, it’s how you use them.
For example, a veterinarian named James Herriot wrote about his everyday experiences treating animals in Yorkshire. He wasn’t the best or the worst vet in Yorkshire, and there’s nothing extraordinary about his work. He literally wrote a book full of stories about tending cows and sheep and other people’s pets. They’re beautifully written stories. Herriot ended up writing a bestselling six-book series of them, along with multiple storybooks and there was a BBC adaptation of the books.
So writers really don’t have to be crazy. We just have to be wildly eccentric. Now, if you’ll excuse me I have to harass my roommate and then go to bed…
Philip K. Dick (18 October 2011). A Scanner Darkly. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 287).
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