Creative, or Just Crazy?

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Before I started writing semi-seriously myself, I wondered why so many writers seemed to have come from “difficult” backgrounds. And by “difficult,” I mean specifically family situations with some seriously mentally ill people in them. It seemed like a lot of writers had also been poor; but in fact being poor and having mentally ill relatives—especially close ones—are not unrelated. It’s expensive to have mental illness. Seriously mentally ill people can’t keep good jobs, they make bad financial decisions, and even a brief stay for someone in a locked ward will cost the family a bundle.

Eventually I figured out (I think) why mental illness and writers are so often linked—and it’s not in the way that some of my literature professors said it was. They thought that having some crazy (their word) relatives meant that the authors themselves were probably also crazy; and that for the authors to be a little crazy helped them to write.

This is confusing “crazy” with “imaginative,” I think. Writing’s actually pretty hard work; and unless you think being self-motivated and disciplined is a sickness—okay; you might be right at that—crazy is the last thing a writer should be.

But if you know any mentally ill people, you know that they are often unpredictable. Furthermore, a lot of mentally ill people act more or less unpredictably depending upon how the people around them respond to them. Ergo—and you can believe me on this, because I know what I’m talking about—people who live with or close to mentally ill people often become hyper-vigilant to the thought-processes—however subtly expressed—of other people. They learn know that if they misread the mental state of a person with mental illness, their mistake may engender worse and more unpredictable behavior.  And since it’s hard, sometimes, to tell just who and who isn’t mentally ill, it’s best to be alert to everyone else’s mental state.

Okay, very sad. On the other hand, could there be better training in the world for people who want to create believable characters with credible motivations than to grow up hyper-vigilant to the way other people think and act?

Nope.

So the lesson here is that if you want to write and you have no known crazy family members—and after checking first to be sure that you’re not the one who’s mentally ill—you must, for the sake of your writing, drive at least one close relative around the bend immediately. Don’t hesitate: After all, it’s for art.

Some Pretty Good Reasons Not to Write

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A really good reason not to take up writing as a hobby is because writing is lonely. Really lonely. Since humans use the same part of their brains to write and to talk, they can’t do both those things at the same time. Knitters can knit and talk; ship-modelers can build ship-models and talk; artists can paint pictures—even a masterpiece—and talk (the illustrator Neysa McMein—you young folks won’t know her—used to throw massive parties in her studio and sit at her easel, a glass of champagne in hand, and turn out covers for Liberty magazine while doing her duties as a hostess); scrap-bookers can scrapbook; poodle-trainers can train poodles—all while talking. But the only way writers can get any writing done is by shutting out the rest of the world and getting on with it. I actually can listen to music while I write—but I don’t really hear the music.

Another reason not to write—at least not fiction—is because it’s self-revealing. Even if you don’t want it to be. Even when you think it’s not. Someone I hardly knew (and, frankly, wanted to impress) asked me what techniques I favored for dealing with my anxiety. She said, “I know you have panic attacks. I read Ant-Lands.” (!) Well, damn.

Also, no writer is ever successful. Ever. This is mostly because nobody can define what success as a writer means in the first place. Are you a successful writer if you publish a book? Two? Ten? A best-seller? Quit the day job? Achieve Immortal Fame and Glory? Okay, that last one definitely would qualify as “success.” —On the other hand, long before the Immortal Fame and Glory thing kicks in, you will be dead.

Articles like these—the second one meant to be humorous, but containing a sting of truth—are illustrative:

Toil, toil, great writer, for anonymity awaits

Library of Congress

But I’ve said enough on this topic. Now I have to get back to writing on my novel.