Writers: Crazy All the Time

Here’s the thing about writing, especially writing fiction: You do it alone. In your head, sitting by yourself, your mind splits itself into three or ten or a hundred personas. These characters talk to each other, conflicts blossom and a story takes root and grows. If writing is going well, you lose time. You fold in on yourself and disappear into your own mind. Your subconscious becomes super-conscious. When you come back into the world, you may be surprised to see that it’s raining. Or the sun has set. Or the dog has peed in your slipper.

The kind of focus that generates a story comes easily to a few writers, less easily to most of us who write. Solitude — the ability to isolate oneself, to live inside the mind — is what makes writing possible. So it makes sense that authors tend to be introverts, but even for those of us who are introverted by nature, the necessary mindset is often elusive. Some writers are so desperate for solitude, so frantic for focus that they’ll go to great lengths to impose it on themselves.

Victor Hugo. Imagine him naked.

Demosthenes, an Athenian orator and contemporary of Plato and Aristotle, shaved half his head so he’d be too embarrassed to leave home.

Maya Angelou shut herself into a hotel room and wouldn’t allow housekeeping in until things got fragrant.

Victor Hugo had his servant hide all his clothes and wrote naked to stay focused — and in the house.

Friedrich Schiller had to have a desk drawer full of rotting apples in order to focus on writing.

Dickens had nine little objects that had to be on his desk when he wrote, including a figurine of a dog fancier surrounded by puppies.

Here’s a question that might occur to a logical, impartial observer of writers: if you must have solitude to write, but the getting of solitude is so difficult, why? Why write? Why are so many people enamored of the idea? Scratch a plumber, a pediatrician, a tug-boat pilot, and a would-be novelist emerges. Any traditionally published writer is aware of this, because the plumber, pediatrician and tug-boat pilot have said as much, to his face. What is less clear to me personally is if the people who are so enamored of the idea know what they’re getting into. From all different angles, do they have any idea?

I have no research to back this up, but I have the strong impression that many people want to see in themselves the next millionaire author. My first bit of advice: If you really want to write, make sure you’re not doing it just for the money.

The Authors Guild published results of a study on author income in 2015 (you can download the pdf here) with some unhappy truths: the majority of authors earn below the poverty line. Worse than that: Since 2009 authors are earning less, and because the Authors Guild wants you to understand what that means, they provide this graphic:

click for a larger image

If writing were easy, maybe people would do it for fun. But it isn’t easy, as Orwell points out in his usual forthright way:

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.George Orwell

Consider the conundrum basic to the pursuit of publication: The writer is (most usually) an introvert with a goal. The end result of all her solitary inward-turned creative endeavor is a story, and stories require an audience. You need solitude, and you need an audience. There’s a disconnect there. A built in neurosis, which can be defined very simply as ‘arising out of inner conflict.’

If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. — Toni Morrison
There are a couple ways to get an audience. You send out your stories to friends and family; you join a critique group, you post your work online. And this may be enough of an audience for you. You’re not worried about getting paid; you just want to be heard. If you do want to earn a living writing, your options are narrow. You find a traditional publisher, or you self publish. Either of these options presents you with a conundrum. You need solitude to write, but the publishing business seems designed to deny you the solitude and peace of mind you need.

In the film Stranger than Fiction, Emma Thompson is a novelist in a deep rut and unable to finish her overdue work. Her publisher sends her an assistant: confidante, cheerleader, mentor, played by Queen Latifah. Quick hint: this doesn't happen. If you can pay for this kind of help yourself, great; otherwise, don't hold your breath.
In the film Stranger than Fiction, Emma Thompson is a novelist in a deep rut and unable to finish her overdue work. Her publisher sends her an assistant: confidante, cheerleader, mentor, played by Queen Latifah. Quick hint: this doesn’t happen. If you can pay for this kind of help yourself, great; otherwise, don’t hold your breath.

Some writers — not so many — are successful enough to pay publicists and marketing experts and others to shield them from the less creative aspects of publishing, but most of us aren’t in that crowd. In the here and now, a writer who wants to see a book published has to interact with agents, editors, and all the dozens of people who are involved in getting a book onto a bookshelf.  Then you find yourself dealing with bookstore owners and clerks, book reviewers, book group coordinators, social media groups, and readers.

I hear you asking: what about your editor? That assumes (1) that the novel is already under contract and your editor isn’t juggling 20+ authors and novels and has nothing better to do than to sit down with you over a long lunch twice a week; or (2) that you’ve hired a private editor (again: refer to the diagram above). So the answer: you need other writers, people who understand the process, who know something about plot structure and point of view.

Finding a writing group is not easy. We need each other, but we’re introverts, we’re anxious, we’re underpaid, and we’re creatives with egos. Let’s say you have found the right group, people who are at approximately your same skill level and you all click, you get and give solid feedback, the feedback helps you polish your work, and your epic novel (on the colonization of Mars, or twin sisters in a death battle over an inheritance, or a depressed teenager) starts to come together. In the modern day you have two choices: you can try to find an agent who will try to find the right editor and publishing house, or you can self publish. And this is where the real crazy starts.

It doesn’t matter which route you go, it’s crazy all the way. Even before the 2008 crash publishing was as stable as a drunken sailor; since that point it is more like the shuffleboard court on the Titanic. On top of that, the new technologies have created a crisis that will take another twenty years to sort itself out. Unfortunately, we — you and I — we live in the here and now. This is our circus. These are our monkeys.

The truth is that publishers are terrible business people who indulge in a lot of magical thinking. They buy hundreds and hundreds of novels every year and toss them (and their authors) carelessly onto ever-more-crowded world stage. Introverted people who are most comfortable, who actually need solitude to create their work are pushed into this chaos. Today it’s not enough to write; even if you have a traditional publisher, you have to take responsibility for your novel’s success, and that means either hiring professionals, if you have 25K or so extra lying around, or teaching yourself how to do it. Which is a drain on your mindset and sense of self and the solitude you need.

Your writing will suffer for your writing.

Speaking to a group of college students, Hunter S. Thompson said, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”
Is it any wonder that writers tend to depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder? That a good number of us self medicate with drugs and alcohol? F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to Ernest Hemingway about his troubling reliance on alcohol. Hemingway wrote back: “Of course you’re a rummy. But no more than most good writers are.” The writers who gathered for lunch at the Algonquin round table — what they referred to as their vicious circle — embraced their excesses. Dorothy Parker, the quickest of the wits, had a serious alcohol problem but played it for laughs with bon mots like “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy.”

There are legions of stories about hard drinking writers sitting together, talking about writing and stories and human nature. Because writers in this situation are often drinking and because they are introverts and prone to depression, they get into arguments and, sometimes, fist fights. The worst of that generation was Norman Mailer, who head butted Gore Vidal right before they were supposed to walk onto the Merv Griffin show together.

Mailer acted out before that term had any currency. He once tried to bite an actor’s ear off, he regularly punched people in the face, stabbed not one but two wives, and got away with it. Mailer was a violent alcoholic who could tell a story. Underneath the crazy he may have been a traumatized and depressed introvert. Or he may have been a narcissistic self indulgent sociopath and ass.

The worst writer craziness has to do with alcohol and drugs, but not all of it. A large proportion of our kindred suffer from bipolar disorder as well as depression. Robert Frost was a depressed introvert, possibly bipolar, and according to Wallace Stegner, a prima donna. He demonstrated that nicely one year at the Breadloaf Writers Conference. While the poet Archibald MacLeish was giving a reading, Frost started a fire in the back of the room. Just a little fire. Easily put out. So MacLeish did not stop the reading, and Frost stormed out in a huff.

To this point I’ve been focusing on traditional publishing, but there’s just as much, if not more, craziness in the newer world of epublishing. At first glance it seems like a good idea: cut out the middle man, those publishers who are great at gatekeeping, but not so good at tending their own gardens. The problem: cutting out one middle man just leaves a hole, and in the way of all things, vacuums get filled, these days, mostly by Amazon. And by scam artists. People who want to teach you how to be a self published success. For a price.

Of course, they haven’t done it themselves, but they can do it for you. Log into any social media site and identify yourself as a writer, and you will get to know these people right away.

Those who write and want to be published are vulnerable. They are driven, and needy, and clueless, lambs to the slaughter. Even experienced people who should know better are so desperate for a way into publishing that they fall for these scams. I personally know a physician who was writing a medical thriller, an extremely intelligent, successful woman at the top of her field. She was so focused on this novel, on the acknowledgement that it would bring her, that all common sense went out the window and she paid out some five hundred dollars to one of those online organizations who will so gladly show you the way.

She would never fall for somebody trying to sell her aluminum siding, or for a down-on-his-luck Nigerian prince who writes pathetic emails. But she did fall for somebody who recognizes her wish to be an indie published writer, and that person goes in for the kill. I would call that crazy behavior on her part, but it’s understandable, how it happens.

Google the phrase “self publish my novel” and you’ll get 3,940,000 hits in a matter of seconds.

I have been pondering this nuttiness for most of my adult life. As it turns out, there is, I think, a fairly simple answer. This quote is from Jhumpa Lahiri:

It was not in my nature to be an assertive person. I was used to looking to others for guidance, for influence, sometimes for the most basic cues of life. And yet writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to reconceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself. Even among the most reluctant and doubtful of writers, this willfulness must emerge. Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, ‘Listen to me’.”

Of course at this point you have to consider Hemingway. He yelled ‘Listen to me’ and people listened. The whole western world listened. And still he ended his own life, as successful and well received as he was. Maybe people tell stories and work to get them published because they want to be heard, or maybe that’s just one small part of the larger mystery of why we do what we do. Certainly for Hemingway, being heard was not enough.

So you have to ask yourself, will you be satisfied with being heard by what will probably be a fairly small circle of people, for little monetary return? Are you willing to invest not just your mind but your peace of mind? If so, then arm yourself, and sally forth. I look forward to reading your novel.

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