Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Myth of the Tortured Writer

I've read Anne Lamott's classic tome on writing, Bird by Bird, several times over, and I've listened to her audiotaped lecture, Word by Word. Both contain interesting insights on the writing life. Lamott is entertaining to read and to listen to, and she's brutally honest about her own life and her own writing.

But there is a point at which my opinions about writing differ dramatically from Lamott's. She seems convinced that writers and other creative people are all highly dysfunctional people who are addicted to their need for positive strokes, which the crazily pursue through writing, and are invariably disappointed because getting published doesn't make their lives sparkle with joy, joy, joy.

I'm a writer. I've published multiple books for children. I do have my dysfunctions, my quirks, and my struggles in life. I've had some tough times in the past, endured an insanely dysfunctional first so-called marriage, have attended far too many funerals, and have some annoying health concerns. But I wouldn't call myself tortured, especially when it comes to writing.

First of all, I don't consider writing to be a chore. Writing is difficult, yes. Brain surgery is difficult and takes years to learn, but no one characterizes brain surgeons as tortured geniuses. Good writing, really good writing, the kind I still aspire to, takes no lesser amount of practice and training. But writing, though difficult, is fun. Yes, fun. I'd rather make my living as a writer than just about anything else, short of getting paid to lounge on a beach on Maui (and I'd still be writing even if I got paid for beach-lounging).

Second, when Ms. Lamott says that getting published won't change your life, I say, "Speak for yourself, dear." Getting published did change my life. It's a thrill to see your name printed for the first time on the front cover of a real book printed by a real publisher. Each book that follows gives the same thrill. It's not so much personal validation as it is closure. Writing a book is a huge undertaking that a writer conquers step by step, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter. It's a difficult journey, and having that solid book in hand says, "You did it!" It's like crossing the finish line of a marathon. You did it, and no one can take it away from you.

Finally, dysfunctionality is not a prerequisite of genius. It's the tortured genius who gets all the media attention, but for every tortured genius, there are dozens of other highly functional geniuses and hundreds of other highly functional ordinary folks who succeed in writing because they write, write, write, and refuse to give up. Creativity grows with practice. Ideas multiply like bunnies if you give them half a chance. The way to be a writer is by practicing your writing, not by drinking or acquiring psychoses.

Garrison Keillor, on his Prairie Home Companion blog, voices a similar opinion in his essay titled Something he's been meaning to say for years. If a writer with Keillor's charm, smoothness, and skill doesn't have to be neurotic to succeed, neither do the rest of us.


fringes said...

"If a writer with Keillor's charm, smoothness, and skill doesn't have to be neurotic to succeed, neither do the rest of us."

Neither do the rest who happen not to be neurotic. I don't know if the tortured writer is a myth. Perhaps it's the preponderance of tortured writers that is the myth. But there are many writers who struggle to get the demons out by spitting them onto paper.

I am completely enjoying your blog (it is extremely well-written) and I will end my monologue in your comments and continue it elsewhere. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

There are people who try to get their demons out on paper. And there are people who try to get them out by washing their hands obsessively, self-flagellation, and various other means.

There are writers who have assorted neueroses and writers who are no more neurotic than the rest of the population.

I think it's just the neurotic ones that get everyone's attention. Just like the news programs will tell you all about a teenager who shot up a school, but not about the teenagers who got up a work crew to clean up a school.

But if it takes a good flaming neurosis to get noticed as a writer, well heck, then, my uncle is a Volkswagon and I think I'm turning into a watermelon. Can I be famous now? Please?

I'm glad you like the blog. Keep coming back. Comments are good. It's nice to know someone is listening.