Saturday, May 17, 2008

Not All Writers Are Neurotic...At Least Not In The Same Ways

I was at a library author appearance recently (Catherine Friend--funny funny writer, go buy her book Hit by a Farm). She said that when she was younger she'd never really been interested in being a writer. Further she said that this was at least in part due to having read about writers and determining that (at least according to their bios) they were pretty much all insecure neurotic drunks. She then gave the punchline--she was here to tell us it simply wasn't true and she was living proof...she didn't drink. Then she went on to detail her insecurities and neuroses. It was funny and it did a great job of selling her most recent work--a humorous memoir.

On that level the joke and the related anecdotes worked great. On another level they grated on my nerves a bit. I won't argue with the neurotic bit, I don't think I've ever met a writer who wasn't a bit neurotic in some way, but then I don't know that I've ever met any human who wasn't a bit neurotic in some way.

It was the insecurity thing. There is a school of thought, much reinforced by writer blogs, that suggests that all writers moan about how their work is crap much of the time...except for those writers who are egotistical monsters. Now, it is certainly true that some writers are insecure wrecks and some writers are certainly egotists, but there's a lot of ground in between. And really, I suspect that most writers spend most of our time in that middle ground. If we didn't believe we were doing pretty good work most of the time we'd never send it out. I certainly believe that I mostly do pretty good work most of the time.

I'm sure there are people who will argue with me on this, and that's fine. There are 1,001 ways to write a novel and every one of them is right, and if being an insecure wreck is your method and it works for you, I'm not going to try to say it shouldn't or make you stop. I just want to provide a counter-example. It is perfectly fine to by happy writing most of the time and be happy with what you have long as it doesn't prevent you from seeing flaws and correcting them.

So, consider this official permission to enjoy yourself and give yourself the occasional pat on the back from a real live professional author (yes, that is tongue firmly in cheek, but it's also sincere). If every time you write you enjoy it, and every time you reread your work you go "Hey that mostly works," and sometimes you even say things like "I rock!" Or, "I'm a genius!" It's all fine. Just don't let it stop you from improving. It's perfectly acceptable to be a happy and secure writer. You can even do that and sell books.

This message brought to you by the Kelly McCullough People Like Me, They Really Like Me, school of writing.


Eleanor said...

There are studies -- none large and none more than suggestive -- that show artists and writers are more prone to mood disorders than other professionals. I don't know if the studies controlled for reality. Writing tends to be an up and down kind of life. You get turned down. You sign a three book contract. Your book sinks. Your book ends on the Locus best seller list. In most cases, you never make a really good living, and your living is always a bit unsafe. What if the next book doesn't sell? What would happen if you compared writers to scientists in insecure lines of work. Adjunct faculty? Not yet tenured and having trouble getting grants?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Kelly/Sally. :-) And for wise words - and permission to like ourselves and what we do.

Good to have you back, even in stuffed-up form. Hope your newfound allergies retreat soon - sympathies from a lifelong sufferer (sniff sniff).

Michael Damian Thomas said...

I am personally a neurotic/insecure writer. I ended up not writing for about five years because my anxiety attacks from writing were getting the better of me. In my case, it’s all about being a competitive perfectionist. I’m better now, but it hasn’t completely gone away. I’m currently petrified about the upcoming rewrites on my first novel.

One of the many benefits of being the husband of the coolest SF Archivist on the planet is that I’ve met dozens of writers over the last few years. Many were of the neurotic/insecure variety. A surprising number, however, were cool and confident about their writing. Just like each writer has their own process, they also have their own unique attitudes. I would say that the only thing that causes every writer a bit of neuroses is the business side of writing.

Kelly McCullough said...

Eleanor, that wouldn't surprise me, and as I noted there's nothing wrong with being neurotic and insecure. At least nothing wrong in terms of doing it wrong--I suspect that most of those who are neurotic and insecure would prefer to be less neurotic and more secure, but we don't get to chose our neuro-chemical states. There are as many ways to do this whole writer thing as there are writers. I just feel the need from time to time to note that there are writers who are mostly happy most of the time and while some suffer for their art, it's not a necessary precondition for writing.

Beth, much less stuffy now, though not completely unclogged. Either whatever was killing me stopped blooming or there was some headcold component to it.

Michael, that's really the reason I write this sort of post on occasion--to remind the world that there's no one right way to do this and no one right attitude. I'm glad you broke through the barrier to your writing and I'm sure the rewrite will go fine--hard but doable.

Michael Merriam said...

I'm usually all over the place emotionally when writing, the more so when working on a novel. I can go from This rocks! I'm rocking! to Oh no! Now I'm sucking! in the space of a few words.

All in all, I tend to be a pretty happy writer. Sure I get frustrated and down on myself from time to time, but it doesn't stick, and frankly, if writing made me miserable all the time, I'd quit.

But I don't see that happening anytime soon!

trev said...

Okay, I get the point about all the neurosis/drinking stuff. But...I think that's really a mark of all creative people (from Hemingway through Dean to Cobain). Personally, I'm manic-depressive, so my moods are all over the place. What that has to do with my writing, though, I'm not sure. I always see room for improvement, am always striving for a more lucid description, better dialogue, a more fluid way of expression. I don't think I suck, but I don't think I'm putting out Nobel Prize literature, either. I'm writing in my own voice, enjoying the work, and am pleased enough with the outcome to have no fear in sending it out.