When I was at school, I was friends with Writers™, and they were miserable.
The agony of having no inspiration! The torment of being an Artist™ in an uncaring world! The sheer indignity of a life surrounded by lay people who did not understand the pain and passion of the artistic life!
Have I mentioned that we were all fifteen at the time? Yeah, that explains a lot.
I, of course, loved the idea of being able to flaunt how artistic I was by leaving a slime trail of writerly angst behind me. The only fly in the ointment was that I didn’t write serious literary fiction. I didn’t even write super-deep and relevant fiction about how cliques are bad and schools don’t fund their art programs well. (Hey, when you’re fifteen, “cliques are bad” is super-deep.)
While my friends were thinking seriously about high school social life, the devaluation of art, and football as a metaphor for toxic masculinity, I pretty much just wrote Twilight fanfiction.
It’s kinda hard to convince yourself that you’re a Serious Writer™ when you’re writing stories about someone else’s sparkly vampires.
Now, obviously, I’m not fifteen anymore. (Thank heavens.) Unfortunately, the myth of the miserable writer didn’t die along with my Twilight phase. The idea that you have to suffer in order to be great (or even just good) is a potent one, and my inner fifteen-year-old kind of gets why. I mean, look at all the tragic, tortured writers that history has given us. The Brontës. Virginia Woolf. Oscar Wilde. Sylvia Plath. H*ck, even JK Rowling went through some pretty grim stuff.
Their lives were marked by tragedy, loss, isolation, and (in most cases) a dire lack of plumbing. And they took that misery and used it to change the entire world. They influenced their crafts for centuries. They became legends.
Could they have done all that if they hadn’t suffered? Probably not. The stuff they went through had profound, and very noticeable, impacts on their work.
But does that mean that we have to suffer in the name of writing, too?
I don’t think so.
For one thing, we have plumbing. And our chances of dying of tuberculosis are pretty slim. Sure, we have our problems, but tuberculosis isn’t one of them. Which, when you think about it, is pretty h*cking amazing.
For another, correlation is not causation. Yes, the greats of history were miserable and they also left a lasting impression on the Western consciousness. But there have been lots of miserable people throughout history, and there are lots of miserable people now, and it’s pretty clear that misery doesn’t equal writerly greatness.
Angsting doesn’t make us better writers. Writing makes us better writers.
My inner fifteen-year-old is always going to understand the appeal of swanning around in an artistic fit, bemoaning the fact that the muse has abandoned her and boldly declaring that no one—no one—understands her. And I’m not going to pretend that my outer twenty-five-year-old doesn’t also love having a little temper tantrum every now and again, too.
But being genuinely, permanently miserable in the name of someday being considered great? Even my inner fifteen-year-old knows that’s dumb. And she’s obsessed with Twilight.
It makes no sense to make yourself unhappy, as though unhappiness is a magical charm that will make you a great writer. In reality, writers work best when they’re happy and healthy and surrounded by snacks and not dying of tuberculosis. It’s just common sense. Don’t let the romance of the tormented life of the Writer™ get in the way of you feeling good enough to actually write.
When did you start writing? Were you an angsty little bean like me or did you approach writing with all the mercuriality of Spock? How have you changed as a writer emotionally over the years?
P.S. It’s a funny coincidence, but the #storycrafter Twitter chat yesterday was all about writerly self-care! If you aren’t already in on #storycrafter you should definitely join the fun. It’s hosted by the fabulous Faye Kirwin of Writerology every Sunday at 8:00PM GMT. See you then!