The Discontented Writer

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I think it was in high school British Lit class, when I was learning about the Romantic poets—Keats and Shelley and Byron and that whole crew, that I began to develop my belief that writers are fragile, delicate artists—prone to substance abuse and crying jags, passionate, doomed love affairs, more susceptible to tuberculosis and other such romantic and lethal illnesses than the regular population.

My studies in American Literature in college only served to prove my belief: you had Flannery O’Connor’s tragic battle with lupus, Sylvia Plath sticking her head in an oven, Poe being, well, Poe, Hemingway putting a shotgun in his mouth, Hansberry’s death from pancreatic cancer at 34, the alcoholism of Fitzgerald and Cheever and so many others, Carver’s death at age 50 from lung cancer, and the poignant words on his headstone: “And did you get what/ You wanted from this life, even so?” It seemed to me that the inherent loneliness that writing requires, the time put in alone at the computer or typewriter or notebook, would eventually seep into the other aspects of the true writer’s life, and if he wasn’t careful, it would kill him.

Last July, Newsweek published “The Creativity Crisis,” an article about the declining presence of creativity in American schoolchildren. In it, authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman argue that it is a myth that creative people are dark, depressed, and neurotic, and that these tendencies actually hinder creativity (and any of us who have tried to write during a particularly difficult time in our personal lives can probably attest to this). But the authors do offer this: “Rather, creative people, for the most part, exhibit active moods and positive affect. They’re not particularly happy—contentment is a kind of complacency creative people rarely have. But they’re engaged, motivated, and open to the world.”

That notion has stayed with me ever since I read the article last summer. Although contentedness is a quiet kind of security that most of us long for, the writer knows that having it means being in a state of static—and those are not the conditions under which art is created. At the same time, it does no good for writers to romanticize our craft or speak about it in overly melodramatic terms. As I talked about in my last post, writing is an art, of course. But it’s also a craft and a business. Effective writers aren’t a depressed bunch, trudging along the moors and sobbing into their lace handkerchiefs. They may not be a happy bunch, either, but it’s discontent and dynamism, not anger or self-loathing, that drives them. The great writers of our past were great artists in spite of, not because of, their personal problems.

And I’m thankful for their legacy.