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The Art of Being Crazy: Thoughts on the Eccentricities of Being a Writer

Many famous writers are known for their eccentricities. Here, debut novelist Leslie Cohen discusses some of the habits of writing greats and thoughts on her own brand of crazy.

One writer’s search for a trademark eccentricity.

by Leslie Cohen

You know what’s fun? Creativity. You know what’s not fun? Some of the things that come along with it.

Four years ago, I left my normal job at my normal desk with my somewhat normal co-workers in search of the creative abyss. I felt like I was coming close to selling my first novel. It was happening! Finally. I was ready to take on all of the risks inherent in a life untethered, i.e. unemployed.

But after a few years on my own, selling novel one and then crafting the second, I realized that I was maybe somewhat subtly losing my mind. However, I was trying to keep it all on the cute side of the neuroses table, but, in the words of TV’s cutest writer (that little known sex columnist who made it all look so easy and fun!): I couldn’t help but wonder.

[Love Letters: How to Spark Romance in a Story Without Using the L-Word]

Whenever writers talk about writing, they mention how lonely it can be, but I simply thought they were being dramatic. These are professional liars, after all. I’d heard about actors and artists on drugs, comedians battling depression. But it wasn’t until I spent day in and day out by myself writing, no routine, no steady salary, no co-workers to chat with during the breaks, and no assurance that whatever I was working on would lead anywhere, that it really sunk in: This is really hard on the psyche, sometimes.

Then it occurred to me that maybe the best thing to do is embrace the crazy. But, in true writerly fashion, I needed an angle. What would my particular brand of crazy be? Sure, I was anxious, sad at times. But none of it felt like enough. My suffering was downright mundane. I needed something to give me more street cred with the literary crowd (possibly an oxymoron).

Van Gogh had the severed ear thing. But any appendage that I cut off now would seem totally derivative. Hemingway had alcoholism, but I’m not sure I have the constitution to withstand an alcohol addiction. Or the talent. Whatever talent I possess is supplemented by large amounts of discipline and work. Remove those and I’m not sure what’s left. What about drugs? Well, I once accidentally ate a pot brownie in college and sent myself to the emergency room, so you tell me. Suicidal thoughts? I guess, but my heart’s not really in it. OCD? I sometimes double or triple check to see if the doors are locked in my apartment but I think that’s just good sense. I’d consider partying all night at a club but does it have to be so loud? Honestly, most clothing stores are a little too thumping for me.

 Guide to Literary Agents 2018

Guide to Literary Agents 2018

Maybe I need to get more wrapped up in my mode of conveying words to the page. Here I’ve just been hammering away at my laptop, while other writers transcribe on walls, on receipts while walking, on a giant scroll.

Joyce wrote in crayon on large pieces of cardboard while lying on his stomach and wearing a white coat to illuminate the page. But where does one find a scroll these days?

Virginia Woolf wrote exclusively in purple ink.

Truman Capote wouldn’t begin or end a piece of work on a Friday. He called himself a “horizontal” writer, because he only wrote while lying down, with a cigarette and sherry in one hand and a pencil in the other. The logistics of this are a bit challenging. If I have a single glass of orange juice within five feet of me while writing, it ends up all over my computer.

John Cheever wrote in his underwear.

Agatha Christie ate apples in the bathtub.

Woody Allen had to be standing in a packed subway car.

What was I actually doing that was so insane?

Well, I was so lonely during the day that I developed an outright fear of being alone. My husband and friends were all busy at work. The library was a zone of silence. So I began to rely heavily on the company of my mother. She was available during the day. We had lunch together often. I casually asked her if we could share locations on our iPhones. This way, I could see when she was getting her nails done, headed to a museum, to the pharmacy, to the optometrist. As it turns out, stalking is a somewhat addicting endeavor. All of her errands began to seem like fun activities that we could do together, something to take me out of my own head. I craved the distraction. And it wasn’t long before I found myself popping out of the bushes to catch her on the way to the post office. “Fancy meeting you here!” I said, and then gripped her arm. She’d tried to lose me for the afternoon, that sneak. I crashed a lunch that she was having with her friend who was upset that her son was moving to Atlanta. As this woman described the pain of being detached from a child, my mother just looked at her, longingly.

I developed a curious late night habit of applying for more normal jobs. Dozens of them. I decided that I could no longer tolerate being ostracized from society, so I looked on websites and sent halfhearted cover letters and non updated resumes. I sent them out at such a high speed that I woke up the next morning and scanned my sent mailbox and had to piece together what the hell happened. But was this an eccentricity or more of a cool hobby? And did I really want to work at 16 Handles?

And furthermore: Who does this? Who gets down about life and stalks their mother or applies for a job at 16 Handles?

Me. I do. So maybe that’s the lesson. Maybe I need to just take the idiosyncrasies as they arise. Come to think of it, they’re sort of funny, and they’re all mine.

Born and raised in New York, debut novelist Leslie Cohen is the author of THIS LOVE STORY WILL SELF-DESTRUCT, released January 23, 2018. She studied fiction at Columbia University, and wrote a weekly music column for a newspaper in Colorado before working in publishing for several years. Follow her on Twitter at @sortafunnystory.

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