The Madness of the Fiction Writer

When I was eighteen years old and a little crazy, I was instructed for a short while by a martial arts master who beat his fingers into a block of raw wood until the repeated micro-fractures re-shaped his hands into something like a pair of bony baseball gloves, ideal for stabbing your opponent with a karate chop like you do with a knife. He said that there was no way you could reach first class status in martial arts unless you were willing to deform yourself.

A friend of mine who is an IT technician at one of the world’s largest investment banks and works in close proximity to fund managers who gamble with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of other people’s retirement funds every day, told me about the insane world of investment banking. The highest yielding traders are all on cocaine or some other substance and burning out like short candles under the stress as they rake in multi-million dollar salaries each year. In every profession, he said, you have to be sort of crazy to operate at the highest level.

Although I have been blessed with some of the greatest mentors in the medical profession, I have also seen first hand what kind of a toll it can take on the mental and physical wellness of those who aspire to be top notch in the world.

It is not a coincidence that the highest grossing Hollywood stars all seem to be sociopaths, drug addicts, head cases or cult members of one kind or another. To become an extreme outlier in any profession carries a high risk of damaging your sanity, physical health or social well being.

If you were a doctor or a plumber, you can be mediocre and still make a decent living. A poet, on the other hand, needs to be a true outlier to be able to make a living on poetry alone. Making a living as a novelist is only slightly more forgiving. In most professions, your skills could be average and you could still get paid a living wage. If you are an artist, you are either first class or you need a side job. Even if you are great at what you do, there are numerous excellent actors, painters, musicians, sculptors, dancers, writers, and poets who rely on some other work to support themselves. In most cases, you would have to be crazy just to try.

Francoise Gilot’s Life with Picasso exposes what a moral monster a great artist can be. From Michelangelo to Basquiat, from Van Gogh to Pollock, the best artists were always nuts.

Myths and legends of men who sold their souls in order to attain what they viewed as exceptional status have been with us since the beginning of civilization. These cautionary tales of runaway ambition span the ages from Lucifer to Darth Vader. The same stories resonate from the cuneiform tablets of Ancient Sumeria to your local multiplex. People who lost their friends, family, health and sanity to their quest for success had been known since the dawn of mankind.

Before you set out to be a writer, preferably before you write your first word, you must decide how far you are willing to go. You need to draw the line on how much you are willing to sacrifice for your craft. Some of your favorite writers were no doubt suffering from psychological disorders. Some were alcoholics and drug addicts. Great many more were simply unlikable people, dysfunctional with their immediate families or were prone to destructive relationships.

Fiction writers, almost by definition, are socially reclusive eccentrics who prefer the company of imaginary characters to mingling with actual people. Do you really want to be that hermit crab in pajama pants mumbling to himself all day? Being a writer already makes you an oddity. How much farther do you want to take it? Numerous writers suffered breakdowns, burnouts, or committed suicide. In the thick of their writing, writers tend to be impossible to get along with. Relationships are ruined. Substance abuse is common. Imagine what it would be like to have someone like that for a parent, a spouse, a child or a friend. Do you really want to be that nightmare father? Do you want your child to grow up under one?

It might help if you could get to know a truly obnoxious writer early on, before you become one. Those of us who aspire to be writers tend to give crazy writers too much slack. We tend to think that those writers we never want to meet again are exceptions to the rule. They are not. If you close off the world and seclude yourself into your little cubbyhole where writing is your central obsession, you are making yourself a little bit crazy. It is an inevitable part of fiction writing. If you have a day job that forces you to interact with other people, it may actually be helping you preserve your mental health. And if you move up in the profession to become a full time writer, you should be vigilant for the madness creeping in.

Just like the martial artist who proudly accepted the fact that his hands no longer looked like normal hands, your mind, your attitudes, and your tolerance of the inconveniences of the world will change shape to suit your profession if you become a full time writer. It is not only that you will adapt to a life of living in pajama pants all day. Your whole body and soul will become a writer, and not every writer handles the transition well. Then, assuming that you made the transition with a reasonable level of sanity intact, you must decide how much of it you are willing to sacrifice to become the elite of your profession.

Careful when you dream about that blockbusting best seller.


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