Wanted: One Crazy, Abused, Suicidal, Drunk, Promiscuous Writer

All good novelists have bad memories.
–Robert Olen Butler paraphrasing Graham Greene (so you go on and paraphrase this somewhere else and it’ll be a game of telephone–who knows how the quote will end up many clicks away in cyberspace!)  

This idea appears in many places–the notion that great artists are miserable or were miserable or suicidal or tormented by a dark side. I even read an interview with an agent who actually said a miserable childhood was a requirement for a good writer. Well, all you parents out there who want creative children. Forget Baby Mozart. Start abusing your children!

Okay, I jest. But is it true? I asked my students once what they thought of writers (and I did this when they didn’t know about this “secret” life of mine). Or more accurately, I asked them how they thought writers were different from other people if they were different at all. The students used adjectives like this–wild, free, independent, unhappy, and unstable. At the word “unstable” all the students nodded and said, “Oh, yes” or ” that’s right.” Several mentioned that writers had bad parents, drank too much, and had many affairs. Well, am I behind the curve. All this time and not one affair or addiction! (Except for coffee–does that count?)

I’ll take independent. And I’ll admit to something of a crazy childhood, but wild? Unstable? Do I have to be? If I stay my uptight, homebody self, can I be a great writer?

At this point, if I’m not a great writer, I don’t think my staid lifestyle has much to do with it. Hey, I love Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton and Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway as much as anybody (hmmm…okay, not love, but I like them, I really do like them), but I’d like to lose this suicidal, depressive stereotype. Nobody writes much passed out on the floor or laid out in the morgue.

But then again, I look at the stories I write, and I think–maybe I am crazy…


6 thoughts on “Wanted: One Crazy, Abused, Suicidal, Drunk, Promiscuous Writer

  1. lazym

    The funny thing about this quote – when I read it, I thought he meant “bad” as in not working very well. Which made me hopeful, because I have a terrible memory for many (if not most) things.

  2. This is interesting and something I’ve thought a lot about before.
    I “qualify” on many counts. But then when I had my son, the idea of unstable just didn’t work for me anymore. I needed to be stale for him. And I found it made me a better writer.

  3. I think it’s necessary for a writer to have experienced and understand emotional pain, since that’s what makes the most interesting stories. And I think as a writer, though I haven’t been caught up in a civil war, it doesn’t mean that I can’t use my understanding of human experience and try and write about it. People who aren’t writers may interpret this as having undergone a lot of negative experiences, because they don’t think THEY could write about it without having experienced something like it.

    That doesn’t mean that a writer has to be undergoing emotional trauma at the time of the writing. To expand on what Isabel said, a lot of writers probably produce better writing when, having gone through that pain, they come to a more stable place in their lives.

  4. I have given this a lot of thought too. I have always thought that perhaps my life is too boring, and I have lacked certain experience to write really interesting stuff. However, I am not discouraged. I have done many different things. I have lived in many different places, and as I get older, I have experienced many different emotions. So, somehow, I am going to use that and expand on it in my writing.

  5. I think writers (artists in general) are people who notice what’s around them and who make connections from one thing to another. That probably comes naturally to writers even as children, but it can be learned later, too. I don’t think being a writer as an adult requires a difficult childhood.

    I worry about the generation coming up now, who are so numb to the world around them. Do they notice ANYTHING? What will there be for them to write about? I know some pretty cool kids and young adults, but I do worry about all the numb ones.

  6. Isabel, I’m going to assume you meant stable, not stale. You couldn’t possibly be stale!

    And Jess, I totally agree.

    Shelli, what I said in my reply to your other comment still stands.

    SBW, oh, those numb young ones! I used to think that was an American problem, until I started teaching ESL. I get frustrated and discouraged by the number of my students who–as far as they let me ever see–have no passion for anything, no curiosity beyond celebrity and money, no awareness of life going on around them.

    I like to ask students–if you could have any job in the world–ANY JOB–what would your dream job be? I tell them not to think about the money or the location–this is a dream job and therefore it will have everything you want. And what do several students say? Accountant. That’s it. Any job ever in the history of the world, and they want to be an accountant. I’m sure being an accountant is great, but I still find it a strange answer.

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