Torment and Writing

One of the most insidious myths about writing is that of the Tormented Genius.1 I blame the Romantics: Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, that lot. Who were all:

[i]f you have not suffered, if you have not had your soul embiggened by your torment and anguish and substance abuse—preferably opium, but, hey, alcohol will totally do in a pinch—then you cannot write a single soulful sentence! If you are neurotypical2 and have managed to live past forty? Totally not a proper writer!3

Obviously this is one hundred per cent true because think of all those famous writers: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton, etc. etc. Tormented, alcoholic, suicidal, didn’t live particularly long. It couldn’t be that we know their life stories better because they fit into our expectations of what a writer’s life should be, could it?

Yes, it totally could.

But you’d never know it given how pervasive the myth is. I’m frequently asked by young wannabe writers whether they have any chance at being a writer given that they’ve never had a breakdown or a substance abuse problem or suffered anything worse than the occasional unjust grade.

Yes, you can!

Anyone can write no matter how addiction free.4 And seriously don’t sweat not having suffered. Trust me, you will. Oh, yes, you will.

Here’s the thing, well, actually here’s several things:

The vast majority of professional writers, i.e. writers for whom writing is a big ole chunk of their income, if not all of it, have to meet deadlines. They have to write regularly, not just when the muse strikes, or when their soul is on fire, or they are in a manic phase. It’s their job, not a hobby. If they don’t do it or only do it under the right circumstances they could wind up not being paid and not being able to cover their rent or buy food.

The kind of life that the F. Scott Fitzgeralds of this world lived made writing harder. Old Scott was constantly broke and blowing the money and then having to write more despite being drunk and/or hungover. It was hellish. You do not want that life.

The idea that being off your face, or in pain, or can’t-roll-out-of-bed-depressed, is necessary to writing is absurd.

Frankly, it is so much harder to write when we’re in pain—physical or mental, when we’re drunk, or off our faces, or depressed. None of those states are helpful to the way most professionals write. It makes writing harder.

I have written while in physical pain because I had to. I have written while in mental pain for the same reason. That writing was not my best writing. Not even close.5 I flat out can’t write if I’ve imbibed so much as a glass of wine.6

The boring truth is that writers, on the whole, are a pretty happy bunch. Why, look here, writing even made it on to this list of the ten happiest jobs. Contrary to most people’s expectations we don’t feature on the lists of the most suicidal professions or the most alcoholic.

The idea that suffering is an intrinsic part of the writing life is crap.

Again, I am not saying that writers can’t and don’t suffer. Just that it’s not a requirement.

You don’t have to live in a garret to be a proper writer, you don’t have to have a mental illness, or a substance abuse problem. Yes, there are writers who are poor—many of us. Many of us have a mental illness. Which is hardly surprising given that mental illness is very, very common for everyone.

Aside: I would love to live in a world in which mental illness was normalised. I read somewhere that depression is almost as common as the common cold. That pretty much everyone has been depressed at some point in their life.7 I’ve certainly been depressed. And yet judging by our mainstream media you’d think mental illness was as rare as hen’s teeth. It’s hardly ever talked about except for when someone commits a terrible crime and then it’s blamed on their illness even when the perpetrator has no history of mental illness and no diagnosis other than the media’s speculations. The vast majority of mentally ill people are not violent. They’re way more likely to have violence committed against them than to commit it themselves.

You may have a mental illness. If you don’t you certainly know people who do. I have several friends who are bipolar. I had no idea until they trusted me enough—after years of friendship—to confide in me. Because mental illness? So much stigma. And, you know what? Most of the time my bipolar friends are indistinguishable from the people I know who aren’t bipolar. End of grumpy aside.

So, yes, there are writers who are bipolar, depressive, anorexic etc. I am sure their writing is fueled by their illness. How could it not be? I’m also sure it’s fuelled by countless other aspects of who they are and what they’ve experienced. Mine is fuelled by everything that has ever happened to me, including bouts of depression. It’s what writers do: take our experiences of being in the world and turn it into story.

But having a mental illness is not a prerequisite for being a writer. Nor is being poor.8

Nor is suffering. Sure, all the writers I know have suffered in one way or another. But, seriously, how many people do you know who haven’t suffered? It’s not essential for becoming a writer; it’s a by product of being alive.

At some point in your life, no matter how privileged your existence, or how sheltered you are from the worst the world can throw at you, someone you love will die, your heart will be broken, you will be in an accident, you will be ill.

Bad things happen to all of us.

I think part of the problem is the conflation between what fuels our writing and the writing itself.

My novel, Liar, was partly fuelled by the death of close friends. But I wrote the book many, many years after those deaths. In the depths of my grief I was incapable of coherent thought, let alone writing.

I wrote Liar during a happy time of my life. In fact, all my published novels have been written while I was happy.9 That’s because writing makes me happy. And the fact that I can make a living writing, and have been able to do so since 2003? That makes me ecstatic.

Does that mean those novels were easy to write from start to finish?


But part of what makes me so happy about writing is that it’s not always easy. If it was easy all the time I’d be bored out of my mind.

Writing is challenging, and stimulating, and sometimes it makes me scream, and sometimes I think there is no way I’ll ever figure out how to finish/fix this novel. Sometimes I can’t. But mostly I can. And that gives me joy.

That’s why I think most writers are happy. Even when they’re screaming all over the intramanets about how hard writing is.

That’s why I think exercises like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) are so wonderful. NaNoWriMo demonstrates that anyone, yes, even all us non-tortured geniuses, can write a novel. The folks doing it tend to discover it’s not as easy as they thought it would be. But plenty also discover that it’s not as hard, that writing a novel can be a huge amount of fun, not to mention addictive.

Addictive in a most excellent not-going-to-kill-you way. Yay, writing!

To sum up: You don’t have to be tormented to be a writer. You just need to write.

  1. Which is a myth that applies to all creativity but I’ll focus on writing cause that’s what I know best. []
  2. They totally would too have used that word. Also I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who is neurotypical. []
  3. Not an actual quote. You’re shocked, right? []
  4. Hell, I write and I don’t even like coffee. []
  5. Yay for rewrites! []
  6. Lightweight. I know. Don’t care. []
  7. Wish I could find that reference. []
  8. Though sadly it can be a result of trying to make a living as a writer. Writing is also not on the list of the most lucrative professions. []
  9. Obviously, I do not mean that I was non-stop Pollyanna the Glad Girl. Who is? Just that there was more happiness than not. []


  1. Tobias S. Buckell on #

    I once spent a lot of time tracking my daily writing to see what were the best practices (morning, evening) as well as other variables, and one of the things I tracked was my mood while writing. Backdating it, I found out that being in a good mood, and financially secure, did wonders for my writing.

    My two best weeks writing have been in beach-front locations.

    I don’t buy the suffering while writing much either. I’m sure some people might produce under pressure, but I don’t view is as necessary. Sure writers mine our hurt for material, but going looking for it?

    When I was starting out (I sold my first story at 19) a lot of people told me I needed to ‘experience more of the world’ (including, one presumed, suffering) before I could really be a writer. But by 10 I’d already experienced a great deal of hurt, the details of which are my own to tell and are not broadcast automatically. But it took getting to a safe and secure place to be able to unpack all that.

    I’m glad I ignored the advice to suffer for art. (Also, I have a genetic predisposition towards alcoholism, suspected by the fact that relatives on both sides of my genetic lines have actually literally died of alcoholism, and by getting flagged for it on a DNA test! I’m glad I’ve ignored this advice. I wouldn’t be here if I had!).

  2. Justine on #

    Tobias S. Buckell: As mentioned above I frequently get young writers worrying about this. The pervasiveness of this stupid, stupid myth drives me crazy. As you so rightly point out it’s really dangerous. People have died that shouldn’t have because of this stupid myth.

    Also: I love that you charted your moods while writing. Actual science backing me up! What do you mean small sample size? Hush!

  3. Polenth on #

    The most extreme I saw was someone who planned to put himself in danger in order to suffer, because he couldn’t be a writer until he’d suffered. I don’t know if it got through when he was told he didn’t need to suffer, getting himself killed wouldn’t help anything, and just to start writing stuff if he wanted to be a writer. I hope it did.

  4. Justine on #

    Polenth: Me too! That’s awful.

    I, too, have known a few too many people who got into drugs/other dangerous activities because they thought it would make them better artists.

    I’m sure some of them would have done that anyways but regardless if that stupid myth wasn’t around surely fewer people would be doing dangerous things in order to garner the experience and tormentedness they figure is necessary to be a genius writer. Ugh!

  5. Tobias S. Buckell on #

    “Also: I love that you charted your moods while writing.”

    I didn’t know others were into it, but I’m sort of a member of the Quantified Self ( mindset. I track a lot of things, not to be anal about them, but because I struggle with ADD and memory issues. It’s helped me find patterns I haven’t been aware of (seasonal affective disorder anyone?), and thus, tackle them.

  6. fairyhedgehog on #

    A friend’s father was an artist and he was convinced that he would have been a better artist if he’d been, well, nastier! He thought he needed more “artistic temperament”.

    I’m not sure if he would have been convinced by reading your post because people get very entrenched in their own opinions, even where there are very few facts to back them up! But I shall go merrily on my way today thinking about happy writers and how writing can make you happy!

  7. Justine on #

    fairyhedgehog: Glad to be of service!

  8. Blue on #

    Thanks for the shout-out to NaNoWriMo! However, I have to say, NaNo’s done more to normalize disorders for me than any other group I’ve ever been involved with.

    I’ve met so many amazing people through NaNo and they all have something “wrong” with them (myself included). I kind of love that. It feels like home. =)

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