How do Awful People Create Beautiful Books?

I think we’ve all had the experience of meeting one of your favourite writers and them turning out to be horrible. They bark at their fans, they’re rude to their publicists. Sometimes you don’t even have to meet them. They launch online attacks on anyone who doesn’t give them five-star reviews, tweet racist “jokes”, or they’re arrested for beating up their partner.

Some writers are truly awful people. Yet some of those truly awful people write brilliant books. How?!

One of my favourite writers is Knut Hamsun, a Norwegian writer, who deservedly won the Nobel Prize in 1920. His 1890 novel Hunger blew my teenaged mind. I’ve read it many times since and still find it amazing. It’s about a bloke wandering around Oslo (then called Christiania) starving. It should be boring; it isn’t. I keep rereading it to try and figure out why. All I’ve got is compelling character + amazing writing.

Hamsun was also a card-carrying fascist. He thought Hitler totally had the right idea. He was tried for being a traitor to Norway after World War 2 and found guilty. You know, because he was.

How could Hamsun, who wrote moving, beautiful, psychologically insightful books, be a fascist? I don’t know. I have theories though.

The first is the fairly obvious one. People compartmentalise. They decide whole groups of people aren’t really people. They only see the psychological complexity of people like them and that’s who they write about: the ones they see as fully human. I suspect that’s what was going on with Hamsun. White Scandinavian/German people = yes. Everyone else = no.

My other theories are a bit more woo woo.

Sometimes something extraordinary happens in the process of creating. I’m convinced that even the worst people can produce magic because of it.

It’s hard to describe, but most creatives will know what I’m talking about. There are times when the writing is going so well it feels like words are pouring out of me, that they have nothing to do with me, even though obviously, I’m the one typing.1 When I’m in that magical zone I can write for hours and have almost no memory of what I wrote.2 It’s almost an out-of-body experience, like being high.3

There are other times when the writing is going well, and the words are flowing, when I’m fully aware of what I’m writing, but somehow I’m making connections I wasn’t previously and I’m smarter. I can see more, and write deeper, and truly understand all the characters, even the villains. This is my favourite kind of writing zone.

During those moments it feels like the act of creating has changed me. I’ve become my best self, full of empathy and insight that I don’t always have. I assume this happens for other writers. Even the evil ones. Because I have met some truly horrible human beings whose books are wonderful. Magic is the only explanation.

TL;DR: Writing is so magical it can even transform nasty people into empathetic souls.

  1. To be clear. This is pretty rare. Most writing days are more sweating and yelling than magicking. []
  2. This does not, alas, means those words are always perfect. I wish. []
  3. I imagine. As someone who writes for teenagers I obviously have no first-hand experience. *cough* []


  1. Ted Lemon on #

    This happens in speaking as well as writing, and indeed I’ve found that it also happens in my own creative endeavors, which generally involve writing code–something which you might imagine isn’t as creative as writing.

    I believe that what’s going on here is that our theory of mind is flawed. First, we think we are one person, with one core being, but we aren’t. We are a collection of little sub-minds that don’t agree on anything–if they did they would merge. Sometimes one sub-mind is dominant, sometimes another is. On top of that, we aren’t just ourselves. We are part of larger minds–the groups of people we are part of. This is what the idea of sympatico is getting at, I think: that we are thinking together, as part of a greater mind.

    So when experiences like this happen, I think what’s going on is that the unconscious minds are speaking directly without the intermediary of our usual sense of self, and sometimes that some greater mind in which we participate is effectively using our body as a meatpuppet.

    (I hasten to add that this isn’t something I made up–it’s something I’ve gotten from studying meditation with a guy who’s a neurophysiologist, and I don’t even know if these are _his_ theories. Maybe it’s the voice of some larger mind speaking… 🙂

    • Justine on #

      Yeah, some of the neurological work on creativity is fascinating. I haven’t looked at it in awhile. Time to catch up again.

  2. Laura Haney on #

    I think your compartmentalization concept is closest. I think that some truly revolting people are so good at lying to themselves and to other people, that creating good fiction is just part of it.

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