“A writer is a writer not because she writes well or easily, because she has amazing talent, or because everything she does is golden. A writer is a writer because, even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”
Junot Diaz, Becoming a Writer/The List, O Magazine, November 2009
This quote is only one of many from many people: you know you’re a writer when not writing is impossible. It’s an image that conjures up the image of the starving artist in their garret, frantically creating because it’s the only thing they know. It’s romantic. It’s persistent. It’s dangerous.
I’ve not been well recently. I’ve hinted at it in previous blog-posts, but perhaps it’s time to be more open about it. A major life-change occurred and suddenly I was unable to write. My inability to write made me ill, or at least more so.
I hadn’t realised that writing was part of my self-protection, my survival strategy. I didn’t realise just how much my routine had been insulation from depression and self-hatred. Of course I knew of my propensity for mental illness – I’ve had it since I was eight, so I’ve had a lot of time to come to terms with myself. But I didn’t realise that writing – and more specifically my writing routine – worked as a defence. Writing, for me, is as much self-preservation as it is an act of love.
So, for the first time, I really feel I understand these quotes. But I don’t see them as romantic, aspirational ideals: instead they have taken on a darker hue. Beware, writer, for you are so embedded in your work that you are simply a madman with a coping strategy. You are Dr Jekyll. Beware the unleashing of your Hyde.
And beware also these pat statements that seem to glamourise suffering. Be reassured: your writing isn’t going to get any worse if you’re well-fed, well-supported, well-balanced. We should be telling ourselves that the healthiest way to write is to do so as a hobby or as a business, not as a part of our very being. Necessity has a way of sabotaging you when you least expect it.
I’m taking steps to restore balance and to claw back some of the defences I once had. But caveat scriptor: there is nothing romantic about madness. If your happiness is so entwined with writing then at least acknowledge this and ensure you have some sort of safety net should the unexpected sweep your feet from beneath you.
Or is it just me?