Some of our most loved literary heroes have led desolate lives. Virginia Woolf loaded up rocks in her overcoat one day and walked into the Ouse river. Faulkner, along with a millions of others in the history books, was a lifelong alcoholic. Fitzgerald, having led a debauched life during the roaring twenties, lamented near the end of it that he’d been a poor caretaker of his talent. And that’s just the Lost Generation. Billions of others since, published or otherwise, have suffered so much in the writing life.
It’s not that these people were wrong for being this way. We all lead difficult lives, and the writing life is no less difficult. We all get lost and hopeless sometimes. The real danger with these writers and their struggles (like history itself) is when they become a model of what a writer should be and go through. It seems like nonsense at first until we catch ourselves wanting to suffer for our art. Here is my list of bad fictions that keep you from writing fulfillment.
(First, a quick thing about these fictions: they are not myths. Myths are that were told and passed down through the generations from ancestors who sought to explain the world around them. It is far more appropriate to call these bad fictions, since, ourselves being writers, we are more inclined to see them as a dead-end way of storytelling which we tell ourselves, and therefore are more inclined to revise them to better suit us.)
Bad Fiction #1: Suffer for your art
Employ self-destructive behavior on yourself and others in order to really feel your pain and therefore have the material to write about it. We don’t need to be wounded or sick or addicted to something or hurt in order to write something meaningful. We must not emulate these figures for what they went through, we must strive to understand the information and fictions they had at their disposal. Our literary foremothers and forefathers dealt with their own demons—which may or may not have had anything to do with literature—in their own ways but they also didn’t know enough about neuroscience, about psychology, about mindset and positive thinking and other methods to do anything else. We have so much more at our disposal. We know so much more about the creative process than we’ve ever had. And we’ll know more as we live. We must adjust our expectations, we must live and be models of the new way.
You’re a human being: you’ll suffer enough. Why load on any additional suffering just to ‘be a proper writer’?
Bad Fiction #2: You Against The World
Be alone and do it all alone. Don’t ask for help, don’t tell anyone what you’re worried about. Be an Emily Dickinson, a Franz Kafka. This is a tough one because the lesson here is about balance. Yes you need solitude and quiet to write, but this becomes a habit. Believe me, I know. Also too, most of us are more comfortable by ourselves. Introverts recharge when they’re by themselves. Reading, another solitary act, feeds our love of words, which in turn feeds our need to write. All of these things have two things in common—they require a lot of time and they require time away from people. One can get stuck in this loop and many have in the past. We idolize lone figures and anti-heroes. Plus, when we think of the writer themselves, we were told more about their ‘lone genius’ than any kind of collaborative effort, such as from editors, agents, loved ones, family, and friends, all whom which have contributed to that book you love so much. We see only what we want to see, and what we see is a lone writer doing everything she can to write and forgetting the rest of the world. But we need community. Writers—the emotionally vibrant, dreamy, and overthinkers that we are—need support more than most, and we get that from just being out in the world. Go to an open mic. Sign up for a class, even if it’s a one-nighter. There are plenty of places online, even Twitter, which is the only reason I jump on. Give support and give it loyally and honestly. It will come back to you ten fold.
Bad Fiction #3: Write What You Know
This is a complex one. You need to have gone through things in order to write about them, but that doesn’t mean that you have to climb a mountain in order to write about a mountain. Again, the word is balance. Go out and live your life, then come back and write about it. My favorite symbol is the labyrinth. Life is all about this—it is a journey inward as much as outward. Joseph Campbell has written and lectured about this from his key book, Hero With a Thousand Faces. It’s the classic hero myth—a recognition of an adventure, a departure, a struggle/battle, a transformation of personality and POV, and a return.
You don’t have to know anything to write except what you have in your mind. It is enough, more than enough. But don’t be afraid to want to learn about the world. Write what you’re curious about too. What are the big questions you think of? What moves you? Explore, both inwardly and outwardly. And then tell us what happened.
Bad Fiction #4: Writers are drunks and druggies.
This came from the countercultural history of the genre (and from all art in general, since to sit down to mimic life through a medium is, in itself, an anti-social act). The modern-day rock star is trying to shed this very fiction as well. But I have news for you: you don’t need drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, shitty food, shitty people, or self-destructive tendencies to be a “great” writer, whatever that adjective means. Yes it’s true that some of the best work has come from people struggling with those things, but it’s also true that there have been so many great pieces of literature that we’ve never and will never read because people struggled and lost that fight.
Be you. Sure it’s okay to experiment, but to think that you need drugs and all the other vices because your art form deems it worthy is downright ignorant and, in another way, submissive. Because how punk rock is it to be yourself in spite of what the fiction tells you to be? Be healthy, keep your mind open, and your heart honest and loving. That “buzz” you get when you’re really writing and editing paragraphs that speak from the core of your spirit is better than anything you can buy, I guarantee you.
QUESTION OF THE POST: What are some of the bad fictions that you unconsciously follow in your writing life? Post them in the comments section below.
Create and Complete!