Writing, Madness, and Voice

brain sketch3A recent article on the Thought Catalog talked about the relationship between writing and mental illness that sparked quite a discussion. Our own Lynne Cantwell gave a very thoughtful and intelligent response here. For many of us, the most offensive paragraph (of several) in the original article was this:

The common theory for why writers are often depressed is rather basic: writers think a lot and people who think a lot tend to be unhappy. Add to that long periods of isolation and the high levels of narcissism that draws someone to a career like writing, and it seems obvious why they might not be the happiest bunch.

To my mind, this author made many ridiculous and unsubstantiated assumptions, but I’ll confine my response to two of them. Per his paragraph above,

  1. People write because they are drawn to isolation.
  2. People write because they are highly narcissistic.

I have a different theory. I believe people write because that is the voice that serves them best. Let me explain this through my own experience.

I was born the youngest of three children and was four years younger than my sister, who was a bully. We shared a bedroom, but I had zero say about what furniture it had or how it was arranged, what stuffed animals I could have on my bed, even what time the light went out at night. All that was dictated by my sister. My parents were unequipped to deal with a bully and unequipped to protect me. I learned early on that if I told on my sister and my parents punished her, I’d only get it worse the next time we were alone. Self-preservation demanded that I keep silent and cope the best way I could, alone. I believe that since I did not have a literal voice growing up, the words I wrote on paper became my true, authentic voice. Whether writing fiction or writing in my journal, this was the most expedient way for me to cope with any problems that I had. Writing was not only my passion, my escape, my solace — it was my salvation.

Going back further, my own father, an artist and a writer, had a stuttering problem. He would adamantly avoid any kind of public speaking, but on paper his voice soared. He wrote articles, essays and eventually his autobiography, giving dramatic voice to all the experience, the lessons, the joy he found in life, all those things he could not easily share with his speaking voice.

I’ve heard from many other writers that they had a similar background — oppressed or ridiculed in some way — and it doesn’t surprise me a bit that they turned to pen and paper to give voice to their real thoughts and feelings. If we, as human beings, are challenged by our surroundings, we have two choices. We can buck the system or we can adapt and mold ourselves into some semblance of whatever our environment requires of us, which may also mean suppressing the truth about who we are. That truth, I believe, must have a vent or it will create its own outlet in unpredictable and sometimes violent ways. Writing (indeed, any form of creativity) will provide that outlet via often secret yet socially acceptable avenues.

At the very least, it sure beats taking out an assault rifle and shooting people.

So are writers mentally ill? Are they narcissistic recluses, lost in depression or alcohol? While there has to be some smattering of that across any demographic, drawing a direct line of cause and effect between writing and those maladies is just plain hogwash.

I would take it the other direction. What if Hemingway or Fitzgerald had not written? Would they have been less depressed, or more? Would Hemingway not have committed suicide? Would Fitzgerald not have been an alcoholic? Although there’s no way to quantify any of this, I would guess their states of mind would have been much worse, not better, if they had not written.

The writers I know are not only coping with life, they are coping well, thank you very much. And they are thriving. The writing itself is a huge part of that.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is the award-winning author of twelve novels and one non-fiction title. She lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

37 thoughts on “Writing, Madness, and Voice”

  1. Wait a second.

    Did you really set up your piece with this –

    To my mind, this author made many ridiculous and unsubstantiated assumptions, but I’ll confine my response to two of them —
    “People write because they are drawn to isolation.
    People write because they are highly narcissistic.”

    I have a different theory.
    Let me explain this through my own experience

    C’mon, you’re making it too easy for the original writer to respond!!!

    1. The original writer made his assumptions and arguments in a very broad manner as if they applied across the spectrum; I kept my rebuttal couched in my own experience, not intending to negate his opinions but simply to offer another explanation that makes more sense to me. As I said, any of this would be difficult to quantify, which is why I didn’t try to.

      1. Melissa,

        I’m not trying to be a troll… seriously… but…

        From what I originally quoted — Let me isolate two sentences —

        He said: “People write because they are highly narcissistic.”
        You wrote: “Let me explain this through my own experience.”

        Do you see my point in the above?

        Perhaps the person you’re responding to might have made their point by your response?

        I wouldn’t even normally write a response to a blog piece because I’m not one to make trouble…
        But here’s what’s interesting — you are a writer with ten published books… clearly with talent… maybe eventually all of your work gets you immortality through your writing… So, isn’t possible that you unwittingly revealed something in subtext/text kind of way.

        Perhaps indeed there is a narcissistic gene involved with those who end up making a mark in writing.

        And I would suggest the answer is probably not in “Let me explain this through my own experience”…. the answer lies in examining writers who we still read… generation after generation.
        Were they indeed narcisstic?
        I’m not an expert, but in the writers I’ve studied there is a lot to be said for the very strong possibility that many were narcissitic. At least in the way the mental field defines such a diagnosis.

        Again, not a troll, so I will allow you to have the last response and I willl go away…

        1. Richard, first let me say that I completely missed the connection you pointed out in your first comment, but now that I understand it, I have to laugh because you’re absolutely right. Oh, the irony! And I certainly won’t argue with you that some classic writers may have been narcissists, since any group of people will have some degree of that among their numbers. But the funny thing about this, again from my own personal viewpoint (LOL), is that I don’t give a rat’s patootie for immortality. I would still write if I were never published; I would still write if I never sold a book. I would still write if no one else ever read a word. I actually don’t choose to write for any reason except that I can’t not write.
          And please don’t go away–we need questioning voices to spar with and sharpen our wits with. You’ve made me think more deeply about what I wrote, and that’s a good thing. I’m glad you commented.

        2. While I’m not an author, I guess I can’t deny that I do write things to be read by others, so maybe that’s close enough. I had two thoughts.

          First, is the discussion of narcissism. While I’m sure there are authors that suffer from this and every other form of mental illness imaginable, I’m not willing to make the jump from a few examples or anecdotal evidence to assuming any correlation between the two. Apparently roughly 1% of the population are narcissistic enough for the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder to fit. If authors/writers have a higher percentage (say 3 or 4 times as much) that might indicate something, but not the picture the original article appears to paint. If it were anymore wide spread that that I can’t believe a study hasn’t uncovered that.

          I’d suggest that narcissism, which is an obsession with yourself, isn’t where the writer’s obsession is. I think the obsession is with being “heard.” I’m just one data point, but Melissa’s theory that someone gravitates to writing because they feel it is the voice that serves them best rang true for me and whatever it is that I do writing-wise, just as it is what Melissa’s self examination found her motives to be.

          1. Thanks, Al. I heard a friend once describe a woman I would call extremely narcissistic; he said she sat in a corner of the room like a black hole, sucking all the energy out of the room. I thought that was a very apt description and one that could apply to only a very small segment of society, so I think that 1% is accurate. If most of us writers were these emotional black holes, I don’t think we’d ever band together to create the fabulous support groups we have.

          2. I think the most important notion missed by the author of the original article is: narcissists and megalomaniacs will use whatever outlet possible to get the attention they want and need – and what better way to force their views on the world (and tell the world how great they are) than in a book? That doesn’t mean that authors are narcissists – that just means narcissists wrote books. There is a clear distinction between the two.

  2. Hmm … maybe that’s my problem. I’m not crazy enough.

    Bet ya never thought that sentence could ever be used in conjunction with me, did ya?

  3. As E.L. Doctorow said, writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia. 🙂 Forget about unhappy. Writers are narcissistic? The author of that article should have checked a dictionary before accusing a bunch of people who are unusually interested in human behavior of being narcissistic. Last time I heard, narcissistic means having an undue fascination with oneself. Agree, Melissa, hogwash.

    1. J.P., thanks for the support. As Lynne detailed in her original response, the definition of narcissism seemed a far cry from her own personality and that of so many of us writers. I LOVE the bit about writing being socially acceptable schizophrenia–we may hear voices, but rather than do what they say, we just write them down! Thanks for the chuckle.

  4. Good thoughts, and a far more insightful theory than the original. My take on it dovetails in Melissa’s theory, and refute the original author as well.

    Many writers find their voice on the page. The ones who persevere and succeed at it do so because:

    1.they have the mental strength to withstand isolation without serious emotional damage, not because they are drawn to it.

    2. have an increased sense of empathy –a knack for experiencing the world from other viewpoints, and a talent for expressing those experiences– that is the polar opposite of narcissism.

    That’s my two bits worth, anyway, adjusted for inflation:

  5. K.M., good points, ones I hadn’t thought of. I think your No. 1 has value because the majority of people are extroverts while so many writers are introverts and therefore enjoy solitude rather than chafe at it (i.e. serious emotional damage). And your No. 2 point is well taken; most of us writers can write credibly about people unlike ourselves, putting ourselves in their shoes and empathizing even when our characters do things we would never do. Excellent points. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for condensing the concepts into a form that sparked discussion. That original article made me so *itchy* that I couldn’t pin down my own objections.

  6. Where’s the valid scientific research behind the lump assumptions at Thought Catalog?

    Are there no happy authors who enjoy the company of others? In my opinion, it’s a mistake to generalize about any group of people. I resent being branded as a specific personality type because I choose to be an author.

    1. Exactly why so many of us got our hackles up, Kathy. No studies, no facts, no figures, just a broad brush pronouncement. Obviously from the comments here, we all beg to differ. There’s a whole lot of us happy authors out here!

  7. Melissa,
    Simply put – your response was beautiful and literally brought tears to my eyes.
    I so appreciate what you wrote because you were candid about the affect my words had on you.
    But then you also went on to invite me to keep involved… because you had learned something.
    In my opinion, these are the revealing remarks of a creator looking to continue to evolve.

    My prior experience with commenting specifically on blogs for indies unlimited has been very disconcerting. I have been getting the emails from indies unlimited alerting me to the different blog posts for I believe about a year… and from the very start, all the way to last week, I have found those who post, even if they have something interesting to say, are patronized in the same way with bloggers who have nothing to say. In other words, everyone is responding to the blogs like they are getting postcards sent from a relative or friend. Their responses are generally stuff like “so glad to see you thinking so great…” “Nice to hear from you on this important subject…”; “You’ve opened my eyes…” etc.
    Poets writing only for other poets might be an unavoidable reality of the marketplace. But writers writing without any meaningful feedback suggests something that will not be creatively sustaining in the long run for those who really want to reach out with their words.
    I think the problem is that everything changed so fast.
    Writers now have the opportunity to really be writers in the marketplace. Not just serial query writers. For the first time writers don’t have watch as their work is filtered through a select few who would then select the few who see their work published and consumed by the greater public.
    Right now is the greatest opportunity ever for a writer to reach the readers he deserves with his/her work.
    But what I see with indies unlimited is a lot of people writing and a lot of people responding that is often times a downside of the “writer fellowship” – something you see when local writers every third Thursday of the month get together to motivate and encourage each other to “just keep writing.” Critical response is usually left in the parking lot.
    To a certain extent, that’s wonderful. And I certainly believe that aspect of writing fellowship should be abandoned, nor should it stop being an important part of the community of indies unlimited.
    But in every revolution there comes a time when movement must evolve — those who got the change, now need to own the change they brought. And what I’m not seeing enough of with indies unlimited is something that goes beyond encouraging and motivational catch phrases.
    I’m talking about critical feedback. Feedback that begins with the purpose of not tearing down, but in building up…
    But I don’t want to sugarcoat it – sometimes it means tearing down if that is what is necessary to build it back up.
    None of that appears likely in what I’ve been reading on indies unlimited. It certainly appears to be a great place for writing fellowship, but it needs to be more. Assuming everyone behaves, there can be real value if those who respond to posts are not just phoning in encouragement. Forget that you are going to blog next month and you want the support… you should be wanting the feedback, critical or whatever. Encouraging… but critical is a good thing.
    One without the other is not a good thing. But I will use this to segue into my final point – at least critical without the encouragement prepares a writer to be a better writer if they take the critical feedback as something worth considering. Encouragement without critical response ends up just continuing a very non-productive course of giving everyone ribbons for competing which leads many to believe they are on the same plane as everyone else… no matter how hard they tried or what they have learned.

    Melissa: “I would still write if I were never published; I would still write if I never sold a book. I would still write if no one else ever read a word. I actually don’t choose to write for any reason except that I can’t not write.”

    The above are beautiful words, and I respect them. I truly do. But you and I, and I’m sure others who read this understand that there is a difference between writing for pleasure, good health, and creative fulfillment. I believe like you probably believe — everyone should write, like everyone should exercise – it’s good for your long term health.
    But the site is indie unlimited and I thought it should be about people writing to be read. Not read just by friends and family… but by readers no one has ever met, or may ever meet in their lifetime. It means connecting with words… stories… a voice that reaches out and has someone out there say –“I’m excited about taking a part of my day to read what this person has written.”
    If that is the goal of those who check into indie unlimited then they should know that the goal of writing for an audience of readers requires more than just writing for pleasure, or to discover who you are, or to keep track of something that has occurred in your life. It requires a craft and an art to writing in a way that will make what you write relevant… or meaningful to other people.
    And it also requires getting better at the art and the craft, which means a type of dedication, discipline and perseverance that will usually separate those who write for friends and family from those who want to be read by a larger audience… a readership that can be damning at times, but also fulfilling in a way that, if they respond to your work, the creative satisfaction will make any patronizing person phoning in their response to something you’ve written on indie unlimited meaningless, even insulting. Why insulting?
    Because you want readers to take your writing seriously. It does not matter if what you write is romance stories, hardboiled detective novels, or something you work long and hard on because you have dreams of it winning a Pulitzer Prize.
    As a writer, you want to be taken seriously.
    And that is why I had tears in my eyes when I read your response to my second post.
    Your response said to me, you want to be taken seriously.
    Melissa, you took what I wrote seriously. Thank you!

    1. Richard,

      Whew! You aren’t going to let us here at Indies get away with anything, are you?

      First, thank you for your comments about my response; as you could tell, it was from the heart and I meant every word. You’re right in that we don’t often get into full-blown arguments here, but there are times. I was surprised when I wrote my post about J. K. Rowling’s feelings about the mismatch between Hermoine and Ron that it elicited such a debate about the pairing, much more so than about the process I was actually writing about. Some of our regulars (like Lin Robinson) can really let loose with both barrels and there’s no sugar-coating to it. But on the whole, we do try to accentuate the positive.

      I can’t deny that we at Indies have a wonderful fellowship. I can tell you that I have never felt at home as much as I do in this group—ever in my life. I’ve never felt as understood, as accepted, as valued, as I do here. Whether my cohorts here write novels, non-fiction, poetry or greeting cards, they know me, the writer, like no one else. That fellowship is the most validating environment I could ever imagine. It doesn’t surprise me that our mutual respect and support bleed through into our posts and comments, and I don’t see any need to apologize for that.

      As for critical responses, you’re right—we see less of those than the other kind. I’m not sure what the reasons are for that. Maybe because all of us at IU are doing our level best to help indie writers avoid the pitfalls we’ve all experienced, our readers are more willing to give us the benefit of the doubt and not take a wrench to our discussions. Or at least when they do, they do it respectfully, thoughtfully, not degenerating into emotional attacks. I have a sense that our writers and readers are all pretty darn intelligent folk, able to think critically and discuss issues without name-calling or hair-pulling.

      I would like to think that any writer, once they get to this level, can separate their egos from their work and shelve the one while they polish the other, and of course that means receiving negative feedback, considering it, holding it up to the story or post and being open to the possibility that someone else may have discovered a flaw or found a better way to say something. I don’t think there’s any place at this level for the thin-skinned. If we’re going to put your work out there for the public to see, we’ve got to expect that some are not going to like it. While your original comment set me back a bit, it did force me to re-examine what I’d written and that, to me, is never a bad thing. I won’t say I will always agree with negative feedback, but I will always consider it.

      Which leads to being taken seriously. Sure, I want that. It may seem oxymoronic to say that I would still write if no one else ever read a word because writing is communication and communication implies interaction between two (at least) people. There’s a knife-edge balancing point here between feeling confident in my own ability and feeling validated by my readers. I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant, but I don’t check my sales reports every day, I don’t check my book pages on Amazon, waiting and praying for good reviews; I write what I like and I read my own books because I enjoy the stories, I like the characters. But that said, I am thrilled when a reader gives my book a good review or sends me an e-mail saying how much they enjoyed it. I don’t live for that—I live for writing—but I value it as much as knowing I’ve crafted a good story. It’s a very odd dance between two very different partners.

      Does Indies offer education about the art and the craft of writing? I believe it does. Does it provide every type of profound growth experience for writers? Probably not. There is only so much that a blog/discussion format can do, but I do believe that we offer a topnotch knowledge base, an open forum for discussion and positive encouragement for all writers. Granted, this may not be everything that a writer needs to reach their potential, but it’s a heck of a good start.

      Now I think I’m going to go sit in front of the TV and watch the test pattern for a while. You’ve made me think entirely too hard!

      1. Melissa,
        I have just deleted this sentence three times, and I don’t like editing myself. 🙂
        If it wasn’t for the IU posse, especially Kat, who took me under her wing on LI, I would not be where I am right now, writing stories I love with three new projects on the horizon. I do not have the experience to compare this group of writers with others. Are all writers not this supportive?
        I think there have been lively discussions on many posts. There are times when I’ve read a post and left a “Great post” just to let one of my fellow authors know I read their piece. We all do this, and it’s wonderful.
        I’m not sure what type of critical comments can be made here in a box that will have a dramatic effect on the growth of the writer of the post. The subject and angle of the piece should be what is discussed and debated. I always welcome constructive feedback, but that is what private messaging is for, right?
        My own personality, extrovert vs introvert, is a conundrum. I spend a lot of time with my athlete friends, yet I crave the time alone to write. I find the time away from my desk fills the glass, and time spent in front of the keyboard empties it. I always thought I was alone in having scenarios and characters in my head. When I realized that I was a typical writer I was relieved.
        Thoughtful post.

  8. Oh, hell. I missed everything, didn’t I? Dagnabit.

    I wonder if I still have my receipt for this pitchforks and torches? And I suppose I can use the tar to put the feathers back on the chickens, can’t I?

    😉

  9. The problem I see here from you, Richard Finney, is that you seem to think it has to be all or one. Yes, you are correct. Sometimes the clash of differing opinions brings about the spark of truth. And sometimes that is a positive thing. But I’m with Lois. IU is about much more than critique for the purposes of enlightenment. It is also about providing a safe place where those of us who are less than confident or well known can get a high five from fellow authors facing the same or similar problems or having similar thoughts they wish to share. In those cases a “Great post” comment lets that person know you read what they had to say and applauded them for saying it. If there is nothing to critique a word of support can go a long way. It can even make the difference between continuing to write or giving up and retreating to isolation.

    I write. I hope people read what I write and that they like it. But I am about as far from a narcissist as possible. I ought to know. I was brought up by one. It was no picnic.

  10. Lois, Yvonne, I agree–I think IU provides amazing support and encouragement, both for us contributors and for every writer who ever stops by. This may not be the perfect vehicle for an in-depth critical discussion (altho I think we’re doing pretty well here!), but what we do and how we do it is important, necessary and fundamental to the betterment of writing. I think there’s no shame in taking a positive approach. I knew a woman who did a writers’ workshop for people who had never dreamed of publishing. She asked people to read aloud what they wrote, but would allow NO criticism, only encouragement. At first I thought that seemed very one-sided and fluffy, almost useless as there was no grit against which to sharpen the sword (as Richard notes). But after seeing those peoples’ faces, seeing the confidence, seeing the satisfaction, seeing the joy in doing what they were doing, I was a convert. She had something like 32 members in her group, and 28 of them published their work. Was their work stellar? I have no idea. It might not have been, but it didn’t matter. They wrote. They published. They did what they’d always dreamed of doing. And the positive encouragement gave them the guts to do it. You can’t beat that.

  11. I like Meyer am very late to this party. This has been one of the most thoughtful and emotional comment strings I’ve ever seen in IU.

    IU serves many different purposes for many different types of writers. I’ve been providing content to IU for almost two years, actually, we might even be beyond two years now. I agree with the comments above as to the role of IU. It is not intended to be a critique group, however, when discussion warrants it, we’ve had some very intelligent back and forth, with plenty of room for differing opinions.

    What the public “reader” of IU doesn’t see is what happens after a post. I’ve been privately messaged many times about what I’ve written, many times to ask for help in a particular process or platform. I and many others at IU have literally opened their processes and spent innumerable hours helping other writers that have requested help. Why? Because we all came from or come from the same place. We love to write and we want to help others find their way without making the same mistakes that we made along the way.

    I’ve seen Kat, Rich and many other contributors to IU donate their time and energy to help others … fixing problems, helping with formatting, editing photos and on and on… many times amounting what others would charge hundreds of dollars for the same services.

    Yes, IU is a different place. If, highly conflicting points of view, designed to elicit a response while not even believing what they themselves are saying is what you are looking for, then go find the narcissistic bloggers who are out for the attention and nothing more.

    If you are looking for a positive environment that offers the proper level of debate, criticism, encouragement, How-to, fellowship and more, then keep subscribing to the posts. After all, you’re in control of your unsubscribe button.

    Oh, and … Great post, Melissa.

      1. Thanks, Jim; excellent points. There are many layers to IU, and while again I say it may not be all things to all writers, it’s head and shoulders above any other group that I’m aware of. Maybe what this comes down to is a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty argument. IU fills a need for me that I never even knew I had before I wandered into the fold.

  12. Melissa, Yvonne, Jim, Lois, and Laurie, (Sorry if I missed someone),

    I acknowledge the responses to what I wrote and can see you are unified in your response that IU is a great place to be for your writing needs.

    Clearly nothing I wrote resonated with anyone.

    I will re-evaluate my thoughts on the situation while continuing to look forward to all of your views and thoughts on future issues.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond…

    1. Hi Richard,
      I have always enjoyed an academic discussion and hope you will continue to participate on my posts and other here at IU. Discussion encourages growth. 🙂
      Have a lovely evening.

      1. Hi, Richard,

        I’m not sure what you wanted to resonate with us, but it clearly seemed like you had an agenda. We do often respectfully disagree on posts, and some have been quite contentious. It is possible to combine a supportive atmosphere and differing viewpoints. Enjoy the diversity. 😀

    2. I’ll admit, I’m confused. I’m an admitted introvert/hermit, but when I find useful information I bookmark and share it. If it’s not helpful to me personally, I still tend to share it because it may help someone else. If I disagree with information I sometimes respond, sometimes not, depending on the forum and how important the discrepancy is to me (faulty information is a sticking point for me – that, I’ll challenge).

      IU’s purpose is to provide information on all things writing/publishing. Writing, marketing, publishing, formatting – it’s all covered. There are tons of feedback/critique groups out there (I belong to one), but that’s not what I expect from IU (it’s actually a nice change from being critiqued!). I rely on IU for information and instruction (and an occasional laugh – plus, the free marketing opportunities don’t hurt, either).

  13. Sorry we didn’t agree with you and aren’t contentious, squabbling asshats like the populations of most on-line writing forums. Very sorry. I try to be as disruptive as I can, but you know how it is: There’s always something else to do, something else to write, something funny to see or something goofy to Photoshop. And if I need to photoshop something, then I’ll probably have to go to YouTube for a tutorial. And then I make something so friggin’ cool-looking that I forget what I was trying to be disruptive about to begin with.

    I think I need to talk to my doctor about getting some of that ritalin they give hyper kids. .

  14. I have to say, this has been one of the most interesting discussions I have seen in a long time. Thanks so much to everyone for putting their 2 cents in. I’d just like to invite you to stay tuned; IU will have a different angle on the narcissism issue next Thursday! See you there.

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