I’ve come across a fair few writer stereotypes. The one where no writer can survive without a ridiculous amount of caffeine. The one where we’re all awkward, introverted, anti-social shut-ins. The one where we’re just generally a bit weird.
And while I disagree to some extent with all of those stereotypes (except maybe the weird one, assuming that “weird” here means “an individual, because no two humans are the same, so for everyone to subscribe to the same social norms would be ridiculous”), the one that I think I disagree with most is the one that says we’re all tortured souls who convert pain into creativity.
It isn’t just limited to prose writers, either. You’ve probably heard it about poets, artists, and musicians too – I know I have. Basically, if you’re creative, it’s probably because you’re suffering.
All stereotypes exist because for some members of the group, it is true. I know I’ve heard a couple of people (actually, come to think of it, only one, but I’m sure there are more) say that they write the most when they’re feeling down – they channel their negative emotions into their art, but when they don’t have any negative emotions, either they are too busy out having fun to write, or they simply don’t feel inspired without those negative emotions, or some mixture of the two. Which is fair enough for some people. I can’t criticise other people’s writing processes, and if that how they work, then that’s how they work.
One of the problems I have with this stereotype is that it simply doesn’t ring true for me. Also, while I have heard of people for whom this stereotype does ring true, I don’t think I’ve ever met any of those people. And having attended my school’s creative writing club for several years and attended a week-long creative writing residential with complete strangers before being very involved in my university’s Creative Writing Society, I have met a good amount of fellow writers. I may be wrong, but as far as I know, this has not been the case for any of them.
This isn’t to say that the stereotype of writers having depression and other conditions isn’t true. Anyone of any profession can find themselves facing mental health problems, so it should be no surprise that writers aren’t an exception. I found several articles and essays (including this one, this one, and this one) that discuss the reasons why some writers are more likely to be depressed than people with other professions. However, not only do none of them imply that being depressed is necessary for creativity, but they actually say that simultaneously, depression and creativity are not compatible at all.
Personally, I write the most when I’m in a good mood. I find that I’m more inspired, and more passionate about my project. Sometimes, I do write when I’m feeling down, but I don’t need those negative emotions in order to be inspired. In fact, if I do write when I’m not feeling so great, it’s either because I know that I’ll thank myself later for trying to be productive (even though what I’ve written will probably be noticeably mechanical), or because I’m venting and trying to find a way to articulate how I feel. The latter is firstly because I find that getting my thoughts out of my head helps me to feel better, and secondly because if I can’t describe how I feel, others will find it very difficult to know how to help me feel better. Usually, the venting and attempt at articulating my thoughts and feelings comes out either as bad poetry or as formless, page-long rants that jump between chains of thoughts, go off on nonsensical tangents, and leave question after question unanswered.
Basically, I never write my best when I am feeling down.
For one thing, when I’m feeling anxious, it’s quite difficult to sit myself down and put my anxiety to one side to focus on serious writing. And when I’m feeling what I suppose can be described as depressed, I do not want to do anything at all. I do not feel like I have the energy to do anything remotely physical – which definitely counts as something as small as typing. I also do not feel like I have the energy to think about things, which writing definitely requires.
For another thing, writing actually makes me feel better. If I’m starting to feel down but manage to get myself in the writing zone, thinking about my characters and their situation is likely to wake my mind and my emotions back up. Once that has happened, then I’m probably feeling inspired, which means that I’ll write a lot and be more likely to be happy about what I’ve written. And then I get a sense of achievement, further cementing my good mood. So not only can writing bring back my energy and motivation, but it can make me feel really good about myself.
In short, the notion that writers need negativity to thrive is completely and utterly wrong for me. And I don’t really think it rings true for the majority of writers, either, judging both from writers I know and from the articles cited earlier.
There’s another problem that I have with this stereotype, though, and it’s more serious. I feel like it glorifies mental illness in the name of art. I feel like it says: hey, look! This person is depressed, but it’s okay, because they’re an artist – their depression is their muse! Look at them, staring off into the sunset being all sad – how romantic!
No. It’s not romantic. It’s painful and that person should get help. And I can only hope that writers and other artists who happen to struggle with mental illness don’t have their concerns swept under the rug or ignored because “if you didn’t have your mental illness, you wouldn’t be able to be creative!” I can only hope that people don’t see an artist of any sort suffering and just accept that as the norm because they’re “bound” to struggle with mental illness because of their creative nature. No matter how creative someone is, do not brush off anything that they do or say that hints that they are struggling. Maybe they are one of the few who does take inspiration from their own pain, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t learn to find inspiration from other places and it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t get help. But the likelihood is that they are not one of these people, and they do not want to be struggling, and they do want your support.
I have no idea if this stereotype has actually had this affect or harmed anyone in this way. I certainly hope it hasn’t. But I see the potential for it and it bothers me.
Probably the most harm I can see this stereotype causing is to young writers. I remember coming across the writers-drink-lots-of-coffee stereotype for the first time when I was about thirteen or fourteen. I thought: “Oh, do writers do that? Huh. Should I be doing it too?” And that’s the only reason I even like any form of coffee today: I thought that, as a writer, I should drink coffee. Which is relatively harmless, but still silly. But I think you see what I’m getting at here. I worry that someone like my thirteen-year-old self will come across this stereotype and think that they’re not a real writer because they aren’t suffering, and either they will stop writing, or it will plant a seed in the back of their mind that will grow into self-doubt and eventually become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It may sound unlikely written like that, but to me it sounds like a very possible starting point for a slow and steady (and subconscious) decline.
So I very much hope that writers who are new, young, or impressionable know the following:
The only thing you need to do to be a writer is want to write. You do not need to drink coffee, or be a recluse, or have a mental illness. You do not need to fit any writerly stereotypes to be accepted by the writing community. You do not need to pass a test or tick a certain number of stereotype boxes. Because when they say, “writers do this thing!”, they mean some writers, not all writers, so do not see it as another requirement that you must fulfill in order to be a writer. If you write, then you are a writer, and that is good enough. You are good enough. Just keep being yourself, keep writing, and keep having fun with it.
To sum up: no, being a writer does not mean that I’m sad. Yes, I might be sad and a writer, but being sad is not inspiring, it’s tiring, and I probably won’t be being creative while I’m sad. No, being a sad writer is not romantic, sad writers don’t like being sad in the same way that the majority of the population doesn’t like being sad. And you most definitely do not need to be sad to be a writer. In fact, I can wholly recommend being happy and being a writer. It’s much better, I promise.
So please stop it with the sad writer stereotype.
This was supposed to be a short, fun post about a pet peeve, but it’s ended up turning quite serious and philosophical. Turns out there’s more reason for me disliking this particular stereotype than I thought! Anyway, I hope it was an interesting read. Feel free to add your thoughts – or your own least favourite writer stereotype – in the comments!