Staying Sane as an (aspiring) Writer

I love this video

It’s ultimate conclusion is actually about our own sense of self, which is pretty important, but is very obviously literally applicable to writing.

For those that couldn’t follow Hank’s frenetic rambling or who loathe to follow such links, the relevant aspect of his argument is that sharing our creations is terrifying, largely because once you put something out there you have no control over what other people think of your creation (and barely any control of what they do in relation to it either) and indeed, the rest of the world has no obligation or need to be compassionate about said creation.

In general I think that writing is not the ideal hobby for sanity. I realize that many find writing cathartic or for whatever reason satisfying in its own right. However for those that want to have public success, whether through traditional publishing or some other accolade the journey is fraught with cognitive distress.

Why is this?

Firstly writing is a highly solitary task. Yes you can have groups, critique partners and so forth, however I would argue that ultimately its between you and the page. It’s also a very cerebral task, putting imagination to paper. This is one of those ‘trust me I’m a psychologist’ statements, but truthfully spending long periods alone inside your own head is not considered a recipe for mental wellness.

Why else? Well this is more my opinion but writing is a very all or nothing kind of deal. In sports there are many levels of achievement (not to mention fitness and social benefits) same with music. People might disagree but I believe that writing doesn’t offer much progressive reward. Either you’re published or not, either your writing produces a mass of likes and shares or it doesn’t. That has changed slightly with online type sharing where there are many communities who are perhaps willing to read with less judgement. Ultimately though there is a high bar to reach for writing success and in adjunct to this issue there is a lot of uncertainty. I know that my musician skills are not enough to allow me to play cello professionally, I know I can’t be an Olympic athlete. Can I produce good enough writing to get published, maybe one day if I pen a publishable story. An odd thing about the human condition is that certainty can be more relieving than uncertainty, even if its negative certainty.

Finally writing is tough for sanity because good work requires good feedback, and the sad thing is about the world is that taken wrong feedback is devastating rather than helpful (see video link above).

So what can one do?

Note: I’ve said sanity for aspiring authors in the title because quite frankly I don’t know what successful authors struggle with, if they struggle, and nor do I know what would be helpful. Much of the advice herewith is in regards to the challenge of becoming successful not dealing with said hot potato once in your hands.

Separate yourself from your writing

Now this is one of those points that is easier said than done, so I will waffle a little on the subject. Many writers see their work as an extension of themselves, like a child, or a limb. Consequently any criticism tends to be perceived as personal attack, and about as actionable as such.  This is a perspective usually maintained by the fact that writing often requires very personal exploration, has large time/effort commitments and more often than not many words stand in as representation for an imagined story in our heads.

The problem is writing isn’t actually any of those. For example I could literally write my life story, and perceive the manuscript as being my life BUT it is in the end just words, maybe coming from a very personal place, but words nonetheless.

More often than not writers who create highly personal work, and struggle with feedback, haven’t actually produced good writing but have produced a series of cues for their own imaginations, but go forth as if the writing was a slice of their own cognition. Feedback on your imagination is not particularly helpful, or pleasant or possible to improve. But its also not just about feedback, some writers become so anxious of the future of their children that they don’t put their work out in the world, or sometimes even produce any words at all.

I’m not saying its going to be easy everything but acknowledging that writing is just words, not a cross section of your soul is important in maintaining writerly sanity.

Keep perspective

Reading various writer blogs and forums is not always a positive experience. I still remember in younger days starting my writing journey and assuming that not that many people would be writing books these days and the biggest hurdle was just getting enough words together in a cool enough setting would be enough for publication. Nope. Sometimes its seems like everyone over the age of 30 has a book the go and a fair whack of younger folk too. Even published authors have a competitive time of it with the shear wealth of material available for readers.

I notice a fair number of people resort to a sort of defeatist thinking about the subject, treating publishing like a lottery. I disagree with the reality and the helpfulness of this. Many agents and editors have chimed in on this argument and pointed out that yes there are large volumes of manuscripts appearing everyday on their desks, but the reality is that the books that get published are the results of hard and smart work. Yes some people will get lucky, perhaps hitting the fad nail on the head, or merely being in the right spot on the slush pile for an agent to see them first thing after a coffee break. But worrying about luck won’t help one’s sanity.

A small caveat, I’m just selling one perspective here that I believe will protect one’s sanity. That is the approach that working hard, smart and consistently will reach the goal. I know that some people aim high and delude themselves into real success, but such strategies are like perverted pick-up lines in bars, maybe 1% successful and 99% resulting in a quick slap.

Keep an open mind

I’m going to be quick about this one because I suspect I have waffled on too long to maintain attention. Writing is an odd gig, language conventions change over time, cliche’s come and go in popularity as do genre tastes. It’s hard to know what you don’t know and most criticism and feedback will blindside you. Being flexible in your approach and not judging yourself or your writing too rigidly is a bonus for both your writing and your sanity. Many writers  but especially people early in their journey worry about having to compromise their work to be successful. I disagree with that thinking now (unless the actually mean something like turning a black protagonist white for popularity’s sake) in that similar to seeing our work as extensions of ourselves we often see it very rigidly too, not realizing that the goal is to produce words that stand on their own as a story, not produce cues that make us feel good (of course hopefully both). Getting around all the writerly advice, fear feedback, and the rest requires a brain a bit like a ninja.

What sort of strategies do you use to keep the crazy at bay (or do you just embrace it?) let me know with a comment.


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