"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Breaking News: Writing is Hard! by Dennis Palumbo Featured in the April/May Issue of Suspense Magazine

Work the problem---don't make yourself the problem.


As a psychotherapist who specializes in working with creative people, I'm often asked to speak at writing conferences. At one such recent event, an audience member stood up and asked a question.

"When I write," he said, "I feel like I don't always know what I'm doing. I go over stuff, then I cross stuff out, then I try something else...I feel like I'm losing it sometimes. What does that mean?"

I shrugged. "It means you're a writer."

"But I spend a lot of time worrying, never sure whether or not the damned thing is working..."

"Sounds like writing to me."

This did not erase the perplexed look on his face.

"I don't know about that." He glanced around the crowded room. "I mean, I heard the other day on the radio that we're all crazy."

"Who's crazy?"

"Us. Writers. Artists in general. This shrink was on some talk show on NPR, and he said it's been proven that we're all bipolar."

"I'm confused. Do you mean that because you're a writer you're bipolar, or does being bipolar cause you to be a writer?"

"He said it could be one or the other, but it could be both.What do you think?"

"I think I'm gonna skip the next NPR pledge drive."

Apparently, it's in fashion again: the notion that the creative impulse, with its occasional emotional difficulties, is merely the product of a psychological disorder. It must be, the argument goes, given how much emotional turmoil, stress and disordered mood is often associated with it.

The current favorite diagnosis for artists, particularly writers, is bipolar disorder---what used to be called manic-depression.

In fact, there's a movie currently in release---based on Kay Jamison's influential book, Touched With Fire---that reinforces this very concept. But the idea that writers are of a single and highly neurotic type goes all the way back to---who else?---Freud. Later, in the 1950's, a fellow named Edmund Bergler (credited, by the way, with inventing the term "writer's block") wrote a number of books on the subject. His explanation for the reason that writers write? "Psychic masochism."

Of course, the idea that the artistic impulse is inevitably the product of a psychological condition is not new. History is filled with examples of the tormented artist stricken with melancholy, going on drunken binges, cutting off an ear, and generally behaving---as we therapists like to say---inappropriately. But to infer that some kind of "craziness" underlies creative endeavor, or, even worse, that the impulse to create is itself an indicator of some clinical condition is just plain wrong.

Dennis Palumbo
First, to whatever extent a therapist believes in the validity of diagnostic
labels like "bipolar," one thing is clear: Labels exist for the convenience of the labeler. How helpful they are to the artistic person is debatable.

Second, claiming that the creative impulse comes from any one source---whether mania, psychosis or the moon---is both ludicrous and potentially harmful. Ludicrous because it's oversimplified and inconsistent with the lived experience of countless artists. Potentially harmful because it undervalues the mysterious, indefinable aspects of the creative act.

I'm reminded of a quote by H.L. Mencken, who said, "There is always an easy solution to every human problem---neat, plausible and wrong." The tendency to see a writer's creative struggles solely in terms of evidencing a psychological problem betrays a profound narrowness in scope, imagination, and appreciation for the hidden ways of the artistic heart.

The point is, yes, perhaps Van Gogh did suffer from symptoms that we might label bipolar. But what is also true---and certainly more important---is that he was supremely talented. Both facts can co-exist, without one necessarily causing the other.

Which brings me back to that worried audience member. Because the truth is, he's not alone in his concern about what his creative struggles mean. Many writer patients in my therapy practice wonder about the same thing, given the level of anxiety, self-doubt and fear of shameful self-exposure that accompanies the writing of most scripts, plays, essays or novels.

"If I'm plagued with anxiety," he or she says, "doesn't that say something about the quality of what I'm writing? Let's face it: if I was any good, I wouldn't be going through this agony. If this story really worked, I wouldn't be bumping up against so many technical problems, narrative glitches, inconsistencies in some of the characters. Right?"

Wrong. You're bumping up against technical problems, narrative glitches and issues with some of your characters for a very simple reason. WRITING IS HARD.

This isn't to say that writing isn't often accompanied by anxiety, manifesting in a dozen different ways, from sleepless nights to procrastination to substance abuse. And these psychological aspects ought to be addressed. But these symptoms---and the self-recriminating meanings we give them---are not the reason that writing is difficult. Because whether or not a writer suffers from these symptoms, in small measure or to a crippling extent, the reality is that telling a good story with intelligence, emotional truth and narrative complexity is hard. Really, really hard.

Let me put it another way: what I sometimes tell my writer patients, and what I'm trying to stress here, is that an artist's job is to create. When you create anything---whether a script or a novel, whether painting a landscape or writing a song---you're bound to run into problems. Problems inherent in the doing of the task. So your real, pragmatic, fundamental job is to work on these problems. Solve the difficulties. Answer the nagging questions.

In other words, I believe you should, as a creative person, work the problem, instead of making yourself the problem. You and your psychological issues aside, problems with your work are inherent in doing that work.

Case in point: one of my friends is a Buddhist monk, whose composure and equilibrium is, in my experience of him, a model of psychological well-being. He's also a poet. The last time I spoke with him, he complained about this long poem he was laboring over. "Man," he said, "writing poetry's a bitch."

Note that he didn't say anything self-recriminating about his talent, his character, his work ethic, or his puny place in the pantheon of poets. He didn't see his struggles and artistic frustration as evidence of a failure in himself. Or a reflection of his neurotic insecurity. He merely stated that writing poetry is hard.

So, once again: when you come up against some difficulty in your writing, work the problem---don't make yourself the problem. You may have issues to be addressed, but the difficulties of writing are inherent in the task, not a reflection of your failings as either a person or a writer.

Remember, writing is hard. Writing anything is hard. Especially if you're trying your best.

Which reminds me of an old Hollywood story. Years ago, back in the days of the studio system, a roomful of contract writers were going crazy trying to solve an Act Two problem in a script they were doing. After a week of teeth-gnashing and garment-rending, a new young writer was brought into the room. In a matter of minutes, he hit upon the solution. To which one of the exhausted old veterans mumbled, "Sure he solved it. He didn't know how hard it was."


Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (MY FAVORITE YEAR; WELCOME BACK, KOTTER, etc.), Dennis Palumbo is now a licensed psychotherapist and author of the Daniel Rinaldi mystery series. More info at www.dennispalumbo.com (link is external)

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