Scared Straight: Writers and The New Happiness

July 27, 2011 | 9 books mentioned 37 10 min read

July 1 marked midsummer, and I found myself finally writing with some tailwind.

But school was out in mid-May. I had declined a couple of teaching opportunities (that is, income opportunities that I might wisely have accepted) in favor of the blank slate of a writing summer. I told myself that I needed the full days – writing, reading, research, rest – to make headway on my second novel. I needed to make progress; I’d been spinning my wheels for months; it was taking too damn long to “find” this book’s voice and shape.

I’d set goals and schedules. I went away for a few weeks, to a quiet rural place. I came back and started a mornings-at-the-library routine.

By late June, I’d gotten very little done.

Anxiety plagued me. Restlessness prevailed. I didn’t sleep well. I had tumultuous dreams where family members and people from my youth humiliated me over and over again. My chronic back pain became even more acute. My brain was foggy, my mood dark. I smoked and drank more than usual. My skin broke out (acne, really? At 38?), my teeth were yellowing. Generally speaking I wasn’t well. My mind, my spirit, my body, were all conspiring to thwart the productivity I had so coveted and envisioned. I generated words, filled a spiral notebook (I write drafts by hand), but I knew I’d likely trash most of it. Then the tailspin started. The voice in my head said, You can’t do this, you have neither the talent nor the mental strength (you have to have both, after all, and if you don’t, you should at least be able to fake one or the other). Look how you’ve shitted away all this precious time. Look at what a fraud you are. I started to wonder about a lot of things – life-purpose and self-worth sorts of things – that I’d rather not wonder about.

I didn’t want to see or talk to anyone, especially writers. I was embarrassed. Every so often I’d read lit blogs or log on to Facebook. Everyone seemed so happy and healthy and productive. Photos of newborns and kids on bikes, foodie meals, exotic travel; links to politically progressive articles (or regressive ones meant to incite our outrage), status updates thanking friends and spouses for their various kinds of wonderfulness, announcements about awards and publications with ensuing congratulatory comments.

The tailspin continued; a feeling of isolation deepened.

Where were all of the brooding, wretched, mentally unstable artists?

I’ve been noticing for a while that health and happiness – a balanced, stable life – are “in.” The trend has been building for some time, and seems to coincide roughly with my generation, i.e., Gen X and younger, the college-educated children of baby boomers. What I find most interesting is that the trend seems to make no exception for writers and artists, historically the vanguard of counterculture.

There is a sense that we’ve been scared straight. Whereas previous generations of accomplished writers were awash in alcoholism and cigarettes, sexual-romantic openness (these days known as “promiscuity”), spiritual misery, and financial ruin, today’s young writers are more likely to faithfully drink 8-10 glasses of water daily, be married and/or monogamous (definitely married if there are children), get 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night (maybe even on a memory foam mattress), and have a decent credit score.  Joan Acocella wrote in a 2004 New Yorker article about writers’ block:

In my observation, American writers today drink much less than their predecessors. I asked a psychoanalyst what they do instead, to take the edge off. “Exercise,” he said.

So sharp is the cultural turn toward health, that in an artists’ mecca like New York City, you can no longer smoke outside in public spaces without incurring a fine of $50 (the law seemed to pass with barely a shrug from New Yorkers).

Marriage and the nuclear family are increasingly standard among the young creative set. Recently I was talking with a young woman in her 20’s, the college-educated daughter of lefty artists (who raised her together but never married), and she mentioned how many weddings she’s gone to in the last few years. I asked her if most of her peers assumed they would get married for life and have children; she said, “Yeah, definitely. People are really fatigued from all the divorce and liberal weirdness they had to live through.” Her response interested me, because while the STD 80’s and tax benefits might be cited as drivers of the monogamy/marriage trend, she cited something more in the realm of the psycho-emotional.

To me, it’s an intriguing, and bizarre, progressive-regressive turnabout, like a puppy chasing its tail. In a recent New York Times article, “How Divorce Lost Its Groove,” Pamela Paul wrote:

That a woman [Susan Thomas, a Brooklyn-based writer] who has been divorced should feel such awkwardness and isolation seems more part of a Todd Haynes set piece than a scene from “families come in all shapes and sizes” New York, circa 2011. But divorce statistics, which have followed a steady downward slope since their 1980 peak, reveal another interesting trend: According to a 2010 study by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, only 11 percent of college-educated Americans divorce within the first 10 years today, compared with almost 37 percent for the rest of the population.

This rings true in my experience. Most of my peers, friends, and colleagues are married or want-to-be. (There is lively debate about whether or not the recent marriage equality victory in New York state is in fact “progress” – isn’t marriage a fundamentally conservative institution? – but for the most part liberals do support equality of choice, a la pro-choice as opposed to pro-abortion.)  When I tell people I’ve been married and unmarried, that I won’t be marrying my current partner, that I likely won’t be having children, they seem surprised, and mostly don’t know what to say; it’s a weirdly awkward moment. It’s as if I’m out-of-sync, I missed the memo about the new stability/happiness project, the new conservative progressivism, the generational pact. I rarely meet divorced people my age, and when I do, it feels like encountering a countryman in a foreign land.

cover The Times article also cites Claire Dederer’s memoir, Poser, in which she writes:

We made up our minds, my brother and I and so many of the grown children of the runaway moms, that we would put our families first and ourselves second. We would be good, all the time. We would stay married, no matter what, and drink organic milk.”

Well, I do drink organic milk.

Joan Acocella’s list of writer-alcoholics (mostly taken from Tom DardisThe Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writer): Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck (these five all Nobel Prize winners); Dashiell Hammett, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Hart Crane, Thomas Wolfe, Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner, Djuna Barnes, John O’Hara, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, Carson McCullers, James Jones, John Cheever, Jean Stafford, Truman Capote, Raymond Carver, and James Agee.

cover Additional examples abound of writers who struggled with madness, depression, substances – Theodore Roethke, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, Charles Bukowski, Rimbaud, Pavese, von Kleist, John Kennedy Toole, Hunter S. Thompson, Jim Carroll, Spalding Gray, Anne Sexton, Sara Teasdale, Jack LondonRobert Lowell, Marina Tsvetaeva, Jerzy Kosinski… one could go on and on in a kind of perverse parlor game (but then, this is the point: we don’t much play perverse parlor games anymore, do we?). Javier Marías writes in the introduction to his Written Lives, a gallery of mini biographies featuring 20 canonical authors: “[T]he one thing that leaps out when you read about these authors is that they were all fairly disastrous individuals […] their example is hardly likely to lure one along the path of letters.” Here is the opening to the vignette on Malcolm Lowry:

When Malcolm Lowry got into trouble in 1946 during his second stay in Mexico and, in an attempt not to be expelled from the country, asked the sub-chief of the Immigration department in Acapulco what there was against him from his previous visit in 1938, the government employee took out a file, tapped it with one finger and said, “Drunk, Drunk, Drunk. Here is your life.” These words are as brutal as they are exact, and perhaps, on more compassionate lips, the right word would have been “calamitous,” because Lowry does seem to have been the most calamitous writer in the whole history of literature, which is no mean feat, given the intense competition in the field.

coverMaud Newton has blogged frequently on the relationship between mental illness/neurosis and creativity, citing articles from Scientific American, Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Alice W. Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writers’ Block, and the Creative Brain, Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf, and Brian Dillon’s The Hypochondriacs as enlightening reading on the subject. In a 2009 post, she cites this passage from a Times article on Margaret Drabble:

[Drabble’s] own bouts [of depression] seem to feed her art — “happy and buoyant don’t force you into action on the page; you go shopping when you’re up” — and also force her to reassess things. “It’s useful,” she pointed out, “for stripping off ways of getting through life that prevent you from having to think.”

While both Jamison and Flaherty posit that there is a strong correlation between mood disorders/depression/melancholia and literary creativity, Flaherty suggests that manic depression stimulates the creative writing process, while plain old “unipolar” depression suppresses it (this coincides with Lee’s account of Virginia Woolf’s battle with depression, which did not stimulate but paralyzed her from working). Acocella also cites both Jamison and Flaherty: “Like Jamison, Flaherty thinks mood disorders may jump-start literary imagination […] But she goes further, speculating at length on which parts of the brain are responsible for literary creativity and its interruption.”

If there is truth to this correlation, then what to make of all this health and wellness?  What to make, for instance, of psychiatry and psychotherapy – our standard-issue efforts to get mentally well – as they relate to creativity? Newton quotes a psychiatrist friend:

While it is true that we view depression as an affliction to be cured, it is not true that we feel this should be done in every case. The key test in mental illness is the effect on day-to-day functioning including employment, study and relationships.

I know a psychotherapist who sees a number of writers, and she shared with me that one of her clients asked to take a break from seeing her so that he could go away and write. The client said that there was something about talking out all of his anxieties, obsessions, and deep feelings that deflated his writing process.  In other words, with so-called mental health and emotional clarity came a certain creative loss.

Even if the pressure of intense inner conflicts isn’t everything in the writing process, I’d say it’s significant. And tending to one’s mental health (with a professional, especially) can be depressurizing, by means of a kind of normalization: you describe and label your experiences; they become generic, predictable, just another case of X. You make explicit, and thus prosaic, all the unspoken richness of difficult thoughts and feelings, of the ineffable human conundrum that you are trying to manifest in your art. What felt painfully unique to you is now understood as quite common and not so problematic. And who wants  — who needs — to write about that.

Years ago, a Jungian-influenced therapist encouraged me to practice “imaginative healing,” whereby I would re-imagine past traumatic experiences, revising them with a positive twist. I was resistant, and I realize now that to some degree a protective instinct had reared up; I needed all that imaginative energy – or at least I felt that I did – for writing fiction.

How healthy is healthy? Isn’t creative productivity a sort of health in itself?

A recent exhibit at Tibor de Nagy gallery in New York featured collaborative works by painters and poets, “The New York School,” including John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Joan Mitchell, Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, James Schuyler, Jane Freilicher, and Fairfield Porter. In the exhibition catalog, Jenni Quilter wrote about the nature of these rich and dynamic collaborations:

Friendships are amorphous creatures, prone to sprouting new limbs and self-amputating others, easily misidentified and disconcerting in the sudden strength and satiations of appetite. Their development is messy, and it’s this fluidity that allows projects to be easily proposed.

Nuclear families, active parenting, financial stability, “normal” social lives – these all require boundaries, schedules, relatively contained domestic environments. I wonder if in gaining health and stability, we aren’t losing some creative fluidity, the dynamism of messiness.

The milk I drink is organic, yes; it’s also raw – unpasteurized, non-homogenized. It is as yet undetermined – there are conflicting studies and opinions – whether this is the healthiest form of milk for humans to drink, or “high-risk.” (Perhaps it’s both.)

But I am conflating the inner life with the outer life. Are melancholia and/or mental instability necessarily tied to public vices or outwardly messy/colorful lifestyles? Which leads me to the question: are we more mentally stable and happier than previous generations of writers, or do we just look like we are?  Which is also to say, do we feel like we’re supposed to look like we are? Which is also to wonder, in this age of moment-to-moment self-revelation via social networking, are we in fact more private than we used to be about our true mental-emotional states?

coverYou get the feeling that in literary ages past, there was little need or effort to cover up either one’s vices or the mental troubles underlying: didn’t everyone know that Hemingway and Fitzgerald were heavy drinkers, that Virginia Woolf was deeply unhappy, that Sylvia and Ted (Hughes) were disastrous together? Perhaps people knew each other’s true states because they spent time together, in person; they congregated, in salons, cafes, colonies. You came as you were. But on Facebook, you compose your status, you present a manufactured version of yourself, your voice, your images. It occurs to me that I recoil from Facebook and Twitter partly because they feel to me like the Flanders household from The Simpsons, where everything is “okeley-dokeley!” — upbeat, positive, happy. Excited to eat this ramen! with accompanying photo, not Broke-ass and alone, vodka and blow for breakfast.  (In a rare personal post recently, I myself shared a photo of our adorable new puppy; unconsciously I’d decided, this is what Facebook is for.)

Our relationship to literary stories of darkness, addiction, and psycho-emotional downward spiral is, I believe, in flux. Confessional memoirs, a la Mary Karr, Nick Flynn, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Andrew Solomon, Susanna Kaysen, Augusten Burroughs, Bill Clegg, et alia, now comprise an identifiable, marketable genre; indeed, the shame and stigma of confession have been lifted, we are grateful for the gritty truths of broken lives artfully laid bare. And yet, aren’t healing and insight the conditions? As consumers, we have manifest an appetite for the glamour of rock-bottom-to-recovery (not to mention the tragedy of rock-bottom-to-death, e.g., David Foster Wallace and, most recently, Amy Winehouse). But I suspect that, given the health trend, dysfunction-fatigue may set in soon, if it hasn’t already, and the genre will run its course. We will look upon these stories as specimens of an era gone by, in the same way that – as Katie Roiphe put it – we look upon raunchy sex writing from the Great Male Narcissists of yore – Mailer, Roth, Bellow, and Updike – with “fondness,” as examples of “a certain vanished grandeur.”

In a recent article at The Awl about David Foster Wallace’s collection of self-help books, Maria Bustillos wrote:

[A]ll his life Wallace was praised and admired for being exceptional, but in order to accept treatment he had to first accept and then embrace the idea that he was a regular person who could be helped by “ordinary” means. Then he went to rehab and learned a ton of valuable things from “ordinary” people whom he would never have imagined would be in a position to teach him anything. Furthermore, these people obviously had inner lives and problems and ideas that were every bit as complex and vital as those of the most “sophisticated” and “exceptional.”

Even so there was still a lot of the “prodigy” in Wallace, something he hated in himself, not just something he mistrusted and had “gotten over.”

Wallace seemed to incarnate the past – a romantic, outmoded notion of a crazy genius artist – into our present. I wonder if he felt particularly despairing amidst his generation’s back-to-health zeitgeist, his estrangement from the “ordinary.” It appears that he tried and tried, but that he couldn’t get back to health. Couldn’t be normal, stable, happy. He was scared like the rest of us, but he would never ever be “straight.”

I am not suggesting that it’s better – either romantic or grand – to be depressed, self-destructive, mentally unwell. But I think it’s possible to overrate both stability and happiness, to knee-jerk too far, to over-pasteurize one’s life, to buy into a pact without even knowing it. Health is a complex, unobvious state of being. For artists, creative productivity is a core element of health; pain and struggle are core elements of creative productivity; difficult pleasures necessarily take priority over predictability or placidity. I believe these are timeless truths. There is no great art without the messy, the fluid, the chaotic; the risky and the raw.

Image: Unsplash/Tim Hüfner.

is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016. She is deputy director at Film Forum, a nonprofit cinema in New York City, and she teaches media & film studies at Skidmore College and fiction writing in Warren Wilson College's MFA program. Learn more about Sonya here.


  1. The other side of the zeitgeist is that there are still heavy-drinking erratic artists out there, but they’re not getting picked up by the big publishers. And they don’t live in New York. They’re the expat artists who support themselves by repeating “this is a pencil” 500 times a day for English-language learners and then hit the pub (or whatever it’s called locally) at night.

    Is this really a generational trend amongst writers that you’ve spotted or is it a local trend coupled with a trend in what makes an author marketable?

  2. The chaos does you no good if you cannot produce – which is what ultimately happened to Wallace, Woolf etc. For myself, I’ve never been more creative than I am now, in a relationship, more or less stable emotionally. I think you are on the money about how far in the other direction the cultural pendulum has swung. But, as suggested by the commenter above, it seems to be an upper-middle-class New York thing. (Can anyone who is not upper-middle-class afford NYC anymore?)
    There’s plenty enough darkness out there, though it may seem less glamorous now that the drugs are deadlier.

  3. Excellent article, Sonya! While not the poster person for today’s new age all-organic, athletically fit, and emotionally well-adjusted societal shift, I nevertheless feel emotionally satisfied with where I am in life physically, emotionally, and materially. Yet, perhaps that is what allows me to sink into my dark and edgy alternative rock music and allow my imagination to roam angst-ridden and turbulent inspirations to fuel my urban fantasy writings. I can safely launch into visions of loss, depravity, and violence without truly being at risk myself, which might actually sharpen my creative process. Personally, I’ve never been a recreational user or prisoner of dangerous or addictive substances (Hmm, does sugar and caffeine count?), but that doesn’t mean that I can’t go to dark places for inspired creativity. Somehow, I don’t actually feel that I’m missing out by not experiencing the “classic lifestyles” of traditional writers, though I very much envy their literary successes. In the end, writing is all about one’s imagination and capacity to envision and communicate situations and settings beyond ourselves. I think that I do that very well. And likely, so do you!

    Best wishes,
    Jaz Primo

  4. I was intrigued with your article and your candidness. It is my choice not to drink, but I do love to write. Your last sentence in your article capsulates what I also believe. Recently having written a risky & raw memoirs of my early days as a missionary wife/mother in the jungles of West Africa, I put myself out there for the assassins. What I received was amazement and appreciation for being “fluid” and real in my writings.

    I look forward to reading your article in depth and dissecting it for myself. Thanks!

  5. I think there are other factors that contribute to the unhappiness of artists (or, at least, writers), one of which may be that there is too close an association made between what one does (writes) with who one is (writer).

    What happens when someone who defines him- or herself as a Writer (rather than as someone who writes) discovers s/he doesn’t want to write anymore? What pressure, then, to WANT to want to write. “Who am I if I’m not a writer?” “What does it say about me, a writer, that I just don’t want to write, anymore?” “Who will I be, who will I tell people I am, if I’m not a writer?” “If I say I’m a writer, but I’m not writing, aren’t I a fraud?”

    You write, “I think it’s possible to overrate both stability and happiness,” and I agree. But I also think it’s possible to overrate being a writer. I’d rather be happy than writing, if I had to choose. (And, after a year of identity/writer-life crisis, I did.)

  6. You raise a variety of good points, and I think the notion of the artist as unstable, a person who creates beautiful art out of disorder, is a tantalizing one. Like most things, however, I don’t think it’s a universal rule, and I have often wondered if it has been used as cop out. Isn’t it easier to blame addiction on something romantic like “the compulsion to create” rather than something banal like banal like, well, addiction? I don’t have the answer to this, and I agree that there does seem to be a correlation between the artistic impulse and depression/addiction, but there are a number of writers, Eudora Welty for one, who would disagree with this notion. Creativity can and should come out of its own spirit and shouldn’t necessarily be hinged to something negative.

  7. When I was a vampire I was able to craft authentic and entertaining tales of the dark and macabre, and do it very well if I do say so myself.

    However, a silver bullet that temporarily stopped my heart, sent me to the ER where I was brought back to life from my once undead status.

    I tried to continue with my writing, but it no longer rang true. I felt I had to gussy things up with chesty lady vampires, senseless violence, and inconsequential sex.

    Since then I’ve gotten into the medical equipment supply business. I’m happily married (our first child is on the way!) and we have a comfortable, if small, home in the burbs. I’m much happier now, though I do sometimes miss those darker times every time I get a whiff from a blood sample in an open test tube.

  8. I think the fact that (at least in NYC) it is much harder to “live between the cracks” than it was even twenty years ago may also be a factor. The setup of a cheap sublet, a couple odd jobs to pay the rent, and time to pursue one’s art no longer exists, at least in this city. For one who is not independently wealthy or subsidized, it takes working full-time or juggling a few part-time jobs to make ends meet. And being functional at a full-time job is, for most people, incompatible with hard drinking, regular drug use, or erratic behavior (obviously there are exceptions, namely the functional addicts, but I suspect they are more likely to be urged into rehab than in previous decades.) Then trying to eke out creative work during one’s marginal “free time” leaves even fewer opportunities for the aforementioned substances or anything akin to romantic intrigue.

  9. Happy, stable writers who didn’t need depression to create great work:

    William Shakespeare
    Johann W. Goethe
    Anton Chekov
    Vladimir Nobokov

    And that’s just the writers. I can think of a few happy musicians, painters, and sculptors, too. Maybe the idea that suffering and is necessary to create is yet another Romantic myth.

  10. I suppose if one has to rely solely on real-life conflict, depression and dysfunctional behaviour to write fiction, that means one has very limited imagination. I think it’s just one of those romantic myths that people create…something akin to the ‘writing life’.

  11. Michael–
    I’m skeptical about your entire list, but I’m pretty sure you can’t use Goethe. Have you read The Sorrows of Young Werther? Isn’t Goethe a major historical source for this “Romantic myth” that suffering is necessary to create?

  12. It’s interesting that a lot of the comments above confirm the sense that the notion of the suffering, troubled, messy-life artist is in fact out of favor. I also find it interesting how frequently the word “romantic” is used with (if I am reading correctly) a whiff of disdain.

    I also think that some commenters have mis-read, or loosely read, the essay. While I do make a statement at the end about great art requiring rawness and risk – a loosening of the reins on stability and conventional happiness – my hope was for the whole of the piece to express an ongoing, not-black-and-white, inquiry into the relationship between struggle and heartache in life, and meaningful art – which is a notion I personally am not willing to abandon wholesale in favor of “the new health and happiness.” This is likely in part a matter of aesthetic-philosophical differences: I am not one to hold my nose at “romantic.”

    @Michael and Nate: I like the project of identifying great writers who lived beautiful, responsible lives. Wendell Berry comes to mind (still alive). Chekhov was known as a good man, but he suffered a lot: chronic illness, the weight of financial responsibility for his family from a young age, a rather imperious/nasty father (perhaps all this “scared him straight”). Nabokov was of the privileged classes but his family suffered during the Bolshevik Revolution (his father was assassinated), so it may be a stretch to say he was “happy”; he also seems to have been rather neurotic, in a misanthropic/OCD sort of way. Camus was also supposed to have been a very good man – as Sontag put it, a “husband,” not a “lover.”

    Ultimately I am raising the correlation between life struggle, and surrender to lack of control, with depth of art. This of course does not mean necessarily alcoholism, addiction, misery, or insanity. But again, “health is a complex, unobvious state of being.” And, as I think writers/aspiring writers know, writing is not “happy” – when there is pleasure, it is a very difficult, albeit profound, pleasure. (I concede that this last statement is self-evident and not particularly insightful.)

  13. Hi Nate, I base my view of Goethe partially on Nietzsche’s characterization of him in “Anti-Christ,” where he praises Goethe for his cheer.

    ‘Werther’ is in one sense a satire on Sentimentality, the semi-official dominent movement of Goethe’s youth. The relationship between Werther and the origins of German Romanticism is complicated, but there’s an excellent description of it in this Boyle’s biography of Goethe:

    You’re right, Goethe is often cited as the originator of Romanticism, at least in its German form. Perhaps I shouldn’t have used a capital R- when I wrote “Romantic myth.”

  14. Really loved this article- you’ve worded thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head for years. During the years I’ve been on facebook I’ve often found myself censoring everything I write due to not wanting to be the downer amongst everyone else’s smug, twee or chirpy statuses. All the while wistfully imaging myself back in the day when I could have been sitting in a smoky cafe somewhere with crazy poets, writers and artists rather than spending my time trying to figure out how to project an image of success and contentment onto my facebook page.

    Having a tendency to be “depressed, self-destructive, mentally unwell” (as well as anxiety-ridden, misanthropic and paranoid), I recently shut down my facebook. I just didn’t fit in. I sit here and scowl at my twitter instead, still wishing for a dark pub corner to sit and brood in. You’d think with the technology we’ve got these days, it’d be easier to find those likeminded so we CAN be amongst our own. It’s bizarre that the misfits only end up feeling more isolated these days. Or maybe that’s just me and I lack the know-how or desire to do hunt down the haunts that folk like me frequent.

    On top of it all, I’ve been battling the doctors who want to put me on one pill after another to quash my feelings of misery and discontent. I’m not allowed to be socially awkward, I should take up therapy and join social clubs to change who I am. There’s CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) for all those twisted thoughts in my head. I should exercise for an hour a day to rid myself of the anxiety. Only write journals full of positive things. Gone are the days where I used to stew in my room, as a teen, with a glass of vodka, packet of Marlboros and vent angst into short stories and poems. I’m stuck in the middle somewhere these days, medicated, sober, non-smoking but all the shitty stuff still lurks somewhere deep, itching to make it’s way out and run rampant.

    I’m not saying I’m some amazing writer/artist either, just that I identify with the tortured souls of days-gone-by and maybe if I hadn’t sobered up, straightened up and quit the histrionics, I might still be bashing out crazy poems and stories. They might not have been any good … but I was silenced before I could revel in my madness.

    Anyway, I’m going to print this article out and re-read it over my morning scotch on the rocks … fairtrade green tea infused with ginseng.

    (It’s funny, even reading over my comment, I deliberate whether to post it or not. I sound horrid, someone you’d definitely want to avoid. This is something I’d never share on my facebook. I should just shut up, cheer up, be ashamed of myself!) Haha … x

  15. Hm, “alcoholism and cigarettes, sexual-romantic openness, spiritual misery, and financial ruin” seem to be quite alive and well in San Francisco and Oakland, at least in the social circles around me. Or at least, they’re alive and well in my own life. Ha!

    I do know of artists who drink enough water and are happily married, but they mostly live in Berkeley and Sausalito, and I feel uncomfortable over there. (I’m only being slightly facetious.)

  16. I’m at point 6.

    I think we just look like we are more together. We are keeping up with social norms of happy life, fit body, yoga mat and being well-informed, well-read.

    At the same time, I think people are getting tired of the upbeat Facebook status’ and I believe they are on the downward spin. People are slowly, but surely coming to create a line of difference between their online and physical presence (thank God) and I think some are even retreating from the online forums.

    At the same time, the social media space is not necessary that right space for opening up to people about issues and struggles. It is still something that is to be supported in the real world not the world of realtime. Maybe.

  17. I am SO glad that people are finally starting to realise you’re at your most creative when you’re in tune with yourself. YOU CAN’T DO THIS HUNG OVER. I can barely count to ten hung over, let alone form coherent thoughts!

  18. Hey, that’s a bit reductive — a hangover is an all-day affair. The first few hours after you wake up, that vaguely dissociative stage, are actually great for writing. You might not keep a lot of it, but you can make some pretty wild leaps of genius. The afternoon, yeah, that’s a lost cause — best to go back to sleep for a while. But in the evening hours, again, a judicious hair of the dog can make you feel like a grizzled survivor and it’s a good time to edit. Nothing makes you want to kill your darlings more.

    OK, being a little flip here (although not entirely). This is a great article, Sonia, but I do think social media are not great indicators of people’s mental health and well-being. For one thing, you get the reverse-voodoo-doll effect, where people paint their lives as they wish them to be. Also, these days it seems so much easier to hide what’s really going on. I remember when the biggest remove you could keep from your good friends was physical distance, or the phone, and everyone knew what was going on with each other — who was having a hard time, who was a bit nuts, who was in a rut, who was certifiable but making great art so let’s just keep an eye on her. A lot of it fell into the category of gossip, but it was also useful. I don’t know if Facebook and Twitter have replaced that kind of gossip, but they definitely seem like a good way to keep a certain emotional space bubble in place.

    Also there’s the blur between personal and professional inherent in social media — friends and “friends” and colleagues all overlap, and you can only filter your information so effectively. I’m looking for work right now and am very well aware that any potential employer will be Googling me, checking my Twitter stream and my Facebook account — hell, I beg them all to go straight to my blog. So if you do a search on any of my personal pages you probably won’t find the terms “hangover” or “rolling papers” or “menstrual cramps” or “crying in the shower.” That’s why we meet for lunch; it’s why we email and go for drinks and talk on the phone. You’re right, I think — Facebook is at its best for new puppies, less so for the personal, messy aspects of life. But I wouldn’t worry that they’re being replaced by any New Serenity — we’re just all getting more clever at looking good. (And by the way, your new puppy is a doll.)

  19. I really liked this essay. I wonder how much our altered expectation of how writers are supposed to behave is related to the changes in our culture over the past few decades, in terms of the popularity of reading as a form of entertainment being supplanted gradually by television, the Internet, etc., and the resulting changes in publishing as a whole.

    There was a time, or so rumor has it, when pretty much all a writer had to do was write. But now prevailing wisdom is that if you don’t market yourself your book will sink like a stone, and there’s nothing overwhelmingly appealing to the general reading public about the stereotypical personae of writers of days past. (Which is to say, speaking as a member of the reading public for a moment, I feel that I encounter enough mentally unstable alcoholics by accident without actively seeking them out by going to their readings.) If I want you to come to my reading and buy a book, I’m going to project an image of myself as someone who you wouldn’t mind spending an hour or so with. If I decide to spark an old-fashioned literary feud, I’m kind of shooting myself in the foot, because at this point half of us review books in addition to writing them and there’s a fair chance that my opponent will have the opportunity to review my book in a major publication at some point.

    I feel that I’m a better writer when I’m reasonably happy. I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but my experience has been that unhappiness is what diminishes and limits me as a writer, not the opposite. When I’m unhappy, I only write unhappy prose; when I’m happier I’m better at conveying a wider range of human emotion, and practically speaking, I’m much less distracted and get more work done.

  20. Loved the comments by Tee, or maybe it’s Dee, Im not wearing my glasses. Happy-happy makes me moody. Your comments Tee-Dee made me laugh. You would definitely be someone to know

  21. @Lisa and others who’ve commented about Facebook: yeah, I’m not sure I’d want Facebook to become the place where people are transparent; that would probably be even more disturbing, and, as you rightly point out, untenable for anyone who does need to operate in the “respectable” professional world. (And thanks about the puppy – indeed, she’s a looker!)

    The social class issues that early commenters raised are valid; although not simple, in my opinion. For example, if you are struggling through a dire social-financial-mental situation, then maybe you feel compelled to keep “straight”; you are on an unstable-to-stable trajectory, you can’t “afford” to live messy; in other words, it’s not just the affluent who choose health/wellness (except, apparently, in the Bay Area, according to Jeremy? Just kidding).

    @Emily: I think it is different for everyone, writers being a motley bunch from all walks, after all. Unfortunately, to date, I myself can plot a positive correlation graph between unhappiness and productivity (and in high school, my darkest, loneliest years were also my highest GPA years). We each probably have a different “tipping point” at which too unhappy or too happy may become distracting and counterproductive.

  22. I think there’s a lot of focus now on what is the best way to live. And I think that many of us are struggling to get there. And so we drink in private, and work out in public. We feel that there is a RIGHT way, or a BETTER way, and we (sometimes) berate ourselves, or others, for not taking that path.

    I have a friend who used to be afraid that if her life was settled (if she had real, true undramatic love) she’d stop writing, the well would dry up. And you know what? She does, and it has.

    I, on the other hand, need the opposite. When my life is knocked off kilter, I’m way too distracted/depressed/bewildered to write. There’s a certain amount of control I try to exert over myself. And sometimes I fail miserably. And yeah, sometimes I chase my tail. But I’d much rather be here, trying to figure out how to live my “best life” (thank you, Oprah) than forever caught in the undercurrent of a downward spiral.

    I think that it used to be that writers were EXPECTED to drink. And so they drank, and many of them died. Now, we’re EXPECTED to get on the yoga mat, to meditate, to talk about our feelings with a paid professional. Call me crazy, but I prefer the latter.

  23. I went off my antidepressants thinking I had escaped the defeating depression. Within 2 days, I realized that life without them was “bad” writing. I am much more organized and productive on my meds. I write good stuff. I don’t need to suffer to write. That kind of suffering soils my life and of those around me. Who wants to kill themselves for creativity that results in bad writing.

  24. Ms. Chung’s division of writers into “generations” here is not very helpful, nor very rigorous. :(

  25. I think the authors primary problem is that everyone she’s talking to who’s a ‘writer’ seems to be college-educated and, as is almost necessary now, from a stable home.

    Don’t make the mistake of calling people artists just because they call themselves artists – there are a lot of people with the casual privilege of ‘enough’ to slouch around coffee shops and get an MFA and call themselves a writer – the reason they aren’t messed up is because they don’t have the thing.

    The thing messes everyone up. Writing, poetry in particular, is missing this, now. The thing that makes it good breaks a person – the burden of seeing what is not seen, the heartache that comes from understanding the nature of banality. If those things don’t crush a person, they’ve not got it. Art is an ugly thing.

  26. Being the child of two self-destructive artists who claimed parenthood was their one great barrier to success,I know that when I became a single mother myself at 24, I was determined to keep my writing career going despite parenthood. Two children, new husband, and ten books (and thousands of magazine publications) later, I can say that I feel content with the balance I’ve struck in my life.

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