How to be a good writer

Oct 25 JDN 2459148

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
~ Thomas Mann

“You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”

~ Red Smith

Why is it so difficult to write well? Why is it that those of us who write the most often find it the most agonizing?

My guess is that many other art forms are similar, but writing is what I know best.

I have come to realize that there are four major factors which determine the quality of someone’s writing, and the pain and challenge of writing comes from the fact that they are not very compatible with one another.

The first is talent. To a certain degree, one can be born a better or worse writer, or become so through forces not of one’s own making. This one costs nothing to get if you already have it, but if you don’t have it, you can’t really acquire it. If you do lack talent, that doesn’t mean you can’t write; but it does limit how successful you are likely to be at writing. (Then again, some very poorly-written books have made some very large sums of money!) It’s also very difficult to know whether you really have talent; people tell me I do, so I suppose I believe them.

The second is practice. You must write and keep on writing. You must write many things in many contexts, and continue to write despite various pressures and obstacles trying to stop you from writing. Reading is also part of this process, as we learn new ways to use words by seeing how others have used them. In fact, you should read more words than you write.

The third is devotion. If you are to truly write well, you must pour your heart and soul into what you write. I can tell fairly quickly whether someone is serious about writing or not by seeing how they react to the metaphor I like to use: “I carve off shards of my soul and assemble them into robots that I release into the world; and when the robots fail, I wonder whether I have assembled them incorrectly, or if there is something fundamentally wrong with my soul itself.” Most people react with confusion. Serious writers nod along in agreement.

The fourth is criticism. You must seek out criticism from a variety of sources, you must accept that criticism, and you must apply it in improving your work in the future. You must avoid becoming defensive, but you must also recognize that disagreement will always exist. You will never satisfy everyone with what you write. The challenge is to satisfy as much of your target audience as possible.

And therein lies the paradox: For when you have devoted your heart and soul into a work, receiving criticism on it can make you want to shut down, wanting to avoid that pain. And thus, you stop practicing, and you stop improving.

What can be done about this?

I am told that it helps to “get a thick skin”, but seeing as I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to do that and failed completely, this may not be the most useful advice. Indeed, even if it can be done it may not be worth it: The most thick-skinned people I know of are generally quite incompetent at whatever they do, because they ignore criticism. There are two ways to be a narcissist: One is to be so sensitive to criticism that you refuse to hear it; the other is to be so immune to criticism that it has no effect on you. (The former is “covert narcissism”, the latter is “overt narcissism”.)

One thing that does seem to help is learning to develop some measure of detachment frrom your work, so that you can take criticism of your work as applying to that work and not to yourself. Usually the robots really are just misassembled, and there’s nothing wrong with your soul.

But this can be dangerous as well: If you detach yourself too much from your work, you lose your devotion to it, and it becomes mechanically polished but emotionally hollow. If you optimize over and over to what other people want, it eventually stops being the work that had meaning for you.

Perhaps what ultimately separates good writers from everyone else is not what they can do, but what they feel they must do: Serious writers feel a kind of compulsion to write, an addiction to transferring thoughts into words. Often they don’t even particularly enjoy it; they don’t “want” to write in the ordinary sense of the word. They simply must write, feeling as though they die or go mad if they ever were forced to stop. It is this compulsion that gets them to persevere in the face of failure and rejection—and the self-doubt that rejection drives.

And if you don’t feel that compulsion? Honestly, maybe you’re better off than those of us who do.

Creativity and mental illness

Dec 1 JDN 2458819

There is some truth to the stereotype that artistic people are crazy. Mental illnesses, particularly bipolar disorder, are overrepresented among artists, writers, and musicians. Creative people score highly on literally all five of the Big Five personality traits: They are higher in Openness, higher in Conscientiousness, higher in Extraversion (that one actually surprised me), higher in Agreeableness, and higher in Neuroticism. Creative people just have more personality, it seems.

But in fact mental illness is not as overrepresented among creative people as most people think, and the highest probability of being a successful artist occurs when you have close relatives with mental illness, but are not yourself mentally ill. Those with mental illness actually tend to be most creative when their symptoms are in remission. This suggests that the apparent link between creativity and mental illness may actually increase over time, as treatments improve and remission becomes easier.

One possible source of the link is that artistic expression may be a form of self-medication: Art therapy does seem to have some promise in treating a variety of mental disorders (though it is not nearly as effective as therapy and medication). And that wouldn’t explain why family history of mental illness is actually a better predictor of creativity than mental illness itself.

My guess is that in order to be creative, you need to think differently than other people. You need to see the world in a way that others do not see it. Mental illness is surely not the only way to do that, but it’s definitely one way.

But creativity also requires basic functioning: If you are totally crippled by a mental illness, you’re not going to be very creative. So the people who are most creative have just enough craziness to think differently, but not so much that it takes over their lives.

This might even help explain how mental illness persisted in our population, despite its obvious survival disadvantages. It could be some form of heterozygote advantage.

The classic example of heterozygote advantage is sickle-cell anemia: If you have no copies of the sickle-cell gene, you’re normal. If you have two copies, you have sickle-cell anemia, which is very bad. But if you have only one copy, you’re healthy—and you’re resistant to malaria. Thus, high risk of malaria—as we certainly had, living in central Africa—creates a selection pressure that keeps sickle-cell genes in the population, even though having two copies is much worse than having none at all.

Mental illness might function something like this. I suspect it’s far more complicated than sickle-cell anemia, which is literally just two alleles of a single gene; but the overall process may be similar. If having just a little bit of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia makes you see the world differently than other people and makes you more creative, there are lots of reasons why that might improve the survival of your genes: There are the obvious problem-solving benefits, but also the simple fact that artists are sexy.

The downside of such “weird-thinking” genes is that they can go too far and make you mentally ill, perhaps if you have too many copies of them, or if you face an environmental trigger that sets them off. Sometimes the reason you see the world differently than everyone else is that you’re just seeing it wrong. But if the benefits of creativity are high enough—and they surely are—this could offset the risks, in an evolutionary sense.

But one thing is quite clear: If you are mentally ill, don’t avoid treatment for fear it will damage your creativity. Quite the opposite: A mental illness that is well treated and in remission is the optimal state for creativity. Go seek treatment, so that your creativity may blossom.