Hey man, what were you up this weekend?
Oh you know, same old. Got shit-faced, had irresponsible sex with strangers, blacked out and forgot the whole thing. I only know from pics and and confusing texts on my phone.
You spent it writing didn’t you.
. . . No. Shut up.
A question people often ask writers—and I don’t really understand why—is where do you get your ideas. This is sort of the wrong question. The work of writing is less about having ideas and more the discipline of giving yourself hours to write and denying yourself the opportunity piss your time away doing something else.
The mind is essentially a creative space. It literally makes stuff up in its sleep. You really just give it opportunity to make a permanent record of whatever nonsense it does relentlessly and sometimes irresponsibly. A novelist is less a creative being than a voyeur and staid chronicler of a much more interesting subconscious. The part of the mind that writes the books and the part that shoots the shit with you over a cup of coffee are not the same. If it seems otherwise, it’s because the shit-shooter has become adept at camouflaging itself as the brains of the outfit. It is not. It’s just the PR man.
This is why writers are particularly prone to impostor syndrome: the part of themselves conscious of having thoughts and feelings essentially is an impostor. It doesn’t write anything at all, its job is just to keep the butt in the chair for a while, then to take all the credit.
The world is committed to the human persona being a single cohesive entity, but the writer’s whole experience tells him over and over that the unity of the self is an illusion. Whatever the ‘true’ reality is—the psyche divided into id ego and superego, or maybe a thousand souls competing for dominance within the human envelope—the writer is to some degree aware of this fragmentation and knows he does not itself possess the endowments with which the self is attributed and for which it is praised. (If it ever gets any praise.)
Writing has many traits of addiction. When done “successfully” it forms chronic behavior, with episodes of binging. Personal trauma is not required to develop the pattern, but it helps. To cease the activity for a period of time creates irritability, anxiety, and other withdrawal symptoms. The writing practice itself can generate feelings of isolation. It damages personal relationships and deepens existing social fissures. It might make you start volunteering less information in conversation or even start telling lies to keep others from nosing into your space.
I met a writer once who complained he had difficulty making time for his novel, on account of demands from the job he liked and the satisfying social scene he enjoyed. I was all, fuck’s sake man, do you want to trade? Throw the book away. Throw yourself a parade! You win at life. At life! What more do you hope to get from fiction?
Nice guy, but dumb.
A lot come toxic feeling comes with being a writer. You are supposed to say it’s because there is something wrong with you—why else would you write if you weren’t broke in the head?—but writers are no more messed up than anyone else. The alienation is mostly the fault of other people.
Writing fiction is a strange activity because unlike becoming an alcoholic or running a business into the ground, people genuinely believe that you need their permission to do it. What makes you think the product of your imagination can hold my interest? How can you believe your thoughts and experiences and feelings are important enough to be of value to anyone else?
People believe you ought to pay for the privilege of writing your own stories into your own notebooks. Anyone who doesn’t is stealing something—from society, maybe even from an actual person. There are people who make a lot of money from this.
Fiction is an individualistic pursuit, and the rest of the human race has a responsibility to obliterate the influence of anything that doesn’t have a stamp of approval from a corporation or media outlet or government or some other damn thing that has no business being a cultural gatekeeper. To try to pass though one of those gates without sanction is essentially treason. Since this will not be granted right off, a writer must get used to the idea of spending years of his life as a traitor to the human race.
The only way to not to be stoned to death during this period of constant disapproval—when everyone is justified in being shitty to you because if you were any good of course they would have heard of you—is to pretend you believe you have a dependent personality and you really can’t help doing what you do, your creativity is an expression of your weaknesses. Once you give people permission to perceive you as helpless, then it is almost okay to commit yourself to your work.
But you also must admit your ideas aren’t really yours, either you stole them from somewhere, or else somehow you draw them from a well of human experience just anybody could access if they wanted to, but you only do it out of some sickness. You have to tell everybody that basically you are some kind of fraud.
However, all of this is theater. I don’t write fiction because I am weaker but because I am stronger. My books are not “merely” the product of discipline and hard work: my abilities have reached a place most people could never have attained, not one in a hundred, not one in a thousand, I don’t know how far it goes. I am not a vessel, I am a wizard and I work goddamn magic. I write because I make stuff that’s fucking awesome and I like it.
I’m sorry for all the misleading statements I wrote at the start—not for telling them to you but to myself for many years. I don’t even understand why I did it. My best guess is I thought it made it easier to face you, whereas what actually would have made it easy would have been to have told the truth all along. Because the way I remember it, the truth was never a thing I didn’t know.