Do you think you have to be crazy to be a great writer?

I’d like to answer no, but there is some evidence to the contrary. I think to argue that all authors, or all good/great authors, have been crazy would be a huge misstatement. However, it does seem like a larger proportion of “the greats” have suffered from some form of mental illness.

Going to Smith College, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf come to mind. Their struggles with clinical depression are well documented by biographers and within their work, and their suicides are well known.  This initially made me wonder if the craziness (for lack of a more sensitive term) stemmed from gender – perhaps from the lack of a room of one’s own. Then I remembered the similar ending of the hyper masculine Hemingway, and brushed that though aside.

Addiction, another form of mental illness in my mind, plagues man authors. Think of the Beats or the Romantic poets. Stephen King is a professed recovering coke addict – and even Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde while on cocaine. Hunter S. Thompson said, “I wouldn’t recommend sex, drugs, or insanity for everyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”

Many think Kafka had serious personality disorders, and others have diagnosed him with anorexia nervosa. Fitzgerald, Vonnegut, George Eliot, and Tennessee Williams are all thought to have suffered from clinical depression. Drinking out of an old scull was one of the sanest things English poet Byron ever did. Seriously read Young Romantics if you doubt me – he used to stage actual batters between his servants and when his boarding school instated a no dog rule, he brought a bear into the dormitories as a pet. And Edgar Allen Poe … enough said.

If you accept the hypotheses, the question becomes are crazies better writers or does writing drive people crazy? Or maybe both.

I think most of my writing teachers have supported both statements. Almost all repeat that writing is not a happy profession, that it will wreck you. And although there is lots of angst about recognition, and publishing, and money – I tended to think they meant the actual act of devoting the majority of your time to writing was the miserable part. To be fair they all wrote about pretty miserable topics, but they might have been caught up in the “write what you know” quandary.

A poetry professor told me I either needed to start using illegal drugs or have an affair with an older man before my poetry would get better. After a weekend trip to Amsterdam that semester, I quickly discounted his advice. I think I’ve done my best writing while feeling very mentally sound and comfortable, but I still obviously haven’t gotten rid of the connection between great writing and insanity.

To be fair, I kind of think everyone, or at least everyone I know well, is at least a little bit insane. Again, that might say more about me then them?

Also interesting, is judgments people make on each other, when it comes to their favorite authors. I was part amused part horrified by this Huffington Post Books slideshow on favorite books that make you undateable. Seriously, what is wrong with liking the Great Gatsby?

What do you think –

  • Are crazy people better writers?
  • Can you think of some authors to negate my gross simplification?
  • And most importantly, are there books that would make someone undateable?

11 thoughts on “Do you think you have to be crazy to be a great writer?

  1. Love the picture! 🙂 This is such an interesting post, because many many writers (and other types of artists for that matter) seem to have deep personal issues. I think of it like this: writing and other creative activities are very therapeutic, a way to get out whatever’s eating at you. Maybe that’s why this career choice attracts so many of these individuals?
    As far as them being more skilled, probably so when it comes to more abstract genres, but I don’t think it’s a requirement for all forms of writing. 🙂

    • You make a very interesting point about writing being therapeutic. I just wonder if writing and, like being in therapy, having all your feelings right at the surface can lead to emotional distress.

      I do agree that it probably has little to do with skill.

  2. I think it is such a shame that such wonderful writing can come from such misery and pain. But, I must admit that I absolutely love Hunter S. Thompson as his writing takes me to places that I would never dare to go myself. Furthermore, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of my favourite books, even if I haven’t found time to read it in a few years. I do think that wonderful writing can come from people who aren’t so explicitly ‘troubled’, for want of a better word. But good writing, along with good painting and all other forms of culture, comes from emotion, deep emotion. Not everyone can feel things so strongly. Some people can’t help it. Some can’t control it and loose themselves, but write anyway and produce something brilliant but most don’t. Those who do I think could have probably written something fantastic, even without drugs or mental illness or personality disorders. It is just unfortunate that our memories of them are plagued with tales of their misfortunate.

    • You makes some great points, and “troubled” is a much better word than “crazy”. Kesey is also one of my favorite authors and it is a shame that we remember so many great authors problems more than their work.

  3. Love the topic! It reminds me when people say the best musicians were always drugged out of their minds: Hendrix, the Beatles, Ozzy, etc. But I think that it’s just because “normal” artists of any kind don’t make as strong of an impact on people’s memories. It doesn’t mean they aren’t as talented. For every writer who stuck her head in an oven, there’s dozens more who didn’t. And we should remember them too.

    As for the HuffPo piece, I call that a load of crap. If liking The Great Gatsby is wrong, then I don’t want to be right!

    • Definitely agree we should remember the normal artists as well, and maybe let their work speak for itself.

      I’m right there with you on Gatsby. I think someone woke up on the controversial side of the bed that morning.

  4. J.R.R. Tolkien, who for me is the best fantasy writer of all times, wasn’t bonkers. George R.R. Martin also seems pretty sane. All types of artists have suffered from a little (or a-lot) of craziness, including musicians, painters, actors, and whatnot. I think it comes from having a really creative mind, but it doesn’t necesarrily mean that to be a great artist you have to be crazy. Sometimes it just happens to come with the territory.

  5. I think that great writing comes from thinking outside of the box. Not necessarily throwing all convention to the wayside, but seeing it in a different perspective. Taking a different angle. And I think uniqueness is inherently isolating. I think you are quite misguided if you think you have to turn into an alcoholic or somehow throw yourself into a depression to make something great, but to deny that many greats were in some dark places when they created masterpieces would also be naive.

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