It’s a commonly accepted fact in American society that writers and other creative types are unhappy people. Many famous writers suffered from depression, some going as far as dying as a result of their suicidal, self-destructive behavior and others taking their own lives as did my college writing professor. Some contemporary thinkers are lashing out against the trope of the unhappy writer–not the individuals themselves–but rather our passive acceptance of the existence of the miserable, broke, and moderately insane word artist. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of one of my favorite books, Eat, Pray, Love, first brought my attention to just how much being a creative person and being mentally unstable have been tied together in western society in her TED talk titled “A New Way to Think About Creativity”. Ever since then, the idea that you don’t have to be miserable to be creative has lurked in the back of my mind. It wasn’t until recently that I realized–or at least admitted to myself–that I too was headed on the path of being one of those miserable writers.
I’m not saying that all writers are unhappy people but a lot are, and I’d like to extract some insights from my own experience to think about why this is so and what I can do about it.
1. Writers seek validation in all the wrong places.
The gold standard of achievement for most writers is to have a piece or entire book published “by a real publisher”. We moan about the daunting task of trying to get a book deal, covet an (unpaid) position as a Huffington Post blogger, and grimace when we read magazine pieces that “we could have written better”. Writers who do this (read: 90% of us) are only handing over their power when they decide that their work is inadequate or worthless until it’s been given the stamp of approval by a traditional publisher or large media outlet. Any writer who has actually stopped whining and nail-biting to sit down and just write knows how amazing it feels to just get words from your mind to the page, and know that you’ve shared what you had inside of you with the world. I don’t frequent the gym, but it has to be similar to the feeling that you get after a great workout. You didn’t really want to do it, but after you make yourself do it, you feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment, well-being, a zest for life, and an inner peace. Your work for the day is done. I’ve been making myself miserable for years (and procrastinating my call to write and create full time) by using “the system” as an excuse to block my creativity.
What I’m going to do about it: I’m going to write without worrying about how I’m going to “capture value” or get “the attention I deserve” for my work. Doing what I was put on this earth to do is the most important and life-sustaining validation and recognition that I could ask for.
2. Writers are often low paid and overworked.
Writers, like educators, are confusingly paid very little to do a job that so few people can do well. I’m not sure how the compensation fairy made her decisions regarding which professions would get paid what, but the writers must have slept in on that day, because being a writer does not pay most of the time. Many writers cobble together a living through freelance work, substitute teaching, and other flexible (still low paid) jobs that allow them time to write and a few bucks to eat. They do this not because they are stupid or misguided, but because many higher-paying jobs would demand more of their time and energy, leaving them little time to write. And every writer knows that a writer who is not writing is even more miserable than a writer who is.
What I’m going to do about it: I started my company The Art of Applying to use my skills as a writer and coach to make money while I wrote my book. That hasn’t really been happening in the way I thought it would. You see, when I have lots of business and am making lots of money, I don’t have time and energy to write because I’m serving my clients. Then, when the business slows down and I have time to write, I am freaking out about how I’m going to make the next rush of money. Yes, I should save my money like the grasshopper and spread it out so that when the famine comes, I am not freaking out. But I hadn’t quite learned that lesson yet, and hate the schizophrenic cycle of rags and riches. I’d like a steady paycheck (a good one) to be my creative self. I realize that now.
Therefore, in the very near future, I plan to do several things to get my attention back on writing and off of surviving, which are drastically lower my living expenses, hire a team to support me in my business to free up my time, and take on a job that provides a steady income and requires that I be creative and write on a daily basis.
3. Writers are trying to keep up with their non-writer friends.
Many writers are well educated and live in affluent neighborhoods or hip and trendy places like NYC or LA. This environment is awesome for a writer’s social life, but not necessarily helpful for a writer’s writing life. Why? Because NYC and LA are extremely expensive places to live and are full of fun, artistic distractions that could easily make a writer feel like she is creating when all she is doing is consuming other people’s art. Places like NYC and LA are full of rich, young, hot people making big bucks in investment banks and large corporations. They have the money to do it big in these cities, and many of us writers don’t want to be left out of the fun. Therefore, we join in on the party only to realize that our paltry writer salary (even one supplemented by outside work) is not enough to keep up with the corporate-climbers.
What I’m going to do about it: This one is a really hard one for me, because I love to spend money on going out to restaurants, plays, movies, and trendy lounges. I’m known for being up for these things as well, so I often get invited to such outings. From now on, I’m going to have to be painfully honest with myself and my friends that not only can I not afford to live it up as we usually do but I don’t want to sacrifice my financial freedom, peace of mind, and freedom to pursue a life of creativity to have a thriving social life. Yes, I said it. I’d rather create than go to a bar. Because blogging past midnight is actually really fun for me, and I never want to feel like I’ve sold my soul over several years’ worth of happy hours. I’m going to have to find new ways to have fun with my friends, and be able to discipline myself when I get invited to try out the new restaurant in town.
4. Writers are surrounding themselves with other miserable writers.
If you want to lose weight, don’t hang out with the girls who make Wendy’s runs at eleven at night. If you want to start a business, don’t take advice from your bankrupt uncle (unless he is providing cautionary tales culled from his own struggles). In the same way, if you want to be a happy, healthy, thriving writer, don’t hang out with miserable, self-pitying, distracted, and excuse-producing writers. Spend time with people who are disciplined about their writing, who find joy in just doing it, and who will hold you accountable for your own writing goals–rather than commiserate with you.
What I’m going to do about it: I’m going to start spending time with writers who attack their work with zeal and gusto. I’m going to encourage my close friends to keep me accountable for my writing, to ask me about it, and make me feel that gnawing sense of shame anyone feels when she does not do what she declared that she would. I’m going to join a community of writers and learn and practice ways to make writing a way of life–a great and happy life. A great place to do that would be The Writers Junction here in Santa Monica, but their membership is not in my budget right now, so the beautiful Santa Monica Public Library it is!
5. Writers are depending on inspiration rather than discipline.
As Steven Pressfield chants in his book The War of Art, writers and all creative people are constantly and consistently going to be faced with Resistance to pursuing their craft. That’s just the way this world works. Rather than writing only when one is filled with the magical essence of inspiration, writers must make it a daily habit, one that if left undone, makes you feel uncomfortable and unbalanced–like how you would feel after not brushing your teeth for an entire day. You see, we writers cannot wait until we feel good to write. We must write to feel good.
What I’m going to do about it: Since I work for myself currently and run my own schedule, I’m going to schedule an hour every morning, an hour every afternoon, and an hour every evening for me to write. Something. Anything. I’ll give myself 4 slots off each week so that I have some flexibility in my schedule and don’t turn into a complete recluse (although I’m already three-quarters there even without consistently writing). It’s the first step to me giving writing its rightful place in my schedule–not as something that I do at 12:35 in the morning because my anxiety and racing thoughts won’t let me sleep–but something I do as naturally and regularly as breathing. And really, any writer will tell you, writing feels just like that. Breathing.