A version of this article appeared in Books and Culture, Sept/Oct 1996 issue.

It is not natural to write.  We are created to run and hunt and swim and make love but not to sit hunched with a piece of paper and some ink scribbling hieroglyphs. And when we do it, it is an act of rebellion against God himself, who did not design us to do that.   —Carlos Fuentes

One year I joined a group of 20 other writers for a weekend gathering.  A nerdy bunch, we sat around and discussed such matters as the books we’d recently read, the particulars of our daily schedules, and the eccentric behavior we revert to in order to surmount the dreaded writer’s block.  Fascinating stuff.  A few non-writing spouses had tagged along, and toward the end of the gathering one of them, Thanne Wangerin, made this comment: “For the first time in my life I realize that Walt’s not the only crazy one!”

Thanne chose her words well: not “Walt’s not crazy,” rather he’s “not the only crazy one.”  Ever since that weekend I have made a study of the craziness of writers, a project vastly simplified by my being a writer.  I look in the mirror; I listen to my wife describe my life to other people; I talk to other writers. I also read books about writing, shelves full of books, the existence of which is a telling fact in itself: writers seem irresistibly drawn to writing about the act of writing, as if in tacit acknowledgment that they must defend and explain their aberrant behavior.

All my research points to a common diagnosis.  Like Carlos Fuentes, I believe writing to be an unnatural act (how, pray tell, does Fuentes make his living?), possibly a psychotic act, the kind of act our children should be protected from.  Hence in this age of victimization, in which left-handed Palestinian lesbians and other categories of the oppressed daily compete to raise our consciousness, I wish to direct your sympathy to writers, a neglected minority who are paid (not very well) to exercise their psychoses in public.

Do I use the word psychotic merely for dramatic effect?  Au contraire.  I have chosen that word for its clinical accuracy.  A psychotic cannot separate a false reality from true reality; this “impaired contact with reality” may express itself in delusion or hallucination or some other altered state experienced only by the psychotic person—a precise description of the writing act!  We writers make our living by creating a false reality.  We alone inhabit that solitary universe, exploring and domesticating it until the time comes for a publisher to entice other people to join us—by which time, of course, we’re merrily constructing another false reality.

Most of the time the solitary universe is far more interesting than the dull reality we live in.  (I will divulge a dirty little secret: writers lead astonishingly dull lives.) Often we get so caught up in the false reality that we lose track of which reality is real, or even which one we want to be real.

I remember working on a short story early one morning.  For three hours I strained to develop three-dimensional characters and purge all clichés from their dialogue.  A raw beginner at fiction, I was getting a terrific headache from the effort.  Naturally I used the excuse to stop writing and walk across the street to a coffee shop.  (The combination of caffeine and not-writing, I have learned, works wonders for headaches.)  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that all the people in the coffee shop were two-dimensional characters who talked in clichés!  None of them seemed nearly as interesting to me as the people who populated my story.  Forfeiting a free coffee refill, I fled back to the security of the false reality awaiting me (and only me) in my basement office.

It should surprise no one that the life of the writer—such as it is—is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation. Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world.  This explains why so many books describe the author’s childhood.  A writer’s childhood may well have been the occasion of his only firsthand experience. Writers read literary biography, and surround themselves with other writers, deliberately to enforce in themselves the ludicrous notion that a reasonable option for occupying yourself on the planet until your life span plays itself out is sitting in a small room for the duration, in the company of pieces of paper.   —Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard knows the dirty little secret about writers. She understands that those of us who write about life have very little energy left over actually to live.  Most of us, in fact, aren’t very well equipped to live—we prefer sitting in small rooms in the company of pieces of paper. Writing is “a way of escape,” says Brian Moore: “It’s a way of not thinking about what I haven’t done with my life.”

From the letters I receive, and from stray comments I pick up at parties and book-signings, I gather that people have a glamorized image of a writer’s life. These people have never sat and watched a writer staring at a thesaurus for fifteen minutes in search of one word.  Philip Roth, in Zuckerman Bound, gives a perfect description of my daily routine.  “I turn sentences around.  That’s my life. I write a sentence and I turn it around.  Then I look at it and I turn it around again.  Then I have lunch.  Then I come back in and write another sentence.  Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around.  Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around.  Then I lie down on my sofa and think.  Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.”  You got it, Roth.

Oh, there are exceptions, of course—Hemingway fighting the bulls and George Plimpton fighting the Detroit Lions—but in general very little happens to a writer.  Now do you understand why we put so much emphasis on artificial reality?  Our actual reality is insufferably dull.  A Federal Express delivery is far and away the most dramatic event in my day.

The psychosis involved in writing, in fact, spins off from this collision of realities. Any freshman-level writing course will teach you that good writing must incorporate two elements.  First, it includes materiality. “Use image-bearing words!” cries the professor to her slumberous students. “Make the reader see, smell, taste, touch, hear. As Kafka said, Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of moonlight on crystal!”

Second, good writing involves a narrative thread, usually woven in with time cues.  Once upon a time the classic myths begin; In the beginning opens the Bible.  These time cues build in suspense and pull the reader along.  Because we want to find out what happens next, we turn the page.

The very act of writing, however, jumbles both these elements.  First, we work in dull offices, void of materiality.  Windowless concrete-block cells work best; anything more might distract.  From this deprived reality we weave the rainbow of our artificial universe.

Annie Dillard advises,

Write about winter in the summer.  Describe Norway as Ibsen did, from a desk in Italy; describe Dublin as James Joyce did, from a desk in Paris.  Willa Cather wrote her prairie novels in New York City; Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in Hartford, Connecticut.  Recently, scholars learned that Walt Whitman rarely left his room.

Besides trying to render the riches of materiality from dull surroundings, we concoct a narrative sequence while living in a time warp.  A dialogue that actors recite in ten minutes onstage may take a playwright ten days to polish.  Thus we fabricate the semblance of time and materiality while disconnected from them both.  Alas, writing is perilously counter-intuitive.

When a person writes about religious faith, new complications arise.  The two realities strive mightily against each other, for writing requires an obsessive self-centeredness that confutes the sublime self-surrender every pilgrim seeks.  The act of writing interferes with pure mysticism just as in physics the act of observing interferes with molecular activity.  Ever try writing a prayer to God without wondering how it will sound to potential readers?  Augustine of Hippo wrote a personal journal addressed to God that became a manual for the church for a thousand years.  I can’t help wondering how often he let future readers influence the editing process.

We writers who inhabit our solitary universes, like monks in caves, cannot avoid sneaking a thought or two about the visitors outside our caves.  What will they see when we invite them in?  And do we decorate our caves with them in mind?

Dr. Johnson needed a purring cat, orange peel and plenty of tea…Zola pulled the blinds at midday—wrote best in artificial light…Proust constructed a soundproof room…Schiller kept apples rotting in his desk…Descartes worked in bed; Immanuel Kant was quite disturbed when some trees grew up and hid the tower which he used as a mental focus while writing Critique of Pure Reason so the authorities cut down the trees.            —T. Sharper Knowlson

Writers cope with psychosis by becoming eccentrics.  We develop odd, unnatural habits to help ourselves deal with this odd, unnatural act of writing.  Many writers smoke, drink coffee all day, or become alcoholics; perhaps in an attempt to reconnect to the world of materiality, our hands instinctively want to grasp some real object.  “I drank coffee in titrated doses,” writes Annie Dillard about her routine.  “It was a tricky business, requiring the finely tuned judgment of a skilled anesthesiologist.  There was a tiny range within which coffee was effective, short of which it was useless, and beyond which, fatal.”

Every writer refines time-wasting techniques in order to delay the writing process.  The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein reveals one of her favorites: “I turn the typewriter on and immediately realize I must get up and change bathrobes.  The one I’m wearing is far too itchy…Obviously I have to spend 30 minutes looking for my moley Dartmouth sweatshirt, the really comfortable one, the only one I can write in.”

When I lived in Chicago I would set out on a “short stroll just around the block” that would somehow turn into a two-hour urban adventure.  Or, I would decide to write in a coffee shop suffused with the sounds and smells and sights of humanity in hopes that the ambience would help me re-connect to the real world.  This rarely worked, because of all the distractions.  Then I would return to my basement office and light a fire in the fireplace.  I had paid an exorbitant amount of money to install this fireplace in my basement because I wanted it to produce a nice smell and give my body something to do every half hour when the logs needed poking.

Now that I live in Colorado, I study weather patterns on the mountains, jump up to identify every new bird on the birdfeeder, change the water in the birdbath, and take two-hour “short strolls” on the hills behind our home—anything to avoid writing.  (I have just interrupted this paragraph to watch two innings of a meaningless Atlanta Braves baseball game).

Flannery O’Connor used to say that she spent three hours a day working and the rest of the day getting over it.  We desperately seek ways to bring together our real and artificial worlds, yet in the end we must simply abandon the effort, withdraw from the external world, and climb inside the sealed spaceship that is our article, poem, novel, or essay.  We live on its artificial oxygen until we can tolerate it no longer, then we emerge gasping and choking to find that the real world has gone on without us.

After a week of intense writing, I feel a need for “social re-entry”: on Friday I go out to dinner with my wife and another couple and find that I have lost the skills of knowing how to slide in and out of conversation.  Every time I open my mouth I seem to be interrupting.  I sit mute, dazed, staring at all the people who know what to do and say in this strange world out here—a world where people speak on their own without my having to write their dialogue.  (Usually by Sunday I have recovered, just in time to return to my artificial reality.)

Brain scans reveal that aloneness is central to the creative impulse; sensory deprivation allows the synaptic loops in the inner brain that lead to creativity. Yet that very aloneness feeds the psychosis. Writers present themselves as ornery characters who don’t like to be disturbed, but most writers I know work with one ear cocked toward the phone and read the mail within an hour of its arrival.  Our hearts desire to connect to people out there even as our heads remind us that the more we do so the less we write: in the cure lies the disease.

The movie Shadowlands showed C. S. Lewis tutoring a wild young student whose father had told him, “We read to know we’re not alone.”  From my writer’s perspective I edit that to “We write in desperate hope that we’re not alone.”

When one stands as you do in so intensely personal a relationship to one’s lifework, one cannot really expect to keep one’s friends… Friends are an expensive luxury.   —Henrik Ibsen

Are you feeling compassion yet? Can you understand that the writer’s psychosis is a more or less healthy reaction to a decidedly unnatural act?  Would you like to hear more?  If I could see some dim glint of pity in your eye—the writer’s curse: not only can I not read your eye, I cannot detect if you’re still reading this!—I could tell you so much more.

Reach for a Kleenex.  Would you like to hear of the writer’s internal strife?  In an odd inversion of nature, each of us must bear both mother and father in the creative womb.  We need the warm, supportive, forgiving mother who encourages us to make it through the first draft no matter how lousy it reads; yet we cannot succeed without the harsh authoritarian father who makes us go over and over the manuscript until we get it right.

And let me tell you about the life of a disembodied observer.  You are who you are, one hopes; but a writer dare not attain such normalcy.  We cannot freely project our own personalities onto the world, for that would interfere with our craft.  Listen to Thomas Mann on this particular dilemma:

As a man, you might be well-disposed, patient, loving, positive, and have a wholly uncritical inclination to look upon everything as all right, but as artist your daemon constrains you to “observe,” to take note, lightning fast and with hurtful malice, of every detail that in the literary sense would be characteristic, distinctive, significant, opening insights, typifying the race, the social or the psychological mode, recording all as mercilessly as though you had no human relationship to the observed object whatever.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described the flip side of this self-repressive syndrome.  Serving time in a minimum-security prison, he found himself thrust in with a despicable roommate, a kleptomaniac former KGB colonel who now acted as a stoolpigeon for the guards.  Solzhenitsyn got himself transferred to another room, only to regret it mightily when he realized he needed exactly that kind of slimy character for a novel he was working on (The First Circle). He had just forfeited his best chance to observe a human slimeball at close range.

The Christian writer may find that this posture of merciless observation troubles the conscience.  French playwright Jean Baptiste Racine wrote wicked dramas about the deviance of his worldly friends until contact with the pious Jansenists persuaded him to change his friends.  Abruptly, he quit writing, unable to combine his art and faith.  Most critics view T. S. Eliot’s plays a failure, in contrast to his poetry, and one of them speculates why: Eliot fell for one of the occupational hazards of the Christian artist.  His harsh, cynical laughter at human stupidity and pride gave way to compassion, and good drama can only be forged from conflict.

Even as I write about the stance of a “neutral observer,” a voice inside me—my conscience—reminds me that the whole attempt is delusional.  I am by no means neutral.  Though I may cast myself as objective, the very I who does the casting is blinded by prejudice and subjectivity.  John Cheever the alcoholic writes about his alcoholism; clinically depressed William Styron writes about his depression.  And I, as a Christian, write about sin and doubt.  How do I keep from sinning and doubting as I do so?  How would I know?

The writer, according to Shusaku Endo, must “look at things that are best left unseen.”  Yes, that is why I write about my sin and my doubts.  The process takes a toll, however: the artist who gives himself wholly to his work may end up robbed and poor.  When I write about myself, I feel as if I am donating body parts in advance, before death.  Yet I cannot stop the donations.  That which cuts most deeply into myself is what the readers want and also, perversely, what I want.

“All sorrows can be borne, if you put them into a story or tell a story about them,” said Isak Dinesen. Everything that happens—and remember, not much does happen to a writer—becomes subject material.  Bernard Malamud was asked about suffering.  He said, “I’m against it but when it occurs why waste the experience?”  After reading that sentence I recalled with a start that I have written three books about pain.

We would-be novelists have a reach as shallow as our skins.  We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves.  —John Updike

I used to be normal.  For eight years I worked as an editor in a magazine office.  I went to work and collected a paycheck in exchange for shuffling papers from a box labeled IN to a box labeled OUT. I measured my daily productivity by how many papers I moved from one box to the other.  People surrounded me, some of whom reported to me, and some of whom supervised me.  Never did I go home tormented by ultimate questions about my identity.  I knew who I was, and the title on my door proclaimed it to the world.

Now, as a full-time writer, I must invent my identity anew each day.  I am surrounded by birds and chipmunks, but no people.  No one sees what I do until months after the fact.  Only I can measure my productivity, and that is a daunting task: if it takes me two years to write a book, I must gauge whether or not I fulfilled 1/730th of my task on a given day.

I have been working at this strange career for almost 20 years.  I have learned to live with the permanent state of discontent that plagues every writer, with the sense of alienation from people, with a terminal case of self-doubt about my identity and productivity.  I have even learned to turn my paranoid self-reflection into material for my writing: witness this article.

Along the way, my writer’s life has taken over my real life.  I sometimes wonder, If I did not write, would I even exist? My wife resents it when she learns something new about me from my writing; she has the quaint notion that a person should live actually and not vicariously, that two people should communicate through body language and conversation, not between the covers of a magazine or book.  Intellectually, I agree with her, but often I find that my life takes on existence only as I write.  How do I know what I think or feel unless I open my laptop and begin to write about it?

By journalistic background, I have a more eventful life than many writers.  I have traveled to places like Somalia and Russia and India and New Zealand—always to collect material for writing, of course.  I stood in a refugee camp in Somalia at the height of the starvation crisis.  Thirty thousand people lived in makeshift tents in that desert camp, and 40 to 50 babies were dying each day.  Never have I felt more helpless.  Nurses were attaching IV’s, doctors were administering antibiotics, and chaplains were burying the dead.  I, a journalist who had flown 7000 miles to join them, stood alongside scribbling notes and taking photos.  Never had my job seemed more vicarious, my existence more peripheral.

But vicariousness is, after all, a writer’s business.  Although not everyone can visit a refugee camp in Somalia, if I do my job well enough you will have the sense of what it is like.  You also may be motivated to give money to help the relief workers toiling there—or at least to pray.  I spent ten days in Russia and wrote a short book about it.  There too I felt helpless, as I first observed and then walked away from a nation in dire need at one of the most crucial moments in modern history.  Since then, however, three people have written to tell me that they volunteered to work in Eastern Europe because of what I wrote.

“The aim of every artist,” said William Faulkner, “is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.  Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal since it will always move.  This is the artist’s way of scribbling ‘Kilroy was here’ on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion  through which he must someday pass.”

Faulkner is eloquent, but I prefer John Updike’s image, of a snail excreting a faint thread of itself for others to come across and study—an image that certainly lowers the writer’s pretensions.

First of all, if you want to write, write.  And second, don’t do it.  It’s the loneliest, most depressing work you can do.   —Walker Percy

So why do we persist in this psychotic act?  Updike and Faulkner have hinted at the existential reason, of leaving some trace of ourselves for others who will follow.  I tend to think the reason is more primal: like any psychotic, we do it because we can’t help it.  Psychotics think you’re the abnormal and deprived one because you cannot penetrate their hidden, private world.

“What is a Poet?” asked Kierkegaard.  “A poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and the cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music…”  I would add that occasionally the very escaping of the sighs and cries can serve as balm for the poet himself or herself.  Sometimes the disconnected act of writing allows the writer to connect fragments of childhood, shards of relationships, splinters of faith, and mend them together in a way that could not have been achieved apart from writing.  Then writing can become a healing act.

We are all of us disconnected beings—from God, from each other, from ourselves.  Writing does not cause the disconnection, it merely exposes it.  As in medicine, diagnosis must precede any cure.

“Writing is a form of therapy,” said Graham Greene.  “Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.”  Now there’s a novel way of looking at it…is not writing the truly psychotic act?

Copyright © 1996 by Philip Yancey