Portrait of the Writer as a Crazed Junkie

I just read this article in The New York Observer. This, in particular:

Yet, still, the dreamers dream. Brendan Sullivan, 25, moved to New York after studying creative writing at Kenyon College in Ohio.

He hasn’t landed a book deal for his novel, but is determined to find a publisher. “Writing has ruined my life and cost me many, many girlfriends,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I have thrown away several careers and one college degree to spend my time working in bars, D.J.’ing in bars and drinking my rejection letters away. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy, and I’ve made many of them since I started …. I also abandoned my agent with words harsher than those I’ve saved for lost loves.”

Mr. Sullivan has held 27 jobs to support his writing career, from selling chapstick on the street to being a night guard in an art gallery (“That was my favorite job ever, because I just sat in a chair and read novels all day,” Mr. Sullivan added.)

He is currently working on his second novel. His first one, well, “There are eight drafts of it—they’re in my basement right now,” he said in a phone interview from his Fort Greene apartment. He trashed the novel after he got into a public fight with his first agent and decided to start anew. “You have to learn how to suppress your gag reflex in order to get anything out. Like in love, you make a lot of mistakes and you learn from them.”

I’m sorry, but I’m really sick of the self-perpetuating myth that authors must be a shade saner than Vincent Van Gogh to create “true” art. This entire article feeds it by interviewing absolutely zero (of the many, many) authors who have managed to eke out successful, fulfilling careers while maintaining their friends and sanity. Lots of these authors might have never quit their day job, because it’s true that most writing doesn’t even cover the celebratory dinner. I daresay that most writers aren’t hermits in their apartments, buried under books and subsisting on nothing but coffee and Hostess cakes. Okay, they might do that, and they might have panic attacks over their lives and their writing and whether or not any of it is any good (hey, it’s all familiar), but that doesn’t mean they’re bound for Bellevue. That doesn’t mean that plenty of people with “normal” jobs don’t experience the same self-doubt and anxiety. I just wish that writers (and journalists) would stop elevating themselves on this strange pedestal of special insanity. I guess writing an article about how “being a publicity assistant” ruined your life is less sexy, but I don’t think it’s fair to credit authors with such special sensitivities. It seems to insult the rest of the world by omission, that they don’t have enough artistic feeling to let the world hurt them as we do. And even worse, it implies that authors who haven’t gone half-mad are more artisans than artists. As someone who loves and writes genre fiction (note the utter absence of any of these writers from the article), this is a canard frequently lobbed our way. And to that I say: bullshit! Writing is intensely personal, and this group masturbatory exercise of parading your substance-rich eccentricities has as little to do with proof of artistry as voting Republican has to do with proof of moral character.

I think the cult of the writer as insane person is a relatively recent cultural meme. After all, visual artists have been popularly crazy for a while, but my impression is that writers were more celebrated figures– closer to rock stars than inmates. Closer to Warhol than Pollock. Take Fielding, Voltaire, Mark Twain, Alcott or Wilde. Famous, but not famously tortured. Even Dorothy Parker–while certainly tormented– was not famous because of it, but in spite of it. Before you object, absolutely none of this applies to poets, whom I’m perfectly aware have cultivated a fine cachet of artistic insanity for centuries.

Which brings me to Mr. Brendan Sullivan. Christ, could this guy sound more pretentious? Because talk about someone who’s trying too hard…it makes me wince to read. Writing has ruined his life, has it? Really? Really? This is a guy who can afford to go to one of the best colleges in the country (and, apparently, drop out of it to write) (ED: Yeah, I don’t know where the hell I got that idea from the article. Clearly, you can both graduate from a college and move to New York.), who can live in one of the most expensive cities in the world on odd-jobs (though you have to wonder why so many odd jobs…is he trying to lose them?), and can have an agent to publicly fire. Let alone, you know, eat food and surf the internet and read books and have girlfriends and watch TV, etc. Not to sound like your mother forcing you to eat your peas, but no one with his resources has any right saying that his life is ruined. You want to see a ruined life? Try here, or here, or here. Yes, I know it’s sometimes hard to gain perspective, but sheesh, can you at least make the attempt?

Yes, I obviously think that writing is difficult. Look at the title of this blog! But no matter how crazy I make myself, I do attempt to at least spare all but my closest friends my bouts of insanity. Why? Well, because I know it’s tedious. Everyone else has a hard life, too. I do think that the process of dedicating your life to writing does produce some strange quirks in people, and maybe one day I’ll write about it, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that those quirks make us somehow more special or artistic or worthy of attention. Garrison Keillor has said this about as well as anyone, so I’ll let him take the floor:

OK, let me say this once and get it off my chest and never mention it again. I have had it with writers who talk about how painful and harrowing and exhausting and almost impossible it is for them to put words on paper and how they pace a hole in the carpet, anguish writ large on their marshmallow faces, and feel lucky to have written an entire sentence or two by the end of the day.

It’s the purest form of arrogance: Lest you don’t notice what a brilliant artist I am, let me tell you how I agonize over my work. To which I say: Get a job. Try teaching eighth-grade English, five classes a day, 35 kids in a class, from September to June, and then tell us about suffering.

I’ll drink to that.

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4 thoughts on “Portrait of the Writer as a Crazed Junkie

  1. kwable says:

    Well ranted. I lead a rather comfortable life and consider myself a writer because I’m happy to report that allowing your mind to cross-over into the darker parts of the human experience has no harmful physical ramifications other than those that are self-inflicted. In sum, writing can be a healthy experience that some people are just better at than others.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. The writer as a tortured artist is so over-played (and too often admired). I’m a struggling writer trying to find my audience and create a compelling voice, but I LOVE THE ACT OF WRITING and find it quite peaceful and enjoyable even when my writing is normally very dark or I have to “suffer” through bouts or writer’s block. I lead a very normal life with a decent full-time job while I continue to hone my skills and find my way. The type of image this Mr. Sullivan plays is just a cry for attention in my mind.

  3. Chesya Burke says:

    Nice post. I read this article. Amazing how all of these peoples’ lives were ruined by writing/publishing. I have to wonder if they were ever actually writers, of if they simply wanted to have written.

  4. Aly D says:

    I graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in English and an emphasis in creative writing (there is no degree in creative writing, so “studying” creative writing means “taking a creative writing course”). I was in a creative writing class with Mr. Sullivan. The Kenyon alumni bulletin has already done one truly obnoxious article with him as one of its zany/quirky subjects. All I can say to you is: Thank you, thank you, thank you. P.S. I’m an English/LA teacher from a long line of them, and the Garrison Keillor quote was the perfect way to end your very well-written entry.

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