The Myth of the Tortured Writer

don’t know how far back the myth of the tortured writer would have to travel to find its father, but I do wonder about its birthright and question how much harm it has done in relation to the good. I know it’s a myth that kept me from spilling ink at least two decades too long.

I believe James Joyce is the hero in the legend of the writer who retired to a secluded upstairs room in his local tavern, only to descend sometime around midnight after shunning the sun, revealing he’d just finished the single most fruitful day of writing of his entire life. After spending the daylight wrestling with his inner demons, he had finally managed to lay down that one perfect sentence.

I was in high school the first time I heard that story, still young enough to mistake conceit for cool.

Writing isn’t a chore. It can be difficult, sure, but so are most things worth doing and nearly any skill worth sharpening. Architecture, engineering, medicine, law; bowling, juggling, running, magic; all are difficult, but no one refers to those at the top as tortured. Great writing takes skill, patience and dedication, but I’ve no idea why creative writing is considered such a harrowing endeavor. That type of thinking, and its somewhat viral spread, is precisely what kept me penned from the pen for so long; an idea I explored in greater detail during my Copyblogger debut late last year.

Writing should be fun. If it isn’t, perhaps it isn’t for you. I never understood the image of the pained and tortured writer, tearing clumps from their hairline as they face the impossible foe of filling the page, pulling sentences from their minds like ore from the deepest corners of a mineshaft.

My apologies to the world’s grand population of tortured writers, but to me this thinking is a bit arrogant – as though the brilliance of a writer’s words are worthy of such agony. Perhaps I am speaking specifically to the classic inebriated writer, wasting away as they eek through insurmountable emotional agony and too many adverbs. Sure writing is difficult, but so is driving a car or walking a dog… when you’re drunk.

Perhaps those writers should try to assemble a widget when wasted and see how well their digits can dance.

It seems as though complaining about the torture of writing allows writers to place themselves on a pedestal while encouraging younger generations to either throw in the towel or genuflect at their feet. Many in this class of writers seem to view themselves as stolid soldiers in an unending army of highly dysfunctional people – each an addict to a million pats upon their ego that they endlessly pursue like withdrawn lovers, forever doomed to disappointment when they fail to receive the endless accolades their minds have imagined.

I’m a writer. I write every day of the year. Even when I have no pending client work cluttering my desk, I never allow the sun to set without the jotted thoughts of my day, for the best moments of each earthly orbit should never be abandoned. Of course I carry my own quirks and struggles. Writing isn’t always as fluid as I like, clients aren’t always as easy as I hope, and my string of successes and mountains of money are no doubt a tad late to the party. But I would never call myself tortured. Writing is expression and I’ve found myself fortunate enough, midway through my third decade, to find the pleasure of doing it for a living.

Torture is most certainly not a prerequisite of genius. It is often the tortured souls who garner the attention, but for every one of them, there are a countless number of high functioning ordinary men and woman who succeed in living off the written word because they read, write, refuse to quit, and endlessly repeat.

Creativity is a garden that only grows with nutrients in the soil and sunlight in the sky. Ideas are seeds, eager to spread and germinate deep within a fertile mind. The best method to finding your best writer is to practice your craft. Complaints not included.

The Inkwell’s resident tortured artist (and scarred side of my silver dollar) apparently has a different opinion. We’ll probably hear him get all angry on Wednesday.

Community Inkwell Community Question: Am I being a curmudgeon, or is the myth of the tortured writer a tad ridiculous?

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56 responses to The Myth of the Tortured Writer

  1. Tim Woods - LifeCraft: Lifestyle Design Resources

    I completely agree. I think Hemingway and others used this idea as part of their image, to romanticize what is really a negative approach to living, not just writing. You’re quite right that this idea can really lead people off the path. And quite to the contrary, writing can be as much a process of releasing us from burdens, as we reveal ourselves to ourselves through the craft. I suppose to some this CAN be a torturous experience. I met a woman in a British Columbia writers group who began remembering episodes of incest from her childhood through free writing. But even this woman appreciated the difficulty as a necessary evil. This is the power of writing. Serious stuff.

    Tim Woods – LifeCraft: Lifestyle Design Resources’s last blog post..Inside the Mind of Roger Federer: The Mental Advantage of a Tennis Legend

    • Sean

      Absolutely right! Though it makes sense. By stepping into character, writers are able to inflate their own mystique – always a boon to selling books. And yes, of course writing can bleed no different than an open wound, but I find it difficult to believe in the writers who feel this pain page after unrelenting page.

      Sean’s last blog post..Finding My Friday Again

  2. janice

    A good thought provoking one, Sean.

    I have an older friend who’s a published author, an expert in his field and a nationally respected writer. I’ve seen him go through painful phases, usually brought on by financial difficulties, and we’ve had many an argument when I’ve suggested he ghostwrite or do something ‘more popular’ to bring in buffer cash. The cause of some writers’ problems is integrity, an unwillngness to ‘sell out’ as they see it. That’s why we always have to know why we write; it makes a difference if we’re writing to earn, to simply express ourselves, to become famous or to serve. Like you, Sean, I believe that writers write, and there’s a lot of different writing we can do if we want to make a living from it as well as stay true to our deepest dreams.

    janice’s last blog post..Take Time to Treasure What’s Important

  3. Trina

    I see someone who thinks outside the box, generating a paradigm shift.Way to not confine yourself.
    I think being a totured genius at anything is quite likely very limiting, and unfufilling. What genius could be further shared, if only allowed to develop?

  4. Vered - MomGrind

    I agree! I write full time now, and I’m happier than ever professionally, because I get to be creative and express myself and do something that I enjoy doing (as opposed to, say, arguing in court).

    Vered – MomGrind’s last blog post..Truth In Advertising

  5. Randi

    I’ve never had a tortured day of writing in my life. It’s always been enjoyable to me. The highlight for me is never if I get paid, or if I have a gaggle of readers. It’s been when I have one person say, “That was funny,” or “I wanted to cry.” It’s hard for me to consider writing tortuous when my fingers usually do all the writing once I let them know the topic. I just go along for the ride.

    Randi’s last blog post..Sunday Serenity 6-28-09

  6. Lori Hoeck

    I’ve been the tortured writer, bleeding words onto the page during a depressive stage, and I’ve been the weekly newspaper reporter hammering out features with regularity. Neither works for me anymore. I prefer to write from a happier, freer place.

    Lori Hoeck’s last blog post..How our intuition warns of danger

    • Sean

      I’m pretty close to the reporter now – constantly hammering out content, but I am SO looking forward to the day when I can write for me and an audience. I think about it every other moment.

      Sean’s last blog post..Finding My Friday Again

    • Sean

      What about for yourself or a loved one? Do you consider it fun at all? From my perspective, their should be some element of fun to tapping creativity. Otherwise, what’s the point?

    • Sean

      I hear that. I used to write pages and pages for myself every day. Now that I write for a living, I’m lucky to give myself ten minutes. Those ten minutes however, are like a religion.

  7. veron graham

    Way to add some perspective to the world of writers. I’ve recently realized how powerful writing can actually be as a spiritual practice. It’s allowed me to better understand the truth about myself, and the world around me. The only torture I seem to endure is negotiating with myself to actually sit down and start actually writing. Once that arduous task has been completed, the adventure begins.

    Glad I stumbled into this site today!

    veron graham’s last blog post..Detectives Wanted

    • Sean

      Me too! Glad to have you, Veron. It’s true, I’ve learned more about myself in the last year since I started writing then in the three plus decades prior. No doubt about it.

  8. Michelle

    There is no line in your post I agree with more than this:

    “Writing should be fun.”

    In the case of fiction writing, I know there are times when I want to tear my hair out over my story because I have no idea what happens next, but those times are far outweighed by the sheer glee of it when the words flow well. When that happens, I get crazy-giddy over it and the only thing that can get me away from the keyboard is sheer exhaustion.

    Writing should be fun. You should enjoy it. Otherwise…man, why would you put yourself through it?

    Michelle’s last blog post..Seven More Writing Mistakes You Shouldn’t Make

    • Sean

      EXACTLY. If there’s no fun, why bother? If it was never hard, then it probably wouldn’t be worth it. But all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. If it’s constant torture, move on to something that at least makes you smile.

  9. becky

    I think you have the myth of the tortured writer backwards. The writer isn’t tortured because he/she finds writing difficult. The “torture” part comes from the pre-existing torment that already burns in the soul of the great artist, writer, jazz musician, etc etc. The idea is that the artist/writer is so depressed/tormented/bipolar/heartbroken that he/she creates greater art than he/she would have otherwise. The quintessential example is Van Gogh — people will forever debate whether he would have created such great paintings if he had been medicated with Prozac or an antipsychotic. Same with Joyce, Beckett, Sartre, Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton, Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, and so many more depressed writers (most of them on that list killed themselves). They didn’t kill themselves because they found writing difficult.

    They found LIFE difficult.

    Writing is often the solace, the secret lover, the medication, the friend who always listens. Having gone through a long period of darkness (6 years of heroin addiction) I can say that there were many times when writing was my only consolation, and I don’t think I would have made it out alive without writing. Am I a tormented writer? Maybe. Maybe I used to be. But I have ALWAYS loved the writing itself — some of the time it was the ONLY thing I enjoyed, when everything was completely dark.

    There are plenty of writers who are not tormented, who are joyful and happy. I am one of them — now. (I’m in journalism school.) But some of my best writing was done when I was at the lowest, darkest points of my life. It was unbearable, and I almost killed myself so many times. I would never go down that path again just to create good writing. But I do feel that I understand the “myth of the tortured writer.”

    I hope this clarifies some of it for you.

    becky’s last blog post..this is america, after all. identity is our work of art.

    • Sean

      The comments on this post are awesome. Thank you so much, Becky, for sharing. You are absolutely correct with everything you’ve shared. May I ask though, do you feel that some artists play up the pain in order to mystify themselves.

      Obviously Cobain wasn’t pretending, but how may Nirvanabees following him slipped into the guise of the tortured songster? Perhaps some of those people could have generated wonderful art if they had only allowed the tortured writer to fade.

  10. Catherine

    I think this post misses the point. If you want to make truly good art – art that will stand the test of time and be read 1000’s of years from now – one has to have looked deeply and profoundly at ones own demons. This is necessarily a painful process, whether or not the writing comes easy or is hard won.

    • Sean

      Hi Catherine,

      I don’t miss the point at all. I just reject the idea that truly good art must only reflect our demons. I believe that truly good art must reflect the human experience, show us in some way what it means to be human by revealing our universal truths at their most elemental. To accept your premise, a happy person cannot create true art and that is a shadow I don’t believe art deserves to live under. Mark Twain was not tortured, does that make him less of an artist than Poe?

  11. Tumblemoose

    Ok, so I got behind and so I ended up at the “reality” post first.

    Oh well.

    Some artists feel that if there is no suffering then there is no art. Phooey says I.

    While nonfirction is fluid and easy for me, fiction is a big struggle. But I’m not being waterboarded for Pete’s sake. It’s just harder.


    Tumblemoose’s last blog post..Is your writing blog a success?

  12. Alisa Bowman

    Writing is the #1 thing that brings me joy. It’s like solving a problem. I lose time when I write. I get the shakes when I don’t do it. Almost an addiction. Yes, parts of it are hard, but hell. Compared to anything else I could do for a living? NOT HARD.

    Alisa Bowman’s last blog post..Can a cheating spouse ever reform?

    • Writer Dad

      See, that’s it. Right there – it isn’t that writing isn’t difficult. Sure, there are days it CAN be miserable. But what job is free from misery 100% of the time. Bottom line, writing is better than most jobs and those of us lucky enough to do it should celebrate.

      Writer Dad’s last blog post..Finding My Friday Again

  13. Tortured Writers and Awesome Dialogue

    […] Monday, I wrote a post called, “The Myth of the Tortured Writer.” Today, Dave followed it up with his post, “Reality of the tortured […]

  14. becky

    Hi again. One more thing — it has always mystified me when I look at “writing books” and it seems like half the book is supposed to “inspire” you to write. Like, ideas to think about, places to go to write, writing “rituals” to try. Many of these books make it sound like finding ideas for writing, and the writing itself, is this enigma, so hard to figure out or accomplish. I do not understand — if you don’t like writing or can’t think of any good ideas or can’t sit down and write a page, why on earth would you even attempt to be a writer? It’s not like it pays well, or gives fame and fortune. The reason I write is because I CAN’T not write.

    Also, as far as Catherine’s comment, I think a lot of good writing IS about suffering. But a lot of good writing is also about joyful moments, appreciation of beauty and life, recording memories… there’s so much about writing that doesn’t have to be related to pain.

    When I tell people “my story” (about being a heroin addict), many people are strangely intrigued and drawn to me, and want to know more. They often see in me that “tortured artist” they imagine creating great art, and they want me to live up to their fantasy of the artist living on the edge, finding material for art in the dangerous and exciting margin of society… they don’t want to hear how monotonous and soul-killing it is to do drugs every day, all day. They want to hear the police chase stories, the overdoses, etc. People definitely have a romanticized view of all this. Not just drugs, but suffering and painful experiences in general — when viewed from the outside, at least. Living through it is not romantic at all.

    I think that a lot of people who want to be a Writer with a capital W — not people who just love to write, but people who are perpetuating this myth — believe that they need to suffer to write well. It’s even worse for music — I can’t even count how many musician friends I have who supposedly envy my heroin experience because of my street cred and edgy authenticity. It’s such a bunch of BS, though. I wrote well before my life fell apart, and I could have written a hell of a lot more if I hadn’t done a bunch of stupid things. People need to stop glorifying this false idea of The Writer or The Artist and just work on being a better craftsperson.

    becky’s last blog post..this is america, after all. identity is our work of art.

  15. Writer Dad

    Awesome Becky. I don’t know if that could be said any better. It is true – a LOT of people want to be a writer with a capital W. Writing can equal suffering, but it NEVER has to. I’m off to tweet your capital W line. It’s perfect.

    Writer Dad’s last blog post..Finding My Friday Again

  16. Bonnie Gray | JustPeachyBabyBlog

    I’m with Becky. I write because I can’t not write.

    Tortured is the last thing on my mind when thinking of myself as a writer. Writing is an inspirational endeavor, to express oneself and find others through that expression.

    There are parts of writing that definitely keep me up at night, burning the midnight oil. Like wanting to get the words just right to align with my intention. And sure, there’ve been days where I just can’t shake that certain feeling that I gotta go back and rewrite AGAIN. It’s like a heavy coat pressing against me when I’m got in a thunderstorm, pelted by the rain.

    The editing process may be torturous, but it’s a necessary trial to get to the final judgment of finished and euphoria.

    Bonnie Gray | JustPeachyBabyBlog’s last blog post..A Twittering Twig Am I: My Two Cents on Twitter

    • Sean

      I’m constantly writing, often past midnight, but it’s far from torture. I have a feeling that I would be attending to whatever my work was at those hours, regardless of my profession.

      Yeah, editing can be wretched. Not ever as much fun as writing. Unless it’s editing Available Darkness. That’s about as fun as it gets.

      Sean’s last blog post..DAD!

  17. Kool Aid

    Sean, I love how you integrate standing up for your beliefs as well as seeing others’ points of view. Commendable.

    I don’t really feel that I have a response as a writer because I still don’t really consider myself one. My creativity comes out in art. I have Bachelor’s in Fine Arts and would consider myself to be an artist. I was never the “tortured” artist (but often the “starving” artist). I might have been tortured by a particular assignment or get frustrated with the medium, but never was I the deep, dark, depressed artist like Pollock or Van Gogh. Even when I was going through hard times, I found solitude and sanctuary in my art.

    Even now, when I paint murals, I find myself giddy to have the paint glide on the walls under my touch, watching the colors blend and dance before my eyes. I can’t imagine finding torture in that.

    Kool Aid’s last blog post..Bagging groceries, or how not to bruise my bananas

    • Sean

      Kool Aid – first off you are a writer. Just because it isn’t your primary medium doesn’t mean it’s value is in any way diminished. Second, I know exactly how you feel. There is something releasing in the dance of the fingers on the keys or the roll of the pen tip across the paper. Art, for me, is far more escape than torture.

      Sean’s last blog post..DAD!

  18. Kristin T. (@kt_writes)

    I agree, Sean! It’s writing that KEEPS me from being tortured. It also allows me to explore, dream, experiment and see things in new ways.

    I do believe that writing well takes a lot of dedication and pure time devoted to the practice (can you tell I’m a fan of “Outliers”?), but I certainly don’t feel that the hours I spend writing are painful–even when I write about difficult things.

    Kristin T. (@kt_writes)’s last blog post..Tales I couldn’t tell without Facebook

    • Sean

      I LOVED Outliers! I’ve been wanting to write a review of that book for almost six months now. Sigh. Not enough time to write all I would love to write. Maybe someday.

      I agree that writing is cathartic. It was a prescription I didn’t even know I needed until I started taking it.

      Sean’s last blog post..DAD!

      • becky

        Yay Outliers!!! I love that book. I started a blog in 2001, and have been writing almost daily ever since. I calculated the time I’ve spent writing (taking time out for weeks I didn’t write as much) and figured I’ve written for at LEAST 10,000 hours. Especially if I include the time I spent writing research papers during my 3 1/2 years at my first college. It took me years of writing in my blog to feel comfortable with it, years more before I felt I was “a writer.” That’s when I realized maybe I could actually follow my dream to be a journalist. Which is what I’m doing now. In fact, I just got my first paying job, writing for a website about my city. I think Outliers is so spot on: Until a few months ago, I’d never been taught writing formally. The reason I can write well, and the reason I love to write, is the years of practice. It may seem monotonous for someone starting out to think, “I have to do this for 10,000 hours before I’ll be any good?” But when you love the writing/art/whatever, it’s not monotonous, and you will be such a better writer/artist when you come out the other end.

        becky’s last blog post..this is america, after all. identity is our work of art.

  19. Reader Feedback | Author Tips and Tricks

    […] difficult. What someone else says about your work can send you sailing or sink your spirits. Though some writers are more fragile than others are, the feedback will surely affect you in some […]

  20. Ann Sterzinger

    I think this article betrays a misunderstanding of the myth as people live it… I’m a tortured writer, but writing isn’t what tortures me. I love writing. What tortures me is everything else. You don’t have to be tortured to be a writer — and if you’re a happy person it would be foolish to stick a fork in your eye or something just to “improve” your writing — but whether your glass is half full or half empty does have a direct bearing on what kind of things you produce. I don’t think Franz Kafka would have been capable of writing Chicken Soup for the Soul no matter how hard he tried… and if she decided to start writing, I seriously doubt Oprah would turn her pen to psychological horror stories.

  21. Owen Jones

    I think the issue is the level of mental illness in writers. Mental illness is more prevalent in the creative professions, and most high in writers. So, Kafka for example, wrote for hours and hours, and truly loved writing, but he wrote so much because he was insomniac, he was insomniac because he had underlying disorders. Being ‘tortured’ doesn’t make you a genius, but it doesn’t negate your skill either. There are brilliant writers who suffer and there are those who don’t. I think it is such a prominent issue in writing because writing is almost always to some degree autobiographical.

    • DavidWwright Post Author

      Good points. I’d say I’m high on the depressive/disordered list while Sean is quite a happy well-adjusted guy.

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