The REALITY of the tortured writer


Note: This post serves as a counterpoint to Sean’s Monday post, The Myth of the Tortured Writer.

“There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.” – Maya Angelou

“I am a great artist and I know it. The reason I am great is because of all the suffering I have done.” – Paul Gauguin

Unlike my partner Sean Platt, who practically farts sunshine, I am a bit old school in my writing, in that I wear my misery on my sleeve, dammit.

I am a tortured artist!

In other words, I am brooding, contemplative and insist on working in seclusion. If I didn’t think I’d look silly, I’d probably wear all black all the time because it would certainly match the mental cloud pressing down on me. It’s not that I sit and feel sorry for myself, cut myself while listening to emo music or have thoughts of suicide. It’s a different sort of torture — self torture.

It’s the never quite measuring up to the goals I have set for myself. Never being the writer I wish I could be. Not being able to tell a story to perfection.

And that falling short eats at my soul.

Sean says that writing is not a chore.

I beg to differ. Writing can be a damned difficult chore, though I will admit that it beats the hell out of busting your ass at manual labor or having a monsterous boss hovering over your shoulder berating you every weekday.

I will not say that writing is fun, though. It IS work. Though, when writing fiction, it IS fun in the early stages, when a story is still a blank canvas of possibilities. Oh, how the mind wanders over the expansive plains of fertile imagination! The feeling of turning thoughts into form is amazing, perhaps the closest thing to transcending our mortal limitations that I can imagine.

However, there comes a point when the story becomes limited by the choices you have made, when it is less fluid and it stops being joyous and more like a difficult puzzle which must be solved. During these times, I find it impossible to put down the pen in my mind. While doing routine tasks or interacting with others, my mind is almost always churning, chipping away at the problem, eager to resolve it.

It is during these times that I find myself most craving solitude and least willing to suffer those who would stop my work.

I’ve had many a friend complain that I don’t hang out more. Truth is, I don’t have much time for friends. While I enjoy unplugging and just having fun from time to time, there is work to be done. Art takes time and given that we only have a finite number of years on this planet, I MUST be incredibly selfish with my allotment.

There is a biography about the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein subtitled The Duty of Genius which details Wittgenstein’s belief that those who are geniuses, and he included artists in this category, have a duty, an obligation, to share their gift with the world. That duty supersedes all of their own desires.

I might have subtitled the book The Burden of Genius as many, like Wittgenstein, pursue their duty to the exclusion of living normal lives. This burden has driven many artists to painful existences and could be why so many turn to drugs or other vices. There is an almost mythic romantic quality about the tortured artist which I can relate. In some way, the more an author has suffered for their work, the more their work is seeped with their hopes and dreams.

I’m not so egotistical as to believe I am a genius by any means, though. While I do feel some sense of duty of sharing these stories in me, mostly the motives are selfish.

I see my art, ironically enough, as a way to connect with others. In pushing away those closest to me, I am seeking to strengthen a connection with people I may never meet.

I don’t think that a writer HAS to suffer for their art.

Instead, I think that art attracts people who are antisocial, never quite fit in and feel a need to express themselves via other avenues. I know that’s the case with me, anyway. Perhaps this stems from a need for self validation to prove myself worthy. Perhaps it is the pleasure derived from knowing that my work extends beyond myself, making connections with people I will never know, perhaps even inspiring someone to dream up their own worlds.

So while I am miserable during half the process, there is an immense joy in achieving those connections, even if we never realize them in a tangible way. It is somewhat akin to the pains of raising a child versus the rewards.

So thank you to all those who suffer for their art. You do not suffer in vain.

Are you a tortured writer/artist? Weigh in with your thoughts on the matter in our comments below. Like this post? Please consider tweeting it.

23 responses to The REALITY of the tortured writer

  1. Icy

    I don’t like to think of, or describe, myself as a tortured writer but I can’t help thinking that this is what I am. I often find myself making excuses not to write because I’m so convinced that whatever I do write will be rubbish. This naturally tortures me because I want to write, or I feel that I need to write, and yet I’m denying myself this due to the whims of my ego. Then something happens and I find myself writing and I find myself ENJOYING the process of writing, and all of a sudden it becomes something with potential. Naturally I find myself crippled by thoughts of “what will happen if no one else likes it?” and the whole sorry cycle starts again…

    Icy’s last blog post..What is a good short story?

  2. janice

    “I see my art, ironically enough, as a way to connect with others. In pushing away those closest to me, I am seeking to strengthen a connection with people I may never meet.”

    And isn’t that a bummer if our best writing comes from the daily details of lives well-lived! This was a stunning post, Dave. I loved it all, but that line in particular made me want to reach my hands right into the screen, grab you by the shoulders, pull you into a hug, kiss your forehead, say Exactly! and plonk you back down.

    I’m now in the odd position of agreeing with both of you. I still dislike poseurs who wear the myth of tortured writing like a long black Neo coat – maybe because my writing self is actually one of my sunniest selves – but I empathise with your particular form of ‘tortured’. This is why your writing collaboration with Sean is a marriage made in heaven. It goes so much deeper than combining and blending writing styles.

    I know this is personal, but have you ever had your birth chart cast? I’d be very surprised if you don’t have Virgo highly placed. Virgos are born self tortured in the way you describe!

    janice’s last blog post..Think Like a Black Belt

  3. Bonnie | JustPeachyBabyBlog

    “Instead, I think that art attracts people who are antisocial, never quite fit in and feel a need to express themselves via other avenues.”

    This is true of me. On the outside, my default is definitely drawn to people. But, my inner world is quite antisocial, except when I write.

    As for suffering as a writer, I have to say my mother actually used this line on me, to convince me that becoming a writer is not a good vocation at all. I wanted to major in journalism and lit in college, but she brow beat me into being an engineering major. One of the reasonings was that I’d have a sad life as a writer because I’d never be published.

    That shadow has hung over my writing since then. But, since motherhood hit me, it has freed me from my mother’s words. As a mom myself now, I know what she said were the cruelest words ever to shackle on a child. Now, I’m freeing myself to write and hope to be published one day.

    I love Collective Inkwell. Reading these posts have inspired me to know that I really am a writer because I can’t stop thinking about the conversations here and love reading the comments (I was a lurker, but now decided to “show up”).

    Thanks for this post!

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

  4. Anne Wayman

    Oh my. I love the contrast of the two essays… wonderful stuff. The places in writing for a living that torture me are when I get bored! Often that’s, as Sean suggests, after the newness of the project wears off.

    Maybe that’s why I like blogging and tweeting so much… short works.

    I also get tortured occasionally by high maintenance clients – you know the ones. They want contact every day or more and want to argue every comma. That’s true pain for me.

    And by the way, love your slogan… why didn’t I think of that?

    Anne Wayman’s last blog post..Finding Freelance Writing Jobs When You’re Not US Based

  5. CK Lunchbox


    Great post (as was Sean’s). The both of you capture both sides of the issue perfectly. However, I’m like you – the tortured type, and there are times when razor blades and emo sound appealing. I need the quiet. I get thrown by interruptions, and I’ve had to cut my blog writing/reading to a minimum in order to have something to show for my efforts. (Which is contrary to my nature because some interpret me as being a snob or aloof.)

    The time required to develop a finished product can be so frustrating. I write and rewrite thinking it’s there, but when going over it a third time it’s clear the piece isn’t even close. (I’m on draft 7 or 8 of my book with a deadline looming and I’m still changing out words, phrases and the such. I’m going on 8 months now and want to throw up with each new pass through.)

    You’re right when you mention the type of writing in relation to the torture. I can knock out a news column or personal account quicker – quicker being a relative comparison. Relative to my humor writing which takes a great deal of effort to manage the timing of the parts that are supposed to be funny.(key being “supposed to”)

    Like Sean, however, my wife farts sunshine. She can knock out a 500+ word deal and it’s close to perfect on the first draft. She claims to be writing it in her head before hand, but I can’t do that. For me the concept is there like a lump of clay, but I have to sculpt my vision into a general shape, then tear it down and do it all over again until it actually is a recognizable work.

    And why do I love all this torture? Other than fatherhood, it’s the one thing I’ve actually had to work at that carries any real meaning in life. Again, great job by both you and Sean.


    CK Lunchbox’s last blog post..10 Reasons Being A Stay-At-Home Dad Has Made My Wife A Man

  6. Tumblemoose

    Well, I’m kind of tortured.

    You see, for me the writing of blog posts and non-ficgtion kinds of things comes fairly easy and I have some fun. It always exciting to hit the publish button.

    My fiction is torture. I struggle with most every word.I feel like there are TOO many options with that big ol’ blank canvas. It’s frustrating because I know I have the voice and the grammar chops to do it, I just seem to lack the creativity for telling good stories.


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

  7. The Word Seeker

    Great Post! I will keep this comment short. I am tortured writer. My Writing hunts my every thought of every second of my life. If I do not write I am an angry person. When I do write I cannot stop so I shut the world out. People always said that I am a loner, this might be true. All I know is that I have a duty to write and it needs to be done, if it does not I will be “sentenced to a lifetime of misery”.

    The Word Seeker’s last blog post..Who is the Racist Now?

  8. Sean

    Excellent counter point my brother, and a helluva discussion. Is this the best dialogue we’ve yet had at the Inkwell?

    I LOVE that I fart sunshine.

  9. Frank Marcopolos

    I definitely used to be a tortured writer, but I’m not anymore. And I used to think you HAD to be, if you wanted to be any good. I think that was an immature opinion, though. Like with most things, there are many different paths up the same mountain, and to me one kind of temperment is not any better than any other as far as allowing for the development of your craft.

    Frank Marcopolos’s last blog post..Sound Effects / Hortlak 1 Poll

  10. Marelisa

    A short while ago I read an article where a novelist was describing a talk he gave in which the other speaker was a lawyer who wrote short stories in his spare time. The novelist would say “Writing is hard work”, and the lawyer would say “Writing is the easiest part of my day”. The novelist would say that coming up with each word was like sweating blood, and the lawyer would say that the words just flowed.

    I guess the moral of the story is that the writing experience is different for everyone. I really liked both of these articles, it was a really good idea to write about the two contrasting points of view.

    Marelisa’s last blog post..Happiness Tip: Practice Random Acts of Kindness

  11. cindy platt

    I am tortured by watching Sean skip rope with words and juggle them like it’s as easy as breathing. I am tortured when I walk a mile in the shoes of my students ages 5-11 trying desperately to put their ideas on paper. It is a performing art that is not easy for most and requires lots of coaching and modeling when working with children or adults. I can connect with your words Dave.

    cindy platt’s last blog post..Top 10 Thank Yous for our Best Dad

  12. Blogger Dad/David Wright

    Icy – I hear you on “what if nobody likes it” thing. While I have a good idea of what works mechanically, you can never really know with certainty what readers will respond to.

    janice – Thanks for the kind words. Yes, Sean and I do compliment each other well personally and professionally. As for birth charts, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I am a Leo but I don’t believe in astrological stuff. If anyone cares to know why, perhaps I’ll write an essay on belief someday.

    Lori – You talking about Sean being skinny and me being fat?

    Bonnie – Thank you for sharing your story. Journalistic writing is a whole other beast, in my opinion than fiction writing. I did not get nearly as bent out of shape or antisocial when I wrote for the paper. Quite the opposite, actually! I was extremely social as a reporter – it was a requirement. Though there are plenty of other reasons journalism can make you miserable! As for the shackles, I agree. When I was younger I wanted to go into drama but somebody prevented me from doing so and to this day, I think drama would have helped me develop more fully.

    Anne Wayman – I hear you on boredom. I oftentimes had to write things which I felt were boring but I took each article as if I were writing it for the first time and finding a new reader and hoping it delivered the goods. While there isn’t much you can do to challenge the newness of a project, you can always challenge yourself to do better, to write it more precisely, etc… Thanks for weighing in and glad you like our slogan!

    CK Lunchbox – Great comment, Ron. I am there with you for every word you said. One of the things which bothers me most about isolating myself for my art (and here I am also including my comics) is that I don’t have nearly enough time to network properly on the blogs I enjoy or even keep up with them! I once commented that I can either comment more or create more. While readers may enjoy interacting with an actual person, I think they also enjoy the content. The balance is VERY difficult because of the number of things I’m working on. If only one thing would take off like I want it to, it would liberate my time and allow me to properly enjoy the community I am part of. But yes, I worry that people think I’m a snob or selfish for not commenting on their blogs as much as they do mine.

    As for your book, best of luck!

    Vered – Writing for the web, and your writing in particular is neither short nor shallow. Though I suspect you were teasing.

    Tumblemoose – Then may I suggest you find a good partner? Someone who is more creatively inclined, but maybe lacks the grammar chops that you possess, could be a good mix.

    Amrit – Thank you for posting a response. Well said, though your advice does little to soothe my tortured writing soul. I can write other topics with ease, I wrote every day for a newspaper for three years – the torture was not prsent for that kind of writing. It is only for the fiction with me. And while it may be overblown and in my head, that doesn’t make it any less real or easier to move past.

    The Word Seeker – I hope your writing delivers you from the misery. Thank you for the comment.

    Sean – This might be the first time we have disagreed on a matter, which yes, does make for an interesting post, you sunshine farting Care Bear, you.

    Frank – I agree, you don’t HAVE to be tortured. I think it varies from person to person and whatever works for you, definitely embrace it.

    Marelisa – I agree. And for me, the writing experience is different depending on the work, as I explained above. Thanks for sharing the story.

    cindy – I am tortured by Sean’s ability to outeat me yet remain skinny. The bastard. Also, I would like to fart gloomy clouds 🙂

    Blogger Dad/David Wright’s last blog post..Dumb things I do – A list

  13. Trina

    I admit to farting sunshine like Sean, and was really surprised to read about the personal side of writing for you. Surprised until I read the part of how you are seeking to strengthen relationships with people you may never meet… I would say you excel at that.
    You and Sean are definitely ying and yang.

  14. Tracy

    Excellent discussion. I’m still not sure where I fit it. The actual writing comes fairly easy although I’m sure there are dozens of people who might suggest it’s because of my low standards. Once I’m in the zone, it all just sort of oozes out.

    If there is any torture, it’s not having the time to get in that zone. Having small children and a house to run means that during the hours I’m freshest I can’t write. If I wait until the evening, my brain is like sludge and it does take more effort, although it’s not what I’d call torture, just fatigue.

    I think you’re right that writing and other art does seem to attract those that are comfortable on the outposts of life. Not necessarily anti-social, but people who can and want to step back and see things for how they are.

    Tracy’s last blog post..I am so ready for a 3 day weekend

  15. Kool Aid

    I love that Sean farts sunshine. I think that’s awesome!

    I think everyone has to find their inspiration and environment for working. Some of us fart sunshine, and some of us crave seclusion, wearing black and listening to emo. What I found interesting is your comment, “Instead, I think that art attracts people who are antisocial, never quite fit in and feel a need to express themselves via other avenues.” When I was in art school, there was a definite trend of anti-social, non-conforming attitude. So much so, we joked that we were all conforming non-conformists (some of our “fellow” artists didn’t think it was funny). There were definitely those of us that didn’t fit in to “normal” society, but who wants to be “normal”? Normal is boring.

    If you find that being in seclusion and letting that black mental cloud descend upon you to write is what you need, then by all means, let it happen. Your writing, in my opinion, doesn’t come across as tortured, it seems to flow across the screen without nary a hiccup. It works for you.

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

  16. Randi

    My teen and early adult years (until I decided to stop being shy) were dark with depression. Although I loved to write, I only *could* write when I was my most despondent. My poetry then, was my best.

    Once I decided to stop being shy, I felt more full of light and love, and writing became less tortuous. It was a sweet revelation to discover that I could now write anytime, anywhere, and about anything, not just my angst. Writing since then has been a joy for me, and as I mentioned in Sean’s post, most times my fingertips fly as my editing brain tries to keep up.

    I loved reading the opposing viewpoints on this topic. I hope to see more of this point/counterpoint style of writing. You both have impressive, though unique, ways of expressing your views. As has been said here before, you complement each other nicely.

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

  17. At Long Last, Link Love

    […] she’s always wanted to create, Faith Barista. She credited two posts at Collective Inkwell (The Reality of the Tortured Writer and The Zen of New Ideas) with helping strengthen her convictions to follow her heart. We have […]

  18. Ty

    I’m not a writer, I’m an architecture student. Similarly tortured, building design is almost as immensely frustrating as writing. I know because I’ve been a writer before, and I may be returning to it.

    This post popped up when I was searching for “tortured writers”. I’ve recently developed a horrible skin disease, and have been forced to re-route my life from that of a very attractive triathalete to that of a fearful hermit when I’m having a flair up. It’s forced me to come to terms with many small foils in my life, and now- I just want to make a difference. More by talking or organizing than by writing, but they all go together–

    Wondering if anybody became a writer at a rock-bottom point in their life, and if it’s been fruitful. Perhaps my journal is enough, or maybe I have that “duty” you’ve been talking about. I feel like my story could have the power to change lives, without the readers having to go through great pain to arrive at it. But dear God, would I really have to write o_0

    Belated, but thank you for the post. It pops up on google very, very quickly.

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