What compels a person to isolate herself in a room, have imaginary conversations with people who don’t exist, observe life from the sidelines, and suffer extreme highs and lows? Is it neurosis, or art?
In her book The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, Betsy Lerner asks, “Is your neurotic behavior part of your creative process or just…neurotic behavior?”
I decided to peel back the curtain and take a look at what makes up the writer’s personality:
1. The voyeur
Lerner says, “…the great paradox of the writer’s life is how much time he spends alone trying to connect with other people.”
This “trying to connect” became painfully obvious to me when I accepted a friend’s invitation to hear a live band at a bar and grill downtown. I wasn’t prepared for the assault of music, so loud that we had to shout to hear each other. My ears ringing, I parked myself on a stool with a view of the band and the kitchen, the smell of something akin to rotting food and spilled wine overpowering my senses, and I was back in junior high again, the wallflower watching others on the dance floor flinging their arms about, twisting their hips, one bespectacled man in a hat firmly grasping the derriere of a young blonde woman. I might have joined in (the dancing), but couldn’t bring myself to budge from my perch. Why? I felt paralyzed. Was it social anxiety? Was I showing my introvert colors? Was my ability to interact with my tribe reduced to 140 character tweets and 700 word blog posts?
No. You’ve changed, I told myself. You’re more reflective now, more meditative. This just isn’t your scene. Followed swiftly by: you haven’t changed at all. You’re still that twelve year-old aching to be included.
Have I become a voyeur? An observer of life, mentally recording sense impressions, and not a participant?
2. The neurotic
I spend a great deal of time alone, writing, and there’s a danger there: I become lonely. Even in a coffee shop surrounded by people, I’m focused solely on my words. Yet at the same time, I’m not lonely at all: I have imaginary friends who populate my pages. I have ideas I immerse myself in, conversations in my head to imaginary readers—albeit one-sided conversations—but I anticipate the reader’s response.
Am I neurotic?
3. The schizophrenic
I write in many voices. Here’s one:
Oz is within, man. It’s always been within. Isn’t that what Baum was saying? There’s no place like home-sweet-home, man, but that home-sweet-home is inside you.
We were doing okay, you and me. We were doing what people do on Sundays…reading the newspaper, slurping coffee, eating a late breakfast of bangers and mash, taking a drive, and then you straightened up in the passenger seat at the stoplight and said “that’s it, Pete. I want a divorce.” Just like that. And the light turned green and I sat there, my mouth open, until the driver behind us tooted his horn.
There wasn’t much evidence. A wallet. A handkerchief. The boss chalked it up to another rendezvous when the missus was gone. Who shot him? And why? You might be wondering these things, and that’s good. You keep on wondering. Because what I’m about to tweak your ear with could fill a shot glass in an hour.
All these voices: am I schizophrenic?
Some days the writing goes well, the ideas flow, the words flow into pleasing patterns and I’m on a high. Other days I struggle to be clever, or concise, or compelling. Plot becomes elusive. A character becomes passive. I plunge into hopelessness and slog through despair and wonder if I’ll ever finish the novel, the copy, the post.
Am I bi-polar?
5. The Artist
Writers are a neurotic breed. We teeter from neurosis to neurosis, blessed with a “gift” but also a “whip,” to borrow from Truman Capote. It’s the mark of the artistic temperament. It’s the way of the creative process: to observe, isolate oneself, experiment with voice, “stalk our demons” for material (as Lerner advises), to triumph and fail.
So, to answer the questions I posed: am I a neurotic schizophrenic voyeur with bi-polar tendencies?
I’m a writer.