During his recent speaking engagement at Wabash College, bestselling writer Dan Simmons recounted how Harlan Ellison changed his life at a long-ago writers workshop just when he was about to give up writing in favor of teaching full time. Ellison read his story and anointed him in that way all young writers dream of being knighted: you are not only a writer, you are a great writer, and you have to continue writing. (In another version of the story, which Simmons told at a brunch at WHC 2000, Ellison said, “If you don’t keep writing, I will hunt you down and kill you.”)
Follow the link; it’s worth a listen, and it’s a great testament to the power of the encouraging word. But here’s where I have a problem with it. Simmons reads from Ellison’s own account of their conversation in which Ellison compares being a writer to being cursed. Your family will resent your craft, Ellison says, because it will take time away from them. But you have no choice. You are a writer, and that means you must suffer.
I’ve heard variations of that line many times. That writers must sacrifice their friendships, marriages, health, and sanity on the altar of their craft to be any good. That good writers are unhappy writers. That they must bleed words.
I am so, so tired of that bullshit.
Writing is an art, yes, and it’s a commercial craft, but that’s all it is. Let’s not make it into something it’s not, such as vengeful god who tortures us like Job. Want to be a good writer? Work hard, remain dedicated, and keep your life in balance. Because this craft is just one piece of our life; meaningful relationships and the pursuit of good health make up the rest of it. Neglect the other parts, and you wind up like Edgar Allan Poe, an alcoholic with psychological problems who died prematurely in a gutter.
Writers who brag about their failed marriages and health because they are author artistes are just looking to excuse their failures as human beings.
But art is suffering, I hear you protesting. From the crucible of human blood, flowing down our holy quills, only from there is truth revealed. Okay, fine. Channel that energy into the art itself, into the act of reaching deep into the blackest corners of your heart for material that you can then shape into your creation. I’m all for that, actually, and I wish the horror genre in particular did more of it these days. But this doesn’t mean you have to grind your life into dust in order to achieve it.
There’s no need to suffer for your art. Make it about suffering if you must; that’s fine. Just remember to close up shop at the end of the day and go home to your family.