Are you a writer, or just insane?

the scream by edvard munchA couple of my Facebook friends have linked to this blog post that more or less equates the writing life with mental illness. The author of the post starts out by mentioning the notoriously troubled relationship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda (who probably had some type of mood disorder), and goes on to name a number of other writers who have battled depression, among them Sylvia Plath. He then suggests that writers tend to be unhappy people because they “think a lot,” and also because of their “long periods of isolation and…high levels of narcissism.”

It was the comment about narcissism that got me. I’m a writer, after all, and I know a lot of writers, and I don’t know that I’ve met all that many narcissists. Just as a quick reference, here are the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder (as listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, according to Wikipedia):

  • Expects to be recognized as superior and special, without superior accomplishments
  • Expects constant attention, admiration and positive reinforcement from others
  • Envies others and believes others envy him/her
  • Is preoccupied with thoughts and fantasies of great success, enormous attractiveness, power, intelligence
  • Lacks the ability to empathize with the feelings or desires of others
  • Is arrogant in attitudes and behavior
  • Has expectations of special treatment that are unrealistic

I didn’t think I fit that description. But just to be sure, I took this online Narcissistic Personality Inventory quiz. It’s 40 questions long and it took me less than ten minutes to complete. Celebrities, on average, score 17.8 out of 40; the average score for U.S. adults is 15.3. I scored 13. So, phew! Not a narcissist.

The blogger goes on to cite a study from 2013 in which a researcher compared the brain activity of creative people and schizophrenics, and discovered both have a precuneus that is pretty much always switched on. What the heck is the precuneus, you ask? I wanted to know, too, so I consulted our old friend Wikipedia. It’s a little-studied region of the brain that is “involved with episodic memory, visuospatial processing, reflections upon self, and aspects of consciousness.” I guess you could think of it as the part of the brain that governs navel-gazing. Apparently, we creative types are constantly making connections between our current experiences, stuff we’ve experienced in the past, and stuff we know about ourselves.

Well, yeah. I mean, I know that writing pulls a lot of stuff up out of my subconscious and uses it to create my stories and characters. I also know that I do a lot of free association when I’m writing in the zone. Is it wrong of me to think it’s fun? Maybe the difference between novelists and schizophrenics is that we novelists know we’re making stuff up.

Where I think the blogger is onto something is the connection between periods of isolation and depression. But as I understand it, isolation is a symptom of depression, not a cause. And such a blanket statement doesn’t take into consideration that a lot of writers are introverts, for whom periods of isolation can be a blessing and a way to recharge.

For that matter, his contention that authors tend to be unhappy doesn’t really tally, either. Again, I know a lot of authors. Either we’re a pretty optimistic bunch overall, or I’ve met a lot of people who are really good at faking happiness. Because the authors I know say writing is fulfilling and satisfying, and what makes them unhappy is not being able to write.

I’m not about to go to the other extreme and say writers are less likely to suffer from mental illness. I’m just saying that it’s wrong to suggest we’re all miserable wretches.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

53 thoughts on “Are you a writer, or just insane?”

  1. Good read, Lynne. You caught my attention. Thanks for the interesting info. I would have checked that stuff out too. Love Wikipedia. Anyway, I agree with you. I don’t think I know ANY depressed writers.

  2. Great post, Lynne, and I love the way you dissected it. I’m curious as to where he got the idea that “high levels of narcissism” draw someone to a writing career. As a psychotherapist, I can say that idea is just flat-out wrong, although I’ve read similar quotes before. I guess the thinking is, if you think other people will be interested in reading something you’ve written, you must be narcissistic. But that interpretation of narcissism isn’t at all the clinical one.

    1. Exactly, Melinda. Just because you’re introspective, it doesn’t mean you’re narcissistic.

      In rereading that blog post to write this one, I was kind of entertained by how many mental illnesses he blamed writing for. First Zelda Fitzgerald (who was only married to an author) and her bipolar disorder, then all the writers who have struggled with depression, and then he drags narcissism in. I guess we have our pick of the DSM-IV. 😀

  3. Yeah, and we’re all supposed to be drunks, too. Certainly there could be a connection between being a creative and drug/alcohol abuse (sensitive people handle stimulants/depressants differently, or use them to dull hyper sensitivity, etc) All I know is I can get a little weird (okay, weirder than I already am) if I spend too much time in my own brain. As for depression, it tends to be seasonal for me rather than due to isolation. (Yes, I live in Washington where it rains a LOT.) Even living here in the great Pacific Northwet I don’t know a lot of depressed writers–at least, not any more than the general population.

    btw–Love your line that maybe the difference between novelists and schizophrenics is that we novelists know we’re making stuff up 😀

  4. Great post Lynne. I have blogged a few times about the connection between writers and depression also. I agree that it is presumptuous to match the two. I also agree with you that many who write enjoy the ‘alone’ time. It’s a time to recharge and let the creative juices flow. I do get depressed when I have to edit those turbulent rivers 😉 lol

  5. Excellent response! I read that blog, as well, and although I thought there was some fit to it, not all by any means. Like you, I doubt most of our writers-in-arms are narcissistic. We may be thinking all the time, but we’re thinking about other people–our characters most often. And for whatever reason, so many of us seem to introverts, which means we recharge our batteries best when alone, and that has nothing to do with depression. That’s taking care of ourselves. Interesting article, but not the definitive word by any means. Great post!

  6. Great post, Lynne! I can’t speak for the clinical stuff, but I know that I get depressed when I’m not writing and when I don’t get enough alone time. Is it even possible to be an introverted narcissist? Curious.

  7. Unhappy because we “think a lot.” Wow. What a fun post. I’m glad you spent your thinking time thinking up this post, rather than thinking of ways to be unhappy. The post certainly made me happy.

    Writers are probably all a little bit nutty, but the truth is everyone is quirky in their own way. There’s that expression about, if you could take all your problems, wrap them in a bundle and trade them with someone else’s, would you? And most people would say no to that sight unseen problem swap, because we know everybody’s a little weird, and at least we know and understand what we’re already dealing with, so might as well keep it.

    1. I’m over 50, so I prefer to refer to myself as eccentric, rather than weird. 😉 But I think you’re right, RJ — I know that if I were given the choice between someone else’s unspecified problems and my own, I’d stick with the devil(s) I know.

  8. Great post Lynne! I really enjoyed it and am thankful I’m not the only one who doesn’t think all writers are a sad miserable lot. Do I have ups and downs? yes, its called life. but yes writing does tend to make me happier and I do it best when alone or am in the zone. Thank you for writing this post!

  9. I loved the comment about being unhappy because we think a lot. Is thinking an unhealthy thing to do? There are certainly a number of politicians everywhere who would prefer we don’t 🙂
    One of the things all writers do is spend a lot of time alone – writing. It would be a poor narcissist who didn’t need other people to admire them.

  10. All I can say here is that anyone who conflates depression with creativity or “thinking a lot” hasn’t experienced actual clinical depression. There is nothing creative or positive or contemplative about depression. It’s utterly debilitating and is the polar opposite of those things.

    But even more pertinently, this is such a complex area that generalizations are largely fruitless. I can certainly see how the “manic” phase of bipolar disorder might produce a burst of creativity, but schizophrenia? I’d have to say that anyone with schizophrenia who manages to produce worthwhile art is doing it despite the disorder and not because of it (Philip K. Dick is one very famous example).

    There’s a chicken-or-egg dynamic going on here, perhaps. Are writers solitary because they’re writers, or are they writers because they like to be solitary? What about less solitary but equally creative types, such as musicians? How do they fit in any of this? Every question brings up countless more. An interesting can of worms, though.

    1. Yes, David, Phil wrote because he had something to say. He suffered because certain people did not like what he had to say.

    2. David, I agree completely. Clinically depressed people are so debilitated they cannot possibly be creative at the same time. It’s hard for them to think at all, except perhaps in circles. I know this only too well.

  11. Excellent post. I agree that they failed to take the high percentage of introverts among writers into consideration. Spending time alone does not equate either loneliness or depression. Depression reflects how we feel about spending time alone.

    BTW, according to that quiz I ought to be back in therapy. I scored a measely three. Maybe it’s just a phase – I hope. lol

      1. You two both have me beat on the anti-narcissism scale. (And here I thought my 6 was a low score…) 🙂

    1. I’ll be honest: When I took the test the first time, I scored a 5. So I went back and pumped up some of my answers, and still didn’t get to “average adult.” 😀

      1. Now I don’t feel bad about my score of 6, Lynne! We’re such narcissists! LOL 😉

  12. And on top of that, in order to be a good writer we HAVE to have good insight and empathy. Without it we would never be able to create believable or likeable characters.

  13. Well, yes I’m slightly nuts…but I don’t know if that’s because I’m a writer or writing drove me crazy. And besides that, my novel Elsewhere features a schizophrenic woman as the heroine. Narcissistic or not, I think you have to have a screw loose to devote yourself to vocation!

    Just a “slap-happy” author…

  14. I think I may have the answer – the researcher must have been looking at traditionally published authors only. And who can blame /them/ for being miserable? I think we’re breaking the mold in all sorts of areas, mental illness included!

  15. The truth of the matter is that there is no greater percentage of people among the writing fraternity with mental illness than in the general population. It’s just that we get to hear about a few more of them because both they and their publishers seek publicity. Seen against the millions of sane writers out there they represent a miniscule proportion.

    You don’t have to be nuts to write, but it might add a certain cachet to the writer’s profile. But who wants to be known for being mad? I don’t; I want to be known for the quality of my work and it’s contribution to my readers.

    1. You’re right, Ian, I think authors and publishers look for an angle to interest the press. What about the author who is so OCD he has to write all day and to stay in shape he writes on the treadmill? I would fall off. I guess one can produce that much, but what sort of quality comes out of an exhausted brain? Does the river not run dry even briefly?

  16. Lynne,
    I’m waiting for the ground-breaking study that produces irrefutable data linking successful mystery writers with organized hoarding. Please let me know when the statistics are released. 🙂

  17. Interesting article. I’m not insane- well, maybe a little. And I have to disagree with the depression part. I’m generally a happy writer. As for the isolation- I’m never alone with FIVE huge dogs in the house!

  18. Nice article, Lynne; is this guy full of wild assumptions or what! Oh well, I guess he caused some controversy, which was probably his intent. Sitting here, locked away in my little attic room with my bottle of scotch and my typewriter, personally, I think he’s full of it!

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