The Human Condition:

A Lot Like Madness – June 23, 2019

Midnight writer

Writing a book is a lot like madness. This applies equally to painting a giant canvas or composing a symphony—any major work that is unseen and unshared until all the effort has been expended and the thing is finished and ready for the world to read, see, or hear.

You labor with issues, detect and solve problems, and have daily bouts of triumph and despair about which your family and friends, the people who read your last book—viewed your last painting, or listened to your most recent symphony—and the general public know nothing.

And you know that much of what you have been living with for the past month, six months, a year, or more will never be known, never seen, by those same friends, readers, and the public. You alone will have any memory of your attempts to fit the working outline, or preliminary sketches, or evolving musical themes to the vision you had when you started, which was the whole reason you began this particular project. You alone will understand the compromises you had to make, the choices you considered and discarded, the opportunities that might have taken the project in another, more exciting direction but would have meant going back to the beginning.

For every finished work on the page, the canvas, or the score, there are half a dozen or more echoes and images in your mind of what you might have done, how it might have gone, the pieces that didn’t fit, and the pieces that would only fit after you changed them irrevocably.

Between the inspired first vision and the finished work there exists a rude, splintered, tentative thing that the writer calls an “outline,” the fresco painter used to call a “cartoon,” and I don’t know what the composer calls this intermediate step, perhaps indeed it’s a “theme” or a “melodic line.” It is the organic1 structure, upon which the writer hangs incident, description, narrative, and dialogue. It moves from the beginning, which occurs almost anywhere in space and time, toward a definite and specific end that, when reached, the reader feels is both inevitable and satisfying. But the writer, the creator, knows nothing about inevitability and feels nothing of satisfaction. How it will all come together, viewed from the midpoint of creation, is still a mystery.2

While the writer/artist/composer lives with—more often wrestles with—this intermediary function, you forget that none of this will ever be known to the reader, viewer, or listener. If the outline/sketch/theme serves its purpose, the finished work will be complete and stand alone as an organic whole. Alternative plot lines, overpainted details, and unsung melodies will not exist for the person who receives the work from your hand.

This is the source of what I call the “Frankenstein effect.” While the good doctor sees every mismatched part, every dropped stitch, and all the bits of skin he had to stretch to fit, the person who comes upon the finished production sees only the final effect, the monster. For the doctor, the body under construction remains a sad botch of might-have-beens. For the person facing it on the path, the monster is complete and terrifying—perhaps even perfectly so. And we must remember that, in Mary Shelley’s story, the good doctor is insane.

So … back to the question of madness.

In what occupation, other than the arts, does a person live so completely inside his or her own head? The surgeon is surrounded by a staff of other professionals—the anesthetist, surgical assistant, scrub nurses—who watch every cut, anticipate some of the surgeon’s moves, and are constantly aware of the progress of the surgery. The project manager or construction engineer works with a team of subcontractors, laborers, and logistics specialists, and communication about the project plan and design, so that they each will understand and can execute it, is a major part of the manager’s job. Even the orchestra conductor works through the various musicians and instrument sections, and when the conductor has a particular vision or novel interpretation of the score to execute, he or she must still communicate it to these performers, elicit their cooperation, and sometimes experience their negative feedback.

The writer, painter, or composer—especially when young or just starting out—works alone. If the artist is unsure of him- or herself, it is always possible to begin by copying and thereby studying the masters: those authors, painters, composers whose work first inspired him or her to take up this particular art form. But creating copies and rendering homage are not satisfying for the true artist, or not for long. The artist wants to tell his or her own stories, create a unique picture of the world, conjure up a theme or melody that no one else has ever heard before. A person without this personal vision or driving sense of individuality might then lapse into copying—but without the reverence due to a master—just whatever has become popular.3 There can also be money in simply going through the motions: copywriting, graphic design, elevator music. But it’s not art, not satisfying.

An experienced artist with one or more successes to his or her credit does not necessarily have to suffer the uncertainty of the beginner. After all, there are glowing reviews, public recognition, and actual royalties to confirm his or her talent and bolster the ego. But then, an artist can’t keep cranking out the same work, variations on a theme, over and over again.4 It may be what the public wants, but the job soon begins to look like a rut. And when the established artist attempts something new and different, then he or she is working alone again, and the perennial uncertainty resurfaces. Yes, you know how to write a mystery novel, a police procedural, or decent science fiction, but can you research and write historical fiction or undertake a literary novel? And suddenly you are wrestling again with the question of your own talent.

Madness is a private thing. No one outside your head knows what’s going on in there. And when you try to tell people, you get funny looks or stares of disbelief.5 So maybe your thoughts really are disjointed, delusional, and dissociated from the world of rational men and women. Maybe you’re not at all a writer or any kind of “artist.” As a writer with a desire to tell a new story, a painter trying to capture a new vision, or a musician trying to articulate an unheard theme—and not sure you even have the talent to pull it off, let alone create something that will become publishable, saleable, eventually famous, and perhaps even profitable—you are halfway to the state of the schizophrenic patient who hears voices, battles with strange ideas, and struggles to sort out the affairs of daily living from the madness going on inside your head.

The only thing worse than this is not doing it at all. To turn your back on the whole artistic process. To ignore the random ideas that come in the night, or while you’re doing something else in daylight, and not stopping to write them down. To let die the whispers from your subconscious that have finally resolved the problem with your next chapter, and remaining steadfastly incurious about whether the solution will work or not. To stop being this unique, special, creative, frustrated person, who every day owes a debt to the muse, is responsible for the assignments you set for yourself in the outline, and is dedicated to producing the book a year that you promised yourself. And then you would become just another person in the world, who gets up in the morning, goes to the paying “day job,” comes home at night to drink or watch television, and simply … exists until it’s time to die.

And that’s worse than being just a little mad.

1. “Organic” is Aristotle’s word, from his Poetics. It implies the various parts of a work growing together and functioning as a unified whole, like the parts of a plant or animal. In terms of the reader’s perception, this organic arrangement is mentally and emotionally satisfying because the interrelation of the parts is mutually supporting. For example, Julia is in love with David, but David’s lack of returned feeling makes Julia sad and angry; vengeance and murder ensue. The work’s every part relates to support the outcome. Or as Anton Chekhov said somewhere, if you’re going to show a gun in Act One, you had better fire it in Act Two or Three.

2. Any community or group of writers always discusses “the O-word,” as if the outline had strange powers and attracted superstitious awe. The alternative to developing an outline before sitting down to write the actual book is sometimes call going by the “seat of your pants,” or “pantsing.” For me, the outline is the once-through of the story at the 10,000-foot level. It ensures that I have a complete story in hand when I start to write.
    Sometimes the outline is complete in some places, fragmentary in others, but still it provides a structure, however tenuous, between start and finish. If I don’t have at least a partial outline, the problem is not that I cannot write. Without the promise of a destination, I can write pages and pages of useless description and idle dialogue between characters in search of meaning and direction. And that’s no good to anybody—not even to me, who cannot hope that a plot will coalesce out of all this chatter, like due on the morning grass.
    My deal with myself is that the outline is there as an assignment, a starting point, and a bridge to the next time I sit down to write. My bet with myself is that, prompted by the outline—especially if the day’s assignment is not a particularly strong scene or chapter—then my subconscious will click in during the writing process and come up with something better … perhaps more exciting … maybe even superb. And so far, the little demons at work down there have always come through on the bet.

3. When I was casting about for an agent, I heard several variations on the pitch to write what I would call a “coattail” novel, to cash in on the popularity of, and public hunger for, the current bestseller. When Harry Potter was new and fresh, the thought of many envious agents and publishers was to get their untried authors to write about “a boy wizard with glasses” in a school for witches and wizards. Before that, it would have been some kind of epic about magic rings in the middle of an elf war. And later, it would be a naïve young woman in the grip of a billionaire sadist. This is always a trap, because by the time you finish and try to sell your copycat novel, the public taste will have moved on to something else newer and fresher.

4. Think of writing the thirteenth James Bond novel or the seventh Harry Potter novel. Sooner or later—unless your plots follow a greater story arc than can be told in just one novel—it all becomes repetitious and unsatisfying. I think Stephen King expressed this frustration best with his novel Misery.

5. My wife read and generally liked my early novels—up until Crygender, which I wrote on assignment from my publisher, and she found the story disgusting. We never really discussed my works in progress, because I had learned long before that you can’t talk out a story with other people: it just makes the ideas become set in place, go cold, and disappear. But one night she asked me what I was thinking about, and I described the plot point I was wrestling with. She later told me that she had thought she might become my inspiration and have a dandy solution for me, but on the spot she could think of nothing. She left me alone with my thoughts after that.