The Human Condition:

Writers and Alienation – August 10, 2014

Writer at midnight

Writers tend to be a solitary lot. Even in an informal gathering, such as at a ballgame, a cocktail party, or just relaxing among family and friends, the writer radiates and maintains a state of semi-isolation. The writer is different: he or she acts and reacts to the event and the conversation sometimes in strange ways, and other people treat her or him with a certain distance and element of suspicion. It’s not completely blatant, not like they are shaming or a shunning the writer, and not like the writer has withdrawn into a cocoon of silence. There’s just … a difference.

Everyone knows something’s going on inside that head, and they are not party to it. They believe the writer is sitting there feeling secretly superior. After all, why does he think the world should care about whatever it is he’s thinking and imagining and will eventually grace us all by bothering to write down? They believe—because they’ve been jokingly told—that she is sitting there plotting our fictitious deaths, or conjuring some horrific humiliation, or simply imagining us all in our underwear. And then, every once in a while, the writer will pull out a pen and pocket notebook and jot down a line or two. That can’t be good for the rest of us.

The fact is, the writer at the party does have a kind of double-think in operation. Every writer with a story or novel under way is actually renting out half of his or her brain to a cross between an amateur theatrical company and a traveling circus. The members of this troupe pop into the writer’s conscious mind at odd moments—sometimes at two o’clock in the morning—and try out a line of dialogue, a bit of stage business, or a tumbling act. Or they have suggestions about a new plot twist. Or criticism about something that lingers in memory which recently went through the forebrain’s story machine. And they want to see it changed now!

It’s no good asking a writer what she’s thinking, because the one thing every writer learns quickly is not to talk about a work in progress. Ideas have to remain private. It’s all right to make notes, enter the idea into a folder of background material or the document where the outline is building. It’s necessary, sometimes, to capture it away from the active story line. But talking about the idea with another person—unless it’s an editor or collaborator—is always a bad choice. An idea that’s been explained to a mundane—to someone outside the business who is not prepared to act on it or contribute to it—goes flat, loses its juice, dies right there in the air. It’s as if pen and paper or screen text create a nurturing mental soil, while the breath of the spoken word expels a poisonous gas.

And then, writers are just plain weird. They have to be. The writer must be prepared to follow the story wherever it goes, as the threads, chunks, and bloody catastrophes surface in the dark well of the imagination.1 If a story is going to mean something, if it’s going to be important to the reader, then it must deal with dangerous ideas, life and death, pain and loss, strong feelings, scandalous actions, the scent of evil, the whiff of heresy. Nice stories about proper people taking kind and decorous action are boring.

Even as a child, with the only barest urges toward being a writer, I knew I had to accept that nothing is unthinkable or unknowable. True, some thoughts may not be spoken aloud in polite company, and a whole spectrum of potential actions must never be attempted or performed. But nothing is too raw, too vulgar, too scandalous or blasphemous to be contemplated or, eventually, to be committed to paper. These thoughts are the seeds of great villains and the suffering of great protagonists. To censor one’s own imagination as a writer is to exile oneself from the landscape where great stories can take place.

Most family members and friends mutely understand this, and it makes them shy—if not actually nervous. How can someone who could think that be right in the head, or even be a good person? Henry James made this point with a story called “The Author of Beltraffio,” where the wife of a famous novelist has grown estranged and fearful because she believes his stories are heathenish and corrupt. Even if the writer at the point of creation is simply wearing a mask from one of his characters, giving the mental and emotional reins over to one of the players in that theatrical troupe, isn’t there just a bit of the crazy, of psychosis or sociopathy, of danger, in a mind which could create such a thing?

It’s for this reason that a writer can seldom count close family members among his or her greatest fans. The family has to live with the actual mind, with the smiling, apparently happy and contented man sitting across the dinner table, and wonder about all the masks he’s worn and the kind of person who would even want to wear them in the first place.

The act of writing sets one apart from society and polite conversation. It may be the same way with artists and sculptors whose works must touch something deep in the human mind and heart. Writers must necessarily touch that deep place, in a way that a painter of landscapes and sunsets can usually avoid. Stories by their nature must bear the burdens of conflict, tension, and moral judgment if they are to mean anything. Characters must reveal their inner natures through viewpoint, word choice, and action—and they are not always smiling and contented people. The best stories are always a bit disturbing, which means that the best writers must skate close to the edge of malice, crime, and madness.

Does this alienate the writer from family, friends, and society? Oh, a bit. From time to time. And only if we let it bother us. For the rest, we’re just doing our job, which is telling the stories that other people cannot tell for themselves.

1. See Where Do Stories Originate? from August 3, 2014.