Alexandra Duncan

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Feminism.


Over the years, I've heard a lot of writers try to explain why they write. Many of them say that it isn't simply that they want to write, they need to write. It's a compulsion, a habit, an all-consuming drive. Which sounds very romantic until you realize you're basically describing a symptom of an anxiety-based mental illness.

We have a conception of writers, and all artistic people, really, as mad bohemian romantics, scrounging a living from half-burnt candles and day-old bread, huddled in their garrets, conducting passionate love affairs that society will never understand. But when you're trying to make a living doing something creative, the grubby romance of huddling under a blanket with your lover because you couldn't afford to pay the heating bill gets old pretty fast.

One time, I had a writing professor tell everyone in my fiction writing class that if we wanted to be writers -- real writers -- we should psychologically prepare ourselves for the inevitable fact that we were going to get divorced at least once. At the time, I was in a long-distance relationship with the man I would eventually marry, and the thought of us not lasting was crushing. I could barely bring myself to produce anything that semester. Did I really want to trade all of my hopes for future happiness in order to be a writer? What was the point of creating anything if the dissolution of love was its ultimate outcome?

And then I realized my professor was full of shit.

I didn't have to get divorced if I was a writer, any more than I had to do psychotropic drugs (Coleridge) or develop a drinking problem (Hemingway) or sleep my way through early 20th-century literary circles (Millay). While we're on the topic of Millay, consider her famous poem, "First Fig,"

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends--
It gives a lovely light!

It's lovely and poetic, and evocative of the passionate romance of creation. But as a guide to the creative life, it's the worst thing you could aspire to. As for me, I want to last the night. I want to love. I want to have a balanced life full of friends, satisfying work, and time with my family. I don't want to develop a substance abuse problem or a mental illness. There is enough suffering in the world without cultivating it within yourself in the service of art.

As I continue to work on this summer's writing challenge, I am trying to keep this idea of balance in mind. I spent the last year working on my Massive Mysterious Project, along with numerous smaller writing projects, and I don't think I did the best job of making sure that I gave enough of my time to my husband and my work. The MMP was so omnipresent, so all-consuming, that toward the end of it, I could barely sleep because it was still racing through my mind at 3 a.m.

My goal this summer is not simply to write a novel, but to figure out how to remain sane during the process and still maintain the level of dedication required to finish it on time. Just as it isn't necessary to get divorced to be a real writer, it must also be possible to develop healthy writing habits that don't cause you to devolve into anxiety-driven fits of madness or leave you sleepless every night. Because isn't the point of doing something you love to make yourself happy by doing that thing, not to make yourself miserable?

Powered by Squarespace. Background image by Stocktrek Images.