Dancing in the Shadows of Madness

It’s something of a truism that writers are eccentric at best, and for most of the writers I know this is a rather mild description. Me, I’m held together by a concoction of the best psychoactive drugs the pharmaceutical industry can charge a fortune for, so I’m not exactly the token normal person here. Eric Flint has said that if you’re not crazy when you start out as a writer, you will be – and he’s absolutely correct.

It’s not just the stresses that go with working at something where almost everything that impacts your career is out of your control. It’s the nature of the beast. After all, anyone else who had long, involved narratives about the exploits of imaginary people would be getting visits from those nice men who give fittings for the jacket with the extra-long sleeves. But because writers can focus those narratives and put them into a form that other people might want to read – and can mostly remember which world their feet are in – we get a kind of a pass.

We’re still dancing in the shadows of madness, and it’s still terribly easy to get lost.

I’ve seen a range of beliefs about writing, including (but not limited to) the idea that there’s a gateway inside the writer’s head which lets them see/hear/experience what’s happening in other worlds, guiding angels or spirits dictating the stories, tapping into a kind of collective zeitgeist, peculiar analogy-pretzels generated by the subconscious, and a whole bunch more. I don’t claim to know which is real – I suspect that most writers describe the experience the way it feels to them with a complete lack of concern about how it works. That’s certainly what I do.

The danger is that no matter how these fantastic visions arise, they aren’t all benign. Even if they are the product of the subconscious, they can still be deeply harmful (remember, the subconscious accepts everything. Good or bad. And pukes it back out when the occasion appears to warrant it). Even if they aren’t harmful, life still has to happen. There are bills that need to be paid, family who need love and care, clothes needing washing, and any number of other things mundane and wonderful that only ever happen in this world.

It can be a thin edge, and the road back to yourself can vanish in an instant. The writer-brain never stops – if there isn’t any actual writing happening, it’s observing, cataloging how things feel, how they look, the best way to include them in future books (only a writer would question a friend about the way their spouse recovered from a coma because they needed that information for a book)… Given a chance, the writer brain will take over. Which is fine, if what you’re doing is sitting writing. If you’re at your day job (a particularly common reality intrusion) or at an intimate dinner with your partner, not so good. If you’ve got a small child to look after, very not so good.

There isn’t much advice out there for writers to stay grounded. My method – and remember, I am certifiable, and have the medications to prove it – is to pay attention to the world your feet are in first, and examine the wonders your writer-brain generates. Some of them may be so profoundly wrong you’ll damage yourself trying to write them (there are a few ideas/stories/worlds I’ve abandoned and mentally blocked out for exactly that reason). If you find your characters advising you on handling your physical life, get out. Fast. Shut that world down no matter how enticing it is, no matter how much you love it. Do not, under any circumstances, take their advice. It may be your subconscious screaming for attention, but I’ve never found a situation where the advice in question is actually good for me. It comes from the same source as that little voice that tells me the world would be a better place if I took myself and all my problems out of it.

If you can’t see out of the shadows, remember your physical body. Its needs will be dulled if you’re lost in the shadows, but they’re still there. You can connect to them, and use them to find your way ‘home’.

Not that I’m intending to be demagogic, or handing off advice all over the place, but these are things I’ve worked out for myself over years of dancing in the shadows. If any of it keeps anyone else from getting lost, it’s worth sharing.


5 thoughts on “Dancing in the Shadows of Madness

  1. Great commentary on the craziness of writing. I posted a similar sentiment on my blog a few weeks ago, but you have summed it up more eloquently, I think.
    “To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark.”
    -Wendell Berry

    From the Shadows,
    Larry Atchley, Jr

    1. Larry,

      Thanks for the compliment. It’s one of those things where the balance between crazy and sane can skew without people realizing. That edge is one of the things that gives writing – and the other arts – a lot of their power, I think

  2. I sometimes think “normal” people buy art (all the arts and letters) because it lets them experience the intensities of madness in small, controlled, temporary doses.

    1. Julie,

      I wouldn’t be surprised – that intense emotion isn’t easily found in life, and certainly not in a situation that’s ‘safe’. With the arts, you can experience it at one remove, and walk away afterwards. The same can’t always be said of the artist…

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