Madness, Stress, and the Writer

It’s something of a truism that if writers aren’t crazy when they enter the field, they will be before long. There are any number of reasons for this, but probably the biggest is that a huge chunk of the fiction writer’s art consists of imaging people that never existed, places that never existed, and events that never happened, all in enough detail that the writer can believe they’re all real.

After doing this, and effectively bringing this otherworld to life, fiction writers have to disconnect from their world enough to evaluate their craft in writing down what they created – and if that wasn’t enough, disconnect even more so that it’s not utterly devastating when someone doesn’t like their work.

There are – of course – equivalents for non-fiction writers, musicians, artists, and all the other creative fields. I just don’t know what they are.

At any rate, this particular mental exercise ends up being functionally schizophrenic, except that the voices in one’s head are telling stories rather than giving orders. Most of the fiction writers I know effectively write the stories told by the voices in their heads, with judicious editing. Sometimes also with cut-scenes that are destined never to see the light of day but had to be written to sort out some wrinkle of the piece.

Yes, I am an extreme pantser, but people who are much more plotters than I am have the same issues.

If that isn’t enough writing, like any creative endeavor, is immensely stressful. No matter what you write or how brilliant it is, there will always be some who think it’s the greatest thing ever, and others who wonder why anyone would pay to read that. This is why writers are warned to take reviews and criticism with a hefty dose of salt.

Then there’s the uncertainty factor. Whether you’re a bestseller with the big publishers or self-publishing through Amazon, you’re only as good as the last book, if that. Writers don’t have paid vacation, pension plans (the writer’s backlist is their pension plan, and we all know what happened to that for all but the blockbuster bestsellers), or any of the other benefits your average salaried worker expects – and that’s just a sample of the uncertainties.

It’s no surprise that writers have major stress issues – which of course makes their… let’s say stability… issues worse.

On top of that, superstition drivers in writing abound. This happens any time reward is divorced from action, which for writers is something like 100% of the time in traditional publishing. Self publishing there seems to be a threshold of “good enough” beyond which almost anything will sell but won’t necessarily go big – so the reward lies in volume rather than quality once you pass that threshold. Given that writers also tend strongly to perfectionism, this isn’t necessarily ideal, but it’s still much better from the superstition/paranoia perspective.

Of course, there are other stresses. Writers – again, like many creative folks – tend to be anti-social or asocial introverts who have issues dealing with everyday life. I’m no exception. My issues have produced hordes of little baby issues that grew up and started families of their own and then went to war with each other. I can usually keep track of which universe my feet are in, but that’s often the limit of it. There’s a reason I’m happy to let my husband handle bill paying and bank accounts. I’d forget to pay the electric and then we’d be in real trouble.

Given all of this, writers end up with some really creative stress reduction techniques – as well as a pretty good nose for stress-avoidance.

Stress-avoidance for writers usually means not getting into situations you know will be stressful, and avoiding people who cause the basic stress reaction (the unfulfillable desire to choke the living shit out of someone who desperately needs it) but there are traps even the most experienced stress-manager writer can fall into.

The Stalker

This one is pretty much unavoidable. A writer gets good enough and their work gets in enough hands, and they’ll have someone deciding that writer is their new bestest friend evah. For someone who’s already a relatively private, introverted type, this isn’t easy to deal with. Some preventives are not giving out more detail about where you live and where you can be found than the essential (conventions are the exception here – you tee up with your writer friends to provide evasion methods when necessary, since if your stalker doesn’t do anything illegal there’s not much that can be done about them), not having a publicly listed phone number, writing under a name that’s not your real one, having a generic email for fans to contact you that isn’t the same one as the email you give your family and real friends – and making sure you have a few throwaway email addresses in case you need to change one because of stalker activity. Email rules to delete anything by a specific sender help, too.

The Toxic Fan

This particular stress is probably the hardest one to catch before it affects you. Few writers can resist someone who is a fan of their work and puppy-eager for more of it and offers to help with… well, anything really, but often something you’d rather not be doing. Once the hooks are in, they start twisting. If you include them in your betas or first readers you’ll get some valid comments mixed with a lot of nitpickery that is often flat out useless – except that many, many writers are horribly insecure about their work and try to fix the nits, only to find that there are more and more each subsequent round. Since the Toxic Fan often doesn’t realize they’re effectively puffing themselves up at “their” writer’s expense, it can be bloody difficult to recognize one, and harder to disconnect.

Some clues are the nitpicking critique, usually things none of your other first readers and betas pick up on, the offers to help which turn into frustrating wastes of time because they aren’t up to what they’re trying to do, the implications that people you and the fan know are in some way not helping you the way they should (and writers are prone to paranoia, making this doubly vicious). If you find yourself consistently depressed by dealing with one particular fan, and withdrawing from your other fans and writing friends, chances are you need to break off from this person for a while and see if that improves things. If it does, you’ve got a toxic fan and you need to put tight limits on any interaction with that person.

The Metric Shit-Ton of Work

This particular stress afflicts pretty much everyone, but for writers (and anyone else creative) there’s the added risk that too much stress will shut down the creativity. The short-short explanation of this is that the more stressed you are the more your brain and body shift you into pure survival mode, shutting down anything that’s not essential and shunting whatever can be done on autopilot over to the autopilot modes. Personally, I’ve found when that happens if I don’t cut back on stress or find a way to release it, I’m headed for breakdown.

It’s deceptively easy to end up with a metric shit-ton of work, too. Typically normal everyday life eats a chunk of the waking hours, since nothing has ever been invented that cleans itself properly, then there’s the day job if you’ve got one, or running around doing other stuff because if you’re working from home you’re basically free to do whatever, right? (Yeah, right. We all know what happens there.)

Plus, being basically decent people – most of us anyway, although I’m not that sure about myself – we try to help out friends and family when we can, and that gets even more commitments.

When they’re ‘hard’ commitments, like a job, it’s bloody difficult to shunt off a few to drop the stress levels. Softer commitments are also difficult, mostly because of the people who’d be disappointed.

All of which leads to stress release techniques.

Those who know me know that one of mine is to caricature people who’ve really pissed me off and then kill them in inventive ways during the course of whatever I happen to be writing at the time. That of course presumes I’m in a fit state to write….

I get there – at least some of the time – by mindless virtual violence, usually in the form of sheepie molestation these days, although I’m also working through Skyward Sword on the wii, and will obsessively play social games, solitaire, and the like. I use these to slow down the wild spinning of thoughts enough that during the week I can sleep, and on weekends, I have a chance to get some quality writing time in (hah! Most of what I’ve done lately has been in stolen time at work… usually between waiting for other things to run on my work machine).

Some folks meditate. Others cook. The key thing there is to find something you enjoy and can do without too much mental exercise. If it involves physical exercise, that can be even better – just because physical stuff generally helps mild depression and stress.

So, anyone feel like sharing some of the stress-generators they’ve run into, the insanity-fuel, and the stress-reduction techniques that work for them? The more the merrier – if you recognize something as a possible problem you can do something about it, and if you’ve got a whole boat-load of ways it can be dealt with, then if one doesn’t work, you can move on to the next.


  1. One thing I’ve used applies mostly to “social settings” is arranging things so I can “escape”.

    I always “drive myself” places so if I need/want to leave (either for a while or permanently), I don’t depend on others to give me a ride. Going along with this, I don’t like having somebody depending on me for a ride.

    Also at Cons, I’ll get away from the Con hotel for a while or just withdraw to my room.

    1. Paul,
      Where you can use those things they work well. Withdrawing to the hotel room is a good one for conventions.

  2. Personally, I think writers train themselves to step in and out of reality, and thus have a better appreciation for real vs imaginary than most people. I meet a lot of people who just don’t seem to see the world around them. Or perhaps they “see” too much. They seem to be uncritical, and accept opinion and dreams as if they are as valid as reality.

    1. Pam,

      That’s quite possible. Of course switching between the universes in your head and the one you’re walking around in can be interesting too.

  3. Kate, you know my stress reducers. If the stress hasn’t yet gotten to the point where I feel the need to do serious bodily harm — metaphorically speaking, of course — to someone, I game. It’s a great way to get the mind on something totally unrelated to the stress. If the stress is especially bad, that’s when I have to work with my hands and when a lot of reno gets done around the house. Finally, if it gets too bad, I call some of my training buddies from when I was still doing martial arts on a regular basis and we do some sparring. It hasn’t gotten that bad in some time now, but that’s not to say it won’t again.

    1. Amanda,

      Indeed. Killing stuff in a game (Sheepies!) is a good way to let stress out. Renaming everything you kill in said game helps, too. Nothing quite like vicariously killing someone who’s pissed you off over and over and over…

  4. My stress reducers are namby pamby and consist of a return of sorts to childhood, when all I had to do was read all day for weeks on end. Hence, the escapes to Denver and also why we often come across as very rude by sneaking up there, not seeing any of our friends and just hiding out as a family. Honestly, those vacations would strike about anyone else as pathetic — we mostly get up late, read in bed till all hours, have breakfast in hotel, might not go out to lunch if it’s too much work, go for long walks or that kind of relaxation, or a museum, then dinner, then come back and read. What I NEED right now is four days of that. Is not going to happen unless/until the money picks up.

    1. Sarah,

      That sounds absolutely heavenly. I could use a week or so of sleeping late and reading. Ain’t going to get it, but I could use it.

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