Why Do So Many Writers Say Writing Torments Them?

There's a quote by Flannery O'Connor currently making the rounds on Facebook:

"Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I'm always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it's very shocking to the system."

I see her point that writing isn't an escape from reality: It's an attempt to make something out of reality. But "terrible experience"? Give me a break.

Being stuck in London for six weeks this past summer with a knee injury I couldn't have operated on until I got back to the U.S., being sleepless, exhausted, and in almost constant pain -- that was terrible. Being in a car accident recently and suffering a concussion and brief amnesia, that was terrible, too. Losing my mother to dementia? Lightyears beyond terrible. But writing? No way.

I've published eight mystery novels, one historical novel, a vampire novella, and two literary novels along with 13 other books in different genres. Every one of them has been a joy to write. Sure, they each had challenges of form or style or research, but the experience of writing them was never even remotely terrible. Not one of them made me suffer (publishing is something else entirely).

I love writing. I love re-writing. I love creating new worlds, feeling like Mandy Patinkin in Sunday in the Park with George when he sings as the painter Georges Seurat, "Look, I made a hat...Where there never was a hat." Writing is hard work, but it's not just fun, sometimes it's bliss. As for writing a novel, what could be better? Working on one, I feel enveloped, protected, uplifted, transported.


But people who don't write, as O'Connor suggests, think it's not really work at all, it's just goofing off. So I suspect some writers feel they have to portray themselves as suffering, tormented, and besieged. If they make the profession sound as arduous as mountain climbing, or a cross they have to bear, maybe the world will take them more seriously. Does the PR convince anyone? I don't think so, given all the people over the years who've told me that they would write a book - -if only they had a little time.

It's popular for writers to bitch and moan about how agonizing writing is and how they dread writer's block as if it were one of the Ten Plagues (or a visiting Kardashian), but the general public just doesn't buy that line. Wannabe writers do, however, since they snap up books about writer's block as if they were taking a multi-vitamin or a supplement like ginkgo biloba. It's as if enjoying yourself when you write is somehow suspect, and to prepare yourself for your craft, you have to be to suffer. A lot.

But when writers complain about writing, their audience really ends up being other writers, and many of us think, "If it makes you so damned miserable, just get another job already."


Lev Raphael's 25th book, Assault With a Deadly Lie, is a novel of suspense set in a fictional Midwestern college town. You can check out his other books here.