That stupid De Niro quote on writers

The stupid De Niro quote about writers is doing the rounds of Facebook:



This kind of thing makes me cross.

Some of the greatest writers in my pond seem utterly angst free. For example, the serene Terry Pratchett and Stephen King (who describes himself laughing and giggling over his work), so angst does not seem to be a prerequisite to good writing.

King did have angst and was an alcoholic, but eventually realised this was nothing to do with his writing. What delayed his recovery was the trope that writers are supposed to be messed up.

This is one of the reasons why I get cross when people make out that being messed up is a prerequisite for being a good writer.

The corollary is also annoying, that if you aren’t miserable then you aren’t trying hard enough. Sorry I am trying hard, but I am also mentally robust — which is probably just good genetic fortune and lucky parenting, but doesn’t make me a bad writer.

Furthermore, I have a self-doubt ridden friends — it’s called impostor syndrome, apparently — in a variety of industries ranging from swordsmithing to programming. It’s pretty clear that certain kinds of people just angst as soon as they are in a high performance situation, regardless of what that situation is. This may be statistically normal, but it’s not necessary and I wish they could come to some accommodation with whatever makes them so. Quotes like the De Niro one are unhelpful because they normalise being miserable.

Worse, some industries exploit this. A friend says:

Programmer impostor syndrome is widespread and is actively stoked by industry as love for one’s vocation as a part of professional identity can be leveraged to get people to work longer for less money – you aren’t really part of this community if you need more than pizza to motivate you to sit here coding for another six hours.

So not only do such quotes (and the tropes they carry) harm people including writers and artists. They also actively help the vampiric forces of industry.

Finally, there’s a gender issue.

Though men do not have the monopoly on subcultures which embrace mental ill-health — read my female friend’s quote in my previous article — it seems most of these writerly “O teh agnast” quotes are about or from male writers.

The truth is that writing is hard work , but in a seamstressing kind of way. It’s just not very macho (though I did once break my keyboard typing so hard).

Quotes like this are grasping at an old-fashioned masculinity, and in their pathetic desperation — “Oh look at me I’m so manly I cwy on my keyboard and develop substance abuse habits!” I mean, come on! You want old-fashioned manly virtues, read some of the recent Memorial Day postings… men comforting dying friends in fox holes while the bullets snap overhead — are ultimately apologetic. They imply that men who don’t do macho professions are somehow unmanly.

Me, I’m part writer, part househusband. When I’m not sitting quietly typing, I’m cleaning, cooking, shopping or nurturing. I quite like playing with old fashioned masculine virtues, but I have swords for that (and plenty of female friends who also fence, by the way). Manhood is what I make it.

Meanwhile, since this agnast (AGravating AngST) is mainly a male thing, it’s also kind of implying that female writers are less serious, less excellent than their male counterparts.

Which, all in all, is why such quotes continue to make me cross.

UPDATE: Great blog entry; Does misery make for better writing?

UPDATE: As per his equally fierce blog entry, my online friend Clay Sanger LIKES the De Niro quote which he generally encounters and/or posts in the spirit of writerly solidarity, and chides me accordingly.  It just shows the limitations of the Internet. Had we been in a bar, he might have cited Di Niro, I might have started my rant, then he might have cut me off with a wave of the hand: different context. And I might have nodded and said: go on…

SHAMELESS PLUG: If writing makes you angsty, how about using my book Storyteller Tools to fill the gaps in your skills before deciding to wallow in artistic misery? 


Writer. Swordsman. CLICK TO SEE MY BOOKS !

Posted in Writing Life
7 comments on “That stupid De Niro quote on writers
  1. Geoff Hart says:

    I see the source of your confusion, Grasshopper: you didn’t realize that de Niro was speaking about *Hollywood* writers.

    Of course, Hollywood writers get all the respect, money, and women (or men, as tastes may have it). Without them, there’d be no Hollywood. Or as my Favorite TV Commercial Ever notes:
    Nice. *G*

    On the plus side, given their reasonable deadlines and careful, nurturing support for writers, Hollywood clearly represents a huge market for your book, Martin. *GDRLH*

  2. mharoldpage says:

    Ah well, he might have been talking about Holywood scriptwriters, but you see very similar quotes about regular writers — e.g. that Salon article I linked to — and it was being passed around as if it applied to writers in general.

  3. Fred says:

    I do wonder how De Niro would have felt if someone else had generated this quote, with “actor” instead of “writer.”

  4. Mark says:

    “The mind of a writer CAN BE a terrifying thing” does not equal “the mind of a writer IS a truly terrifying thing”!

    In any case, there is a certain logic here. The smartest creatives cannot, by definition, be satisfied with what they have created, and are driven by necessity to try to create something better.

    • mharoldpage says:

      Well, there’s a couple of points here.

      First, you *can* interpret the quote in several ways if you wish. By “a writer” he could mean “some writers” and by “can” he could mean “occasionally”. However, the way he put it is generally taken as “a *typical* writer ” and “often”. What I think people call a normative statement; this is how writers are/should be.

      Second, what’s pernicious about it is the double bind/emperor’s new clothes that it sets up. The implication is that; “if I don’t suffer from angst, ergo I am not among the smartest creatives”. So now we all have to go around pretending to be angsty while feeling like impostors. That sets up an unhealthy culture that enables – in the wrong way – people who *do* have issues. Most creatives report mental health issues as being a hindrance to their creativity, not an aid to it. Meanwhile, it encourages young wannabes to concentrate on their angst and not their craft.

      Third, smart depends on your frame of reference. I know two top-in-their-field creatives personally, and know of many more anecdotally. They all seem to enjoy what they do, presumably because they are smart enough to take the right mental attitude…

  5. Indiana Jim says:

    The violence inherent in the system is based on an idealization of Ernest Hemingway, the all-time king of the alcohol-fueled writerly angst. He, of course, was male. No woman that I know of aspires to be Hemingway, but perhaps Austen or some other romanticized writer of yore. Male writers that are held up on pedestals tend to fit that self-destructive bill. Unfortunately few pedestals are erected in the mainstream for Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov, both of whom were very productive and lived long lives working at a craft they loved.

    So blame Hemingway. And vodka.

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