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?