Saturday, July 29, 2006

see my pretty picture -- psycho 101

Are writers broken?

This is a question I've asked myself many times over the years. I grew up in an abusive home under the care of someone who shouldn't have had children, much less have been left in charge of them. The physical abuse didn't start until I was a teenager, but the mental abuse was constant. Many writers seem to have come from similar backgrounds. I'd love to know the percentage, but I suspect a lot of people don't talk about it, maybe because there's still a deep sense of shame that goes along with that kind of upbringing. Not to mention all those overdone, melodramatic plots. I hate when people whine around about this stuff, and i'm only mentioning it because i wonder if it's at the unconscious heart of many of our books.

While growing up my entire focus was on pleasing my caretaker, to do whatever I could to make her happy and do whatever I could to avoid making her mad. Unfortunately I think that codependent way of coping has followed me into adult life and working relationships. For the most part I'm somebody who now refuses to take crap from anybody, but in a working relationship I tend to revert back to those old ways of coping. I find myself weighted down by a strong desire to please until I'm pushed too far and everything blows up.

I also think many writers become addicted to book releases, not because it's pretty damn wonderful to see your book on the shelf, but because they crave the mass approval a well-written book brings.

See my pretty picture.

Writing is definitely therapy, and I think my teenage characters are probably the most like me as I continuously revisit and deal with the past. I don't know if it helps. Probably not, but it's nice to hit back.


Stephen Blackmoore said...

I don't think writers per se are broken. I think people are. I think we're just more eloquent about it than most.

Each of us finds ways, whether useful and productive or not, to vent our frustrations and work through our pasts. Painters do it on canvas, alcoholics do it with a bottle.

I think all of us draw on the experiences that grew us into the people we are right now to express ourselves. I think those who write have the added benefit of being able to use the page as an extra brain, a place to dump all of those nasty pieces of past hurt and somehow come to some kind of conclusions on the paper. Like having to show our work in math class.

Whether those conclusions are right or wrong, who knows. In my case, of course, I just use it to bolster my own flagging self-esteem and try to look smarter than I am because I can use big words like defenestration and sphygmomanometer in a sentence. And that's definitely a holdover from childhood. ;-)

Anonymous said...

It's a beautiful picture, Anne.

I do think writers need some sort of fuel, some sort of tension or angst. Stories don't lend themselves to one dimensional thinking.

anne frasier said...

stephen, good point. and i can only think of two people i've ever known who had what most would consider a normal childhood. and i have to guess there could be some secrets in there.

thanks, jason. :)

i wonder if anybody has ever tried to do a comic strip with those bodyless, jellyfish people?

angie said...

In a weird way, I think most writers/artists/musician/creative folks are more healthy than not. Like Stephen, I think most people have horrors in their lives - some starting in childhood, some a little later. The difference is that creativity is a way to work through that stuff and find a way to incorporate it rather than continuing to live in a fragmented state. Doesn't mean a novel, painting, whatever, makes everything all better, just a little more whole. OTH, I don't think you have to have a lot of fucked up shit in your past to be a good writer. Empathy and good observation skills go a long, long way in the process of effective writing. Just my opinion- variety is what keeps life interesting, no?

Bill Cameron said...

Angie makes an excellent point. Ultimately, any kind of mental or emotional healing seems to find its foundation in self-examination (though sometimes a Xanax helps too). Not all artists do self-examination, of course. Often, it seems that art, be it writing, painting, music, or whatever, can serve as a wall between the artist and whatever it is that hurts.

But so many use their art as a means of understanding where they've come from. I don't like the "art as therapy" construction, because I think it's often more complex and subtle than that. Art is a means to grow personally, heal one's hurts, and expand understanding in the world around us.

I had a friend who once said, "I don't read fiction. Only non-fiction, only something I can learn from." I felt bad for him, because literature (and by that I don't mean high-fallutin' stuff, but fiction writing) can teach us so much, as readers and as writers.

anne frasier said...

angie, i've wondered about writers who haven't experienced some screwed up stuff. if they are good observers -- and certainly the empathy. i also think you could break it down into genres. i have the feeling people who write horror might be dealing with some heavier issues. i can't remember the name of the famous horror film makeup artist who went into that after being in vietnam. very strange how we take something and keep recreating it in a safe place.

Christa M. Miller said...

I think that's also the reason why so many of us give up writing at one point or another. The rejections get to be too much, or the critics are too harsh, or what have you.

Much as I'd like to look at writing the same way I used to look at reading - a way to escape the crap and make my own world - the truth is, writing forces me to be part of society, to observe and experience. That's been my best therapy so far - even if I still often get it wrong!

anne frasier said...

bill, i think that very kind of self-exploration is what can really add depth to a book. the hardest thing for me is to keep a scene honest. i think the only way i can really do that is with self-exploration.

and yes, i've run into people like your friend who will only read non-fiction. it is sad.

anne frasier said...

christa, i wonder if some of those people who give up are some of the ones who don't have that driving need to expose something. ack! it's so complex!! :D because like you just said it can also go the other way and the fragile ego can't handle the rejection.

Kel said...

I write characters who are strong because I wanted to be strong while growing up. I had a lot of emotional pain and I think I often put it into my writing today. I'm one of those who don't talk about the past anymore. I think because I don't want to face the pain anymore.

anne frasier said...

angie, i wanted to add that it seems to me that a lot of musicians tend to have serious mental health issues that probably have nothing to do with childhood. i've always wondered about that too. so many have committed suicide, and i personally know a few who are always on the verge of total collapse. it's heartbreaking.

anne frasier said...

kel, i think there are those writers who create strong female characters for that very reason. and readers read them for the same reason. i love that kind of character, but i have a hard time writing them. not sure why.

Jeff said...

I believe genetics and the enviornment in which we grew up play a major role in how we percieve and interact with the world around us as adults.
Those of us who come from dysfunctional families are bound to include aspects of that life in our writing, even if on a subconscious level. Not because we want sympathy, or expect understanding, but simply because it is a part of who we are.

Sandra Ruttan said...


I completely understand where you're coming from. You and I are so much alike... My closest friend used to say she thought writers must all lead tortured lives.


anne frasier said...

jeff, you brought up good point. i think genetics plays a huge factor in all of this, especially with musicians.

and as i get older, i realize how everything i see and do is impacted by the past.

sandra, i remember reading your blog and thinking we had the same mother! :D and hey, we have the same hair.... hmm.... very curious.

i think dreams are a way we try to subconsciously solve problems. and sometime i think writing is another form of dreaming.

angie said...

Well, it is true that a lot of artists, regardless of medium (painting, sculpture, performance, writers, musicans, etc., etc.) struggle. Again, I think it has something to do with a monumental effort to be whole and make sense of the wackiness we call life.

There's plenty of bipolar greats (VanGogh? Kurt Cobain? many, many others), not to mention depressives (Sylvia Plath, anybody?) and suicides (Cobain, Ian Curtis, Sylvia Plath, Norbert Davis). Just a few there, not even commenting on the substance abusers, cutters (Shirley Manson, Angelina Jolie), straight up psychotics.

But here's the thing. Are there really more of them, or do they just stand out more because of their talent and public prominence? And did they disintegrate faster or slower because of their creative work? Just my opinion, but sometimes I think without creativity it's even harder to make it through. Imagine what would have happened to Kurt Cobain if he'd never taken up poetry and music. How long do you think he would have lasted? So many people struggle with these things, but it's the creative folks who bring it out of the shadows, give others a chance to look at their own shit in a different way. JMHO.

anne frasier said...

"But here's the thing. Are there really more of them, or do they just stand out more because of their talent and public prominence?"

angie, i've wondered about that.

and i completely get what your saying about creativity helping people, but i also think the creative mind looks at the world in a completely different way, a deeper, more emotional way, so it makes life harder to deal with.

angie said...

Hmm. Dunno. Never been on the non-creative side of the coin. I do think creative folks focus on different aspects, but I really don't know if that makes life easier or harder to deal with. Something I've wondered about... :)

D.A. Davenport said...

Hello Anne,
No, those of us who write and come from abusive environments are not broken. A touch cracked, yes. Bent out of shape, definately. But not broken. If we were, then we would not be able to put ourselves on the line and expose our souls to the world. I find, as I gain the confidence to submit my stories and begin larger and more demanding projects, that I am mending and standing more solidly on my own. It's the gift that writing gives back to me. It's also the gift that reading what others have written, has given me.
Something damaged but mended is often more strangely beautiful than in it's original condition... at the very least it's more unique. Probably like most of us!

Jer said...

I don't have the definitive answer, but let's pretend I do, okay?

I came from a happy home. Of course there was/is dysfunction, but that's part of the human experience. We all have crap to "get over."

Some of us get depressed, some of us self-medicate, some of us write, some of us see a therapist, some of us pretend nothing happened, some of us kill our abuser (at least in writing), some of us do all of the above. But whether morose or pollyanna, writing seems to be cathartic. It works for me.

A small example: I was so angry at a bank. Seething, cussing (in my head), driving fast, pulse racing, blood pressure rising kind of angry. Besides changing banks, I wrote a sketch about it for my sketch-comedy group. Called Happy Bank, it focuses on fake, over-the-top customer service. It's one of the best sketches I've written. And I can laugh at that stupid, stupid bank.

anne frasier said...

hi d.a.! so glad you stopped by. i love this line:

"Something damaged but mended is often more strangely beautiful than in it's original condition."

that's wonderfully profound and true.

anne frasier said...

jer, it's great to get your perspective!

writing is definitely cathartic for me. and you bring a whole new element to the discussion, which is humor and how we use it to cope. i LOVE that you wrote a sketch about your bank ordeal. humor is so amazingly powerful and something i find fascinating. i love it and am puzzled by it at the same time. if that makes any sense.

D.A. Davenport said...

Thanks for the welcome, Anne! I've been gradually working my way through the links on The Outfit's Blog and decided to visit! You have a great site here and I'll stop by more often.

emeraldcite said...

I think all writers are nuts. It's what makes us a good spectacle.

We're entertaining. People like to be entertained.

anne frasier said...

d.a.: i wondered how you found your way here! new "faces" are always welcome. :)

emeraldcite: god, that's funny. succinct and hilarious.
that would make a great blog description. :D

Tami said...

I can only speak for myself, and I came from a dysfunctional background (my father's an alcoholic and was abusive mentally and physically.) I think that growing up in an abusive environment helped shape who I am today, the good and the bad. I remember as a child just wanting to hide in books all day. In the end, it made me love books as I do today and helped shape my imagination.

I also think I became an artist (painting and drawing) due to it. I get lost in my own world when working on a painting, just like with reading, but I could express myself through my art.

Someone brought up a good point (I think Kel) about writing strong characters. I tend to get drawn into books with strong female protagonists (such as Patricia Cornwell's Scarpetta series) because I hope to be like them, or learn a little from them as weird as that sounds. As far as my own writing, I use it as a way to express myself, just like painting, but in a different way. Writing gives me a voice (I'm pretty shy) that I might not have in the "real world." I want to create those strong female characters, maybe in hopes that if I can write about one, maybe I have a little of that in myself.

Thanks Anne for the great post. It really got me thinking about my own writing and creativity.

anne frasier said...

awww *hug*, tami.

i really like the way you expanded on the strong female protagonist idea:

I hope to be like them, or learn a little from them as weird as that sounds.... maybe in hopes that if I can write about one, maybe I have a little of that in myself."

so cool, tami.

i completely get that. and i do think we learn through our own characters, which IS really weird! i think we somehow learn to be better and bigger and stronger and wiser.

verification: mrdibbi WTF? okay, who's doing that? mr. dibbi?

brianna said...

i have always thought that most peole view themselves as being broken. in my own case, i was raped in highschool, i know that the pain i have inside because of this fuels my writing. it is strange, it is not an expeirence that i feel anyone should have, but at the same time, i have produced good things out of anger and sadness.
i know that i veiw myself as somewhat of a writer, though not the best, but that i also view myself as being broken.
different things fuel different people.

Jaye Wells said...

Great topic, Anne, and the comments have been thought-provoking.

There is an element of astrology called "Kyron." This element relates to a psychological wound. And having it in your chart means that part of your life lesson is overcoming that wound and then doing something with the lessons.

Writing is my tool for self discovery and healing, and I hope that those lessons will help others.

My life hasn't been as hard as a lot of people's, but like others have said dysfunction is part of the human experience. I like that I can do something postive with it.

annefrasier said...

aw, brianna,
what an awful thing for you to have gone through. :(
and now i'm pissed off! i'm glad you have writing as an outlet -- a perfect example of what some of us have been talking about. you're brave to share something that painful.

jaye, i've never heard of kyron. i'm going to look into that and read more about it. very interesting.

i want to thank everybody for taking the time to post here. like jaye said, a lot of very through-provoking comments.

and yes, i think we can agree everybody's fucked up. :D

can i say that?

yeah, it's my blog.

jamie ford said...

Wow. Heavy subject.

In my case I think I'm the white sheep of my family. I'm the youngest of five kids. My parents were screwed up––most of my family was. Between my parents and my sibs, there are 11 divorces.

Writing is definitely my catharsis.

anne frasier said...

jamie, yes, it is a heavy subject. i debated about posting it, but i just kept running into writers who had similar upbringings. i find this kind of thing fascinating. i've been surprised at how open people have been with their comments.

11 divorces -- that's mind-boggling right there.
and that's a lot of grieving for the loss of the person who is no longer in the family. wow.

Elizabeth said...

My siblings and I had an idyllic childhood. Perfect in nearly every respect. Ward and June Cleaver, and all the kids. I'm not making it up.

Then we grew up and our adult lives went completely whacked. We can't blame it on our parents. In fact, not a one of us has a single excuse.

Stephen is right. It's just people who are broken.

Writing and art are my escape from brokenness, my place where all the pieces get put back together...even if only for a spellbound moment.

anne frasier said...

elizabeth, that's probably hard in a completely different way, because you didn't have permission to be depressed and messed up. i've had people recently say to me: "What do you have to be depressed about?"

the weight of existence can be felt by anybody. people don't need a special pass.

anne frasier said...

oh, and i never meant to imply that if you aren't broken you can't write! i'm quite sure unbroken people can write.

Nienke said...

I believe it's not about what happened in the past, but how we dealt with it. The same trauma or event will be perceived and handled differently by two people. That's exactly what I explore in my stories. I think, perhaps, I write to practice different perceptions and behaviors. And, that's definitely why I read.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Well, I must confess that I'm one of the unbroken. If you've ever watched the TV show LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, that was pretty much my life.

My parents were loving and always supportive of my creative goals. The most traumatic event of my life is probably my father's death when I was twenty-one.

I don't write as therapy. I write because it's something I'm lucky enough to be pretty good at -- and I've discovered I can make money doing it.

I think it's the world that's damaged. Damaged people raising kids and passing the damage along. With each generation of a family it either gets worse or it gets better -- depending on the individuals involved.

I'm sorry, Anne, that you suffered so as a child. I hate that someone would feel compelled to harm a child.

anne frasier said...

nienke: i think you've really hit it when you say it's how we deal with it. that's definitely what makes a character interesting.

rob, i'm glad you aren't broken. ;) and you know, this all makes so much sense. maybe. :D i can tell that you approach a book very methodically. i read the opening for your upcoming book and was blown away by it. the balance of juggling internal/external/backstory/characterization. seamless. not sure that has anything at all to do with how you grew up. could be more your background in screenwriting. but it does make me wonder if the broken people tend to write navel-gazers, and the unbroken tend to write with more attention to plot and structure.

Devon Ellington said...

You bring up very interesting points.

I think it's quite individual -- some writers are broken, some are not.

I DO however, think that writers are able to see bigger pictures and to see deeper into both people's and character's souls than many people who don't write.

Writers are natural observers and naturally transfigure all sorts of experience.

Writing can be therapy, but I think the best writing goes beyond therapy, making the personal universal and making the universal personal.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Anne, thanks for the kind words about KISS HER GOODBYE. You made my day. With your work, however, I would never accuse you of being a navel-gazer. Your books are also seamless -- and always compelling.

I think devon is right about writers being able to see deeper into people's souls. We're all psychologists in a way. Analyzing emotions, motivations, trying to figure out what makes people tick. What makes US tick.

We're also dreamers. A raise of hands from anyone who returns to this thread. How many of you have been accused of being a day dreamer?

A lot, I'll bet.

Damaged or not, I think these are the things that most writers have in common.

anne frasier said...

devon, thanks for visiting and adding your wonderful insight to this subject. i particularly love this line:

"Writers are natural observers and naturally transfigure all sorts of experience."

rob, i do think we are psychologists in a way. i always have to at least attempt to figure out what makes a person tick. i can't stop myself.

and you are so right about the daydreaming. i was plotting whole stories starting at about age 6 (first memory, anyway.) it seems like around 6 - 11 was the most intense period of daydreaming.

Lynn said...

I know that for me, broken has something to do with it. What's really hard is writing without realizing this. One of the scariest experiences in my life was unknowingly entering forbidden territory (buried trauma)while writing a novel.

anne frasier said...

lynn, thanks so much for visiting my blog and leaving a comment on this rather heavy thread. (jamie called it heavy, and i like that.) i experienced something kind of similar to what you're talking about with my upcoming release. i wasn't unconsciously digging up some buried trauma, but the whole book was a weird, twisted reflection of my life and the not-so-distant past. and i did not see that AT ALL until the book was in galley form. i was stunned.

Daniel Hatadi said...

As Stephen said, we're all broken, but some of us think they're not, some think they're 'normal'.

I'm not sure who they are exactly, but when I see them on the street I run the other way. They're the ones that never let out their madness and so it builds until they explode. You can count on them to go postal at KFC, McDonalds, or even your local post office.

It's far safer to be slightly insane all of the time, letting it trickle out in carefully measured doses.

Like this rant.

anne frasier said...

daniel, oh, man -- isn't that the truth? you're the first to mention those nutcases who think they're sane. and they also drive cars. :O

by the way: loved your crimespree article.

Daniel Hatadi said...

Thanks for that, Anne.

This IS like a bar. Next thing we know, everyone's going to be yelling out things like, "even though I've only known you for ten minutes, you're my best friend in the whole world", mumble, mumble, vomit.

Elizabeth said...

Anne, this has been a great post, you asked a great question and got a lot of great answers. Well deserved of all 46 comments to date. Forty-seven, now.

Rob, I'm raising my hand to your day dreamer accusations. Almost daily, in fact!

Jaye Wells said...

Shoot, Anne. I just realized I misspelled the astrology thing I was talking about. It's actually spelled "Chiron."

Anonymous said...

elizabeth, thanks so much. i really did wonder if i should post something so raw, but it's been gratifying to see how people have responded.

aw, poor uterus coffin! :D

jaye, it looks like it can be spelled both ways. i've bookedmarked some info about it and plan to go back and read it when my brain in more awake. thanks!

anne said...

well crap. anonymous was me. i didn't want to log in.

Anil P said...

I suppose only pain can sear the mind in a way that stays on long after things have changed. So much so that it becomes as much a part of the body as a hand or a leg.

And writing is an outlet that helps come to terms with the pain, and seeing the pain in words on a page is the surest way to confront it.

anne frasier said...

lovely comment.
i so agree. even if you comes to terms with the pain, it's always a part of you. it defines who you are today.

thanks for stopping by!