Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Writing: a dangerous addiction?

Dictionary definition of addiction:  the condition of being abnormally dependent on some habit, esp compulsive dependency on narcotic drugs.

Right.  So let's look at the compulsion some of us have to write and see whether that qualifies us as word junkies.

Stratospheric highs followed by crushing lows?  Yep.
Feel like you're only truly alive when you're doing it?   'fraid so.
Feeling bereft when you're not doing it?  Uh huh.
Oblivious to the outside world when you're on a high?  True.
Impact on members of your family, who are driven crazy by your glazed eyes and distracted air?  Can't deny it.

So what kind of person is susceptible to this condition?

I always thought it safe to assume that those most vulnerable are those who have always loved books and reading since early childhood.  They know how it feels to enter a different world, to explore new places and meet new people, to hear a story being told - all inside their own head without ever leaving the comfort of their armchair.

It's not such a huge leap to progress from this passive form of being a book junkie, to one who feels irresistably drawn to take the next step: to create worlds of their own and people them with casts drawn from their imagination.

So when I received an MS for editing back in May 2008 and read the covering letter, you can understand why my heart sank - and why, in spite of the dozens of MSes I've edited since, I remember this particular one so well.

'I don't read books,' the author said.  'But my wife does.  And she thinks it's good.'

Eh?  Run that by me again?  That statement begs so many questions, I hardly know where to start.  The author was obviously well-educated and highly intelligent.

Did he truly believe that feedback from his own wife (whose only apparent qualification was that she reads books) was sufficient justification for him to have given up his job in order to write?  (Yes, you did read that right.)

And why on earth would he  choose to write if he never read?  Most of us write the kinds of books we would like to read.  How could he make that decision?  And how could he know what works and what doesn't?  What readers want and expect?  What the rules are for different genres?  As I later said in my report, it's the equivalent of someone who's never swam more than a length of the bath attempting to swim the Channel.

Anyway, I had a job to do.  As soon as I began reading it came as no surprise that an enormous amount of work needed to be done in almost every area in order to raise the standard of the MS.  In that respect, the author was far from unique.  I have edited worse MSes whose authors didn't have the added disadvantage of not being avid readers.

As I continued reading, the reason this author had for writing his book became more clear.  He was working through, in a fictional setting, some very personal and painful experiences. 

Good on him!  It was a testament to his determination to transcend those experiences and turn them into something constructive and meaningful.  And blimey, he had written a whole book and that's an achievement in anyone's ... book.

I gave him the usual lecture about managing expectations and the financial realities faced by writers - even those authors considered 'successful'.  I pointed out the strengths and weaknesses of his book. I didn't hold back on how much work he needed to do on it. 

To be honest, I was pretty convinced he'd written the book he needed to write; the process had been cathartic and healing, but that would be the end of his writing career.

After I sent him the report, he replied to say my comments were spot on, in all but one regard.  He was determined to carry on writing.  He told me he 'thoroughly loved it' and had already embarked on his next book, although he knew it would most likely be a 'fruitless exercise'.

Sure enough,   I received the draft of his second book in December 2009.  I can't tell you how delighted I was to have been proved wrong.  The author assured me he was reading fiction now.  This new MS was a very different book and the progress he had made in every aspect of creative writing was impressive.

We continued to exchange emails.  I was reassured that he was realistic.  He just wanted to hone his craft and continue to work on this book.  He told me he was surprised to find out how much he was loving the writing process.

Yes, that's right.  He was hooked.  There was to be no going back.

DW and I met in Real Life when he attended a Writers' Workshop course that I ran in September.  I could see how much he wanted to stick his tongue out at me and say, 'Told you so.'  I honestly wouldn't have minded.  There's a fellowship among addicts.  He was a welcome addition to the colony.

In November, having polished according to his original report and using the new skills he'd picked up at the workshop, he submitted the redraft.  More mega improvements.  But that meant he'd now moved onto another level.  To his disappointment, this report was the longest I'd done for him yet.  It's ironic - the better the quality and overall standard, the more there is to say about it.  (It doesn't take many words to point  out a problem that recurs throughout an MS.)

'That's it,' he said when he received the report.  'I've had enough.'

He hadn't though, of course.  As soon as he spotted the validity of the feedback, he could see how it made sense.  It didn't make him throw away the crack pipe.  Instead it made him excited all over again as he saw how he could make his creation better still.

I know he loves me and hates me in equal measure.  I am his dealer, after all.  But the addiction is all his.  Just to make it clear what to expect now that he's confessed to his compulsion, I can do no better that to quote The Eagles.

'This could be heaven and this could be hell ...'


Unknown said...

Definitely agree with you there Debi.You feel high when you do it and bad when you don't.

Unknown said...

Oh you sum it up brilliantly!
Absolutely spot on - I recognise it all from the addiction, to the rewrites and more rewrites.
Actually, I think there's a fair bit of S&M thrown in with it too.

Debi said...

V - and sometimes bad when you do too ...

Nicky - yeah, why not throw in a bit of S&M too?

Sue Guiney said...

Yep. :-)

Unknown said...

Yeah, there is that too isn't there! When you've written something but you know it's not your best, but then you sit down and do it again, and again, and again...

Debi said...

Spoken like true addicts, both of you

jaymac said...

But a happy addiction and Debi doing her best to keep our heads above water as she guides us upstream to publication!

Debi said...

jaymac - I hope publication lies at the end of the stream, but in case it doesn't just try to appreciate the highs of this writing addiction.