By Nichole Giles
“Writers love to worry. By their very nature they are neurotic. And they tend to exhibit the gamut of phobic behaviors from nervous tics and insomnia to full-fledged paranoia and delusional episodes.”
“The Forest for the Trees”
I got some new writing books for Christmas, and I was so excited that I dove right into them. One of the books is Betsy Lerner’s “The Forest for the Trees, an Editor’s Advice to Writers,” which I am currently reading in my spare minutes.
Lerner spends an entire chapter talking about the neuroses of the literary greats, and then goes on to mention the neurotic behaviors of many of the writers she—as an editor—has worked with. I found this information not only enlightening, but also somewhat inspiring because this editor seems to be convinced that it is our neuroses that not only make us write, but force us to write well.
I cannot logically enter the entire chapter into a blog, nor would I attempt it. So instead, I thought I’d share a few of the neurotic behaviors exhibited by some of the world’s great writers. Read on, and see if Learner mentions something YOU can identify with.
“When I’m writing I feel it’s the only time that I feel completely self-possessed, even when the writing itself is not going too well. It’s fine therapy for people who are perpetually scared of nameless threats as I am most of the time—for jittery people. Besides, I’ve discovered that when I’m not writing I’m prone to developing certain nervous tics, and hypochondria.”
“My schedule is flexible, but I am rather particular about my instruments; lined Bristol cards and well-sharpened, not too hard, pencils capped with erasers.”
“I write my first version in longhand. Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand…then I type a third draft on yellow paper, a very special certain kind of yellow paper.”
“Jackie wrote on Pink paper, and she apparently had not yet discovered the ‘Shift’ key on her typewriter (a pink IBM Selectric): she wrote everything in capital letters, like a long telegram, and added revisions in a large, forceful circular hand, with what looked like a blunt eyebrow pencil.”
(Describing the habits of Jacqueline Susann.)
Hemmingway was said to have sharpened twenty pencils before he started work.
Dame Edith Sitwell reputedly lay in an open coffin before beginning her day’s work.
Lerner goes on to say, “If you become successful as a writer, these ritualistic behaviors will become known as your ‘process.’ Then, all the quirks of character become part of what makes you tick.” However, Lerner admits there is a downside to these and other eccentric habits. “Should you fail to achieve success, all these behaviors look only like excuses or sick behavior.”
Whatever your neurosis, habit, phobia, ritual, or superstition, chances are most editors are ready to deal with it because Lerner admits, “…Neurotic behavior gives a shapeless day structure.” And habitual structure is the thing that forces us to produce.
Do you have a ritual? If not, maybe it’s time you got one. It is, after all, the process used by some of the greatest literary minds of our time. Not to mention the writers on our blogck.