Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Writing while sick

with 2 comments

Norman Mailer

Note: I’m taking a break for the next few days, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on February 17, 2015.

Over the weekend, I got sick. Really sick. I’ll spare you the details, mostly because I don’t know exactly what happened—although the fact that I’m sharing a house with a toddler who recently got over her own stomach bug probably had something to do with it. It’s enough to say that around one in the morning, lying wrapped in blankets on the living room couch, with sleep only a remote possibility, I’d already given up on the idea of doing any work the following day. But somehow, when it come down to it, I muddled my way through, with the aid of white toast, chicken soup, and Gatorade. I’m not saying that the pages I managed to write yesterday were any good; I haven’t reviewed them yet, but given the way I cranked them out, I have a hunch that they were pretty terrible. Still, they exist. They’ll give me something to revise and tinker with today and tomorrow. And the fact that I was able to get a decent amount of writing done while being constantly distracted by my own digestive system speaks both to the power of routine and to something more useful about working on a project when you’re at less than your best.

A few weeks ago, I quoted an essay by the ecologist Stephen Heard on the matter of revision. He has a lot of good thoughts on the subject—including the tip that you should use the number of characters, not words, as a guideline when revising for length—and in particular, he recommends going over a draft at a time of day when you’re thinking less clearly than usual. If you’re a morning person and read your manuscript at night, your natural fuzziness of thought serves as a corrective to the tendency to take your own ideas at face value:

This isn’t about trying to simulate stupid readers; rather, you are looking to counterbalance your overfamiliarity with what you meant to say with a bit of useful mental fog. If your draft is clear to you even when you’re not thinking your best, great—and if it’s not, you’ve found something to fix.

Working while sick has much of the same effect. It’s the reason why producers like Bill Moriarty like to mix records on “crap speakers,” which more closely replicates the experience of most listeners. If the result works under the worst possible conditions, it’ll do fine on high-end gear. Or, as Brian Eno says: “It’s the very naive producer who works only on optimum systems.”

Brian Eno

A sick writer, then, becomes a kind of simulation of a distracted reader, and while I don’t exactly recommend seeking this out, it never hurts to take advantage of such circumstances when they present themselves. Yet there’s something even more profound at work here, and I can’t do any better than to quote Norman Mailer at length from his book Cannibals and Christians:

There’s a book came out a few years ago which was a sociological study of some Princeton men—I forget the name of it. One of them said something which I thought was extraordinary. He said he wanted to perform the sexual act under every variety of condition, emotion, and mood available to him. I was struck with this not because I ever wanted necessarily to have that kind of sexual life, but because it seemed to me that was what I was trying to do with my writing. I try to go over my work in every conceivable mood. I edit on a spectrum which runs from the high clear manic impressions of a drunk which has made one electrically alert all the way down to the soberest reaches of depression where I can hardly bear my own words. By the time I’m done with writing I care about I usually have worked on it through the full gamut of my consciousness. If you keep yourself in this peculiar kind of shape, the craft will take care of itself.

And there’s a very subtle point here that affects anyone who tries to write for a living. Occasionally, you’ll see a book that seems to have been written in a single white heat of inspiration, but more often, a novel or story is the product of extended labor over time, with all the highs and lows of capability this implies. This may seem like a liability, but really, it’s a strength: a work of art that reflects the full spectrum of its author’s experiences, good and bad, is likely to be richer and more full of life than one that the writer tackled only when he felt like it. (It’s worth noting, though, that even Mailer had his limits when it came to what kinds of mental states were acceptable for serious writing. Elsewhere, he says: “Amateurs write when they are drunk. For a serious writer to do that is equivalent to a professional football player throwing imaginary passes in traffic when he is bombed, and smashing his body into parked cars on the mistaken impression that he is taking out the linebacker. Such a professional football player will feel like crying in the morning when he discovers his ribs are broken.”) A few great writers, like Proust, seem to have written only when they were sick. And although we don’t need to take it that far, it’s worth remembering that if a novel is like a marriage, we need to learn how to live with it for better and for worse, for richer or poorer—and in sickness and in health.

Written by nevalalee

May 18, 2016 at 9:00 am

2 Responses

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  1. This is really interesting… do you think its possible to tell what kind of a physical / mental state a writer is in when you are read their work or do you think writers do their best to maintain the ‘voice’ that they are writing in however they might be feeling? I like the idea that if you know a writer quite well you might be able to pick up little hints of whats going on with them outside of the page!


    May 18, 2016 at 4:30 pm

  2. @thepochemuchkablog: I think it depends on how much revision we’re talking about! Repeated drafts have a way of erasing the feelings of the moment, which can be hard to tell apart from the emotions in the story in any case. But you can often get a hint from unrevised work of how the author was feeling at the time.


    June 7, 2016 at 3:40 pm

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