For every career, there are stereotypes. Engineers are nerdy; administrative assistants are dumb. Doctors have God complexes and lawyers have no soul. IT guys never get laid, but actors are whores. I’m not saying that these stereotypes don’t exist for a reason, but that doesn’t mean if you don’t fit into them, that you are necessarily the exception to a hard and fast rule. Sometimes it just means the stereotypes are bullshit.
Similarly, there are a lot of misconceptions around what it means to be a writer or any type of creative person. Some of them are so scary that I actually delayed going down the writing path because I believed them. So I thought I would take some time today to dispel some of myths about what it means to be a writer/artist/creative.
Writers are Tortured Souls
I think the number one stereotype about writers and artists is that we are all dark and brooding. We’re pictured as people dressed all in black, with dark hair and makeup and hipster glasses, and for some reason berets atop our heads (so, I guess we are all also French? Whoops, see that’s another stereotype!)
There’s the misconception that we are all crazy. I can’t say that’s entirely untrue for me, as I have struggled with depression and anxiety issues for much of my life, but that doesn’t mean the lot of us are plagued with mental illness. Artists like ‘ole one-eared Vinny Van Gogh and drunkedy drunk drunk Hemingway don’t help with that perception. There have been studies that there are higher incidents of mental illness in creative people (something about chemicals and side-of-the-brain dominance, I think), but that doesn’t mean we’re all a bunch of non-functioning loons who sit in the dark smoking and awaiting the muse.
True, great art can be created from pain. Some artists say they have to go into a dark place to create, and most creative work gets its grit and authenticity from experience. But does that mean you have to be batshit to write something that moves people? That you have to be miserable and live in darkness? Of course not! Even if you are writing or working on some heavy subject matter, you learn to go into that place while you’re working and then the word count is hit or the dryer buzzer goes off and you snap right back into being a normal human being who has a fair variety of color in their closet, thank you very much.
2. You have to suffer for your art
This ties into my first point. While some great art comes from artists who channel painful experience into their work, don’t think you have to have gone through some horrific tragedy in order to have something to say. I actually put off writing my first book for a while, well, for many reasons, most of them having to do with fear, but partly because I felt that because I had lived a pretty charmed life I didn’t have anything of value to contribute. Please, writers and artists, hear this: if you want to write or create, write or create. You don’t have to have lost a parent or sibling or lover; you don’t have to have been maimed or kidnapped or tortured. We all have experiences we can use in our art, and if you’re writing fiction, what you really need is the ability to empathize with those who have endured tragedy.
3. Writers are Introverts
Just because we sit behind a computer or writing pad all day doesn’t mean we don’t like to be around people. I have been to many writer’s workshops and conferences and just like anywhere, there are a mix of introverts and extroverts and everything in between. (Example of in between: everyone thinks of me as an extrovert because I am loud and crave social time, but I get total social anxiety before events like writers workshops. It’s not until I’m there that my sunny side reveals itself. I recently realized this makes me an extroverted introvert). Sure, there are probably writers that lack any semblance of social skills and do their best to isolate. But most of the writers I know are warm and friendly and have no trouble plopping themselves down next to a stranger at a workshop and carrying on a conversation. Some are even really good at promoting themselves and their work in person rather than behind the Twitter machine.
4. Writers are Disorganized/Messy
A lot of people assume that our brains are too cluttered with artistic ideas and grand conceptualizations that we don’t have the space to worry about things like keeping a tidy house or getting the bills paid on time. Undoubtedly, some of us who are like that. They say artists are more right-brained (intuitive, thoughtful, and subjective) vs. left-brained (logical, analytical, and objective).
Maybe I’m a mutant, but I am a fierce Type A. I thrive on routine, I get high off new organizational systems, I’m always the planner of projects and events, and I frickin’ LOVE spreadsheets. (I just went through a content edit of my manuscript and my editor teased me for sending her not just a spreadsheet outlining the changes I would make to each chapter but also two tables within the body of the email to explain different options for incorporating her feedback). I also love to balance my checkbook. These are not activities generally attributed to creative types, but I can’t be the only hyper-organized writer in the world.
5. The Starving Artist
For a long time, I thought if I wanted to be a true writer I would have to be poor. That I would have to have no job and live in a hostel and eat beans out of cans. That in order to be a writer, I had to devote myself so completely to “the craft” that I could not possibly allow the desire for material things and, you know, electricity, to get in my way.
Listen, guys: if you manage to go this route, good for you. But I myself like to have a roof over my head (that my parents don’t own), nutritious food on the table, and the ability to keep myself warm under said roof during the long, cold Vermont winter. I also want to go out to dinner now and then, go on a vacation at least once a year, and be able to buy a new sweater or get a massage every now and then. All of that takes money and that means I need a JOB. That’s not to say I haven’t made compromises. I tried the marketing and copywriting route, which could have earned me a lot more by now, but I hated it so much that it drained me of any desire to write. So I’ve stuck with being an Executive Assistant because I know I will have the time and the creative energy left at the end of the day. The trick is to find a balance.
6. Writers/artists only work when they are inspired
I once questioned whether I was a real writer because I wasn’t frequently “inspired” to write. I mean, I’ve always written a journal entry when the feeling strikes, but when it came to actually writing my first novel, page after page after page, I found it much easier to flip on a rerun of Golden Girls at the end of a work day than I did to open my computer again. There’s an image of writers and artists being in the middle of something and just having to stop what they’re doing so they can get a poem or sketch on paper, and then they get so obsessed with it that they don’t emerge for days and weeks until the work is complete.
I guess that could happen. If I didn’t have physiological needs like food and water and exercise and sex and sleep. Or if I didn’t need to go to work and meetings and appointments and clean the house and shop for groceries and find a plumber to fix our leaky tub. You get the point. Life is busy, and the world is full of so many distractions it’s a wonder we ever get anything done. Most of us have to create a schedule and make ourselves write during that time. It’s not as sexy as the artist who locks themselves in a room and emerges a week later with a masterpiece and a wild-eyed satisfaction, but it’s the reality of writing.
I’m sure I’m missing some here. Anyone else have any stereotypes they are always fighting against?