Oh, to Be a Writer in the Old Days

Last Thursday was Dorothy Parker Day, a day to celebrate the American poet famous for her wisecracks and her gin habit. Ian O’Doherty, the professional ranter who writes for the Irish Independent, quipped that if you were to spend a day as Dorothy Parker did, you’d drink your body weight in gin at the Algonquin Hotel in Cork, make cleverly cutting remarks about your fellow human beings.

Dorothy Parker











The piece triggered off that wistfulness I sometimes get when I think about writers in earlier eras: the lost generation of American writers, rabble rousing in Parisian cafes, the long liquid lunches enjoyed by Irish journalists in the 1960s, the torrid affairs of the great 20th century writers like WB Yeats, Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir.

Portrait of the Writer in the Old Days

If I were a writer at any time up to the dawn of the World Wide Web. I’d have been given one to one personal attention from my editor, with decadent lunches along the way. My publisher would bear the burden of producing and publicising the book, leaving me free to get on with producing my masterpieces.

If I were scheduled to talk to newspapers or radio stations, I’d turn up hours late, slightly drunk. I would be obtuse in my answers, or say outrageous, potentially libellous things. The interviewer would be in no doubt as to my views on the state of the world, even if they were not entirely PC. Later on, I’d go to a writing cafe and fillet my fellow writers, my publishers and the interviewer. My views would be extremely uncharitable, but they would be couched in the most elegant language.

Portrait of the Writer Now

These days, writing is more and more of a business. When the story is written, writers are expected to be entrepreneurs, with a product to sell. When my first book, The Pink Cage, came out, I didn’t meet anyone from the publishing company until the launch. My book was given a proofread rather than an in-depth edit.

The book launch was a hooley, but most of my contact with readers and the media has been online. Technology has been my ally in selling the books, but it has made the publishing and sales process cold and clinical.

I’m more media savvy than writers of the past have been, and I know that what I say will have an impact on how readers view me and my book. I’ve allowed the odd naughty remark to sneak through, but mostly, I’ve behaved professionally. That’s because these days, writers are expected to be entrepreneurs, with a product to sell. This is no bad thing; it makes us less precious about ourselves. But it means that interviews with writers have become sanitised. For me, that’s exemplified in a picture I saw a few years ago of a gathering of writers, all of whom were holding cups of tea.

Is it Better to Be a Writer Now?

I know it’s not desirable to burn out in your prime as a result of a pickled liver, black demons or foul play. I would hate to be rude to interviewers, keep them waiting or let them down. Nor would I give out about my felllow writers; I share their struggles.

I wouldn’t have the stamina for the wild bohemian lifestyles writers enjoyed. I’m aware that my view of the literary past is highly idealised. After all, writers now have more power than ever before over their books: how they are produced and how they are sold.

I love the fact that the Internet has democratised writing, allowing writers to find publishing outlets more easily and make personal connections with their readers. readers. I think it’s healthy that writers are climbing down from their ivory towers and removing the mystique from the craft.

Yet a part of me yearns for an earlier time, when writers were allowed to be artists, and they were allowed to be crazy.

Writing and Mental Health

Last May, I took part in a very special walk, that started at 4am. The Darkness Into Light walk raises funds for Pieta House, a non-profit organisation which offers support to people who are suicidal. It was a deeply symbolic walk; the idea of starting in darkness and walking into the light was very powerful.

Pic from Deise Darkness Into Light Facebook Page.
Pic from Deise Darkness Into Light Facebook Page.

And it made me think about the interesting relationship writers have with mental health. At one end of the spectrum, you have your Virginia Woolfs and Ernest Hemingways, tortured souls who were tormented by their pursuit of their art and ended their lives. And at the other, you have the delightful eccentrics, writers whose mental health is robust precisely because they’re able to express themselves freely.

In some ways, writing is brilliant for your mental health.

Mental Health Boost

Writing gives you a way to make sense of the world. You can use words to process your life experiences and shape them in a way that makes them relevant to others. Or you can just have a good rant and clear your mind. When you write, you indulge your imagination and you have the opportunity to play, to express yourself in the uninhibited way that many of us lose once we leave childhood behind. If you’re a writer, you can act a little bit crazy and no one minds, because you’re an artist.

If you want to write well, you need to blow off the dust of ordinary life to find the shining everyday treasures that most people miss. To create memorable descriptions, you’ve got to pay attention to what’s going on around you, to find the extraordinary within the ordinary. This makes life a lot richer and more satisfying and naturally boosts your mental health.

But writing is also bad for your mental health.

Mental Struggle

A lot of the time, it can feel like you’re toiling away with absolutely nothing to show for it. You write a lot of words that no one ever sees in order to find the ones that are fit to be seen. Even when you muster up a piece of writing that’s good enough to be published and you’re successful, it can feel as if your words sink into the void. That can take a toll on your spirit.

There’s a lot of uncertainty and isolation in the writing life. You deal with more rejection in a year than most people deal with in their lifetime. You’re on your own a lot of the time, which naturally gives you time to think. To come up with good ideas, you need to spend quite a lot of time inside your head, which isn’t always a pleasant place.

But there’s one thing that’s certain to damage a writer’s mental health, and that’s not writing at all. When you write, even if it never sees the light of day, you feel balanced and in sync. You’re better able to cope with the world. If you feel blocked inside yourself, why not try writing? It may be the path that brings you from the darkness into the light.