Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Why Are Brilliant Writers Often "Monsters at Home?"

From Paul Levine...

WHY ARE CREATIVE PEOPLE SO DAMN NASTY? "She wasn’t nice. She was rarely polite. And no one who knew her well would have called her a generous woman." That's the opening of "The Talented Miss Highsmith," the new 700 page biography of Patricia Highsmith, one of the great crime novelists (and monstrous personalities) of the 20th Century. The book, by Joan Schenkar, is getting socko notices.

Here are some of Ms. Highsmith's hijinks, excerpted from Jesse Kornbluth's review at Daily Butler:

She drank a quart of gin a day. She left the United States to live in Europe because of what she called “the Negro problem” --- by which she did not mean discrimination against Negroes, but the civil rights movement that had Negroes demanding their rights. She took tips left on restaurant tables. She’d drive 60 miles to get a cheaper spaghetti dinner. She called Hitler’s extermination policy a “semicaust”, because only half the world’s Jews died. A mental health professional, observing her for only a few minutes, pegged her as a psychopath. Another writer described her as “a black cloud.” Her own assessment: “If I were to relax and become human, I could not bear my life.”

A new biography of Raymond Carver portrays the writer as a destructive alcoholic and a violent husband. A lot of highly creative people are nasty pieces of work. In a recent New York Times Book Review, Stephen King makes this observation:

Writing talent often runs on its own clean circuit (as the Library of America’s “Raymond Carver: Collected Stories” attests), but writers whose works shine with insight and mystery are often prosaic monsters at home.

King points out that, among his other faults, Carver was an "irresponsible boozehound who habitually ran out on the check in restaurants, even though he must have known it was the waitress who had to pay the bill for such dine-and-dash customers."

And this, from Janet Maslin's NYT review of Mitchell Zuckoff's "Robert Altman: The Oral Biography:

Altman’s son Stephen recalls his father [warning] “that if it ever came down to it and he had to choose between all of us and his work, he’d dump us in a second.” After he stopped drinking and started to develop a warmer relationship with his children, he still said that in retrospect, “I don’t think I’d do anything different. It would be false.”

Why are so many creative people self-centered and self-destructive? Alcoholics and drug abusers. Self-pitying and self-loathing. Unfaithful spouses and indifferent parents. Is unrepentant narcissism part of the creative gene? Or is it learned behavior? Or...do you disagree with my premise? Are these the exceptions?

L.A. DRIVERS CAN'T HANDLE RAIN: We had our first significant rainfall since last Spring yesterday. The result: 300 traffic accidents in the county between 5 a.m. and 11 a.m. That's more than double the usual number. If it ever snows here, I'm barricading myself in the house.

Paul Levine


  1. Hi, Paul.

    I don't claim to know enough to disagree with your premise necessarily, but I think one reason many writers seem monstrous off the page is that we hear about the monsters most often. Monsters are more newsworthy than law-abiding, upstanding people.

    Also, it's possible that writers--who by definition get to act any way they want through their characters and fiction--are frustrated by the relative restrictions and monotony of life. For a writer, nothing gives the same high as writing. If they are unable to write for whatever reason, they try to replace that high with another.

    I don't think this pattern of behavior is limited to writers. All of us would like to keep doing what we love most, and it's difficult to adjust to downtime or forced retirement. It's difficult, not impossible. I wish some of my favorite performers had made the adjustment.

  2. That sort of bad author behavior is certainly cringeworthy but I think it's the exception rather than the rule.

    And the LA rain thing...most people don't realize that when it rains here there's no place for the water to go so it pools in hidden places like in intersections and potholes, waiting for the unsuspecting person to drive into a body of water that puts Lake Superior to shame.

  3. "For a writer, nothing gives the same high as writing."

    Actually, Gerald, Jim Born likes nothing so much as firing automatic weapons. Nah, you're right. I think you've hit on something.

    And Patty, because you're so nice, you think everyone is.

  4. Stop spreading those rumors about me, Paulie. You're going to ruin my reputation.

  5. Paul.... I was a jazz musiciaN for many yeaR..... I think the problem is simple......
    When these guys were on stage playing or, in your case, writing, they were GODS....
    When they went home , they had to live with who they were......and some times it's not pleasant.

  6. James O. Born12/08/2009 7:19 PM

    Gerald hit it on the head. We hear about a golfer who's wife beat him but not the 3000 golfers who were not beaten.

    For the record I greatly prefer writing to shooting. Always have.


  7. Excellent post. This is why it is not always a good thing to meet an artist you admire (Mr. Levine being a major exception to that notion!)

  8. Don't know the answer but, my experience indicates your premise is true!

  9. Hello Paul,

    Very interesting. Reminds me of an interview I saw recently with Alan Bennett, the playwright and UK National Treasure.

    (Stop reading here if you object to the F-word!)

    Bennett was talking about the Philip Larkin poem, "The Fuck You Up, Your Mum and Dad", and commented that those Mums and Dads who DON'T fuck up their children have fucked them up all the more if they want to be writers, because then they have nothing they want to write about.

    Simplistic, but surely a grain of truth.

    Now I'm off to berate my parents at not being more nasty to me when I was growing up.


  10. Obviously, that should have been "They" Fuck You Up!

  11. nice post. thanks.