Writer Hypochondria and How to Cure It
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Writer hypochondria and how to cure it. Too many writers are looking for excuses to avoid writing. Here’s how it usually goes.
“Mom, I’m sick.”
“I want to go to school today, but I feel weak.”
Cough, cough, sniff.
You know the old routine. You didn’t want to face school because of an exam for which you did not prepare, or because of some other stressful situation, you did not want to face. You needed a day off, so you faked a mild illness.
Ferris Bueller immortalized this particular bit of flimflam in detail. He advised young grifters to lick their hands so they appeared clammy. He said that was often enough of a symptom to convince mom you deserved a day off.
What’s the difference between a kid who can’t face school and a writer who can’t face his or her manuscript? There is no difference. Both invent maladies to retreat from reality.
When a person repeatedly finds health-related reasons, physical or emotional, to escape facing the day, then we could classify them as a hypochondriac. Hypochondria is an abnormal anxiety about one’s health, and it can be a convenient escape pod from the real world.
We writers are inventive people, and over the years, we have concocted some wonderful ways of playing hooky from the task of writing. Here are three timeless excuses to which I have given new names. Remember, I am a writer, not a physician of any kind. This is writing advice, not medical advice.
Mom, I can’t write today. My imaginary friend won’t come out and play.”
What is a muse, and why do writers think they need to wait for a muse to speak before they start making their keyboard clatter?
We must hold the ancient Greeks accountable for that.
Whisper “Jason and the Argonauts” in My Ear
The early Greeks did not understand cognitive brain function, and they believed that creativity was external. A muse was a young woman who whispered alluringly into the writer’s or musician’s ear. A muse was the source of the poetry, prose, or music, and a writer transcribed it.
Each type of creative endeavor had a muse in the later Hellenistic Greek period: Calliope (epic poetry), Euterpe (flutes and lyric poetry), Thalia (comedy and pastoral poetry), Melpomene (tragedy), and so forth.
Today, we call the place where the muses are worshiped a museum. Sadly, many writers worship them everywhere.
Muse Disease in Modern Context
If you need a heroic sounding excuse not to write, saying that you are “waiting for the muse to speak” will work. Unfortunately, only your mom, non-writers, and those who did not study human biology in high school will pity you.
Biology teaches us that our ideas do not come to us as lip-service from muses. The only external aspect of the creative process is ensuring that external stimuli are bombarding our brain. Once that happens, the entire creative process takes place inside our brain in a frenzied electro-chemical dance.
The best writers don’t passively wait for whispers. They want inspiration. Inspiration is defined as “The process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.”
Stimulation comes by talking to people, listening to people, participating in events, reading, or viewing films or videos.
In 19th-century Vienna, there was an explosion of creativity. Coffee houses had become popular gathering places for artists, writers, musicians, and they were the breeding ground of modern egalitarianism. Creative people didn’t go for just a cup of joe; they went there because they could linger in conversation for hours.
They got mental stimulation from the bean, but more importantly, from the interaction with other people who also had lively brain activity. Coffeehouse devotees inspired each other. A cross-pollination of ideas took place in them.
The Cure for Muse Disease
The cure for Muse Disease is to fill your brain with caffeine and good conversation. Don’t go to Starbucks and stare at your computer screen. Instead, meet a friend there and get involved in a lively debate. It need not be on the topic of your writing. Diverse ideas have a way of ricocheting off each other.
“Mom, I can’t write today. My shin bone is bleeding chartreuse noodles.”
When it comes to calling in sick, writers are not above using what I call Munchhausen Disorder.
Many readers will remember the 1988 Monty Python film, The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen. Both the movie and the writing disorder are based on a real person, Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Munchhausen (1720–1797), a legendary teller of tall tales.
Medical doctors adopted the name Munchhausen syndrome to describe people with a severe mental disorder that causes them to create or exaggerate an injury or illness. Today, this very real disease is called Factitious disorder imposed on self (FDIS).
There is a more dreadful permutation of this disease called Munchhausen by proxy. That’s when a parent intentionally causes an illness or injury to a child, or another third party, to get attention for themselves. Today, this is called Factitious disorder imposed on another (FDIA).
The convergence between tall tales, a mental disorder, and writers, is that all come up with plots that draw inappropriate attention to themselves. In the case of writers, it can be both attention-seeking and victim playing. A double whammy!
Munchhausen Disorder Poster Boy
When it comes to the writing world, Dan Mallory is a poster boy for Munchhausen Disorder. He wrote The Woman in the Windows under the name of A.J. Finn. He got a million dollars for the book and another million for the screen rights.
However, according to the 2019 article in New Yorker magazine, Mallory gained favor with employers in the publishing industry where he worked as an editor, and with his own publisher, by faking diseases. He claimed his mother had cancer and died of it. He said his brother was mentally challenged and also had cystic fibrosis, and he died. Mallory claimed for years that he had brain cancer. None of it was true. He faked them at strategic times to enhance his writing career.
The Cure for Munchhausen Disorder
What is the cure for Munchhausen Disorder? It is maintaining a clear distinction between life in your mind and real life.
I think it is to “Be who you are.”
There is no point in pretending you’re a great writer. You can’t bestow greatness on yourself, no what methods they use to fake it. Greatness sneaks up on writers when they seek excellence.
“Mom, I can’t write today. I have a pipe twitch that makes me want to shimmy.”
Sometimes writers cannot stay seated long enough to write. What I call Colorectal Jitter is an inability to concentrate. It manifests as a writer being agitated, restless, fidgety, jumpy, or wired.
Distraction is a part of life, but how do we control it? If you are distracted by your cell phone while driving, you could kill someone or injure yourself. Distracted writing may seem more benign, but it can cause the crash of your writing career.
Distraction can be either accidental or intentional.
- Accidental distraction is when you are doing online research about the Hindenburg zeppelin disaster, and you suddenly find yourself buying fuzzy bunny slippers on Amazon. You cannot believe that a few misguided clicks got you so far off track. In this case, you must discipline yourself to immediately get back to the Hindenburg and buy the bunny slippers outside writing time.
- Intentional distractions are often based in the modern affliction known as “Fear of Missing Out” (FOMO). A writer will intentionally leave his or her phone on during writing time and eagerly awaits opportunities to be distracted by a call or an email. Or a writer will seek the dopamine hits that come from checking Facebook or Twitter a hundred times per day. These behaviors are addictions.
The Cure for Colorectal Jitter
One of the best cures for Colorectal Jitter is to realize your time is limited. Do you make the most of that limited time, or do you get distracted? Here are three things you can do to avoid distraction:
- Do a personal audit. Keep a record of how much time you spend on each event during your writing time. Focus on writing, but account for the minutes your mind and body strays. Do this for a week, and you will see where you are betraying yourself.
- Monitor your work style. Do you like to tackle the small jobs first, or the big ones? Have a to-do list so you know what you want to accomplish during your writing time, then work in a pattern that suits you. Remember, your list never contains distractions like answering emails.
- Think of the ability to concentrate like any skill you learn, like typing. What ritual gets you in your writing groove. For years, I gazed at a lit candle for a few minutes to focus my attention before I started writing. Colorectal Jitter can be stressed based, and you want to eliminate stress.
Don’t jitter away, don’t fritter away, don’t Twitter away your time. If you have an unavoidable distraction, you, of course, must stop writing and deal with it. The cure comes in resolving the issue, putting it out of your mind, and getting quickly back to work.
Unfortunately, most distractions are self-induced. There is no clear definition of the term “unavoidable distraction.” When my children were young, I jokingly told them not to interrupt my writing time “unless it involved blood or fire.” They understood my point. You can set those kinds of boundaries too.
You Can Be In Control
You can avoid all three of these maladies. You can adjust your thinking and change your life.
Like everyone else, you have 1,440 minutes each day. It is your responsibility to manage those minutes well to reach your writing goals.
What is the ultimate cure for all the maladies that beset writers? It requires a mental and emotional reset. We all get caught in writing ruts, but we need not magnify them by pretending they are something they are not. Instead, we can develop good writing health habits. They are simple:
- Trigger your brain synapses by stimulating them with diverse types of stimuli. Alcohol and drugs have limited value, but social interaction always works. Don’t wait for someone to whisper words in your ear.
- Seek excellence. Don’t seek sympathy to fill the gaps in your self-esteem. Your mental attitude, especially your self-talk, sets the tone for your writing and life. Set high standards for yourself, but avoid the trap of perfectionism.
- Learn to concentrate. It is an acquired skill. The world and everything in it are designed to distract you. It is your responsivity to set boundaries and rigidly observe them during your writing time.
There is joy in writing when the words flow from you. Try the cures. They will work for you.