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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Current Issue > Writing in Practice - Vol 1 > “Madness … poetry’s unique occupational hazard … like miner’s emphysema”
“Madness … poetry’s unique occupational hazard … like miner’s emphysema”
Author: Mike Harris
Mike Harris asks why writers are so drawn to hyperbole and melodramatic turns of phrase when writing about their daily work.


In this paper I note some of the common ways in which writers exaggerate, hyperbolize and sometimes “economize with the truth” when describing their writing processes and/or their experience of writing. I suggest some ways in which we might detect them doing this, and then offer some tentative explanations for why they might do it.  The rationale for this being the need to separate wheat from chaff if we are to use writers’ accounts as serious evidence in studies of writing as production.

Keywords: creative writing, writing as production, the author, authors, process

Literary academics have tended to ignore or sideline what writers have to say about their writing.[1] The reasons for this are various and have been dealt with very adequately elsewhere.[2] However, around the turn of the 21st century, some literary academics began to rethink. At a conference of literary critics and theorists in 2001, Stephen Earnshaw wondered why the “Anglo-American critical institution” always turns to “figures of authority so far removed from the practitioners themselves?” (Earnshaw 2001: 2). He then tentatively recommended “an acceptance of the author as a valid and valued voice” (Earnshaw 2001). He did this because he thinks that “the very writers literary theorists depend upon for their critical matter must surely be able to provide the kind of insight only available from practitioners.” (Earnshaw 2001). 

Earnshaw is well aware that the language writers use is usually "not consistent with critical theory” (Earnshaw 2001). Notwithstanding this, he considers that useful insights may be garnered from their pronouncements. I would argue that the difficulties are often greater than Earnshaw allows.  I have collected and studied examples of several hundred writers describing their processes and experiences when writing. As a result, it is hard to avoid drawing the conclusion that many of these accounts are not merely inconsistent with literary critical theory but seem, at first glance at least, to be inconsistent with rational interpretation and practical application of any kind.

To briefly make my point I will consider, for now, just one example. Metaphor is one of the basic tools of the poet’s trade, therefore descriptions by successful poets of what they consider metaphor to be, and how they use it, are clearly pertinent to our understanding of their compositional processes. Bearing this in mind, what are we to make of Pauline Stainer’s description of metaphor as “a dark and arterial currency” and metaphor-making itself as a “sleep-walk into the well”? (Brown & Paterson 2004: 276). Her metaphor for metaphor depicts it as a medium of semantic exchange as basic as the circulation of both money and blood. It is precise, clever and insightful. How, therefore, can metaphor be considered inevitably “dark”? Metaphor may, of course, sometimes be “dark”; if by “dark” we mean “mysterious” or “difficult to pin down”. However, metaphor can equally often be illuminating in its clarity, like the first part of Stainer’s own metaphor above. So when she then describes the process of metaphor-making as a “sleep-walk into the well” this reader, at least, is lost. What does that metaphor for metaphor mean? How does the process operate in practice? How might one learn from it or teach it?  

Notwithstanding such difficulties, if the attention of writers in the academy is to turn from the consumption theories of literary critical readers to writer-led production theory – and it is hard to see where else their attention could turn without lighting upon territory heavily colonized by older academic imperia – we either need to make clearer sense of our more metaphorically inflated, confused, abstruse, and mystifying statements or, failing that, we need to be able to cut through hyperbole and mystification to what is actually going on.

One way in which we might begin to do this is by comparing what writers observably do when writing, with what they sometimes claim to be doing. So, when at work writing, writers tend to sit in chairs at desks. Occasionally, like Hemingway, they stand, but this is very much a minority choice (Plimpton 1963: 218).  When at work writing, writers write things down on paper or input data into computers; and the things they write down or input are, in the main, not true; in the sense that they are either largely made-up or, if based on truth, inevitably modified so they can never be completely true.[3] To summarize: what writers mainly do when writing, is sit down and make stuff up. There are other activities of course; for example: research, drinking coffee, meeting agents and publishers, arguing with editors and so forth, but sitting-down-and-making-stuff-up is the one without which all the rest come to nothing.

What writers don’t do, at least not whilst writing, is literally fight wars, climb mountains, fall into pits, fly up to heaven, descend into hell, sleep walk into wells, or risk life and limb in any immediate physical sense (lower back pain and repetitive strain injuries excepted); and yet these are just some of the Technicolor activities invoked by writers in order to describe their compositional activities and experiences. In many cases it is clear that writers are simply drawing somewhat inflated analogies; for example, between the sometimes arduous experience of writing and mountain climbing. In others it isn’t so clear. When George Barker suggests that “if you look closely” at one of his poems “you will see right down to hell” (Brown & Paterson 2004: 9) is he simply drawing an analogy, or describing what he thinks is the literal truth?

When considering such statements as evidence for a study of writing-as-production, it would seem legitimate to try and determine their accuracy and, especially in the ones that seem to be describing a literal event, to question whether or in what way it could have happened.

For example: “My work as a writer has from the beginning aimed at tracing the lightning flashes of the mental circuits that capture and link points distant from each other in space and time...” (Calvino 1996: 48). Here, the poet and novelist Italo Calvino depicts himself aiming to track and link elemental forces (“lightning flashes”) with universal categories (“space and time”). He makes it clear that he is talking about psychic activity – those “lightning flashes” occur within “mental circuits” not in the external world, but the forces described are, nonetheless, clearly understood by the reader to be elementally powerful, and the “points” in question are literally “distant in space and time”. Our first impression is that Calvino is attempting something very special, enormously impressive, not to say titanic and even God-like, whereas, after a moment’s critical reflection, we realize that Calvino is writing about thinking; or, rather, about thinking-about-thinking. Now, neither thinking, nor thinking-about-thinking, is an activity unique to writers. All homo sapiens not in an entirely vegetative state do both these things as a matter of course. Moreover, in the process, we are constantly making associative mental links between things that, in the external world, are widely separated “in space and time”. One example of this might be: “should I stop worrying about whether to go for my holidays to Morocco or Ibitha next year?” 

Of course, writers are professional brain-workers and may well spend more time thinking than other kinds of workers; but it is not obvious that they would do this more than, for example, psychologists, philosophers or even advertising executives. If therefore we strip out the hyperbole from Calvino’s account, we arrive at something like: “My work has from the beginning aimed at tracing the way the mind thinks about and links events, ideas and experiences from widely different places and times”; which does not tell us anything special about the compositional experiences of Calvino or any other writer because it describes what all human beings do.

Calvino here provides an excellent example of one common type of writer-hyperbole: We might term it “Gargantuan Exceptionalism”: the tendency to metaphorically inflate processes or experiences common to many, if not all people, and to imply that they are somehow special either to the individual writer, or to all writers.

Another common hyperbolic trope involves associating the essentially sedentary activity of writing with more physically risky or dangerous activities. Two examples: The poet James K. Baxter considers writing to be like war, because it submits him to “the experience of conquest and defeat on a white page” (Brown & Paterson 2004: 14); and for the playwright Harold Pinter, "language in art remains a highly ambiguous transaction, a quicksand, a trampoline, a frozen pool which might give way under you, the author, at any time." The writer's life "is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity" in which "you are open to all the winds, some of them icy indeed" so that “You are out on your own, out on a limb” and “find no shelter, no protection…” (Pinter 2005: 9-10)

The obvious issue with Baxter’s account is that writing is not much like war. Writers are rarely mutilated or maimed or killed when writing, and there are many other differences too obvious to mention, given a limited word length. Similarly, in Pinter’s account, the experience of being slowly suffocated in quicksand, falling to one’s potential death into freezing water, or bouncing through one’s trampoline and hurting oneself on the lawn, does seem rather remote from the problems a writer is likely to confront when trying to control, for example, the inherent ambiguities of language. Pinter is of course trying to evoke the frequently felt isolation of the most important part of a writer’s working life, i.e. the sitting-down-and making-stuff-up-alone part. It is not clear, however, what he is getting at with those “icy winds” and the complete lack of shelter and protection that the metaphor implies, because successful writers often have writer-friends to talk to, sympathetic partners to moan at, agents jealous to protect their joint interests and, in playwriting, the perennial possibility of fruitful collaborations with actors, designers and directors. 

It could be argued that metaphors by definition are not exact. This is perfectly true. Metaphors are not allegorical. They nonetheless invoke comparisons and we judge their effectiveness from the accuracy and justness of these comparisons. So, when James K. Baxter invites us to compare writing with war he is, obviously, not asking us to accept that writing is exactly like war but rather that writing is enough like war to give us new insights into the nature of both. It is a problem therefore when there are clearly no, or very few, similarities. In this case we may judge the comparison to be intentionally inexact, inflated (mock heroic) or merely hyperbolic, i.e. a serious but strained comparison that therefore unintentionally invites mockery.

We might term Baxter and Pinter’s hyperbolic tendencies “The Action (or Jeopardy) Man” and once again I would suggest that it tells us very little about the actual processes and experiences involved in writing. This is not to suggest that writers don't sometimes take physical risks or put themselves in situations of great danger outside of writing, but simply to point out that the activity of writing is itself not physically dangerous or risky. Neither am I suggesting that taking risks cannot be part of a writing process, conceived more broadly. For example: Norman Mailer took a conscious decision to go to war, and put himself thereby at great risk, precisely in order to afterwards write what became The Naked and the Dead (Plimpton 1968: 260-261). Indeed, I would argue that when writers do dangerous or risky things without intending to write about it at the time, but eventually do, those things become retrospectively part of the broader writing process when they are recalled, processed, re-shaped, and written down. Clearly, writers can be risk-takers. Brave writers in repressive societies, for example, often put their freedom and sometimes their lives on the line simply by continuing to write. My point is that many of the writers who deploy metaphors of risk and danger when describing their processes do not live in such societies and don’t do what, for example, the Soviet dissident Solzhenitsyn did.

A third very common source of writer hyperbole might be tentatively termed “The Overwrought”.  When reading some writers’ accounts of their feelings when writing, it is difficult not to suspect them of over-egging their emotional pudding; for example: Edna O’ Brien’s description of completing a novel in a few weeks during which “all the time I was writing it I couldn’t stop crying...” (Plimpton 1986: 244).

Now, this may seem exaggerated but how can it be tested? Emotions are, by definition, private and internal, and therefore more difficult to verify or invalidate, but not impossible. I asked a doctor of my acquaintance for his medical opinion of O’Brien’s account, and he found it

hard to imagine anyone producing tears for any longer than a few minutes. While the psychological condition provoking said crying might prevail for a considerable time, the actual weeping will inevitably dry up. The medical conditions associated with tears are either dry eyes from inadequate tear production or the inability to drain tears from eye to nose resulting in apparent tearing but no actual increase in tear production. [4]

And even if it were possible to cry continuously for weeks, such incessant “tearing” would surely make it difficult to see what one was writing, and would therefore tend to slow one down, which would have surely reduced Edna O’Brien’s ability to write the novel in “a few weeks”.

The following account by Flaubert seems to be just as overwrought, but is more difficult either to verify or invalidate. He describes a temporary writer’s block, and then the sudden inception of a new creative idea, in emotional, evocative language more normally associated with religious despair, love pangs, sexual ecstasy and/or parturition:

when expression won’t come, when, after scribbling long pages, I find I haven’t written a sentence, then I fall onto the couch ... in an inward slough of despond ... (and) a quarter of an hour later, everything has altered; my heart is pounding for joy ... revelling deliciously in the emotions of my conception … I have glimpsed sometimes ... the glimmerings of a rapture which sends a shudder over my flesh ...” Letter to Louise Colet (24 April 1852) Correspondence (1900) (Allot 1965: 149)

We may suspect this account but, unlike O’Brien’s, it is not demonstrably impossible and could in fact be the plain truth. Writers can get depressed when ideas don’t come, and they may then fall into something that feels very like a “slough of despond”. Getting a good idea after being blocked could well make one’s heart pound with joy, and a process of identification with one’s characters could plausibly cause one to “revel deliciously” in the emotional charge of conception. So, in the absence of other evidence, even the most sceptical researcher may have to give Flaubert the benefit of the doubt and let his account remain as potentially legitimate evidence for one aspect of his writing process, unlike O’Brien’s.

However, if we consider writers to be especially prone to neurosis and even mental illness, we would have to reconsider the above discrimination because extreme joy, extreme misery and all manner of heightened emotional states might be exactly as described by writers like O’Brien (long term "tearing" excepted). There are those who do think entire categories of writer are more prone to mental illness than "ordinary" people. In their introduction to an anthology in which several hundred eminent poets write about their work, Clare Brown and Don Patterson suggest that madness is, for poets, “an occupational hazard, like ... miner’s emphysema”. Poets, they suggest, are more prone to mental illnesses and suicide than other categories of worker because “the systematic interrogation of one’s own unconscious is dangerous and perhaps foolhardy work ...” (Brown & Paterson 2004: xi).

Mental illness is no respecter of proportion or common sense, and emotions felt during it are real, even if the cause seems to others to be insufficient or illusory. It is probable, for example, that the extreme feelings experienced by Sylvia Plath during the last months of her life while writing the "Ariel" poems were at least partly a function of her illness, but were no less “real” for all that, and would plausibly have fed into the writing of her greatest poems.

This claim on a special poetic relationship with insanity is, of course, as old as Plato. He thought that “a Poet is … unable to compose until he is inspired and out of his mind and his reason is no longer in him” (Plato 2000: 5-6). Brown and Patterson bring this up to date by citing scientific evidence that poets “belong to the most mentally unstable of professions”.[5] Now, even if we are inclined to scoff, or be outraged, at comparisons between cosy, chair-bound writers and miners rendered chronically ill after a life-time’s toil underground at risk of rock-falls, flooding and explosions, Brown and Patterson's research data would seem to at least partly justify the comparison. If so, this would add weight to suggestions like Harold Pinter’s that creating characters is “hallucinatory” (Pinter 2005: 10), and to Edna O’Brien’s idea that “it is only by the grace of God, and perhaps willpower that one comes through each time” (Plimpton 1986: 246). If writers really are more subject to mental illness than others, then it is likely that they will be more subject to hallucinations and frightening delusions experienced exactly as described, and are therefore not exaggerating.

However, before we start validating the more unlikely-sounding writer-statements on the grounds that all writers (and especially poets) are temporarily or permanently insane, caution may still be in order. Other research indicates that dentists have an even higher rate of madness and suicide than writers (Kaufman & Kaufman 2009: 28). This suggests that staring into the gaping dental void may be as mentally unsettling as staring at a persistently blank page. It would certainly undermine any claim for writers to be uniquely prone to madness, and might at the very least cause researchers to seek corroboration.

Similar issues arise when we consider the tendency for writers past and present to claim special access to divinities and other metaphysical entities and forces. This, like the tendency to think writers are madder than normal folk, has a long history. Speaking of poets (a category that, for the Ancient Greeks included playwrights) somewhere between 429 and 374 BC, Plato wrote: "it is God himself who speaks and addresses us through them” who are “nothing but interpreters of the gods, each possessed by his own possessing God." (Plato 2000: 6) Christianity narrowed the source of inspiration to one deity, but the relationship between writing and the divine remained. 2000 years after Plato, Jean Cocteau, was still making the claim: "the work that makes itself in us and in spite of us demands to be born, we can believe that this work comes to us from beyond and is offered us by the Gods" (Plimpton 1977: 79-80).

How might one test such a proposition?

It is always helpful to make a distinction between the use of simile and metaphor when considering all apparently “hyped up” accounts. The poet Peter Didsbury is convinced that “in writing a poem one is exemplifying ... the creative processes and hunger at the heart of the universe” (Brown & Paterson 2004: 51). Robin Skelton writes that “in the act of creation … it seems that one has escaped from time into eternity, or returned to Eden” [my italics in both quotes]. The “exemplifying” in Didsbury, and the “seems” in Skelton ground both claims in a degree of rational possibility. This is because writing is a creative process and if we think the universe is creative (and can agree on a reasonable definition of what creativity is) then it seems to follow that writing is an example of something very basic indeed. Similarly, it is perfectly possible to lose one’s sense of time when writing (or when absorbed intensely in any human activity, in fact), and therefore feel as if one has escaped the trials and travails of ordinary, post-lapsarian existence. However, when Skelton shifts in the same description from simile to metaphor, his tropes edge into literal description and become difficult to credit. Anyone, writes Skelton, who helps anyone else “to experience the creative act, to develop their creative powers and perceptions” is “revealing the Kingdom of Heaven within us.” In response to this claim, it is hard not to lapse into open-mouthed, colloquial exclamations, as in: “Really?  Anyone?! The Kingdom of God?!” But that would be academically inappropriate. Perhaps better to note that many writers, in university writing courses and elsewhere, now spend a lot of time teaching others “to experience the creative act” and are therefore arguably engaged in developing “creative powers and perceptions” but it seems unlikely that many, if any, of our students will have experienced the Kingdom of Heaven within themselves as a result. Of course, if we wished to be more certain, we could always pose the question in an end-of-course evaluation document.

Related to the tendency to claim divine or supernatural inspiration is the sense that some writers have of being special, even “chosen” because they have, in Schelling’s words, a “power” that “separates him [the writer] from all other men” (Clark 1997: 126). This source of hyperbole and exaggeration might be termed “The Schadenfreude”.

Henry Miller writes approvingly of the writer who is the “intermediary”, “the man, the interpreter”. Writers like this are, in Miller’s view, chosen to more-or-less unconsciously host something very similar to what Jean Cocteau (and George Lucas) call “the force”[6] in their work. He contrasts these with a host of lesser writers who “put down merely what one is conscious of” and which “means nothing really” because “anybody can do that with a little practice, anybody can become that kind of writer” (Plimpton 1963: 175-176). “That kind of writer” is for Miller the kind who consciously deploys craft rules and techniques to please audiences, thereby blocking access to the greater, ineffable, creative power which comes unknowing and effortlessly without needing to please anyone. There is of course something in this that brings to mind the Calvinistic doctrine of Grace. Patrick Kavanagh (quoted below) seems to acknowledge this when he uses the word Grace to describe the action of “the force” upon him. The poet Derek Walcott is even clearer. After writing, he tells us: “I do pray, I do say thanks ... because I feel that it is really … a kind of fleeting grace that has happened to one” (Plimpton 1988: 272-3). In strict Calvinist theology, only 40,000 elect individuals, throughout the whole of eternity, could ever be in receipt of divinely-endowed Grace. Without need of good works or special effort, they alone can attain the Kingdom of Heaven. Who wouldn’t trade dreary, conscious, painstaking, controlled and rational, good work, for the high-status literary equivalent of that?

There is at least one other important “force” encouraging writers to exaggerate and hyperbolize. This force is generated between writers and their readers and audiences, and we might term it “The Adulatory”. The poet Valéry, in a series of celebrated lectures, spoke of the writer’s tendency to “over-compensate” being reinforced and amplified by adoring audiences. Valéry had a very particular mechanism in mind. It is the way in which the experience of reading obscures the process of writing. In reading, a work which may have taken years of conscious and unconscious effort and of craft will be consumed by the reader in a few hours, sometimes even minutes. These two experiences are completely different and may lead the reader-consumer to think that the producer is superhuman: “a being of great powers, capable of working all these wonders with no more effort than it takes to do anything at all …” Valéry also points out that:

certain elements of the work which have come to the author by some happy chance may be attributed to a singular turn of his mind. In this way the consumer becomes a producer in his turn: at first a producer of the value of the work; and the next, because he immediately applies the principle of causality … he becomes a producer of the imaginary being who made the thing he admires (Ghiselin 1952: 97)

One could expand on Valéry’s point by noting that many readers and audiences are influenced by the same Romantic ideologies as the writers they read. They are therefore primed to consider writers as very special beings. So when writers make exaggerated claims about what happens when they write, they are preaching to the converted. The faith of the convert then, as ever, confirms the fondest self-belief of the preacher. Even if readers don’t share the ideology of the writer, their delight in the powerful imaginative worlds he or she has created can cause them to think that these worlds must have been invented by a creature equally beguiling and powerful. This, of course, is not generally the case. For all these reasons readers often want their favourite writers to be somehow lifted above the mass of ordinary humanity.[7] This is nowhere better exemplified than in that perennial favourite of post-reading questioners: “where do you get your ideas from?” A moment’s thought would of course provide the answer. Writers get their ideas from the same places as everyone else: memory, conscious and unconscious thought, experience, books, education, newspapers, research, and so forth; where else? But this is not the answer the questioner wants. The questioner wishes to be let into the arcane secrets of a priestly elite and is pleased when writers grant the wish, by claiming, in gnomically oracular terms, that they have no idea where the ideas come from, or indeed, how they wrote a particular novel or poem; with the implication that they arrived from some more or less mysterious place courtesy of some privileging magic.

The types of hyperbole I have so far discussed do not exhaust the field, but space is limited and others are welcome to continue or amend the typology, if it interests them. Meanwhile, I want to consider why many writers exaggerate and hyperbolize until they teeter on the edge of outright untruth.

Murray Abrams stresses the importance of metaphor in the formation of thought. For him “archetypal analogies” are not just expository or illustrative but can be “constitutive” (Abrams 1953: 31). It is at least plausible that the thinking of O’ Brien, Skelton and others, above, has been at least partly “constituted” by metaphors rooted in shamanism, Platonic and Neo-platonic philosophy, Christian Theology, and nineteenth century Romanticism; metaphors that remained influential in the thinking of many writers throughout the 20th century (and beyond) as is evident in this statement by Italo Calvino:

… I have to think of literature as extended to anthropology and ethnology and mythology. Faced with the precarious existence of tribal life – drought, sickness, evil influences – the shaman responded by ridding his body of weight and flying to another world, another level of perception, where he could find the strength to change the face of reality … It is this anthropological device that literature perpetuates. (Calvino 1996: 48)

Hand-me down metaphors provide a framework in which, for example, it is possible to imagine that getting an idea for a first novel is somehow analogous to St Paul having his vision at Damascus. It also helps to explain why, when he can’t work out where a good creative idea came from, even Seamus Heaney thinks shamanically, rather than rationally ascribing it to the obviously relevant reading and research he has just undertaken and told us about: “Not I, Not I, but the wind that blows through me” (Heaney 2005).

However, we cannot take the “constitutive” power of metaphor to be the whole story. People are rarely motivated by ideas or metaphors alone. Ideas have to be accepted and words chosen to express them. Metaphors are themselves merely one element of ideology, and ideology, as Althusser suggests, may not represent "the real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live” (Althusser 2001: 111). In other words: the “constitutive” power of metaphor may explain why writers use certain hyperbolic tropes, whilst not explaining why they exaggerate in the first place. If we want to try and explain this, we could do worse than take Althusser’s prompt and consider some of “the real relations” in which writers live, and are made. Once again the obvious seems worth pointing out.

A writer is a white collar worker with specific skills and talents. In this respect he or she is like a civil engineer or an airline pilot. However, we rarely, if ever, come across pilots or civil engineers who suggest that their activities are divinely inspired; and if they claimed that they had no idea what they are doing when building bridges or flying planes, explaining that they are in fact “flying blind” under divine guidance, they would surely not remain in post for very long. So, why do writers and artists frequently lay exaggerated claim to peculiar powers and experiences; and why do so many of their readers accept them? Without more research, both qualitative and quantitative, there can be nothing approaching certainty, but I feel it is worth speculating on the basis of some simple observations.

Writers tend to be bookish rather than action men and women. We can be certain that many of them, when children, stayed in reading whilst other children played out, because books take time to read and massive reading as a child is essential preparation for being any good at the job later. Some embryonic writers may sometimes have looked enviously on other children playing out actively together. Some may not have been at all envious and may have looked upon their more active peers with contempt. Either way, it would not be surprising to discover grown-up writers finding rather appealing those ideologies that regard passive receptivity as real power.

The majority of writers are, and always have been, poorly paid, badly organized homeworkers, in thrall to whoever holds the purse strings at any given historical moment. Until the 18th century it was mainly aristocratic patrons. Under capitalism, writers gradually became subject to the demands of editors, directors, producers, publishers, readers and audiences (if they were lucky enough to have any). These demands can be perceived as humiliating even for a successful playwright such as Tennessee Williams, who spoke bitterly of “the terrible indignities, humiliations, privations, shocks that attend the life of an American writer” (Plimpton 1985: 89).

If we add to the above the vivid imagination that writers must have, and their carefully cultivated skill with words, the route taken here by the novelist Judith Freeman into cosy, compensatory visions of wholly imaginary power, like a child into its den, is unsurprising:

I see myself beginning to descend into a much more timeless, realm ... the realm, in a sense, of pure story, pure imagination. And I can almost visualize it as walking down a series of steps that lead me into some sort of wonderful secret illuminated chamber (Kaufman & Kaufman 2009: 214).

Equally unsurprising is a tendency in writers to imagine that, when writing, they get an exceptional emotional charge that distinguishes them from lesser mortals like editors and publishers. “I had” writes Flaubert:

to go and get my handkerchief. The tears were running down my face. I had written myself into a state, and it was immensely enjoyable […] a state of the soul so far above ordinary life, a state in which fame counts for nothing and even happiness isn’t relevant” (Wall 2002: 205-6).

Perhaps most unsurprising of all is the tendency of poets in particular to make extravagant compensatory claims. Poets are more liable to work alone than, say, playwrights and novelists, and in modern times this sense of isolation is compounded by tiny to non-existent readerships. One understandable response to this would be self-denigrating depression. Another equally understandable one would be to come out fighting, wielding hyperbole like a giant’s club. Perhaps the best and most famous example of the latter is Shelley. At the time of writing the following, he was short of cash, living in exile, a moral pariah in his home country, largely unpublished and unrecognized, and therefore effectively powerless:

Poets are the hieraphants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirror of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present, the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire: the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world (Burke 1995: 80).

Although our imagination may be stirred by this (especially perhaps if one is a poet) common sense recoils. Poets are not world legislators and never have been. Furthermore, most of us would find it difficult to reconcile our knowledge of actually existing poets with the idea that they might ever conceivably be. Even if we allow that Shelley is writing here about a few “super poets” like Milton and Blake (a point often overlooked), there is no evidence to suggest that “Paradise Lost” or “Vala and the Three Zoas” has ever had much influence on legislation anywhere, and certainly not the defining one that Shelley claims here. Milton did have a post in Cromwell’s bureaucracy, but world legislation was not part of the job description, and it is perhaps for the best that some of Blake’s nostrums in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell never got into the statute book; for example: “sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires”.

If the engine of much writer-hyperbole is humiliating social circumstance and its wheels are ideologically charged metaphor, then the fuel that drives the rickety structure is probably ego or, as they say in these post-Freudian days, a need for “self-esteem”.

Some writers agree. The Swiss-born poet, novelist and memoirist, Blaise Cendrars, suggested that his writer colleagues “exaggerate” to “make themselves sound interesting.” (Plimpton 1968: 33); and the novelist Lawrence Durrell puts down the “exaggerated pretentions” of many of his fellow writers to “a nice corpulent ego” (Plimpton 1963: 274).  

The pressing need for “self-esteem” is oddly most evident when writers are at their most ostensibly self-effacing. When the poet George Barker humbly writes “I had thought never again to be visited by the donative powers, if indeed I have ever been visited by them” and then adds “I think I was visited”, we may detect his praiseworthy modesty straining to contain a certain self-satisfaction at being "chosen".  The same tension is evident within Seamus Heaney’s claim discussed (in other terms) above. “Not I, Not I but the wind that blows through me” (Heaney 2005). This seems, on the face of it, to be rejecting credit; but is it not also simultaneously claiming distinction? For surely it is not given to us all to host this “wind” – the “divine efflatus” – of Biblical-Creative power.

In much the same way, the poet P.J. Kavanagh begins with a radical denial of poetic ego: “a poet goes so deeply into himself when he writes a poem that he ceases to be himself at all”; only for the denial to quickly turn into its opposite when he considers those rare but real “moment(s) of creation” when, in losing himself, a poet may enter into a “state of grace”: a state in which, like the very greatest practitioners of the art, he “becomes himself so entirely that he becomes all men”. This state, concludes Kavanagh, in an access of renewed modesty, “has something of virtue in it” (Brown & Paterson 2004: 137). To which we might colloquially respond, “Well, yes!

Not all writers exaggerate in the service of a needy ego. Many emphasize the more consciously controlled, less obviously mysterious processes in writing, and it is notable that they tend to use very different kinds of metaphor; for example, Beckett: “The fashioning, that’s what it is for me, the pleasure in making a satisfactory object” (Plimpton 1992: 33); and the screen writer John Gregory Dunne: Fact is like clay. You shape it to your own ends” (Dunne 1996). Rather than elevating the writer into a priest-like, shamanistic elite, these figures of speech compare writing with the activities of “ordinary” workers: professional tradesmen and women whose daily creativity is thereby recognized. When such writers consider the unconscious and therefore more mysterious elements of the writing process, their metaphors are similarly “down to earth”, evoking, as for example John Steinbeck does here, the activities of huntsman and poacher:

I hope I can keep all the reins in my hand and at the same time make it sound as though the book were almost accidental ... also I’ll have to lead into the story so gradually that the reader will not know what is happening to him until he is caught ... it’s like a man setting a trap for a fox and pretending ... that he doesn’t know there is a fox or a trap in the country (Plimpton 1977: 197).

Or sailors and navigators, who, for John Barth, provide metaphors for both the necessity and limitations of planning:

To embark on such a project without some idea of what the landfall and the estimated time of arrival were would be rather alarming, but I have learnt from experience that there are certain barriers that you cannot cross until you get to them ... you may not even know the real shape of the obstacle until you heave in sight of it, much less how you’re going to get round it” (Plimpton 1986: 235).

Even when hoping for a permanent place in the literary pantheon, the emphasis can be on craft and effort not some unbidden, mystagogic force, as with Hemingway here: “if you make it well enough, you give it immortality” (Plimpton 1963: 239).

Detecting exaggeration and hyperbole is essential if writers’ accounts are to be usefully used in the study of writing as production. There is, however, another more important reason for endeavouring to “cut through the crap”. Writers often claim to be aiming for some kind of “truth” in their work (however we choose to define that word): it therefore behoves on the profession not to be “economical” with the truths of how it is done, and researchers to tell them when they seem to be.


[1] I use "writers" in this paper to refer to poets, novelists, short story writers and scriptwriters, i.e. those writers commonly and unhelpfully referred to in Universities as "creative writers", as if all other kinds of writer are not "creative". It may be that the arguments in this paper bear on these other writers but, in the main, I suspect not. At any rate my research has not so far included them.

[2] For example: “… from the era of Elliot onwards, the dominant mode of critical methodology in the Anglo-American tradition has turned away from the problems posed by authorship, or has turned toward them only occasionally, and only by way of the most drastically impoverished descriptions. No attempts to consolidate, revise or redefine anti-authorial theory have been made nor has any decisive and broadly based interest been shown in the project of authorial renewal.” (Burke, 1998, p. 187). See also Harris: ‘Escaping the tractor beam of literary theory’ in TEXT Vol. 13, No. 2, October 2009.

[3] I use the word “truth” here not to suggest the existence of some impossible absolute verity but rather in contrast to the word “fiction” or, to put it another way: to help make the distinction between trying to put into words exactly what one thinks happened, and using what one thinks happened to put into words something that never in fact happened. I also use the word "truth" because it flows into the main body of my text better than would this somewhat pedantic footnote.

[4] Dr Tony Pearce (BMBS FANZCA PGDip Clin Ultrasound), Senior Staff Specialist Anaesthetist, Royal Adelaide Hospital, in an e-mail to the writer 12.09.2012.

[5] ‘Method and Madnesss in the Arts and Sciences’, Creativity Research Journal (Vol II, No 2, 1998). But see also Kaufman and Kaufman (pp. 12-16 and 26-29).

[6] Cocteau: "if the force functions, it goes well. If not you are helpless” (Plimpton 1968: 76) "A Jedi's strength flows from the Force" (Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back).

[7] The cult of literary celebrity seems to have preceded the version peddled in contemporary media. Byron springs inevitably to mind here.





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Mike Harris is a script writer and theatre director. He teaches part-time on the MA in Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. His research interest is writing as production.