‘A Glorious Kind Of Madness’ by Brendan Landers

The writer walks out of his workroom in a daze. He wants a drink. He needs it. It happens to be a fact that nearly every writer of fiction in the world drinks more whisky than is good for him. He does it to give himself faith, hope and courage. A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul and that, I am sure, is why he does it.

Roald Dahl

Working on a singularly challenging short story, I agonise for half an hour over the appropriate word for a particular phrase, only to see the situation remain frustratingly unresolved. It’s doing my head in, so I take a break. That’s 30 minutes of my life that I’ll never get back. I’m 67 years old and more or less retired. I should be taking a leisurely stroll in the park. Counting the stars in the Milky Way. Baking a batch of sausage rolls. Watching the latest series of Fargo on Netflix. Chilling. Yet here I am, tormenting myself over the delegation of a single elusive adjective.

What’s the story here?

We wonder sometimes, don’t we?

And then we don’t.

Creation – that’s the story.

We wordmongers can be an odd assortment of nutjobs. Who of us in our right minds, if we ever found ourselves to be in right minds, would choose this writing life? What innate insanity, we wonder, impels us day after day, week after week, month after month, year after excruciating year, to pick up a pen or a laptop, imprison ourselves in lonely solitude and subject our sensitive souls to the hard labour of putting together an assembly of words and ideas that is somehow deemed to be worthy and meaningful?

It doesn’t make sense.

Hugh Leonard, the late dramatist and essayist, described writing as an illness, a virus that no science can isolate and cure, and Ray Bradbury, in his book Zen in the Art of Writing, said Writing is supposed to be difficult, agonizing, a dreadful exercise, a terrible occupation.

Yet we persist. It’s madness.

Oh, it’s all very fine for the lucky few who have scaled the dizzy heights of fame and fortune. The likes of Anne Enright, JK Rowling and Roddy Doyle have prevailed against the odds and penned their way to literary Eldorado. They are champions. They are the Manchester United, the Barcelona, the Juventus of the literary firmament. For good or ill, their stardom has helped to promote the notion among the populace at large that writing is a glamorous business.

Would that that were so for those of us who ply our trade in the lesser leagues of this creative field. The collective noun to describe us should be a martyrdom of scriveners. For us, arguably, writing is a mug’s game.

There’s no money in it. Studies consistently show that the average full-time writer in the UK earns less than the minimum wage (and I suspect that the same applies to Ireland). Nonetheless, Britain remains a nation of aspiring authors; a recent YouGov poll revealed that, of those asked, 60% said they aspired to make a living from writing. Good luck with that, folks.

Most of us who practise the scribbling trade slave away in semi-oblivion. I’m of an age to have conducted much of my business in the era of snail-mail, when hopeful writers waited for the verdicts of publishers to be dropped through the letterbox. I daresay I could wallpaper my office with my collection of rejection letters.

Like auditioning actors, we wordsmiths constantly test the limits of our emotional constitutions. We send our work out into the world with trepidation, ever-conscious of the lurking analogy of the tree falling in a forest – if nobody hears its noise, does it exist in any real sense? Writers’ groups, literary publications and writing competitions (and, of course, The Blue Nib) can be godsends, reassuring us that, yes, people are indeed hearing our noise.

But, all in all, it’s a perilous business.

So, why do we do it? Where does this compulsion come from?

Hugh Leonard also said I’m a writer and what I do is write. I wasn’t able to do anything else. I couldn’t say it better myself, so I won’t torment myself by seeking the words.

Yes, this writing game is an insanity that consumes us, but it’s a glorious kind of madness with its own unique set of compensations and, although I sometimes rail against the torture of wrestling for the ideal onomatopoeia, I am cognizant of the rewards. Some of these are:

The rapturous, almost ridiculous, sense of satisfaction on completion of a well-wrought sentence, paragraph, verse or chapter;

The surge of righteous vindication when, on knowing that you have creditably concluded a project, you can happily type THE END;

The fullness of the heart when, on sitting on a train or a bus and you notice someone reading something you wrote, you observe a laugh, a tear, a jolt of shock, a sigh or a shiver in response to your endeavours;

The sweet, succulent smell of success on realising that, through your work, you have touched the soul of a stranger.

So yes, I suppose we writers can be a crazy, tortured, masochistic lot but we have our moments. These moments are not why we write but they help us on our way. As to the why – it’s compulsion, pure and simple. Ray Bradbury put it in a nutshell,

You grow ravenous. You run fevers. You know exhilarations. You can’t sleep at night, because your beast-creature ideas want out and turn you in your bed. It is a grand way to live.

About the contributor

Brendan Landers
Brendan Landers is an award-winning journalist and novelist. Successes include Dalkey Creates Festival, Dunlavin Arts Festival, James Plunkett Memorial Award, Sunday Tribune Short Story Competition and the Toronto Star Short Story Competition. Publisher/Managing Editor of Ireland's Eye, he is former Editor of the Irish Canada News.

Related Articles

This Itch by Dorothy Simmons

'No matter whether we write about what we know in a literal sense or not, we write about what we perceive, we write about how we imagine life has been, is, or might be.'


She grew up on the banks of the Grand Canal, where her father was the lock keeper, tending boats that brought cargo down from Dublin, dropping...

A Comma and an Egg

Much writing craft I absorbed en passant, while cooking, for example. Take the humble egg.  I underestimated its importance when the in-laws came to Sunday...

More Like This

How to cope with Sex Daily.

Dave Kavanagh, on how disability should not be a disability for writers.

Poetry and Technology

Poetry and Technology Part 3 of A Critical Examination of 21st Poetry by Ada Wofford Figure 1 The image above is from the website libraryofbabel.info, which is...

Writing Illness, Writing Life

'Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well  and...

Windows on Storytelling

Through his engaging clarity of vision, Karino C Emmanuel encourages us to select an appropriate focus in our own story telling, expressing it all...

Trans Europe Expression Slam

In advance of the Trans Europe Expression Slam Final in Manchester on 14 November, Olivia Logan reviews the Berlin heat. On a rainy Sunday night...