Engineering the myth of the writer

A good writer friend of mine is keen to point out that he does’t just sit around in a smoking jacket, dreaming away the mornings. But maybe he shouldn’t be so keen to demystify the writing life. The wonderful Brainpickings blog collates some of the odder behaviour of writers while they write, but notes that writers are sometimes guilty of embellishing the facts to engineer the myth of their own oddness:

As curious as these habits are, however, Johnson reminds us that public intellectuals often engineer their own myths, which means the quirky behaviors recorded in history’s annals should be taken with a grain of Salinger salt. She offers a necessary disclaimer, enveloped in a thoughtful meta-disclaimer:

“One must always keep in mind that these writers and the people around them may have, at some point, embellished the facts. Quirks are great fodder for gossip and can morph into gross exaggeration when passed from one person to the next. There’s also no way to escape the self-mythologizing particularly when dealing with some of the greatest storytellers that ever lived. Yet even when authors stretch the truth, they reveal something about themselves, when it is the desire to project a certain image or the need to shy away from one.”

via The Odd Habits and Curious Customs of Famous Writers | Brain Pickings.

There are whispered rumours among older SF fans that Philip K Dick’s spiritual revelations where at least a little exaggerated by the author, perhaps as part of the effort to move from sci-fi to mainstream literary writing. We like the stories writers tell, but in some ways, we like the stories about our writers even more.

Last year I explained to a group of writers attending one of my workshops that much of my writing begins when I am meditating. We got talking on the subject of meditation and how some people perceive their imagination as an external voice talking to them, maybe even the voice of god. Later one of my students asked if I thought my stores came from god. To which I responded, I hope they’d be less often rejected if they came from a divine authority. Jokes, you know. Some weeks later, it seems the rumour had spread, and I sat down with a colleague who asked me if I was really teaching my students to channel god in the classroom.


But maybe I should go with it? Yes, my fictions are the product of divine interventions! But I doubt I would be the first writer to engineer that particular myth.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

4 thoughts on “Engineering the myth of the writer

      1. Well, I can say that I am a nonfiction writer (historian) and drink. I tend to get over-philosophical and very amicable when I’m drunk.



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