Art feasts upon its maker – is writing bad for you?

“A writer flirts with schizophrenia, nurtures synesthesia, and embraces obsessive-compulsive disorder. Your art feeds on you, your soul, and, yes, to a degree, your sanity. Writing novels worth reading will bugger up your mind, jeopardize your relationships, and distend your life. You have been warned.”

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

“Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

Stephen King, On Writing

One of the most rewarding parts of helping other writers is what you learn in exchange. One of my clients, the fascinating David Dakan Allison, sent me the quote above from David Mitchell, author of Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks. I’m in the midst of an email interview with Mitchell at the moment, and tempted to ask him about the idea of art feasting on its maker. It makes me think of the opposing quote from Stephen King, that art exists to support life IE the writer writes a book to get paid so he can live a good life.

I’ve wondered before if King’s On Writing is so popular with aspiring writers because it argues that writing can be all gain and no give. Mitchell’s position is less easy to hear – writing is a gift to the reader because it sucks something essential out of the writer. It’s hard, and possibly bad for us. But then don’t writers just love to mythologise, and what better way to self-mythologise than to claim our art is killing us!

Two great writers arguing two very different opinions on the issue of art. I suspect the one we prefer says as much about ourselves as it does about the argument.

Think more about advice for writers with these 5 indispensable guides for writing.


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.

7 thoughts on “Art feasts upon its maker – is writing bad for you?

  1. Yeah, this is definitely a tough one. I’m surprised that King gave that impression. I heard his wife had to fish “Carrie” out of the rubbish can after he had finished it… not exactly the act of a torture-free artist.


    1. There is a lot of the tortured artist in King, but it all ends with a big pay cheque. Art is scary to people, so artists who can show that art also made them materially successful get a popularity bonus I think. Yes you can write and also be a millionaire! I don’t know if this is healthy.


  2. I’ve been writing my novel for fours years. I want to think I’m normal, but yes, I’m compulsive, driven, sometimes crazy and depressed, anti-social, and lost in the world of my fantastic imagination. The voices all my 2000+ pages of characters are talking in my head. I HAVE to give them life, keep them alive, make them real. Read The Bone Clocks and you’ll realize that you have to be fucking out of your mind to write so brilliantly.


    1. But here’s the thing…isn’t “out of our mind” exactly where we all should be? The more I think on it, the more I think good writing means being in an enlightened state, escaping the mind for the wide open imagination.


  3. Ah but imagine if the writing didn’t eat away at you? All that stuff that writing consumes would still be there, wobbling around inside your head and bumping into your everyday thoughts and conversations. Imagine what messes we would all be then?
    Writing can have its pound of flesh.


    1. Life is the canvas. Let’s just say that without the canvas there would be no place to paint your expression. How you express is always your choice. A calm artist or a crazy artist. As one, I choose a better word: Passion. The passion to fill the canvas with magnificence. And within my Passion, I allow wonderful relationship, a long life, rewards for work well done, and sanity, the Zen of pulling weeds and feeding goldfish, while also feeling all the emotions an author needs to feel, in order to write with authority.


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