Please welcome Densie Webb as our guest today (“Not Denise: I think my mom had a moment of dyslexia…”). Densie has been a nonfiction writer/editor, mainly about health and nutrition, for her entire career. She has written for The New York Times, Parade, been a columnist for Prevention, Family Circle and now writes for industry and trade organizations. She added fiction to the mix about six years ago and never looked back. She is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, SheWrites, the Romantic Novelists’ Association and the Romance Writers of America. She’s a music lover, walker (not of the dead variety), dreamer, warm-weather enthusiast, and has now acquired all of the usual writer quirks, including the uncontrollable urge to write about people and things that live only in her head. Her first novel is You’ll Be Thinking of Me; she is currently working on novels two and three.
I’m fascinated by the things that make us writers keep writing, even when the odds are not in our favor that we’ll finish a book, get an agent, get published, accumulate readers and be able to cobble together a writing career.
Writing as Compulsion
My son has Tourette’s Syndrome. Diagnosed when he was six, I’ve seen the condition and its sometimes bizarre manifestations wax and wane over the years. I can’t be in his skin, feel what he feels, but he’s tried to explain it to me. It’s a torturous itch that must be scratched. The urge, the reflex, the compulsion, is the result of a flood of neurotransmitters in the brain.
Sometimes, with conscious effort, it can be suppressed, kept in check for short periods. But then it simply has to be released and the results can be explosive, as the tics take over and demand to run their course. Over time, the tics change. Sometimes they’re subtle, an extra blink or two of the eye, a random shoulder shrug. But other times they’re dramatic—strange, almost violent elbow or chin jerks, an explosion of eye blinks, a series of mouse-like vocal squeaks, a grimace that’s painful to the Touretter and unsettling to those who witness it. And then, for a brief period of time, there is relief.
Where am I going with this and what does this have to do with writing? As writers, we experience our own, irresistible compulsion. It’s not so much that we choose to write; it’s that we must write. How many times have you heard fellow writers say, “I can’t not write.” We can suppress the urge for only so long and then the compulsion is uncontrollable. Sometimes it’s a slow stream of words that dribble out; other times they explode onto the page. And it’s impossible to know where they came from, when they will stop or when the next burst of words will demand to be expressed, demand to be noticed. And the need to get the words down, NOW, can be uncomfortable to those around us who don’t understand, who don’t feel it the way we do. They’re just words, right? But, as with tics, the relief is temporary. We all know, just as my son knows, that the urge is always there, just beneath the surface, waiting to burst forth. Resistance is futile.
I’m relatively new to the fiction trenches. I’ve been a nonfiction writer and editor for pretty much my whole working life, and I dove headfirst into fiction six years ago. I have one published novel and two WIPs, but only recently have I begun to fully understand that feeling of words bubbling up until the pressure builds and must be released onto the page, any page—the back of a receipt, a random envelope, the note function on my phone.
When my son’s condition was raging, acceptance was the rule of the day. Acceptance of his Tourette’s and acceptance of others’ reactions to his winkin-blinkin-and-nod routines. And so it is with the writer’s compulsion. You have to accept the need to get the words out, without feeling pressured to explain yourself or make excuses.
Here is my writerly wisdom, based on my experience with compulsive urges, in both my son and myself.
Accept that writing is a part of who you are. It’s your passion, your avocation, your mission, your purpose. This is what drives you. You couldn’t rid yourself of it, even if you wanted to.
Don’t feel the need to explain your writing to others. Either they accept you and what you’re doing or they don’t. Simple as that. Others’ raised eyebrows and sideways glances matter not at all. (I speak from loads of experience.)
When the words burst forth, revel in the relief. Don’t feel bad for having given in to the urge. It’s beyond your control.
When there are no words, enjoy the respite, knowing that they will make themselves known again. Maybe in a slow trickle, a sneak attack, or maybe a shocking detonation. Just accept them in whatever form they appear, and rest assured that they are always there just beneath the surface—waiting.
Do you have a compulsion to write? How does your compulsion manifest itself, and how does it drive you?