The Writer’s Desk: Sadism and the Writer

I’ve come to realize that I’m a sadist, but in the best way, if that’s possible.

Some time ago, I received two e-mails from readers about a day apart. They were of the variety that make you think, “Yes, I can write! I’m not completely delusional!”

Writers can go from thinking one second that every word they write is magical to falling into despair the next moment, huddled in a fetal position and rocking back and forth, positive that they can’t write a coherent word and that they’re morons for thinking they can.

It’s a bit extreme going between the two opposites, and you never get used to it. One would think that getting novels and articles published would assuage the fears. It doesn’t. It just provides you with anxiety because now actual readers (people you don’t even know!) are reading your work and making judgments on it. It’s enough to send you into heart palpitations and panic attacks.

Ironically, getting positive feedback can be just as paralyzing. I’ve gotten a few stellar reviews that made me want to bronze them.

But almost immediately, the panic rolls in: it was a fluke. I’ll never, ever, be able to write well again or live up to that book. Why bother trying? Give me some chocolate as I curl up and start rocking back and forth.

Both of those e-mails had a common theme: one of my books kept them reading late into the night. They both stayed up to finish it, one until 4:00 am and the other until 5:00 am.

I was single-handedly responsible for two ladies being zombies the following day! How totally cool is that? As a writer, I can imagine few pieces of information that could excite me more. Apparently I am a sadist when it comes to perfect strangers reading my books.

That might be enough to consider me a bit twisted, but a new element entered the horizon that made me wonder just what kind of person I really am.

Some time ago I was working on a project targeted at middle-grade girl readers (roughly ages 8-11). To test-run the piece, I sent it to several girls I know that age, including two of my daughters, then 9 and 7. The younger was slightly too young to read it herself, so I read it to her.

After one chapter, she told me that it felt like the story was really happening.

YES! SCORE!

Then she said something else that made me both thrilled and a tiny bit horrified at my own reaction: “If feels real. That’s why I cried.”

YES! SCORE!

Then . . . wait. Since when is it a moment of pride and satisfaction to make your 7-year-old burst into tears?

I’ve said it before, and the more time passes, the more I’m convinced it’s true: writers are weird bunch.

And quite possibly sadistic.

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3 Responses to The Writer’s Desk: Sadism and the Writer

  1. So true, Annette! I’m always fiendishly delighted when someone stays up way past bedtime finishing one of my books. It’s one of the ultimate compliments for a writer–you know the story worked really well for that reader if they were willing to sacrifice sleep to see how it ended. I guess I’m sadistic right along with you :)

  2. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Well, when you consider that fiction is often rather cathartic at times, I would think that getting a reader to cry might be considered a good thing, all in all.

    I’d be inclined to consider a writer sadistic when said writer runs her readers through the wringer and then, when they get to the end of the book, leaves them feeling disappointed.

    Now, THAT is sadistic. (And I’ve been reading reviews of a certain, long-awaited book that say such things about said book and make me wonder if I really want to read it after all.)

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    "Writers can go from thinking one second that every word they write is magical to falling into despair the next moment, huddled in a fetal position and rocking back and forth, positive that they can’t write a coherent word and that they’re morons for thinking they can."

    Yep. This is me. But I–we?–keep writing because we "have" to. Doesn’t that make me–us?–a masochistic?

    One thing seems clear: whether a sadist or a masochist, you gott be kinda screwy to become a writer.

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