By Mary Gillgannon
When people ask me why I write, I have some pat answers: The stories just come to me and I have to write them down. I enjoy living vicariously through my characters. I feel like I was born in the wrong time period, so I write about the past.
But none of those things represent the real reason. Which is that it’s an addiction. I crave writing the way some people do a drug. Without it I go into withdrawal and get cranky and anxious and depressed.
My addiction used to be much worse. If I went a day without writing, I would almost immediately feel my stress levels rising. But the last few years, I’ve had enough money that I’ve been able to replace my writing addiction (which is relatively inexpensive) with other methods of boosting my mood. Gardening and doing creative things like planning a remodeling project seem to do some of the same soothing things to my brain. Travel, or even planning a trip, has a similar effect. And shopping also fills the void and provides a sense of gratification. These replacement vices work so well, I almost think if I had enough money (and lived in a place where gardening was a year-round activity instead of the five months, if I’m lucky, I can do it in Wyoming.) I might be able to survive without writing.
What all these activities have in common is a kind of hyper-focus. My brain is engaged in a way that concentrates my naturally intense intellectual and emotional energy on a specific project or goal. So instead of all that seething yearning and need looping endlessly around in my brain and making me crazy, as it did for much of my life, it gets utilized in a satisfying way. These activities provide a channel to direct that energy, a creative outlet to free me from the destructive force of my restless and passionate nature.
But like most vices, all these activities are only satisfying while I’m doing them. So if I have a week, or several, where I don’t have time to indulge in any of these things, including writing, the emotional energy builds up and up, until I start each day with a vague sense of doom hanging over me. Now that I’m older, it doesn’t take too much to get me out of a funk. A little sunshine, some social contact, the comforting rituals of life, something that makes me laugh, any of those things can put me back on the right path, as long as my life is essentially all right.
But let things get genuinely stressful and my carefully constructed optimistic persona starts to get more and more cracks, and it take a lot more positive things to get me back to that baseline of relative happiness. Until one day I realize I’ve regressed to that person I used to be, the one who barely survived adolescence and walked around under a cloud of anxiety and subtle dread for much of their early adulthood. Nowadays, if I consistently suffered from those mood issues, I’d probably be on antidepressant drugs. But drugs have side effects and often cause other issues. And finding just the right balance is very tricky.
Which takes me back to my original “drug of choice”: writing. Because writing does more than just provide a creative outlet and a focus. I’m convinced that the act of writing actually changes my brain. Maybe it supplies it with endorphins or boosts the serotonin levels, similar to what mood-altering drugs are supposed to do. But it is more long-lasting than a drug. And doesn’t wear off as quickly.
And by writing, I mean fiction. Not a blog or an email or something like that. That sort of writing helps, but it doesn’t work the magic that writing fiction does. Because nothing quite beats the incredible moment of having your characters come to life and the world they live in becoming utterly real. It’s a high, as intense and vivid as any drug can offer. (Although, admittedly, I haven’t tried any of the really powerful euphoria-producing ones.)
So I’m going back to my original addiction. I’m going to let the emails pile up in my inbox until I have to delete most of them unread. I’m going to shun my internet shopping sites, and neglect my garden and my house. And probably my family, to hear them tell it. And continue to truly suck at promoting my already-published books. But I need my drug. I can’t live without writing fiction anymore.
So, that’s why I write. Because I have to.