Writers are crazy, and I’m crazier than most
I’m about to share some scary stuff. Some truths about myself that I’ve been too scared to share for years. Maybe decades, honestly.
And yet if there’s one thing I know after thirty years of writing, it’s that you have to tell the truth. You have to tell the truth when you write and you have to share things that make you uncomfortable.
“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” – Ernest Hemingway
Well, I’m going to follow Ernest Hemingway’s advice. Here’s the truth: I want to be the greatest writer ever.
Yikes, did I really say that out loud?
Crazy, right? More importantly, just why the heck would I say that?
It’s scary putting yourself out there, but I want to say some things. I’m not even sure where I’m going with this. It’s like a novel: you don’t know where it’ll end. You simply write it.
One sentence, one paragraph, one page at a time. You let it flow out of you. Or dribble out in tiny drops as you squeeze the tube with all your might, screaming and cursing at the night. (Sometimes, writing is easy. Most of the time, it’s hard.)
But no matter the pace, or how long it takes, the story comes together.
Let’s continue then, with this honest post as well. I want to be the greatest writer ever. There, I’ve said it a second time. See? Not an accident. Not a fluke.
And since we’re sharing truths… here’s a second truth: writers are crazy.
They really are. (Also musicians, artists, and professional athletes. They’re crazy, too. You have to be, as I see it, in order to think you could ever reach your dreams.)
But let’s stick with writers. They’re what I know. Heck, even better, let’s stick with me.
I literally wrote, “I want to be the greatest writer ever.”
How nuts is that? What kind of madness abides inside my head? What kind of person would say such a thing? (I can’t blame youth. I’m a touch over 45.)
Want to know something scarier? I was pretty much thinking this thought at the age of 8 or 9. That’s the first time I slammed a novel shut and thought, “This book is terrible. I know I could do better.”
I did this while in elementary school. With an adult novel written by a best-selling author. (I can’t remember the novel or author because it was trash. Just some average story that was thrown together by some big-name author and pushed out for summer-time beach reading, likely recommended to me by a friend.)
And the craziest thing about this story of my childhood is that I actually tried to do better than that author, while I was still a dang kid, who didn’t even know what puberty was.
Little old Stan, still in itty-bitty elementary school, scribbled a story in pencil in his spiral-bound school notebook. I remember it perfectly. And somewhere, out in some of my boxes in the garage, I still have it. Twenty pages or so.
I wish I was making this up. Or even exaggerating a tad. My headspace would be sooooo much better.
But I can’t lie. I want to be considered among the greatest writers of all time, and that’s the dang truth. (Maybe all serious writers feel this way? Heck if I know.)
All I know is that it’s this way for me. I want to be the greatest and this is probably the greatest truth of my life. It’s my North Star. My beacon I’ve been moving toward my entire existence, even when I veer or slow or try to run from it.
Back to my twenty-page story above, I didn’t finish it, but even at the age of eight or nine, a small part of my soul (or something) told me I was meant to do this. That my one true desire was to be the greatest writer ever (though I must never admit this to anyone).
What nine-year-old says such a thing? How can you feel (or be haunted by) such a thing at such a young age?
Let’s return to the writers are crazy part of this post. Let’s broaden things a bit. Because if I’m going to admit to being crazy, then I dang sure want some company in whatever boat I’m in.
Let’s start with Ernest Hemingway. An incredible writer (one of the best of all time), but also a man who volunteered for war as an ambulance driver (where he was wounded), a man who married four times (four times?!), and a man who survived two plane crashes in two days. Yes, I’m saying he had a plane crash on one day. Then decided to fly again the next day. And he crashed the second day as well.
He also once shot himself in the lower leg while wrestling with a shark and sadly took his own life at the age of 61.
I’m going to say that Ernest Hemingway, who’s considered one of America’s greatest writers, makes a pretty compelling case for proving that writers are crazy. But I could easily point out a dozen other authors to add to the ledger.
And we’ve all heard the theme of how much most writers drink, correct? “Psychology Today” even had an article in it titled, “Why Do Writers Drink So Much?” That article listed roughly twenty big-name authors, but it could have probably listed 95 percent of all authors.
So, if you’ll grant me that most writers are crazy (and/or drink too much), we’ll get this show back on the road. (Although weirdly, I don’t drink — I’m scared to death of alcohol after it destroyed my uncle’s life, taking his family, his job, and eventually his sanity, so go easy on it.)
Back to the point, though. Where were we? Oh, yeah. Just write the truth. And writers are crazy.
Here’s another truth: Writing is a madness. It’s a disease. It’s a curse.
That was three, but I’ll stand by them.
I’ve learned that you can’t really run from your calling. It ruins your showers. Your bedtimes. Your conversations.
For me, I’ve found that writing afflicts your soul. It eats at you in the darkest parts of night.
When I’m not writing, I’m miserable. My head (or heart?) won’t stop whispering or screaming: You should be writing.
Frankly, when I’m not writing, my head goes into dark places. At the worst of times, it can plummet to scary depths.
My writing mania plagues me unabated.
I’ll grab books to read because they are some of my greatest escapes. But I can’t read for long. My head whispers, “You should be writing.” (And also usually: “This book sucks. You can — seriously, Stan — do better.)
There’s no getting away from it. Not a day goes by when my head doesn’t say, “You should be writing.”
Writing is a madness. It’s a disease. It’s a curse.
I’ve come to accept the three sentences above.
I believe them to be true, and if you’re afflicted with a calling, I’m confident you agree.
But your calling has a flip side. It can be the greatest high in the world.
I’ve gotten so into the zone of writing a story that I’ve lost all track of time. I enter an almost fictional world, where I’m dodging bullets or chasing down enemies. I have no idea what my opponent will do. Or even what my main character will do.
But I’m there. I’m watching this movie and I’m excited to see where it will go. And I don’t want to stop it. I don’t want to exit this world. My fingers can’t type fast enough.
I don’t think about food or time or really anything but the story.
The concept of real-life and reality disappears, until you realize, uh-oh, that you’re supposed to be at work in ten minutes or you told your wife you’d do the dishes, but that was two hours ago, and you hear her down there at the sink, muttering and cursing.
There are also times I try to write and it’s like I jump into my desk chair, remembering the day before when I wrote for hours and was right in the middle of that awesome car chase. But I’m not sitting in that space and time machine anymore.
It’s like I’m turned into a pathetic, helpless worm, who doesn’t have a brain. I don’t have arms or legs and I’m just flopping around, not even sure what direction I should be going.
These times when you struggle to write a single sentence can be as maddening as when you’re not creating at all. You’re sitting in the chair, trying to do what you’re meant to do in life. You’re literally doing your calling, but the muse won’t cooperate.
So what I’m saying is this:
A ) You’re miserable on those days when you try to write, but the words won’t come.
B ) You’re also miserable on the days when you don’t write and you run from your dream.
Writing is madness, remember?
It can be infuriating. Like, if you’re meant to be a writer, if you’re destined to be the greatest, then why is it so hard? Why aren’t you a natural?
I think the answer to this question is that nothing in life comes easy.
Maybe all those sports icons practice and work harder than we know, right? And maybe greats, such as Hemingway, who marry four times and end their lives at 61, have struggled more than we know, right?
I’ve been chasing this dream for a long time. I will spare you the story, though it’s a heck of one, including me at the age of 21 telling an experienced agent in New York that I wouldn’t re-work a chapter. Yeah, in my youthful stupidity, I did that. Ah, the arrogance of youth.
Skipping my long story of climbing the figurative Mount Everest, I completed another novel after 12 years of total ecstasy and agony; 12 years of telling my friends about it and then lying to my friends about it.
I also dropped and abandoned it too many times to count, starting probably thirty other stores in that time. I know, I know. This is every writer’s story.
It probably would’ve been easier for me to design a plane from scratch.
But twelve years later, I had a heck of a story written. It’s about a Marine sniper who gets betrayed by his government after completing a Top Secret mission, and then is hunted down until eventually he flips the script and starts hunting the hunters (Sold Out — Nick Woods Book 1). The book still sells well (thank you, Jesus), and I’ve written three more books in that series. (The fifth one drops in a few months.) Yay, Stan.
But I couldn’t be happy having just written a military thriller, right? I couldn’t just stay in that genre like I should. Like, most successful authors.
No, of course not. Not when you’re crazy and you want to be the best ever. So, I had to try my hand at as an action-packed Western, a detective series, a private investigator series, a leadership/biography book, and two realistic war novels: one about World War II and one about Afghanistan.
Whatever it is that I have, I have it bad.
Writing has tons of ups and downs (mostly downs truthfully), but about half of the time, I actually think I’m going to make a boatload of money. I’m as ambitious as anyone you’ve ever met and my friends will tell you I’m as determined and stubborn as a goat with a bad attitude. (I’m also possibly delusional, but that goes with the diagnosis of crazy.)
On paper, I at least have a shot.
Writing degree? Check.
Typing speed? I can type faster than a cheetah with a rocket on his back.
But on other days, I think of just how many writers have tried this gig and end eventually given up, completely defeated.
To be lucky enough to do this as a full-time gig is possibly one of the greatest things in the world. To attempt to get into the zone every day — for a full day — instead of dealing with the day job, the demanding boss, and everything else? That’s heaven.
I know because I’ve been there. For almost two years of near-complete bliss.
Back in 2013, I made a lot of money one year. More than six figures, or just a tad over $100,000. In my beautiful hometown of Knoxville, if you can make a hundred thousand dollars in a year doing what you love (i.e., not a day job), then you’ve done something.
Making that kind of money in a single year from writing is beyond-words-awesome. It’s kind of like eating all the ice cream and pizza you want, while binging Netflix and not getting any fatter in the process. It’s just impossibly awesome.
And I somehow made a $100,000 when I only had a couple of books published. In something I can only describe as magic, the books went viral, the fire burned hot, and I made great money. (It was mostly from that Marine Sniper book I mentioned above, called “Sold Out,” which you should totally go check out.)
But with only two books at the time, I lacked the inventory to keep the momentum going. So the throngs of readers moved on to pastures with more sustenance.
It was then that I learned another painful truth to this crazy dream: it can all end tomorrow, even if you’re insanely lucky enough to achieve it.
A drought can arrive. And that drought may last for years. The throngs may not return.
One day you’re playing for the New York Yankees, dreaming of winning a Golden Glove and becoming Hall of Fame material. The next, you’re playing for the Akron RubberDucks.
I still don't know what happened. All I know is one day I was on top of the world and the next day I wasn’t. The sales slowed, the fear rose, and I had to find a day job again to pay the bills.
That’s okay. I’ve never been afraid of hard work, so I’ve been working my tail off in full-time, regular employment in day jobs ever since. With the change, my dreams became “a hobby,” at least on paper and on tax returns.
In reality, they remain to this day a life-or-death pursuit that I still chase every free moment I can spare. Some days I wake up an hour or two early. Some nights I stay up an hour or two later than I should. Many days I write during lunch, as well.
I’ve continued this routine almost every day since my big-time days when the sales continued like a gusher. And almost every day since then, I’ve believed the sales (and throngs) will return.
You don’t quit when you’re hungry. Nor when you’re crazy.
I’ve worked so hard the past decade on my writing skills. This isn’t some side pursuit for me. I still want to be the best. (I also put out a podcast and newsletter, about military and tech news; plus some motivation and wisdom. It’s free, by the way. You should check that out, too.)
I’m so much better as a writer than I was “when I made it.” And my productivity has been pretty strong, even when I have those days where I feel like a pathetic, helpless worm, who doesn’t have a brain.
I mean, speaking of productivity, heck, how many authors do you know who’ve written eleven books?
Believe me, when you cross the threshold of ten books, you start talking about some pretty big names in the business (Stephen King, Vince Flynn, Tom Clancy, and Robert B. Parker, to name a few).
Books take so many years to finish, and sometimes, they seem like they take so much of your life to complete them.
Consider, that there’s even a big list of HUGE authors who didn’t even write five books. (Margaret Mitchell, of Gone With the Wind fame? She wrote one book.) (J.D. Salinger, who wrote The Catcher In the Rye? One book.)
Heck, maybe I should’ve stopped at one, as well? lol. Okay, kidding.
Man, maybe I really am crazy?) (And I can’t even put all of this on the Marine Corps. The details of my military career.)
This started at eight or nine, remember? (And I wish I could nail down that age, but my Mom and I can’t figure it out. It was either fourth or fifth grade, and I started school early, so there you go.)
But back to the point, every writer needs a schtick.
Some writers craft lines that are exquisite and supple. You read them because they seduce and lure you forward, page-by-page.
Some writers blast you with a foghorn. Or put a dozen twists in a book.
The only schtick I have is brevity. (Notice this one-sentence paragraph?)
A couple of my books barely top a hundred pages. But they work. At least according to the reviews. (Heck, my non-partisan character study/biography about Obama is like 50 pages, when you remove the fluff at beginning and end.)
I learned brevity in journalism school. And in ten years of newspaper writing after graduation. You only had a small amount of space in the newspaper, and you dang well better make good use of it.
And that brings me to my second skill. I hate boring books. Can I say that again? I HATE boring books. (The eight- or nine-year-old me did, as well.)
Even books with exquisite and supple writing; that kind of writing can work for a page or two, but something needs to happen.
Blood needs to flow. Relationships need to start. Or relationships need to end.
So my second skill is speed/pacing with books, which meshes nicely with brevity, by the way.
This is the 21st Century. We live in a world of tweets and TikToks. You can’t be fiddling around and padding your books with fluff.
I firmly believe this is the formula: brevity and action. And it’s one I try to follow. I also firmly believe that my books are going to make me boatloads of money again someday.
Of course, I’ve also admitted to being crazy, so there’s that.
But part of me just knows that tremendous success is going to happen.
Call it confidence. Call it madness. It’s probably a bit of both.
Writers are crazy, and I’m crazier than most.
Stan R. Mitchell
P.S. Don’t forget to check out my books. I’ve written a CIA/Marine sniper series, a detective series, a private investigator series, an action-packed Western, a leadership/biography book, and two realistic war novels: one about World War II and one about Afghanistan.