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Is Writing an Addiction?

by | Walk The Plank, Writing Advice | 4 comments

You’ve probably heard the age-old question about why writers and people who do other kinds of creative work seem to suffer disproportionately from addiction problems. That is, addiction to alcohol, narcotics, and a whole host of nasties you probably want to avoid. And you may have seen this question posed before. Is writing an addiction? Can it become one? If so, is being addicted to writing a good thing or a bad thing? What are the symptoms — and where’s the relief? 

having an addiction: exhibiting a compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity…
— Merriam-Webster

If we’re going to tackle the question of whether writing is an addiction, we first have to deal with the question of what an addiction is. The above is one definition for having an addiction, and under its terms an addiction is a compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity. That is to say, first off, that addiction must be compulsive: it must compel a person to indulge in the said habit-forming substance, or engage in the habit-forming behavior or activity. It also must be chronic, a fixture of a person’s life that crops up again and again or reoccurs over a long period of time. And it must have a component of either physiological or psychological need. That is, there will be either physiological or psychological consequences of an unfulfilled addiction. 

It’s easy to qualify something like alcoholism as an addiction. It checks all the boxes. It’s compulsive: people become compelled to drink alcohol. It becomes chronic if left unchecked: people consume alcohol regularly, in large quantities. It has a component of physiological and psychological need. The physiological component is more easily understood in terms of withdrawal, but the psychological necessity to drink is a similarly large problem. 

One could say that writing, under certain circumstances for certain individuals, could qualify as an addiction. Why? It can be compulsive. I often feel compelled to write. It is most certainly chronic, in me and in many people. We write every day, for hours at a time. I personally have been doing this for over ten years of my life. And I feel a psychological need to write. When I don’t write, I feel pretty awful. Sometimes, I’m unable to sleep, because my dreams become more vivid. I suffer from frequent distraction.

Now, you could say that all of these “withdrawal” symptoms are in my head. And, I don’t know, you might be right. I’ve never had a brain scan that proves any of the things I just listed. But I know that I feel pretty crappy when I don’t write even for a day. Do I have a writing addiction? Based on the definition Merriam-Webster presents, I could well. 

 

The definition does not imply a value on addiction.

Let’s take a step back and note one thing. While the definition states the meaning of an addiction, it doesn’t imply a value on being addicted. In other words, it doesn’t say whether being addicted to something is a “good” or a “bad” thing. In society, though, we invariably qualify addictions as “bad” things. What reasons lie behind this qualification? Is it possible to have a “good” or “productive” addiction? Let’s explore. 

a typewriter symbolizing writing

It’s pretty easy to see why society considers addictions like alcoholism or a narcotics addiction dangerous and “bad.” In the case of narcotics, the addiction involves the use of illegal substances, which means that it endangers the addicted individual’s life under the law. In the case of alcoholism, alcohol abuse commonly, though not always, can cause instances of inappropriate, violent, or disorderly behavior that can endanger the addicted individual’s physical safety as well as their relationships with others. Moreover, substance-involved addictions require the spending of money on the substance in question, meaning that they can endanger a person’s financial well-being and that of their family.

It’s also easy to see, studying the backdrop of Western civilization, why we view substance addictions as “bad.” Addiction is the antithesis of self-control and restraint, which Greco-Roman philosophy emphasize as important qualities in a “good” and “moral” man. Christian philosophy, likewise, emphasizes the importance of rejecting temptation, especially in the form of physical indulgence and excess. Since Greco-Roman and Christian philosophy form the two base tenets of American moralization, we’re predisposed to view addiction as a negative. 

 

And, like I said, many types of addiction have clear negative consequences. Plenty of activity addictions — like stealing or driving recklessly — are just as negative as substance addictions, and can cause just as many negative effects on an individual’s life, their relationships, and their livelihood, as well as their standing under the law. They also demonstrate the same lack of self-restraint.

Others are not so clear. Take the little-understood case of “sex addiction.” Here, it’s difficult to qualify where the line lies. According to the definition of addiction, anyone who had a compulsive urge to engage in chronic sexual activity and felt physiologically or psychologically bad for not engaging in sexual activity would suffer from a sex addiction. But in terms of medical advice, the definition is stated in such a way that it becomes clear that doctors refer only to sexual activity that endangers an individual’s well-being as a sex addiction. If, for example, that individual’s day-to-day habits are being affected, if that individual’s relationships with others are being affected, then the individual suffers from a sex addiction. But if we used the Merriam-Webster definition, a great many people would suffer from a sex addiction simply on the basis that sex is a human need. 

 

a burning cigarette signifying addiction

Okay, let’s agree to draw a line and treat writing as we’d treat sex. We’ll draw a line between “addictive behavior” and “addiction.” Addictive behavior will be any type of behavior fitting the dictionary definition of addiction, while addiction will be that same type of behavior — but only if it has negative consequences on a person’s well-being, their relationships with others, their life, and/or their livelihood. So is writing an addiction? Or, rather, can writing be an addiction? I’ll give you two scenarios. 

I draw one direct from my life. I write every day, for about five hours a day. That’s around 4,000 words-ish, and it depends on whether I also work on one of my fiction projects in addition to writing on the blog. I also have a (at least perceived) need to write. Therefore, my writing habit qualifies as “addictive behavior.” 

But I would not say that I suffer from a writing addiction, because I don’t believe that my writing has ill effects on my life, my livelihood (well, okay, maybe I could be doing something more lucrative with my time), my relationship with others, or my standing under the law (let’s hope). 

Let’s look at someone we’ll call, I don’t know, Jay. Jay also writes every day. But he writes eight hours a day, around 10,000 words. Sometimes, he writes until midnight. Often, he forgets to eat his meals because he’s writing so much. And his wife gets mad at him because he never pays attention to her. He only works on his writing. In order to cope with the fatigue he suffers from writing so much, he’s started taking narcotics.

This is an example of addictive behavior turned into addiction. All right? The man simply writes too much. He overworks himself. He might produce great work in the process — writers have been known to — but he does so at personal cost. His wife might divorce him. He might suffer liver failure later in life from taking all those substances. Or, in the short term, he might burn himself out. If Jay wants to deal with his writing addiction, he should talk to a therapist and work through the reasons he feels compelled to write. Maybe it’s tied to a deeper “addiction” to success. Or maybe he suffers from underlying depression that’s driven him to seek an outlet, only the outlet has become unhealthy.  

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a person typing symbolizing writing

Writers are known to disregard their health in their pursuit of words. 

“I’m guilty of this, too. I don’t exercise as often as I should because I’m busy writing, and every now and then I forget to take a meal. But when this happens, I check back, reset, and make sure I get it right the next time. Because I don’t want my pursuit of words to become the overwhelming focus of my life. I don’t want it to become an addiction. Because I would suffer for that. I would turn to coping mechanisms that wouldn’t be healthy. I would alienate the people I love. 

So if you’re a writer who writes a lot, like me, take the time to watch yourself. Police your behavior a little. And especially if you’re someone like me who suffers from other mental health issues that can cause great shifts in mood and productivity, watch yourself. Be careful and be aware of the reasons why you’re writing. Don’t let your habits become addictions.

But do foster the habits. A writing habit is a great thing to have, not only from the standpoint of literary success but also from the standpoint of therapy. Writing can be and is therapeutic. There are studies showing that writing can hold certain mental health conditions at bay, when used properly as a tool. I want to write. And I want you to write. The world wants our words. But our words are only worth the risk if we’re feeling good and happy in the process. 

Stephen King puts it best in On Writing. 

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

 

If you enjoyed this reflection…

Tell me what you think in the comments. Is writing an addiction? Can it become an addiction? I’d love to hear your voice on the matter.

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