Inside the Writer’s Mind — Mark Twain
By David Silverman, LMFT
The way I view a writer’s personality is shaped in part by being a writer, a journalist, and a TV/Film writer, and by studying the lives of writers, reading their biographies, and studying their books, plays and films. Now I specialize in treating writers and other creative individuals in my private practice.
What is a writer’s personality? On the surface no two writers seem alike. However, I’ve noticed that most writers (not all) seem to display a matrix of personality traits and experiences. Some of those traits include; a tendency toward introversion, shyness, a studious nature, a strong goal orientation, ability to empathize, an intuitive thought process, perseverance, and extreme high productivity.
Almost all writers’ day-to-day existence is made up of spending up to ten hours a day in complete solitude, living inside their heads and staring into a computer screen creating something from nothing. These daily activities would not sit well with most extroverts, who require more social stimulus and thrive in the company of others.
Many of the writers I’ve talked with, or treated, have told me they feel like they fit into the category of “highly sensitive persons” or HSPs. Those of you familiar with Elaine Aron’s work on the subject will recognize many of the above listed traits as “highly sensitive.” Writer’s lives almost always involve long term self-sacrifice, since they rarely get discovered after their first novel, play, poem or screenplay. Include the stress that comes with self-sacrifice, and the results of that stress; damage done to relationships, financial crises, and a tendency to self-medicate which can lead to full-blown addictions.
Many writers could also be characterized as adopting a bohemian existence, or a lavish lifestyle, in addition to various personal eccentricities, and odd habits, drinking or drug problems, and possibly an array of neuroses, and sometimes serious mental disorders.
Of course, some writers manage to keep more balance and moderation in their day-to-day lives. Some writers may be able to shift into a somewhat more extroverted state when they’re not writing, and around others. Other writers may not be able to shift gears that way.
Many actors are painfully shy and only “come alive” on stage. In the same way, writers who are sensitive and introverted can “come alive” occasionally, and be extremely outspoken, or even carry on quite flamboyantly in social circles and in the media.
After studying the lives of many writers in depth, including Mark Twain, Franz Kafka, George S. Kaufman (who wrote Marx Brothers’ films) and Woody Allen, I’ve noticed some early characteristics, abilities and needs that tend to make a person more apt to become a writer.
In the early years, back in their families of origin, writers develop a strong need for attention, starting with their mothers. There are many circumstances that play into this need. Sometimes a child is a middle child, who competes for, and feels starved for attention.
I’ve chosen to focus on Samuel Clemens’s (Mark Twain’s) life story to demonstrate how certain dynamics that make for a driven and productive writer can evolve out of their family dynamics and other early interpersonal relationships.
Clemens was born premature, the sixth of seven children to his mother Olivia Langdon. Being a sickly child for a few years, he became used to constant attention from his mother. Olivia was considered to be in a loveless marriage, so her affections were focused on her children, and especially young Sam.
During Sam’s childhood, he loved spending time with an uncle who was known for telling funny stories, or “whoppers.” At three years of age, Sam began to mimic his uncle and to make up his own “whoppers.”
Then his younger brother was born and Olivia focused on her seventh child, which left Sam virtually further starved for her attention, and affection. Around the same time, his father began travelling, trying to sell his family’s real estate.
According to psychologist Erik Erikson, it’s during these early years children are thought to develop a sense of trust, or mistrust, generally about their world. Sam’s mother could not keep up the levels of attention Sam was used to after her husband left, and she had another son to take care of.
It’s likely that Sam felt somewhat abandoned, leaving him with a general sense of mistrust about his world. It’s no surprise that Sam blossoms into a major skeptic as a writer, taking pot shots at politics and religion, making fun of authority figures while championing the common man. Humorists are generally skeptics by nature, and satire is all about finding faults (especially in the “high and mighty”) and exploiting them for laughs.
Sam’s needs for constant attention led him to become what they called a “show off,” even in his middle childhood. After gaining a following as a storyteller, he wrote his first short story (while still a young child) called Jim Wolfe and his Cats.
His childhood curiosity about pirates, bandits and riverboats will all become fodder for his humorous novels. At 18 he worked as a typesetter and reporter for some local newspapers. Not long after that, he made friends with a circle of like-minded writers who worked around San Francisco at that time, including other promising humorists, Bret Harte and Artemus Ward. They became a kind of reference group for him, helping him to solidify his identity as a professional writer.
Ward convinced Clemens to add his short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County to a collection of short stories published that year. Sam and Bret Harte became lifelong friends (and foes), and they later collaborated on Luck of Roaring Camp.
Always the show-off, grown-up Sam (famous author of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer) became known for wearing ostentatious white suits (like another writer, Tom Wolfe). As an adult, he always brandished a cigar, drank to excess, and eventually lectured to crowds of thousands.
In reading about other authors, I found some similar early dynamics; a strong need for attention, coupled with a curiosity about storytelling, keen powers of observation, and an ease and confidence in playing with words.
Often, the shyness, or introversion, when coupled with the need for attention, leads writers to learn to express themselves on paper, sitting safely behind a typewriter or computer. Certainly most of the comedy writers I’ve known and studied, have wanted to be funny, but had to hide behind their words.
When writers develop and practice their skill, playing with words, they are able to develop their own style of writing, and in the process, find their own voice.
Often writers work at jobs like journalism, or advertising, where they can hone their skills and develop their unique voices. They meet like-minded people (as Sam did with Ward and Harte) who can offer support, criticism, and share in their successes.
Writers tend to seek out other writers who become their models, mentors, competitors, friends, and supporters. Above all, they’re driven by a need for attention, to show off, to be productive, and to create stories that thrill us, scare us, inspire us, make us laugh or cry, or simply to entertain us.
Some writers are truly extremely shy or introverted (like Kafka or Kaufman), whereas some are able to shift, and live in both worlds – with occasional bouts of extroversion (like Mark Twain, during his lectures), but generally spend most of their lives creating, and writing inside their inner words, where the writing process generally happens.
While not all writers display the exact same personality traits, it seems they share many common characteristics –perhaps the most important, the ability to thrive in isolation. Writers spend long, difficult hours alone with their thoughts, writing, and rewriting endlessly.
They are driven to express themselves, and have a strong need for attention that is traceable to their childhoods. They come up against rejection, creative blocks, and long hard odds, but they persist. To do so, they must have an unyielding belief in their abilities, and a sense of hope – that they will eventually be recognized and rewarded for their efforts.
David Silverman, M.A., LMFT, treats creative and highly sensitive individuals in private practice in LA. He received training at Stanford University and Antioch University. Having experienced the rejection, stress, creative blocks, paralyzing perfectionism and career reversals over a twenty-five year career as a writer in Film/TV, he’s uniquely suited to work with gifted, creative and sensitive clients experiencing anxiety, addiction or depression. David can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 310.850.4707.
Image credit: Creative Commons Mark Twain1907, 1907 by FotoGuy49057, is licensed under CC By 2.0
Mark Twain 1907