Toxic People: Why So Many Writers Just Can’t Say No
You don’t make friends with people so much as you try to swallow them whole, and then regurgitate them back out onto paper.
— The Writer’s Husband
I’m the writer, and the quote above is from my husband. It might sound funny now, but at the time I was really offended that he would say such a thing. I wasn’t some smarmy writer worming my way into inner circles, drinking in people and conversations only to skewer them later in my fiction…was I?
But I had to admit, he had a point.
Whenever I met someone who I thought of as “a person of interest” I pursued them with every tool in my arsenal. I used charm and flattery, peppered them with dozens of questions, and learned everything I could about the topics that drew them in. Whatever fascinated them, fascinated me. At least, for a little while.
And then, inevitably, I would find that person — disguised and transformed in some way — cropping up in the latest book I was writing.
I never skewered anyone so I didn’t feel guilty about that. My treatment of the person of interest in my writing wasn’t the problem. The difficulties arose from the type of people who attracted my interest. Early on I found that interesting people, much of the time, have issues.
The first time I became aware that maybe, just possibly, not everyone else on earth was hopelessly drawn to narcissists, megalomaniacs, and other emotionally damaged people, I was in a lecture in my Beat Generation literature class in college. The professor was discussing that famous quote from Kerouac:
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.
He said that Kerouac put up with a lot from his friend Neal Cassady, who served as the protagonist in the iconic book that made Kerouac famous, On the Road. Cassady manipulated and used Kerouac and others in a variety of ways that ranged from inconsiderate to downright shameful. As our professor was detailing Cassady’s exploits — stealing, womanizing, heavy drug use — I couldn’t stop thinking about someone I knew very well. The description fit him to the letter. Not only was he still in my life as a friend, but I had already gone through the nightmare of a long-term romantic relationship with him.
My professor said he couldn’t grasp why Kerouac would tolerate such life-wrecking behavior from anyone. But I got it. I totally got it.
Cassady was interesting.
As I got older I moved through more people and I learned more lessons. There was the friend who was a severe alcoholic who taught me that, no, he would not stop driving drunk no matter how many times he went to jail. Then there was the sociopathic boss who taught me that true lunacy can go undetected, and in fact, even be rewarded in the business world. There was another woman I met who showed me that pathological liars will cling to their lies like the last lifeboat off the Titanic. And a man who believed that all the insects on earth are spies from another planet, each tiny bug equipped with its very own video camera, recording all the time.
Somewhere in my early 30s I realized there was a pattern. Up until that time I had explained away my penchant for unbalanced people as one of the quirks that came along with being a writer. Except, now I was meeting other writers, LOTS of other writers, and I couldn’t help but notice that not all of them had this same pattern going on in their lives. But some of them did. And the ones who did experienced eerily similar symptoms from the process of getting to know a “person of interest” that I did.
There was that initial first spark, the glimpse of a highly original intelligence in the person. The revealing of a steel-willed independence, an unparalleled lust for life. The dark side showed itself immediately, and without shame, sometimes without remorse. The eyes of a person of interest were always hypnotic, piercing and tranquil at the same time. The person seemed to be drawn in bold strokes, their motivations underscored with heavy black lines. There was no mistaking the treasure just stumbled upon…this person was a real character.
Or, a character in real life.
Unfortunately, as I eventually learned, bringing a person like this into the writer’s real life always comes at a price.
But back to the question at hand: Why was it only some writers who went through this like I did? Well, there was one thing we all had in common.
In my late 30s now, and after a few years of working as a writing coach, I can tell you that writers fall anywhere on the spectrum from extremely rational to highly intuitive. And those who are highly intuitive usually have a strong talent for healing and an inherent gift for empathy. Due to this wide streak of healer/empathy quality, highly intuitive people attract people who are in need of healing. And no one is more in need of this than someone who is emotionally damaged.
Highly intuitive writers learn from a young age to use their writing to buffer, interpret, and communicate with the world. We turn people into characters and events into material to deal with it in one of the best ways we know how — from a distance, with all of our raw emotional ebb and flow poured into our safety net of art and language.
This is why some writers, like me, attract the most challenging people. The people who are suffering mentally, or acting out in their physical reality. The people who will most probably be taken down by their fatal flaw, just like in a story. The people who “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
This is not to say that it’s a good idea to let every disturbed person into your life. After almost 25 years of practice, I’ve finally learned how to say no, hold healthy boundaries, and seek appropriate relationships with stable people. It took a long time and a lot of personal work. I learned the difference between “intense” and “way too extreme.” I can now clock that piercing, hypnotic gaze the second it hits me and send Rasputin on his way. But they still show up, and they probably always will. Just like I see something in them, they see something in me.
If you are a highly intuitive writer, or a healer, or an empath, or just a very compassionate soul, you will more than likely run into these same people and have the same experience I do. The most helpful approach is to know that it’s not a problem with you, it’s not something you’re doing wrong. It’s not that you’re “too nice” or “too sensitive.” It’s that you were born with a certain set of traits and talents, gifts that were meant to be used to help heal people. The key is to consciously use those gifts in a constructive, healthy way, like through your writing or other artistic pursuits and professional work where boundaries can be held firmly in place.
If someone would work much better as a character in your novel, rather than as a “person of interest” in your real life, it’s time to let them go. Not everyone has to make a crazy, interesting mess of their life to earn a place of distinction in yours.