Writing as a mental illness

Christmas drives me crazy.

I know I sound like Ms. Scrooge, but as the holiday season comes around and everyone else is making merry and decorating their trees and going to parties, here’s what goes through the mind of a novelist under deadline: 

“What?  I’m supposed to interrupt my writing to go SHOPPING?”

It’s not that I don’t love Christmas.  It’s just that there’s so much stuff that has to be done, and it distracts me from the book I should be working on.  I once suggested, a bit desperately, to my husband, “Let’s forget about giving any gifts this year and just have a nice dinner out.”  

That did not go over well.

Every year, as I frantically toss tinsel on a Christmas tree that’s already turned brown because I’ve been too busy to water it, I tell myself, “Someday it will be different.  Someday I’m going to enjoy a normal Christmas with no deadline hanging over me.  I’ll bake cookies and fruitcakes and wrap presents.  I’ll compose elaborate five-page Christmas letters.  I’ll transform the house into a holiday wonderland.  I’ll throw a party for 100.  Someday, I’ll actually look forward to it!”

I’ve been saying that for years.  So far, “someday” hasn’t arrived.

I’m beginning to think that being a writer is a mental illness that deserves its own DSM classification, perhaps a sub-category under Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders: “Symptoms include anxiety dreams, inability to relax, intermittent feelings of inadequacy alternating with delusions of grandeur, hypersensitivity to criticism, and an abnormal preoccupation with people who don’t even exist.”

Oh, how I would welcome such a diagnosis.  Because then, when my family and friends complain that I’m not getting into the Christmas spirit, I could tell them, “I can’t help it.  I’m mentally ill.”



22 replies
  1. ec
    ec says:

    In theory, that would be a fine solution, but we’d probably get two years’ of Yuletide peace and solitude before some smartass pharmacology genius invented a red-and-green pill for it.

  2. knaster
    knaster says:

    Hi Tess,

    We are right in the middle our our very first “Gerritsen-sational” holiday party here and all of us are having a great time. We decided to log onto your blog and see what the Author of the Year is doing.
    Writing is more mental than physical, but it comes with the territory. Putting pen to paper is easy. Putting the thought into your hand to put it on paper is the hard part.
    All of us here want to wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas, and a very happy and healthy New Year. We love you!

    oh, and by the way, Dr. Burns just came up with a joke in regards to your blog……
    “Did you hear about the family that was so poor at Christmas and could not afford tinsel for the tree, so they waited for Grandpa to sneeze?”
    That’s a neurologist for you…always getting on someone’s nerves!

  3. Joshua James
    Joshua James says:

    I feel your pain . . . it’s our first Christmas with our child, and all I seem to think about are my deadlines – LOL!

    It’s our nature, it’s why we’re good at what we do, and the big thing is to find some way to make peace with it, right?

    Although I’m lucky, as that my wife and I don’t really do the gift thing for Christmas . . .

  4. bob k
    bob k says:

    Oh Tess,

    If it was in the DSM (and yes – it does seem to share some similarities with OCD) – they would find a pill for it – and then where would your loyal readers be?

    You’d be there enjoying a “normal” Christmas, enjoying life with your husband, kids and donkeys and having a grand time – and we’d stuck People magazine and Law & Order re-runs for entertainment!

    I suppose we would be totally selfish though if we hope they never find a “cure” for your problem…

  5. Amy MacKinnon
    Amy MacKinnon says:

    Tess, yes, yes, of course it’s a mental illness,a subcategory of OCD I think. I discovered last night that I no longer enjoy any activity — none — other than writing. And enjoy must be understood as a condition that includes: crippling anxiety, euphoria, anxious/sleepless nights, bliss, and severe paranoia.

    I’ve never been so happy.

  6. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    Its known as WDD or Writers Deficit Disorder, LOL. Cure wise, there isnt one yet although scientists beleive that they have been making something of a breakthrough with Internet shopping for all the writers needs.

    Hope everything goes well and if you can manage it perhaps an email interview this year (or we can do Manchester if you feel like a stop off after the official tour). Hope everything goes well for you and yours and perhaps see about getting a gingerbread farm made so you can “Godzilla” or Gojira through it when the stress hits. LOL

    Have fun and the same to all,


  7. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:


    You could always hire my ex-wife to do your shopping. She’s a pro! 😉

    Happy writing and happy holidays!

  8. MoeKay
    MoeKay says:

    Hi Tess:

    I feel like I should help you with your Christmas shopping, since you certainly helped me with mine this year. It all started when I stumbled upon Harvest on a book cart at my local library earlier this year. I liked it so much that I decided to read all your books in order (only skipping Gravity, because the subject matter didn’t interest me).

    I’m now up to Vanish and am in awe of the way you write. I do very little Christmas shopping any more, but I bought The Mephisto Club for a friend who I knew had already bought and read The Bone Garden, because I had suggested the book to her. I got my secretary several books for Christmas, including Harvest, which I came to find out she had already read. So I promised her that right after the holidays, when all the madness is over, I will get her Life Support.

    Over the years, I have slowly but steadily managed to extricate myself from almost all Christmas gift giving. It has been so liberating! My husband and I decided to stop exchanging Christmas gifts several years ago. We are so much more relaxed and able to really enjoy the true spirit of the holidays without all the gift-giving frenzy. Now you’ll have to excuse me because I’ve got to get back to my new best friends, Maura and Jane.

    Merry Christmas, Tess!


  9. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    Hey Tess…!

    Don’t feel bad. I’ve had this anxious feeling in my chest for the past few days, and I couldn’t tell what it was for… did I forget to buy someone a present? maybe I forgot to pay a bill? have I eaten recently? The anxious feeling wouldn’t go away, and I kept running through all viable possibilities, but to no avail…

    Until I read your post, and I realized it was because I wasn’t working on my book!

    I guess we’ll just all have to go a little (more) crazy in the name of the holiday!

    Happy Christmas!

  10. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    at the risk of sounding maudlin i will say that at this time of year all i care about is that my family can get together and have a nice time-my son,who is a man of very few words said to me today on his way to work-“hey dad,thanksgiving is much better-we just hang out together and don’t have to worry about any damn presents”

  11. Josephine Damian
    Josephine Damian says:

    After reading a book called “Simplify Your Life” I decided never again to participate in the holidays. Yes, I send out a few cards to immediatefamily, but that’s it – no cooking, decorating, presents, traveling – NOTHING! And I’m all the happier and, more important less stressed.

    Tess, look into temporal lobe epilepsy and Geschwind symdrome – a lots of famously prolific writers have/had it – they have a love affair, not a war with the blank page – and writer’s block just doesn’t exist – hypergraphia is one of the symptoms.

    I always divide writers into two categories – those with TLE and those who don’t have it.

  12. clare
    clare says:

    LOL glad I’m not the only one that has ‘episodes’ during the build-up to Christmas.

    I waver drastically between giggly pleasure, stressed shopping (how I ask you can anyone like shopping?!), paniced DIY – because after a years delay it just can’t wait another day!, teary wailing and a multitude of inbetweens.

    But it’s nearly here and my Baileys asures me everything is just fine if not nearing perfection 😉 I’m off in a bit to make shortbread and munch choccy-chips.

    Hope everyone here has a wonderful holiday.

  13. Craig
    Craig says:

    Well, from one mental patient to another I can tell you that this can be a most stressful time if you let it get to you but there are steps you can take. [Please disregard the following if children are involved.] Humphrey Bogart had it right in The Caine Mutiny. [paraphrased] There are four ways to do something: the right way, the wrong way, the navy way and my way. For some families you might get away with not exchanging gifts but not in my mercenary family. I take notes and shop the year round and put the gifts up. My wife received a lovely 1920s antique mission bookcase this year that I purchased in March and stored away. I buy for other family members in the same fashion, birthdays included. I might wait to the last minute for a stocking stuffer or two. I might also mention that I hate crowds and malls are cultural voids. The end result is that I now have time for my favorite spectator sports–other people’s panic. I love hanging out at my bookstore watching clueless parents [mostly fathers] pleading for help because they spent one weekend too many on the golf course. It’s great fun!!

  14. Norris Marshall
    Norris Marshall says:

    Merry Christmas Tess, to you and all your fans. Thank you for a wonderful and unique reading experience this year.

  15. therese
    therese says:

    Happy Holidays!
    I love Christmas and the bustle but it’s because I’m disgustingly efficient and learned the hard way many, many years ago.

    First, everything had to be in the mail two weeks before Christmas because we lived out of town. Second, there was no one around to get into the hustle and no money for the bustle. Third: It was pretty damn boring and lonely.

    I dropped pages and outline in the mail to my agent Dec. 1st, and I have always revived all my writing juices on Dec 26th because that’s the day of nothing more to do but put up my feet and write while there is still tons of festive food stocked for the week. The three weeks break is my habit, nothing but idea jotting and dreaming. I call it fueling the creative flow.

    There’s no issues anymore for me with mailing presents because all are either, old enough to only want money, poor enough to request no gifts from us or – dead. It puts a different perspective on things.

    I was fortunate to be part of a family that never stressed about gifts during the holidays and while we do all prefer Thanksgiving because of the food, fun and laughter only requirements, I prefer Christmas because carving a turkey is a real mess and so Christmas is smorgasbord.

    Twenty people were in my home to share the joys of Christmas and it was awesome – for the first time in my life – to host the event. While it’s a bit weird to be part of the older generation of the family, it was great fun.

    I also know, it’s going to be a wonderful new year.

  16. Dan Williams
    Dan Williams says:

    Hi Tess.
    I’m new to your site.
    I’m wondering if, as Christmas approaches, you might like to hire a personal assistant, maybe a local high school student, who could run some errands for you and wouldn’t cost a preverbial arm or leg. You might like to keep a list of names and addresses so the PA could send out your Christmas cards after you sign them. Your PA could buy your Xmas Tree and decorate it, and you could approve it or ask for some changes, as you liked. Your PA could contact a catering company and they could arrange a hall for your party, all the food and drinks, all the invitations, and even the entertainment, if you had a Disc Jockey, or a party-event planner. A PA seems like a nice solution for you since you want Christmas things done but you don’t necessarily want to do them all yourself. Your PA could also purchase your gifts and have them wrapped. She could send out gift baskets, she could do your grocery shopping and buy your wines and spirits. Sounds like a cool job, huh? I wonder how many local high school young women would jump at the chance to get a little business like this going? Maybe you could even help her get a second client!
    Anyway, just a thought.

  17. Allison Brennan
    Allison Brennan says:

    Wait . . . you mean, we’re supposed to water the tree???

    I turned in copy edits on 12/17 and took a break from writing. Not that I should have–I have a deadline in 5 weeks. But I wanted to enjoy Christmas with the kids, and figure I can panic after New Years.

  18. JanetK
    JanetK says:

    A couple of years ago my husband and I had a very bad Christmas tree-buying episode. (Think lots of snow on steep farm roads and unseen rocks in middle of roads.)

    Soon after Christmas we caught each other eyeing the 80% off sales. With minimal discussion, we bought an artificial tree and I am shocked at how little I miss a real one. Maybe it’s a sign of advancing age, but getting down on my creaky knees to water a tree just isn’t something I want to do any longer.

    Good luck with your writing, Tess! May January bring you many uninterrupted hours in which to work.

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