The thin-skinned writer

The thin-skinned writer
Posted 2 May 2013 by Matt Haig

I have a thin skin.


I think it comes from the fact that I suffer from depression from time to time. I had a breakdown years ago. And if the stone falls hard enough the ripples last a lifetime.


I woke up last Sunday and felt dark wisps around my head, that ominous life-is-fear feeling. But then, after a morning with the best four-year-old girl in the world, it subsided. (The way out is never through yourself.)

Don't get me wrong. Though I am a neurotic person, I enjoy life immensely much of the time. I enjoy my friends and family. I enjoy books and poems and chatting to people online. I can look at an empty crisp packet foxtrot along in the breeze and find it the most miraculous thing, because everything is a miracle if you think about it hard enough.


And really, my kind of depression isn't done justice by the word depression. The word depression makes me think of a flat tyre, something punctured and unmoving. The depression I have known is more like an intense, inner hurricane, that sometimes whisks me up into Oz or carries me far into the sea. At its worst you find yourself wishing, desperately, for any other affliction, any physical pain, because the mind is infinite, and its torments - when they happen - can be equally infinite.


Yet, as Graham Greene and thousands of others before him said, that pain is a useful bank from which to draw out creativity. That sounds dark. Let's replace 'pain' with 'feeling'.


It is unfashionable to say that now. But I believe one of the jobs of a writer is to feel life and then report on feelings. Fiction may be fantastical, but it is also emotional reportage. (Non-fiction = external truths. Fiction = internal ones. Discuss.)


The paradox is that while having a thin skin might make for better writing, it is not good for the process of being published. I have a new book out next week. There will be reviews. The bad ones will trouble me more than they should. Just as that one tiny hair you find in your peanut butter makes you want to throw away the whole jar.


As The Humans is the most personal thing I've written, and encapsulates everything I believe in, I am even more hyper-sensitive than normal.


But would I go along to a magical mind spa and ask for a skin-thickening treatment? Probably not. You need to feel life's terror to feel its wonder.


And I feel it today, actually, right now, on what could seem like quite a grey overcast afternoon. I feel the sheer unfathomable marvel that is this strange life we have, here on Earth, the seven billion of us, clustered in our towns and cities on this planet, the 'pale blue dot' as Carl Sagan called it, spending our allotted 30,000 days as best we can, in glorious insignificance.


I like to feel the force of that miracle. I like to burrow deep into this life, and explore it through the magic of words and the magic of human beings (and the magic of peanut butter sandwiches). And I am glad to feel every tumultuous second of it, and glad for the fact that when I walk into the vast room with all the Tintorettos in it in the National Gallery my skin literally tingles, and my heart palpitates, and I am glad for the synaesthesia that means when I read Emily Dickinson or Mark Twain my mind feels actual warmth from those old American words.




That is what it is about.


People place so much value on thought, but feeling is as essential. I want to read books that make me laugh and cry and fear and hope and punch the air in triumph. I want a book to hug me or grab me by the scruff of my neck. I don't even mind if it punches me in the gut. Because we are here to feel.


Yes, I am too tender to the touch and shouldn't worry about what people think. Yes, even as I write this blog I am thinking I am laying myself too bare and that I should have written that moderately controversial list about e-books I was going to write.


But I want life.


I want to read it and write it and feel it and live it.


I want, for as much of the time as possible in this blink-of-an-eye existence we have, to feel all that can be felt.


This post makes me angry, so very angry and thankful at the same time. It's the old "you have to feel the bad with the good or you don't feel at all" clichée, expressed in a way that is so honest it hurts. For me, this is dangerous thinking, because I use it to convince myself I don't need actual therapy, when I clearly know on some level that I do. This is the angry part.

For the same reason, I desperately want to believe. It would mean that there is nothing wrong with me, that I don't need fixing, that all creative people are like this and I am just like them, that I'm not as broken and wrong as I feel sometimes. And there we have the thankful part.

I'm not sure what I'm saying with this, if I am saying anything. You said somewhere else you wanted to read (and presumably write?) books that touch people, make them cry and laugh, punch them in the gut. Well, I've never read any of your books (thinking about doing so now), but this entry just did it for me. Honesty for honesty, and I could not not react to a punch like this.

Good luck and fortune for The Humans.

26 May 2013

Inspirational Matt, a fantastic post. I hope 'The Humans' finds the success it deserves!

Steven McKinnon
22 May 2013

Amazingly well-written and poignant article. Insightful. Something that will help me, and others, be truer to our craft. Hats off you.

kris Kramer
15 May 2013

I am with you. Thicker skin would make us into crocodiles. Life would glance off the surface. We would have sharp teeth and personally, I wouldn't want to ever use them. As crocodiles, rather than humans, we would be quite terrible. We wouldn't feel very much, and if we couldn't use our teeth we would always go hungry. x

Jess Richards
7 May 2013

Thank you, and just in time, too. I've been dealing with similar issues. It helps to see them recognized in beautiful language.

Gwen Ellery
5 May 2013

This resonates entirely with me and when it comes to it I would not really want to thicken my skin either. Writing about being alive is the best thing ever. Good luck with the new book.

Alison Lock
4 May 2013

This is beautifully written and profoundly evocative. Thank you for sharing, it really meant something, and to me that is what the best writing is about. I wish you all the best for your book.

sarah elwell
3 May 2013

I love to feel when I write. Cry over my stories. Laugh at my quirky characters. But when I'm on anti-depressants, it kills my creativity. I'm numb. Unable to feel. Unable to express, except for my occasional blank stare. As much as I hate depression, I'm a better writer because of it. I've suffered throughout my life wishing the emotional pain would go away and my foot would just hurt. Great article. Thanks for telling how it is, and I totally relate to being thin skinned. One star reviews devastate me. Five stars elate me. I'm bipolar according to the stars.

3 May 2013

Yes. Thank you. It's good to learn another reason why we have to do it, even when it's painful and scary. I think I may get out of bed now (at 1:00 in the afternoon) and see what I might have to report. A million thanks for that. :)

3 May 2013

Awesome and very encouraging article, Matt. There are a lot of writers out there in the same boat as you (yours truly included).

Thank you!

Ed Godwin
3 May 2013

Just brilliant - and quite astonishingly timely for me at the point I am at with my own writing. Synchronicity methinks. Thanks for this Matt - without even knowing it you have answered an important question I posed to myself about my book in progress just this morning!
Great piece x

Heather Hill
3 May 2013

Thank you for this - as a thin-skinned writer myself, I resonated with a lot of it. Good luck with your book - the title sounds intriguing.

2 May 2013

You know, you can do both. This blog and the moderately controversial list about e-books. I'd like to read it.

Ellen Oliver
2 May 2013

Thank you Matt.

Lesley Martin
2 May 2013

So beautifully said, Matt. =) You never fail to touch me when you open yourself up this way. Today, I feel like someone understands.

India Drummond
2 May 2013

I always feel when I write. If I didn't feel my thoughts would be dull and so would my novel words.

Thanks for sharing.

I also feel when I read bad reviews of my fiction. I can't call it my work because it's not like a job to me. I enjoy what I do and I just want to think that everyone else enjoys my books too.

Deluded. lol

Suzanne Korb
2 May 2013

I think you just switched on a lightbulb in my head. I have a thin skin - but I pretend to be thick-skinned. That prevents me from putting more feeling into my writing. I think I protect the words I write, I defend my characters and keep them from feeling anguish and fear and pain. No wonder my writing isn't always working.

Thank you for sharing - because it makes new writers like us feel a bit brave about showing some of our feelings too.

Chitra Soundar
2 May 2013

Wish I'd read this 20 years ago when I was using depression as an excuse to hide from the world and not create. Or 10 years ago when I used marriage and kids as an excuse not to create. No, I have to read it now after a twenty year hard road of learning to use my depression and feelings as tools of the job and finding that dark feelings can come out of me as light creations. I wouldn't have done it any other way.

From this little sample of your writing I'm sure the reviews will be great. And if they're not, what do critics know anyway.

Peter Bangs
2 May 2013

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