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Writers and Narcissism

I think writers are the most narcissistic people. Well, I mustn’t say this, I like many of them, a great many of my friends are writers.

Sylvia Plath


Poetry as Self-Love

Are writers narcissists? Narcissists don’t really depend on anyone apart from themselves, they have an idealised self-sufficiency, beneath that an anger and envy, and below that a furious need for loving care or admiration. There is a selfishness of the artistic temperament, one needs space to write, we are mostly turned inwards to ‘radio me’, we litter our speech with the pronoun ‘I’ and deal with a lot of self-preoccupation in order to find the words, and a way of words, that we call upon for delivery.

The act of writing is an advection of self-discovery, and confessional writing is an exemplary charting of a continual ‘born again’ process. Narcissism is an unavoidable tunnel on that route, autonomy takes precedent over shame and the writer concentrates on the secure sense of creative self in relation to a responsive other.

Self-descriptive writing is a valid diagnostic tool of narcissism. Many psychotherapists regard narcissism as a sturdy positive at certain junctures in life. Narcissists, like most writers, are field-dependent and need to attune to the world so that immediate environment is taken as reflection, and in fact as inextricable aspects of one’s self.

Narcissism concerns the regarding self in the foreground of awareness, instead of the self blotting comfortably into the background. This examination of life is how writers produce material. To experience the reach of the imagination, to delve into the arena of language, and to gain a sense of the shape and texture of human personal experience as it is articulated there – we need to spend some time in that house of mirrors. Even if it’s just a temporary letting that we accommodate, in order to fixate and fuel inspiration, we need to focus on ourselves first.  As writers, if we do not understand ourselves, we will have trouble understanding anyone else.


Now to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity.  I ryhme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing

– Seamus Heaney, ‘Personal Helicon’


Heaney’s ‘Personal Helicon’ discloses that he writes poetry in order ‘to set the darkness echoing’, highlighting how personal fears must boomerang with force. He returns to a well in Ireland that he visited as a boy, but as an adult it offers back its reflection. His personal Helicon, the sacred hill of nine muses, offers inspiration to write poetry from its fountains, here also revealing his self-examining reasons for writing his poetry. To reach this state of mind he merges all of the five senses, invokes pictures of synthesia, which means that in a hearing of sound one can induce a colour, a colour can invoke a smell, until he completely embodies the object. The well of inspiration brims with two things: reflection and echo – a mix of the mysterious and a turning of the self inwards, which is what ultimately urges a poet to write.


Narcissist’s Need for Confession

Confessional writing returns human experience to its immediacy and raw experience is marshalled into intellectual coherence.  The writing culture insists upon cult of personality and self-promotion for success, and the digital era of social media provides a confessional space for inflammatory writing and public poetry. Access can be viral, and the ether platform helps us see ourselves as less divided and isolated, much more inescapably connected.

Freud’s theory of Narcissism is that is derives from a normal stage of infancy, so when building ego the ‘I’ infant searches for its mirror self, and then normally the narcissistic libido is transferred to objects to the ‘other’ – yet we can all recognise that there is still some self-love in all adult love.  It only really becomes abnormal when an erotic attachment to the ego occurs, when the libido is withdrawn from the world and directed back to the self. Although this is often generated online behind ‘alters’ and persona/versus real person.

You can’t judge what people get upset about, and writers are often impulsive, working in the immediacy of the moment, but once something has been posted or published it cannot be retrieved. Let us think of modern journalistic writers like Emily Gould and Elizabeth Wurtzel, who were both ostracised by parents and lovers after exposing themselves as featuring as almost undisguised characters in their work. They both show us that the distinction between public and private is being expeditiously erased by the digital age. In terms of access this is fantastic, something you create can circulate virally and reach a wider audience made possible by the internet – these women don’t remember a time without the internet – does the reachability encourage over-disclosure to stand out above the rest? Does it makes us more prone to social scourge and in gaining a reputation for seeking publicity? There is something for the voyeur and exhibitionist in us all.

Self-hood of the writer and narcissist (by this point I am inclined to refer to as one) is all about decoding identities, often there is no fixed personality involved but a stereotyped pattern of relations, of processing experiences that writers/narcissists carry, whilst others outside of this binary are more inclined to take things generally ‘as they come’ rather than hoard them in bags dragging at their feet.

Within the woman-centred arena, feminist trajectory is one of suffering and triumph. The typical ‘bad girl’ persona always sells, and emanates a dark sexiness that gears attention. But what about when women are over-sexualized, when the female voice unveils a face, a body, and the image becomes an aesthetic; a pin-up in the age of advertising, a commodity in the whirlwind of sex, all spun from the timeless ritual of self-promotion. When women avoid sexual strait-jackets and liberate their femininity, what is hidden and what is reflected, in terms of vanity and image projection- how much can you control? When you project an unfiltered, full frontal, full throttle self to the foreground for the attention (writers feel they often deserve) sometimes compliments can morph into insults.  Is there not enough magic and allure in the process of being unattainable, in being never wholly retrieved, for those who train their focus on being mass received.

Narcissistic writers can perpetuate power, smash stereotypes, accentuate sexuality but all that noise isn’t necessarily beneficial. In psychoanalysis narcissism is maladaptive and liable to be frowned upon, homosexuality is even deemed a pathology of self-love, but even Narcissist himself cannot be content with the love of only one sex. It is this profound ambivalence that drives the writer, a quandary towards reality itself, this is why fiction writers have such vivid imaginations and the capability to character build and invent worlds for story locations.

Then there is the act of writing itself, when awareness is displaced in favour of self-consciousness.  The enormous richness of writing is a prevalent tool for registering human life, sensation of emotion and the qualities of our experiences – but why would we think anyone would care about our perspective and perception? Because writer’s are narcissistic enough to let the ego over-ride, we simply need to be in order to have the will power to write and want to share our writings. The format in which we write is endlessly reflected in pools of thought, ever rippling, and often out of reach, the world becomes a constant shifting of desire and fear, ready to drown the mind in, at any turn.

So if ‘healthy’ Narcissism comes from parental admiration according to Freud, a need to impress, to follow aspirations, then this creates a more positive model over libidinal narcissism which foregoes the feelings of anyone else. He believes that Narcissistic wounds come out of parental neglects or abuse, in not being found loveable they step into the arena of self-love for motivation. The negative side to this is that Narcissists can be envious, over-estimate their capabilities and often feel depressed or empty – all that surfaces in the aftermath of a bad case of vulnerability blues. Writers with narcissistic tendencies often find themselves in a conscious state of anxious self-dissatisfaction, and they are more often than not locked in self-loathing as well as self-love, hooked by the terror or desperation that swallows us whenever signs of imperfection appear.


Genius and a Flair for Enormity


The possibility of artistic success is particularly seductive to the narcissist because of the social construct of genius.  The idea of ‘genius’ encapsulates the quintessence of narcissism- someone who is touched by the gods and who can effortlessly achieve great things.
– Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak


Writers and narcissists obsessively attach themselves to collecting life’s data and their quota of experience, those almost forgotten memories, are the fragments Freud calls ‘the refuse of the phenomenal world’ – and most writers need to be phenomenal. It’s the naked truth: narcissists like exposure and the search for authenticity.

The outspokenness of the narcissist is prized in literature – truth, deviance and sexuality coalesces into a counter-cultural, dissident discourse. Narcissists as autobiographical heroines embody the quest for the answer to the question that echoes down the centuries: what does it mean to man or woman? What do humans desire, and what does society desire of humanity?  But this can be emotionally exhausting, all the tantrum and rant, deconstruction, affiliations, educated guesses, engagement and theory – it is no wonder the beast inside needs to unfurl at times. Drugs, alcohol, or sex have been rumoured to step in as a ‘narcissistic bliss’, and most writers are prone to self-medicating with with ritualistic pleasures, this creates a wall of self-reliance which soothes the preoccupations of the narcissist. If you self-medicate you are self-reliant.

The over-examining and over-sharing may just come from an inherent need to be recognised, and an impulsive drive to deliberately provoke can be a clever way of rising awareness  – although that belongs to a more collective narcissism rather than a solitary self-gain. What does a cult of poets have to gain from exaggerated scandal?Everything, because like detectives we like to uncover the evidence, and gossip is our first clue, now to bring in the fingerprints, interview unknowing suspects and get to the root of the experience to expose the truth. Even if it means rattling a few cages first.

I am guilty of provocation in my writing too. For me what it is to be a woman diagnoses the natural cause of emotions I need to filter and share, and I am not afraid to go beyond customary bounds of embarrassment to depict my personal experiences, despite the omnipresent misogyny. Let me offer you an example, men don’t necessarily and naturally understand menstruation, therefore it can terrify them, the mystical women has been kept mystic because she is taught to refrain from confession (but should it be a ‘confession’ at all when a confession is usually made up of an amalgamation of sins). Talking about the self is fine and wholly acceptable and imperative towards creativity and exploration of the concept of identity. We know ourselves better than we know anyone else regardless of any gender specific technicalities.  But when you start to expose other people, then it becomes problematic – fiction turns people into character, and poetry unravels a more immediate infallibility.


Every true poet is a Narcissist, for the true poet is a contemplative and a creator. God is Narcissus. The men who have taken themselves to be Gods – Christ Bhudda – are Narcissists. This makes sense because what a poet tries to do is create a world of his own and thus looks at himself in the world; not in the what, but in all of nature, earth, fire, air and everything else.
– Juan Ramon Jimenez (an early 20th century Spanish poet, and prolific narcissist)


Narcissus derives from a pining after a beauty one cannot embrace or possess – this is also a writer’s plight, the insistent cartography of collecting a map of materials, or trying to capture; inhabit, embrace, possess the world as we live it so we can regurgitate it for the page. Although Narcissus kills himself, the writer too needs to suffer, and be re-born, in order to accurately describe the conditions of suffering- the self in that way becomes a vessel, bound to experience in order to translate the experience of wound into words. As a writer, and indeed a poet (the most symptomatic type) this is the standpoint of a healthy narcissist.

As a writer and narcissist ‘(I)’ sustain an endless quest for infinite love; I often have feelings of worthlessness (especially post-publication, or mid-rejection, or in a bout of self-doubt comedown), I self-reference a lot, I have a need to engage or charm with my choice of words, a compulsion to glamour, perhaps I am melodramatic enough to be a gross illusionist sometimes, I suffer from manic hyperactivity or elation and often endure small tendencies towards depression, I favourite blind rage, and finally, I too struggle to achieve the equilibrium of a sense of self.  But the wonderful news is, no one, not even writers, are fated to be a permanent narcissists – it’s more like a certain libidinal investment for a cultivation of personal experiences and arrest of private fantasies, reiterated from the swell of life within. Of course with all those depths of life inside of us, the trick of success and survival is in learning how to swim in our fathomage, and not to drown.


Narcissus loves life, but loves it in himself because he has all of life inside him
– Juan Ramon Jimenez


  • Lavinia Singer

    What a comprehensive and compassionate handling of such a complex topic. It’s fascinating. Thank you

  • Gabriella Koumis

    This is incredible, thanks!

  • Penelope Van der Smythe

    With all respect, the difference between good writing and bad in my opinion, is exactly parallel to the difference between introspection and narcissism.

    In fact, the assertion that creativity is itself narcissistic is absurd. Creativity requires understanding of oneself which a true narcissist is incapable of. Any psychologist would tell you that narcissism is a deeply entrenched protective shell guarding nothing. Narcissists are emotionally hollow and if one can’t imagine good writing much less poetry reflective of a hollow emotionality, well then: Q.E.D..

    Finally, Juan Ramon Jimenez may have been a good poet but his words are exactly that: poetry.

    The assertion that God is a narcissist is, at best, dime-store theology, a cruel heresy at worst. Christ and Buddha were known for their compassion, which is exactly what any psychologist would tell you that narcissists are incapable of.

    Jimenez didn’t seem to have understood his fellow poet, Ovid, very well: Narcissus didn’t fall in love with life within or without; he fell in love with his reflection, which was neither. Echo called his name over and over because of the love that she had for him and he couldn’t hear it.

    Lastly, there’s a danger to combining poetic fever-dream with the scientific opinions of Freud or of Spivak.

    Spivak isn’t saying what you suspect he is and the excerpted quote doesn’t support the argument being made. Spivak most decidedly is not saying “artists are narcissists,” or he would have written that directly. He’s actually saying something much closer to its antipode: “the possibility of artistic success is…seductive to the narcissist.” He’s absolutely correct: the possibility of [being] an artist is appealing to a narcissist but it’s easy to intuit that assertion’s converse: the reality of being an arist is unachievable to a narcissist.”

    I know you put a lot of work into this essay and it is beautifully written, I don’t see how logically or even poetically one can conclude that its central thesis is true and as this site is dedicated to honing the craft of poetry, a lesson in narcissism isn’t simply tone-deaf, it’s counter-productive.

  • Penelope Van der Smythe

    And, um, no psychologist would be be allowed to keep his/her license dispensing advice like: “homosexuality is even deemed a pathology of self-love”

    Because, um, no, it’s not: the American Psychilogical Association removed it from their diagnostic manual in the 1970s and if you’ve kept up with the news, you’d have learned that an increasing number of states have made therapy with the goal of changing sexual orientation illegal.

    Again, with respect, is it simply that you’re a narcissist and a writer and therefore you believe that all writers must therefore be? Because while that is not a logically sound conclusion, it would make a weird, solipsistic kind of sense given this article.

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