'Aspiring Writer Disorder', by Evan Williams

William Hogarth’s engraving The Distrest Poet. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Aspiring Writer Disorder (AWD) is a mental illness marked by hallucinations, delusions—and, in extreme cases, lifelong actions to carry out that which is believed in those delusions—that one can make a living as a professional writer.

Early warning signs

AWD will often first present itself during the individual’s teenage years. There are some common warning signs. If you’re concerned a teenager you know may be developing AWD, pay close attention to how they interact with literary objects. When carrying a book, do they keep it in a bag, or even calmly hold it beside their hip? Or do they clutch it tightly to their chest with both arms, in what seems like an attempt to somehow fuse the book their bodies? Research suggests such people, known as ‘clutchers’, are at a far higher risk of developing AWD.

How is the teenager engaging with his or her English teacher? If time is spent with the teacher before or after class exchanging books that aren’t on the curriculum, they may very well be developing AWD. If they’ve laminated a lock of the English teacher’s hair for use as a bookmark, seek treatment immediately.

In adults, the sudden development of AWD is much harder to detect, and also, tragically, to reverse. But signs of the disorder do present themselves. Firstly, all care must be taken to distinguish between genuine and pseudo prodomes.

Do not be alarmed, for example, if someone you know in their twenties or thirties proclaims that they “would really like to write a book one day!” While this may seem like an obvious sign of AWD, studies show that when—or even if—this person’s “one day” comes, and they finally crack open a brand new Moleskine or download Scrivener in order to begin writing, they will soon discover that while the desire to be a writer will always be present, the realities of actually being a writer will become quickly apparent. Eventually, or even probably soon, this person will give up on their magnum opus to go out and meet a friend for coffee, where they’ll chat about various things, including how they both would “really like to write something one day!”


When fully expressed, AWD can manifest itself several ways—often all at once—and the symptoms are deeply disturbing.

Voice: Perhaps the most common symptom of AWD is an obsession with an invisible, immaterial object sufferers refer to as their “voice”. Finding this abstract object is often the source of much frustration to the sufferer – indeed, many often end up doubting they will ever find it, and become extraordinarily bitter towards those who in their belief have.

Notebook destruction: Every year, globally, millions of beautiful notebooks are destroyed by AWD sufferers who enthusiastically jot down “interesting ideas” they mistakenly believe may soon make for a “cool piece”.

Multiple personalities: In severe cases, AWD sufferers may create a separate identity. For example, some will stop introducing themselves to people at parties as who they actually are “telemarketer”, “barista”, “CEO”, etc., and instead introduce themselves as a “writer”, despite having no achievements as writers. They may also begin referring to their notebook destruction as “work”, despite having never been paid for their notebook destruction.

Other common symptoms of Aspiring Writer Disorder include:

  • Adverb anxiety
  • Rewrite psychosis
  • Face:palm related bruising
  • Vonnegut/Hemingway-induced semicolon phobia
  • Horn-rimmed glasses


Despite many in-depth studies by experts in the field (see: Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, George Orwell’s Why I Write , etc.) relatively little is known about what causes AWD. Generally, it is believed the disorder is based on a single core delusion:

I have something important to say about life that hasn’t already been said by a 20th century French person, or 19th century Russian, or 16th century Briton, who were all actually far more capable to say important things about life than I ever will be.


Currently, there is no known prevention for AWD. For years, the medical community has unsuccessfully attempted to prevent the spread of AWD by releasing information about the terrible lives of writers – the tragic suicides of Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway and Sylvia Plath being among the most frequently cited. During the early 2000s there was some hope that the rise of the internet and the downfall of print media would mean a reduction in the number of AWD cases. Unfortunately, the opposite has occurred. With new tools like social media, blogs and digital self-publishing at their disposal, sufferers are able to maintain their imaginary writing career more effectively than ever before.


After someone develops AWD, they stand little chance of living a normal life again. Their life will always be one of notebook destruction, rewrite psychoses, and horn-rimmed-glasses (or the unrealised desire for horn-rimmed glasses). It’s best if friends and family learn to accept the fact of the disorder’s existence, rather than fight it, as help will always be viewed as criticism, and this criticism will inevitably be compared by the AWD sufferer to the uphill battles previously faced and won by their favorite authors. To help is to hinder, in this case.Perhaps just be grateful that the sufferer contracted AWD, and not the far more tragic and uninteresting mental illness known as AAD: Aspiring Accountant Disorder.

Evan Williams is a writer for ABC2’s daily satirical news show The Roast. He’s also contributed to McSweeney’s, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian and elsewhere.

This piece originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #24: The Medicine Issue.