From 'Nightfall' to Dawn: Asimov as an Acrophobe

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Author: Alan C. Elms
Editor: Scot Peacock
Date: 2002
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,320 words

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As a psychologist specializing in psychobiography, and as a science fiction fan for over thirty-five years, I have become intrigued by the psychology of science fiction writers. Why do they write, and why science fiction? How do their personalities relate to their work? What does writing science fiction do for them psychologically?

Sigmund Freud initially compared creative writing with neurotic symptoms (264-66). His later ideas about artistic creativity were much more complex, but creative writing is still most often characterized in the psychobiographical literature as serving a defensive function for the writer--simultaneously concealing and satisfying neurotic needs, or coping temporarily with repressed internal conflicts. In writing and teaching about science fiction (and fantasy) writers, my favorite example for this psychological function has been Robert E. Howard. By writing about Conan and other superheroes who treat their women almost as savagely as their enemies, Howard managed for a time to keep the lid on his own problems with sex, aggression, and dependency needs (see De Camp, De Camp, and Griffin). But he blew his brains out at age thirty, when his mother's impending death presented him with problems that storytelling could not resolve.

Writing fiction can also serve more psychologically healthful functions for the writer. In some cases it plays a valuable curative role in the writer's psychological functioning. The restitutive function of writing refers to the writer's effectively working through certain psychological problems during the process of writing--exploring his or her emotions, coming to understand at least symbolically the unconscious processes that have been causing personal difficulties, and learning to improve communication between various aspects of the writer's self while finding ways to bring similar insights to the reader. For psychological audiences, the example I use here is B. F. Skinner, who by writing his behaviorist utopia Walden Two (1948) was able to resolve serious identity problems, left over in part from a difficult adolescence. For science fiction audiences, my favorite example of writing's restitutive function is Cordwainer Smith, who used his first bizarre stories to examine both his emotional pain and his intense need for psychological help. By the time he reached the mystical exhilaration of his final stories, Smith had gone through several kinds of psychotherapy. But his creation of a fictional universe probably helped him as much as any therapy did.

Not all writers begin with the extreme psychological problems of Robert E. Howard or Cordwainer Smith. For a writer with the usual range of psychological tics and quirks, the act of writing need not serve any major defensive or restitutive functions; it may simply be a means of self-expression. This expressive function is the one young writers often identify when asked why they write: "I want to express myself." Frederik Pohl has put it in more practical terms: "What a writer has to sell is his own perspective on the universe" (122). It's a happy day when a writer discovers that written expressions of self not only can serve an expressive psychological function but can make money....

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420044184