The 6 Most Certifiably Insane Acts of Writing
Fun fact: All writers are crazy, to some degree. There is a reason for it -- actually making it through a novel almost requires it. If you love to read, then you're continually benefitting from other people's craziness.
But in all of the history of the written word, probably no one has topped the sheer insanity of ...
Writing a Coded Novel Mocking the Nazis (While in a Nazi Prison)
Hans Fallada is the all-time poster boy for writers who just didn't give a shit. By the age of 50, he was a full-blown criminal lunatic, drifting in and out of prisons and insane asylums. He was a morphine addict, a womanizer and an alcoholic, all while being one of the most celebrated German authors of the 1930s and '40s. And true to his nature, while other artists were fleeing Germany at the outbreak of the war, Fallada stayed behind, despite openly despising the Nazis. How could he resist the urge to mess with one of the most murderous regimes in history?
"Is 'deutschebags' hyphenated?"
So, in 1944, Fallada was put in a Nazi prison/asylum for the criminally insane for the attempted murder of his ex-wife (classic Hans). To obtain writing materials and to survive an incarceration that was generally seen as a death sentence, Fallada told Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels that he wanted to write an anti-Semitic novel. However, Fallada had no intention of doing any such thing.
What he actually wrote, under the guards' watchful eyes and in constant fear of discovery, were three encrypted books in a single notebook so densely coded that they weren't deciphered until long after his death.
"I plan ahead."
One of these books was the much acclaimed The Drinker, a dark semi-autobiographical novel depicting addiction, crime and homosexuality in a way not quite in line with Nazi literary policy. Another book was a collection of children's stories. Both books were written in tiny, condensed, almost indecipherable handwriting, but he kept the children's stories visible, to give the guards something simple and nonthreatening to see should they question what he was up to. But in between the lines of the short stories, upside down and backward from the end to the beginning, he wrote a frank, extremely anti-Nazi memoir of his life under National Socialist rule, entitled In Meinem Fremden Land.
When he ran out of space, he turned the notebook around again and wrote even more miniature lines between the existing ones, resulting in 72 crisscrossing lines of writing per page. Had the Nazis found out about the contents of the notebook, Fallada would have been supermurdered. But his book of "children's stories" fooled everyone.
"Children's eyes need to be challenged."
Fallada managed to smuggle the manuscript out during a home visit, arranged under the false premise of picking up materials for the anti-Semitic project (because for some reason the Nazi prison in which he was incarcerated had anti-Semitic materials in short supply). In December 1944, as the Nazi regime began to crumble, Fallada was released from prison. Goebbels never received the anti-Semitic novel he had been promised, and Hans Fallada died three years later of a morphine overdose, having written three books (two of which were staunchly anti-Nazi) under guard of the Nazis themselves.
"Oh wait, this is what he was writing? God, I feel like an asshole."
A Diary the Size of 500 Novels
Robert Shields, a former minister and English teacher, holds the record for having kept the longest modern diary ever, at a mind-boggling 37.5 million words. To put that in perspective, the average novel is about 75,000 words long. So this was the size of about 500 of those.
How in the hell did somebody stretch a personal diary into something long enough to fill an entire bookcase? Well, for 25 years, from 1972 to 1997, he wrote down what he experienced every five minutes. He would spend four hours a day doing this, sometimes just checking and recording his vital signs.
February 4: Yup, not dead. Still weird.
There are also a disquieting number of entries that focus on the force and consistency of his bowel movements. He kept writing right up until he had a stroke and eventually died, and his journals were donated to Washington State University, presumably because his surviving family assumed every single page was haunted. Some gems include:
"7 a.m.: I cleaned out the tub and scraped my feet with my fingernails to remove layers of dead skin."
"7:05 a.m.: Passed a large, firm stool, and a pint of urine. Used five sheets of paper."
"6:30-6:35 p.m.: I put in the oven two Stouffer's macaroni and cheese at 350 degrees."
"6:50-7:30 p.m.: I ate the Stouffer's macaroni and cheese and Cornelia ate the other one. Grace decided she didn't want one."
There are 37 million words of this.
The Unaborer manifesto.
Inevitably, because he spent so much time composing his journals, many of his entries are literally about him writing the entry in question:
"6:35-6:50 p.m.: I was at the keyboard of the IBM Wheelwriter making entries for the diary."
Still, despite the sheer volume of his work, it's not like he had to come up with a whole story or anything. Not like ...
A Janitor's 15,000-Page Illustrated Epic
Back in the 1970s, an elderly janitor named Henry Darger gave his friends a little unpublished story he had been working on for, oh, the last 60 or so years. What they saw was a mind-boggling epic of illustrations and typewritten pages called In the Realms of the Unreal.
The story spans 15,145 pages -- three times longer than the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series. It has over 300 illustrations, cobbled together from newspaper clippings, coloring books, magazine ads, watercolors and tracings of Darger's own creation, and photocopies from an era where a single photocopy cost about one day's wages. Some of the illustrations stretch out as long as 10 feet in width on both sides.
Because it's crucial that people see this.
The "story," as best as can be pieced together, is about seven supernatural girls, enslaved by an evil race, who fight for their freedom, for some reason across several planets. There are scenes of teleporting fairies scaring grown men with mice, those same fairies being tortured and killed by the millions, and two different endings -- one where the girls win their freedom and one where they get hauled back into slavery (see "story," in quotations, above). Darger overtly cribs characters and entire passages from other sources, and even names one of his characters General Darger, to make sure everyone reading knows full well he is out of fucks to give.
Which you can tell by looking at this illustration.
It should be noted that the girls in his story are portrayed as having penises. This isn't treated in a sexual way at any point, and actually seems to suggest that Darger didn't properly know what sex was.
"Anyone you teabag, I teabag better! I teabag anyone better than you!"
But before you laugh at him too much, you should know that ItRotU and its illustrations have generated $2 million for Darger's landlords, who ingloriously published it after his death to recoup the money he owed them. The book has also been the subject of an Emmy-nominated documentary. Hopefully someday somebody will adapt the story itself into a miniseries, mainly so we can see how they handle the subject of the girl penises.
Finnegans Wake: A Completely Unreadable Masterpiece
James Joyce was one of the most influential writers of the early 20th century. His most famous work, Ulysses, was a version of Homer's Odyssey, except that it took place in then-modern Dublin (even though most copies were seized and destroyed by American and English customs officers due to "obscenity").
"Me, obscene? What would give you that impression?"
For his last hurrah, Joyce tried to write the most difficult-to-read novel in history, because apparently he was afraid his existing works hadn't fulfilled the "pretentious douchefritter" quotient most artists seem to adhere to. By most accounts, he succeeded with a work called Finnegans Wake.
To give some background, the book took 17 years to write. Almost every sentence is painstakingly crafted to be a pun or double meaning. It's so impossible to understand that you need guides to read it, while you're reading it. He used different languages (including some that he invented), combined words together and purposefully made sure there were multiple layers of meaning in everything. Impossibly, it somehow has characters and a plot.
"Why don't you tell me what it's about?"
For example, here is a typical passage:
"All the vital-mines is beginning to sozzle in chewn and the hormonies to clingleclangle, fudgem, kates and eaps and naboc and erics and oinnos on kingclud ..."
The first part of the sentence is made up of double words, so here, we can read "sozzle" as "sizzle + dissolve," "chewn" as "chew + tune" and "hormonies" as "hormones + harmonies" (doubtless by this point we all wish Joyce were still alive, so that we might beat the living shit out of him). The second part of the sentence is just anagrams -- scrambled words. "Kates" = "steak," "eaps" = "peas." Continuing, we get bacon, rices and onions on duckling. The word "vital-mines" confirms the food theme, as it could be a way to say "stomach," while also referencing vitamins. In conclusion, we have a sentence about the health benefits of a steak and duck dinner, with a musical metaphor running through the whole thing as an entirely separate second layer of meaning.
Admittedly, we still don't know what the fuck "fudgem" is supposed to be.
"Fudgem if they can't read my book."
That was pretty exhaustive work for half a sentence. Now multiply that by 600 pages, and you can easily see why it took this book club 13 years to finish reading it, and this translator 10 years to write it in Polish. For more fun, listen along as Joyce himself recites passages in his offensively fake-sounding Irish accent, daring you to like anything about him.
It's not hard to imagine a writer shitting out a book just to piss people off. But only Joyce would ever have put so much effort into it.
A Hit Novel from a 9-Year-Old Girl
Daisy Ashford, a 9-year-old girl living in 19th century England, scribbled a story called The Young Visiters into the pages of her schoolbook. As the title suggests, the story was rife with spelling and grammatical errors, which seems to indicate that the schoolbook she was using to record her story wasn't being used for much else.
Still better than Stephenie Meyer.
So who cares, right? Normally, this kind of thing would be hung on the fridge for a week, but as there were no refrigerators in Surrey in 1890, it was just stuffed into a drawer and completely forgotten about. Twenty-seven years later, a grown-up Daisy found it among some other papers when her mother died and passed it along to a friend. The story -- which was actually a 105-page novel -- began making the rounds as people realized that this thing she had scribbled out in elementary school was actually a perfectly coherent story, and kind of hilarious. It told the tale of a love triangle between Ethel, Bernard and Mr. Salteena (described as "an elderly man of 42"). Spoiler: It culminates in this:
"Oh Bernard she sighed fervently I certinly love you madly you are to me like a Heathen god she cried looking at his manly form and handsome flashing face I will indeed marry you."
"... and then it's pretty much all f-bombs from there on out."
The book finally landed in the hands of a reader for a publishing house, who was so captivated by the story that he decided to put it into print, because back then publishing companies would still throw money at projects purely because they thought they were adorable.
"Keep writing, this mortgage isn't going to pay itself."
It was a good thing they did; it was a huge hit. The Young Visiters would have to go back to print 18 times in its first year. In 1920, it was adapted into a play, followed 50 years later by a musical. A feature-length movie in 1984 continued the sensation, finally culminating in a TV movie on BBC, starring Dr. House and directed by David Yates, who would go on to make one of the Harry Potter movies.
The entire work can be found online, though you should be warned that it contains four different scenes depicting graphic scrotum torture.
A Novel Typed Entirely With One Eyelid
Imagine you had to write a novel, but for some reason you couldn't type or write. Like, say, your fingers didn't work. OK, so you'd just hire somebody to type it, and tell them what to type, right? It'd take way longer, but it's definitely doable. OK, now say you've lost your voice. Now what? You could use, uh, some kind of sign language to communicate with your typist, we guess. OK, now say that you can't speak, and your entire body is paralyzed except for one single eyelid. Now what?
Those were the circumstances under which Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote his autobiography The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Bauby, a former fashion-world powerhouse and editor for Elle magazine, woke up after a refreshing stroke-induced 20-day coma completely paralyzed except for his eyes, sort of like Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, except with a much more useless body part. In order to save him from getting an infection, his right eyelid was sewn shut soon afterward, leaving him with just his left eye as his only means of communication. This proved to be a near insurmountable challenge, because as you may already be aware, eyes cannot speak and can only hold pencils with great difficulty.
"GAAHHH! WRONG END! WRONG END!"
Yet, working with a speech therapist, Bauby managed to develop a method of communication based around blinking his one working eyelid. Once he had the basics down (presumably beginning with simple phrases like "Shoo this mosquito away" and "Turn up The Dukes of Hazzard"), he decided it was time to write a book about his experiences, because honestly, what the hell else was he going to do?
"If he pees, I'm making him a child molester in my book."
So, how in the possible hell did this work? Well, letters would be read aloud to him, and Bauby would blink that stalwart left eye of his when the letter he wanted to use was spoken. Then they'd write that letter down. The process would start all over again until a word was completed. Once they got good at it, he could usually get a word out in about two minutes. The final book, about 140 pages long, took Bauby an estimated 200,000 blinks to complete.
Even weirder, the book was good. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was a critically acclaimed hit (which saved the publisher the incredible awkwardness of having to reject a book a dude wrote with one eyelid). Sadly, the author died mere days after its publication of complications from pneumonia. But his book became an international bestseller and was adapted into a movie 10 years later that received multiple Academy Award nominations.
So, for all of you aspiring writers out there still procrastinating on your novel, what the fuck is your excuse?
"I'm still looking for the right coffee shop. Every writer knows that's the most important step."
For more terrible bouts of insanity, check out 5 Crazy Street Performers (Who Happened to be Geniuses) and 6 People Who Died In Order To Prove A (Retarded) Point.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 4 Reasons Gremlins Are the Deadliest Movie Monster Ever.