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0 Comments | Jul 25, 2010

Creativity and Its Aftermath

light bulb breakingWe who are alive must make clear, as she could not, the distinction between creativity and self-destruction.

Denise Levertov

Let me begin by stating, for the record, that I was more than a little hacked off when I heard about David Foster Wallace hanging himself a few years back. Just to be clear, this initial reaction wasn’t a sad or mournful thing; I was genuinely pissed: at him, his doctors, his family, anyone who could plausibly be blamed for his abject failure to successfully handle a life replete with talent, fame, and money, all things so many long for and so few actually possess[1]. Wallace, however, spent much of his life in some state of depression, much of it heavily medicated, and he, not surprisingly, had a difficult time writing effectively while under the influence of one or more of the anti-depressants he was being prescribed at any given moment[2]. To be fair, I don’t think Wallace can be accused of succumbing to some mere psychosomatic, misunderstood-artist syndrome, or that his suicide attempt (there were several) was any sort of stereotypical cry for help or attention or whatever. The guy was genuinely sick for much of his life, and apparently wasn’t getting any better despite having pursued several different avenues of palliative endeavor[3]. All that said, the world has still lost a tremendous talent, arguably the finest essayist of the twentieth century. Once I got over the annoyance, I was, and continue to be, genuinely saddened by his death.

Find any photo of Wallace, watch video of his readings and interviews, and you can see it in his eyes, clear as day[4]. It’s as though there’s another person inside struggling to escape. Not to get all psychoanalytical or anything, but if you can buy the idea that creativity is simply the manifestation of a big pile of ideas within a person that are trying anything they can to get out, then it’s not much of a leap to imagine, as well, that, like any closed system, the greater the pressure, the more likely it is that at least some of what’s in there (i.e., the creativity) is going to eventually work its way out—the more pressure, the greater the torrent of ideas[5]. But there I go, committing one of the cardinal sins of expository analysis, anthropomorphizing a general physical law[6] like thermodynamics[7]. It’s not as though the guy was a teapot. Still, when you close up something tightly that’s under a lot of pressure, and you don’t let any of that pressure out, it’s pretty certain that eventually it will explode[8]. Perhaps writing was simply Wallace’s way of trying to vent some of that stress.

Much has been written, most notably in psychological texts, concerning purported links between extreme creativity and a propensity for mental illness in general, depression in particular, and self-destruction in extremis. It is not the purpose of this essay to get all Emile Durkheim on anyone or to try to explain suicide and what drives people to it. I am supremely unqualified to expound on or in any way contribute to a deeper understanding of the technical nuances of biochemical phenomena in the human brain, and I will not attempt to do so. The goal of this analysis is simply to explore a few of the better-known cases in which enormously creative and accomplished individuals have ultimately succumbed to whatever profound force it is that makes someone choose to end their own life. Perhaps some similarities among the various cases will reveal themselves, aside from, of course, the creativity thread that ties the whole thing together.

I write quite a lot—essays, fiction, poetry. I also take an occasional stab at music—not writing anything, mind you, just learning to play the occasional song. I do these things because I deeply enjoy doing them, not because anyone is paying me to, or even particularly asking me to. There is a certain degree of luxury and freedom attending this state of affairs, because it means that whenever I feel like stopping, I can just stop. It also means I’m not facing publisher’s deadlines, critical reviews, or high-pressure readings, i.e., none of the sorts of things that might cause a reasonable person some modicum of stress. Many’s the time I’ve wondered how I would respond if I were faced with an actual writing deadline. I don’t know, but my gut tells me it wouldn’t go well. That said, I’m not aware of anyone who ever killed themselves over a deadline. I expect it goes far deeper than that.

I believe as well that the main driver of creativity-driven suicide stems from stress, which is possibly the most self-evident statement anyone has ever written. But here’s the thing—writing is an inherently solitary undertaking, at least for most people. You sit by yourself for hours and hours[9], and if you’re lucky when you get up there are some more or less coherent words on the page that weren’t there when you first sat down. I think that because writers function so well by themselves, when stress—self-imposed or otherwise—does actually rear its head, for whatever reason, their first instinct is not to go and discuss it with someone else, but rather to internalize it. Doesn’t mean they’re incapable of holding a conversation with others, only that it’s not their first reaction.

Wallace made many salient points during his 1997 Charlie Rose interview. One particularly poignant comment addressed the fundamental dichotomy whereby, on the one hand, the writer is this nerdy recluse who likes to hole up in an office or library, doing his/her own thing for endless periods of time, and on the other hand is this insecure closet attention junkie who is constantly putting work out into the public domain in the desperate hope that there will accrue some measure of acclaim and recognition. And these are two alarmingly different ways to be, psychologically speaking, so much so that attempting to strike a balance between the two might plausibly lead to its own stress-induced outcome. He went on to observe, in response to a question about his potential interest in writing a screenplay, that part of the attraction of writing fiction is that it is one hundred percent one’s own, and that, unlike screenplays or dramas, the success or failure of fiction is entirely within the control of the author[10], an aspect of writing he found not only unique, but altogether compelling. What he didn’t say, though it was certainly implicit in his remarks, is that because the work is entirely one’s own, so too is the stress associated with getting it done and then dealing with the ensuing public reaction[11].

Having spent many years of my life in the corporate world, I can vouch for the profound levels of stress that such a life can engender. There is the stress of project deadlines, the stress of public speaking, and of course the stress that attends spending each day surrounded by incompetent, sycophantic co-workers and egomaniacal and capricious superiors. The common thread in all of this is that these forms of stress all emanate largely from external sources. There are many ways in which corporate individuals deal with such stress, some more effective than others. On the positive side, some practice effective time management techniques, establish candid peer-to-peer relationships with co-workers[12], or take the occasional vacation to unwind. On the rather less positive side, some indulge in verbal abuse of fellow employees, alcoholism, self loathing, and, with luck, an early-onset heart attack—again, all in response to forces essentially outside the individual’s control.

Writers, on the other hand, indeed artists in general, live with much the same sort of stress, but in many cases manage to inflict it on themselves. And because they’re doing it to themselves, and because they, by and large, do not have co-workers that can be abused, many tend, instead, to engage in all sorts of self-destructive behaviors, the milder varieties of which include smoking[13], drug abuse, eating bad food, keeping odd hours, and acting generally sociopathic on those occasions when they do encounter other humans. And, in the most extreme cases, the result can be self-destruction. I suspect, watching this tenuous thread of logic unwind, that the reason so many artistic types are regarded as such dicks is that they are simply doing their best to manage stress and anxiety, with the next best alternative being to put a pistol in their mouth.

Particularly notable assholes among the literary ranks include Robert Frost[14] and Ernest Hemingway, neither of whom could apparently handle being around other people for more than a minute or two before unleashing a torrent of invective and, doing so, one imagines, with a good deal more skill than the average misanthrope, given their penchant for language. The historical record suggests that Frost, who died at the ripe, if curmudgeonly, age of eighty-eight, did rather a more effective job of venting and stress relief than did Hemingway, who died at sixty-one, his final act the forcible removal of his head with a Boss twelve-gauge shotgun.

The sorts of stress artists impose on themselves take many forms, some more serious than others. I will argue, with little to corroborate the view aside from my gut, that the most profound, and ultimately destructive, form of self-induced stress stems from a lack of satisfaction with the quality of one’s own work. One of the reasons most highly regarded artists get that way is because of the exacting standards to which they hold themselves. For writers this takes the form of endless editing and rewriting[15] before at some point grudgingly declaring a piece complete[16]. Some, as it happens, are better than others at recognizing the tenuous boundary between being demanding of oneself and being neurotic. It doesn’t help matters any when one is particularly susceptible to certain inevitable externalities of the artistic life, i.e., sales success, and the critiques and opinions of others.

Which is as appropriate a point as any to introduce into the discussion the issue of professional peaking. Most people who live in the normal (i.e., non-artistic) world have career arcs that tend to see their earnings and professional reputation rise in a more or less linear fashion from the day they graduate[17] until the day they retire, or perhaps a few years before, depending on one’s degree[18] of comfort with a bit of late-career coasting. There are, however, numerous examples of writers whose most highly regarded work happens very early in their careers, and who then spend the rest of their lives struggling to live up to a reputation established by this early, presumably unexpected success[19]. Much has been made of the stress attending the “sophomore” efforts of writers whose initial publication achieves some unforeseen measure of recognition, particularly if the writer wins a major literary award or is, as a consequence of that first favorable reception, subsequently identified as being filled with promise, the newest, most vibrant voice of his/her generation, etc. Writing history is replete with examples of authors whose second novels were regarded as disappointments given how their first ones had done. There can be few things in life more fraught with stress than the prospect of sitting back down at the writing table the day after giving your Booker or Pulitzer acceptance speech.

John Kennedy Toole’s case is particularly poignant[20]. He wrote A Confederacy of Dunces while teaching at Dominican College in New Orleans. His subsequent efforts to get the novel into print were fruitless, and, despondent, Toole killed himself at the age of thirty-one. His mother, Thelma Toole, possessed of a good deal more vigor and tenacity than her son, subsequently managed to get the book published by Louisiana State University Press, and Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for what is, almost certainly, the funniest novel ever written in the English language. One can only conclude, given the facts of the case[21], that Toole was a singularly fragile[22] individual to begin with and ill equipped to deal with anything that smacked of failure[23].

In some regards, though, Toole’s case appears a good deal more straightforward than the other well known literary suicides, in that it seems causally centered around the fate of a single work and his inability to get it published. Conversely, once one has a look at the cases of Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf , and Anne Sexton, all authors with significant bodies of work completed prior to their deaths[24], things become a good deal murkier, motivationally speaking.

Sexton, for starters, seems to have been pretty much doomed from the outset. She battled depression her entire life, and, oddly, her long-time therapist Martin Orne recommended she take up writing poetry for therapeutic purposes. Later in life, Orne was replaced with a second therapist with whom Sexton subsequently had an affair, which arrangement is thought to have contributed materially to her eventual suicide.[25] The key difference between Sexton’s case and most others is that rather than being driven to self-destruction by her art, it seems her psychological wheels were already well on the way to falling off the track from a young age.[26] One might even have thought that Sexton’s particular brand of self-absorbed, confessional poetry would have served a palliative purpose, a venting or release of various internal pressures, if you will. Still, her issues must have been serious and systemic, for the writing[27] was formidable and she achieved recognition in what seems, compared to most famous authors, a relatively speedy, effortless fashion.[28] Her final volume, The Awful Rowing toward God, had just been completed around the time of her death, its title offering perhaps a hint as to her mental state for anyone curious enough to have given it a look.

One has to give Virginia Woolf bonus points for creative interpretation of the whole suicide-as-art genre. It’s one thing simply to leap off a bridge in despair. Depending on the height of the overpass, you are either dead or unconscious upon striking the water. But to take the time to weight one’s self down and then walk slowly and methodically into a river. That requires a certain special level of commitment, given how easy it is, at any given moment, to chicken out and change your mind. Even the redoubtable Quentin Compson, Faulkner’s anti-hero from The Sound and the Fury, couldn’t manage the gumption to walk straight into the Charles once he got fed up with Harvard. And that whole river as giver of life[29] metaphor thing to boot—good luck competing with that with your shotgun.

You can get a pretty good sense for Virginia Woolf’s mental state (or what it was destined to become) by taking one quick look at the photo of her mother, Julia Stephen, taken by Julia Margaret Cameron. If you’ve seen the original Carrie movie[30] and recall Piper Laurie’s role, you’ll get the idea. Virginia grew up in a household of social and academic achievement and must surely have experienced great pressure to measure up from a young age. Her mother died when the girl was only thirteen, leading to the first of what would become several nervous breakdowns. She was purportedly sexually abused by a pair of half-brothers from a young age, and suffered another breakdown, including some brief institutionalization upon the death of her father. In an odd congruence of familial fate, she seems to have been drawn to a life of literature by precisely those forces and circumstances that created and reinforced her continuing mental instability. Her life was, in fact, filled with overlapping contradictions. She was labeled an anti-Semite despite being happily married to a Jew. Her fiction was accused of lacking depth and breadth for its focus on the elite of Britain, yet her literary influence resonates to this day for its innovation and virtuosity.

Ernest Hemingway’s earliest published short story, The Indian Camp[31], is held up as a quintessential example of Hemingway’s enduring fascination with self-destruction, in this case as witnessed by his alter-ego, the young Nick Adams, who accompanies his father to assist with a difficult child birth, only to witness, as well, the simultaneous suicide of the child’s father as the infant is being delivered. If one took the liberty of associating the delivery of the baby[32] with the creation of a difficult literary work, then the suicide of the work’s (baby or book) creator would seem to suggest a thing or two about the arc of Hemingway’s subsequent life. It is easy, as well, to envision Hemingway’s generally grim state of mind by the simple consideration of a quote from his later work, Death in the Afternoon, to wit “If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it.”

It is insightful, if ultimately misleading, to have a momentary look at the history of self-destruction in the Hemingway family. While suicide was clearly on the author’s mind as far back as the early twenties, the suicide of his father in the late twenties could only reinforce a burgeoning fascination with the theme. Throw into the mix the suicide of his first wife’s father and Hemingway’s prescient comment at the time (“I’ll probably go the same way”). It appears as well that there was at least one physiological cause behind Hemingway’s suicidal tendencies, a genetic disease he shared with his father[33], and which may, as well, have contributed to the suicides of his sister Ursula, brother Leicester, and perhaps even granddaughter Margaux much later. Factor into this already inauspicious genealogy Hemingway’s lifelong alcoholism and the considerable physical pain in which he spent the latter years of his life[34], and it becomes nigh impossible to posit any compelling chain of cause and effect for his death.

All of which brings us at last to Hunter Thompson, the all-time undisputed king of making a statement with one’s suicide, not to mention the post-suicide festivities. Apparently Thompson had decided at some earlier point in his life that fifty was about as old as he considered himself entitled to live, and when he woke up one day to find himself at sixty-seven, it all felt rather unfair or superfluous or something, and that was that. He was ever the considerate type though. Like Hemingway, he shot himself in the head[35], but he had the common courtesy to first phone his wife and then shoot himself while she was on the line[36]. This selfless act doubtless speaks to some fundamental aspect of his personality, but damned if I can figure out what it is. One of the strongest themes of Thompson’s life was a profound problem with authority and it’s not much of a stretch to imagine the suicide as being his own special way of offering a final “fuck you” to the world—fans, critics, everyone. Compared to the other cases examined in this treatise, I find it difficult to feel bad about Thompson. Ending things the way he did just feels right for him. On top of which, he arranged, before his death, to have his ashes fired from a cannon set atop a 153-foot tower. Along with his ashes, they set off colorful fireworks as well, and did so to the music of Bob Dylan, et al. I’m envisioning all of this as a sort-of “can you top this?” kind of moment for a guy who spent a good deal of his life trying to top what others had done. Like I said, hard to feel sorry for the guy[37].

To be fair, I hadn’t given a great deal of thought to this whole writer/suicide thing prior to learning of Wallace’s death. I think, for that matter, that one would be hard-pressed to demonstrate that authors are systemically more prone to self-destruction than practitioners in any other career field[38]. The fascination, the intuitive link, to the extent that it exists, would seem to stem from the largely solitary nature of the writing profession juxtaposed with the logical, if ultimately mistaken, linkages one is tempted to draw between solitariness, loneliness, and a desire, in especially extreme cases, to do oneself in. Throw into this already-incendiary mix the extremely high rate of external opinion and criticism[39] that attends the writing life, and one would seem to have a recipe for a positive flurry of self-destruction. The real news in all of this may, then, be the fact that so many willingly undertake this lifestyle and seem generally to have a pretty positive go of it. And to the extent that the occasional writer does end his/her life prematurely, it looks as though the writing, and/or criticism one receives in response to it, can, at worst, be indicted as a catalyst that sets into motion a reaction whose inevitability was established at the time of the author’s birth or very early in life. One intriguing final observation—given that nearly all suicides, regardless of vocation, feel compelled, despite their overpowering despondency, to leave a written statement as their very last act on earth, one has cause to wonder if the very act of writing might not be, in the end, an act of salvation, either in this life or the next.

[1] And it wasn’t just the writing, stunning as that was. Wallace was, in his youth, also a nationally ranked junior tennis player. Nothing more irritating than people who aren’t content to be fantastic at one thing; they have to be great at everything they touch. You know, like the NFL quarterback who’s also a Rhodes scholar.

[2] Phenelzine among others. Wallace writes with far-too-well-informed clarity about depression and associated pharmaceuticals in his magnum opus Infinite Jest, e.g., pp. 68-78.

[3] He even attempted electro-convulsive therapy near the end of his life.

[4] The Charlie Rose interview of March 27, 1997 reveals all sorts of nervous ticks and general agitation suggesting a mind not exactly at peace with itself.

[5] Not sure if this whole causal/metaphorical thread, i.e., creativity equals pressure and vice versa, is in any way related to another pervasive idea concerning artists in general and writers in particular, to wit that you can’t be a successful artist/writer unless you grew up abused, impoverished, or otherwise miserable. Perhaps a follow-up essay…

[6] One of the more popular examples of this phenomenon is misuse of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principal, which emerged from quantum mechanical theories developed in the mid-twenties and which is frequently (and incorrectly) invoked whenever someone is uncertain about pretty much anything. The theory only applies if you are a subatomic particle that also happens to behave in a wavelike manner, and how many of us can say that about ourselves?

[7] In the foregoing example, Boyle’s Law, first published in 1662, inversely relating the pressure and volume of a gas at fixed temperature. Boyle, so far as I am aware, while doubtless a clever individual in his own right, made no mention in his research or subsequent conclusions concerning the forces that might drive a creative person to self-destruction.

[8] Or at least spring a leak

[9] Unless, that is, you’re like me and have the attention span of a parakeet, in which case you write for five minutes, get up and do something else, then come back and write for five more minutes, etc, etc.

[10] Issues of subsequent criticism, marketing, and publicity notwithstanding

[11] It is at this point I would theorize that this stress, whether self- or externally-imposed, accounts for a sizable percentage of writer’s block, about which so much has been written, and which I have had the pleasure (one supposes) of seldom having felt, most likely because of never having had to write to an actual deadline.

[12] The most extreme example of which are the Myers-Briggs personality tests, ostensibly designed to help you better understand your own personality type and thus interact more effectively with others. ISTJ, for anyone who’s wondering.

[13] I’ve always been struck by the enormous percentage of authors who feel the need to have their book jacket photos taken with a cigarette in their hand.

[14] Whose view of the world is piquantly summed up by his observation that “it goes on.” He is occasionally credited (incorrectly) with the slightly more trenchant “life sucks and you die,” an aphorism, in fact, attributable to that most ebullient of philosophers, Arthur Schopenhauer.

[15] Particularly stressful for some is the need to deal with editors, whose efforts frequently include the omitting of substantial portions of a draft piece of writing from the final product. It is easy to become attached to one’s writing, and being obliged to jettison some of it is not an easy thing. Case in point: Jeffrey Eugenides, author of the Pulitzer-winning novel Middlesex, which comprises a hefty 529 pages, had, in his original draft, over 1500.

[16] Aside from several works of some artistic merit, Leonardo da Vinci is noted, as well, for observing that “art is never finished, only abandoned.”

[17] From whatever it is that they graduate from

[18] Or one’s employer’s degree

[19] Notable examples include Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead,” (written at age 25), and John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” (also written in his early 20’s).

[20] Perhaps even ironic, given the hilarity and general joie de vivre of his novel juxtaposed against the apparent desperation of his life. The hands-down gold medal winner, though, for ironic artistic suicide would have to be Felix Powell, the World-War-One-era British Staff Sergeant, who, while no literary titan, did, during the heat of battle, manage to etch his name lightly on history’s guest book by penning the music to “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile” right before shooting himself through the heart with his own rifle.

[21] Details of which are contained in the seminal biography of his life, Ignatius Rising: The Life of John Kennedy Toole by Rene Pol Nevils and Deborah George Handy, LSU Press, 2001.

[22] The doted-upon only son of a domineering mother—hard to imagine. There is also spurious and largely unfounded speculation concerning Toole’s comfort level with his sexuality, but we won’t go there.

[23] Rather the exact opposite of Ignatius Riley, in yet another ironic twist to the whole grim affair.

[24] National Book Award winner and terribly talented writer Jerzy Kosinski (Being There, etc.), another prominent inductee in the writer/suicide pantheon, is conspicuously omitted from this list. He was a seriously ill individual and in a great deal of pain near the end of his life. The facts suggest no mental instability, but rather the simple desire to end his physical torment with some measure of dignity and self-determination.

[25] Garage, exhaust. All due acknowledgment and apologies to Billy Collins.

[26] Greased, as it were, by what appears to have been a pattern of parental violence, which abuse Sexton then dutifully passed on to her own two daughters.

[27] Eight poetry collections, a bit of drama, and four children’s books—go figure.

[28] Within twelve years of first putting pen to paper she had won a Pulitzer and been made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Not exactly the path of suffering and sacrifice that seems to characterize so many authors and aspirants.

[29] Or in this case, taker…

[30] 1976, Brian De Palma director, based on Stephen King’s first novel.

[31] Included in the American edition of In Our Time, Hemingway’s first collection of stories, published in 1925 by Boni & Liveright

[32] By cesarean section, as it happens, which would seem to solidify the veracity of the posited metaphor.

[33] Hemochromatosis, in which the inability to metabolize iron causes mental and physical deterioration.

[34] He was quite accident prone and lived a fairly high-risk lifestyle to boot. He endured numerous concussions later in life, and at one point had the dubious distinction of being seriously injured in two different plane crashes on successive days.

[35] In a nice piece of artistic circularity, Thompson visited Ketchum, Idaho in 1964 to spend a bit of time investigating the story behind Hemingway’s suicide. Being the immersive, gonzo sort of journalist that he was…well, let’s just say that when all was said and done he took Hemingway’s technique a bit more literally than was called for.

[36] He had also invited his son and daughter-in-law over for the big weekend, lest they feel left out of an important family event.

[37] While unable to figure out how to work his story into the preceding narrative, I feel compelled to at least acknowledge here the case of the poet Hart Crane, who killed himself by leaping from a tour boat somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico. Crane appears to have tried to live his life in the schismatic and ultimately futile mode of being both gay and straight, the ultimate denouement of which was to be savagely beaten on the tour boat for coming on to one of the male crew members while simultaneously having an affair with Peggy Cowley, the ex-wife of a good friend. On top of all this drama, Crane considered his entire artistic life’s work a failure (which assessment apparently many contemporaries shared), meaning that anyone who knew the guy could have pretty much seen his end coming from a mile away.

[38] There is, for example, a great deal of hue and cry currently going on within the dental community in response to the prevailing view that dentists are inordinately prone to self-destruction. Not sure what this is all about, but the industry is taking it seriously enough to publish articles of rebuttal in recent issues of the Journal of the American Dental Association.

[39] A good deal of it negative, either in the form of rejection letters or unfavorable critiques of the pieces that do get published.

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