Sunday, March 23, 2008

Tortured Souls of Great Writers, Artists

UPDATE: Several typos fixed. Ugh.


To write about the range of human emotions, an exceptional writer must have been reduced to the ground in pain and soared among the clouds in ecstasy.

This has been my working theory for years, and I am sure it owes to some intellectual antecedents that I no longer recall. My apologies to those forgotten inspirations.

My case in point has always been Ernest Hemingway. The quintessential American author suffered from alcoholism, bipolar disorder, and eventually took his own life with both barrels of a double-barreled shotgun at age 61.

Writers -- indeed many great artists -- don't seem to be a happy-go-lucky sort. Tortured souls such as Vincent Van Gogh typify the extremely gifted far better than the ever-optimistic Bobby McFerrin.

I was reminded of my theory today as I read the headline "Harry Potter author: I considered suicide" on CNN.com.
[Although] the 42-year-old has spoken before of her battle with depression, it was the first time she had admitted that she contemplated suicide, the newspaper said.

It was then that [J. K.] Rowling began writing the first Harry Potter book, which was eventually published in 1996.
Sadly, it seems, the pain of mental illness drives the creative engine.

It is, I suppose, like method acting taken to the painful extreme. In order to write words that resonate with the lows experienced by the average reader, you must have spent a great deal of time exploring those low places. You must know the shadows of the low places. They must be a part of you. And they must haunt you.

The formula is familiar. Creativity. Greatness. Pain. Depression. Alcohol. Drugs. Rather than hippie indiscretions, these analgesics mask the pain. Creative minds often find a way to self-medicate in order to shut out the darkness.

Although the pain may be numbed, the underlying problem often is made only worse.

I hope that Rowling's days of depression are behind her. She sought proper help for her depression, and luckily the science that helped her has advanced beyond the electro-convulsive therapy that may have descended Hemingway into another circle of hell.

In the meantime, we warm ourselves in the greatness of pained souls only to lose them too soon.

Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Hutchence, Hunter S. Thompson, Spalding Gray, Virginia Woolf.

They either died by their own hands or an accidental overdose. The list is so much longer. The list includes people such as Paul Tilley, the DDB creative chief who fell to his death in February.

I've watched friends who are great talents and writers suffer with depression and mental illness. Sadly, at least one such friend died by his own hand. Another came dangerously close.

There is no cure to link between creativity and emotional pain. Indeed, I believe they are forever fused in a causal link. We can only try to recognize depression and mental illness and reach out to those about whom we care. We can try to reduce the stigma of mental illness and related treatment.

Most people who pick up a pen struggle to rise above mediocrity. Finding the right word is a difficult task, and my words here hardly do justice to the great names listed above. The ability to find the right word is an insight into the human condition. Sadly that insight too often comes from a great deal of pain.

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6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I appreciate your analysis of great writers struggling internally. As history shows, it shows an undeniable evidence.

However, Rowling's creativity and "suicide" are another event. Despite the popular sales of Harry Potter books and movies that have been made, it appears more as a fashion rather than excellence. Maybe time will determine if Harry Potter will stand to be a great "children's book". Hemingway, Edgar Allen Poe, and Robert Frost works have stood through time and almost all schools study their works. There is a charisma of excellence and complexity in all their works. It makes us desire to read over and over again.

Rowling? Her book is a form of entertainment. I am not an anti-Harry Potter for I have read all her books and have watched all the movies. However, I have to disagree that her hard time is similar to the great writers.

My thought: Another way for Rowling to put her face in publicity. It's an addiction and she will continue to do so until all her options have expired.

8:31 PM  
Blogger Samuel D. Bradley said...

This is an important distinction that I did not make clear.

It was not the intention to juxtapose great literary works, such as those of Hemingway, with financial successes such as Rowling. Clearly there is a distinction. However, in today's economy, we are far more likely to see the latter than the former.

The Rowling story was just the one that caused me to revisit this issue.

Although we will never know for sure, I hope that your cynicism about Rowling is not justified. I hope that she was trying to use her fame -- even in a tangential way -- as a platform to call attention to mental illness.

9:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting read - but your links are hard to see in this color.

9:42 AM  
Anonymous anirudh bhati said...

Personally, I feel it was not a wise thing to say in public. Here's my take on it: http://anirudhbhati.com/2008/03/24/jk-rowling-considered-suicide/

9:44 AM  
Blogger Samuel D. Bradley said...

Link colors darkened!

10:13 AM  
Blogger Toyin Abiodun said...

I find this anonymous comment on J.K. Rowling mischievous. Perhaps this explains the reason for its scripted anonymity. Obviously, the person who wrote this is sans the gravity and ingenious creativity of a truly great writer! He is not privy to see the struggles of great artistes behind the scenes!

12:32 AM  

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