We all write for a reason. Writing helps us cope. Makes others laugh. It helps us feel and make sense out of feelings. Writing makes us immortal. Although it’s terrifying that we can’t change what’s been printed even if our thoughts change, we lay it all out on the page, hoping to be heard or, better yet, remembered.
But so many of history’s best writers devoted themselves to the craft only to end their life early by committing suicide.
A study highlighted in The Atlantic this past summer found that 80% of a sample of writers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop had some kind of mood disturbance at some point in their lives, as opposed to only 30% of students in the control group. Furthermore, mental illness — schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, among others — tends to run in the families of creative and literary geniuses.
These illnesses, we know, are what is responsible—at least in part—for the suicides of many a great writer: Silvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, Anne Sexton… the list goes on. The “suicidal writer” has become somewhat cliché, although the research linking creativity and mental illness has always been a mixed bag, with some saying the relationship between the two is nothing if not tenuous.
This link has also been applied to the study of genius in general. A First-Rate Madness by Nassir Ghaemi made the case that the best leaders during times of war, economic crisis, etc. were leaders with mental illnesses because their capacity for empathy was higher, thus allowing them to connect better with people and lead them through struggle.
Even excluding the purported link between mental illness and creativity, writing is a symbiotic relationship in which the unhappy write and the writing fuels the unhappiness.
If you weren’t originally unhappy when you started writing, I’d be surprised if the process itself didn’t do it to you. The process of writing is simultaneous fulfilling… and torturous! You pour your heart into something and it either becomes popular or goes straight into the abyss. If it’s popular, you float on the glory for a day or so, pick up a few new followers, and then go right back to the drawing board.
Phillip Roth famously stopped writing at age 79, calling it his “fanatical habit.” When does writing fail to feel like art and instead become a job? A compulsion? A habit? Recently, I caught myself analyzing the book I was reading instead of simply reading it for pleasure. I was taking mental notes of how the author started paragraphs, how she ended chapters, and the tone of her “voice.” I can see why some writers quit after achieving years and years of success. Once you get the formula down for writing a best seller, then what is left of the art? If you deviate from the formula just because you’re bored, you know you’ll lose your readers, so you quit writing instead.
When Roth was still writing, he gave up his cat because it “consumed” him and it “demanded too much attention.” Writing demands your entire stockpile of commitment and full-time attention— what time is left for working on your happiness?
I know how to be happy. When I take the four-hour trip to visit my loved ones —or when they come to visit me— I feel busy and fulfilled, but I have no desire to write. I’m constantly stuck between trying to fuel my writing and living my life.
As writers, our words are always fluttering sideways. We try to get at the core of everything and we fail. We’ll continue to fail. We’re unhappy so we write, and we’re unhappy because we don’t write well. We can never say it best—it’s in our nature to feel that way—but it’s our “fanatical habit” to try to do so.