Okay, everyone knows it’s a cliche but writers are prone to going doolally. They submerge themselves in so many imaginary worlds and landscapes that the voices and characters of these worlds start talking to them and multiplying so there’s no escape from the narrative curse, even if they’re having a picnic in the garden on a summer’s day.
I admit that’s the slightly exaggerated version but writer’s have a magnetic relationship to illness – and the evidence for their sickie storms is overwhelming or selective depending on your bias, prejudice or deep love for a particular genius.
Hemingway shot himself, Plath committed suicide, Dostoyevsky had epilepsy, Graham Greene had bipolar disorder, Robert Louis Stevenson had major battles with TB and lung problems, Virginia Woolf drowned herself, David Foster Wallace hung himself and list goes on – and there are many more.
But does it prove anything? All people go through bouts of illness and much of the general population will have to deal with a loved one (or themselves) suffering a serious illness or death during their lifetime. We just hear about writers – and other famous names – more often. It’s hardly evidence for a connection between the creative urge and the hospital ward.
Yet there are probably two things going on with writers – and perhaps other artists – that make them more prone to the likes of mental illness and bipolar disorder which may lead to suicidal tendencies and other less horrific outcomes.
First (and I know this seems obvious) the sheer strain put on the grey matter when you’re pounding away on the daily treadmill known as the life of the mind will, after time, take its toll. It’s highly logical. People may say that brain surgeons, airline pilots and other highly skilled posts would involve similar cerebral pressures and that’s true up to a point. The difference is their arenas and knowledge have to be more fixed. They are better not leaving anything to the imagination because that leads to mistakes. They mustn’t wander and roam. The artist’s imagination is everything – and that’s why they get into trouble. It’s hard to keep a lid on it.
Secondly, the curse known as POP (Pursuit Of Perfectionism) is something a writer strives for but never reaches. The reason for this is obvious: it’s a highly ludicrous and absurd goal because no work can ever be perfect or flawless; you can only give it your best, find a level of consistency and try to make a story come alive.
But this doesn’t stop the writer from trying to get as close to perfect as possible. Every work is measured, precise and calculated almost to the word, putting a huge strain on body and mind. Once the ‘work’ is out there, the response can lead to unbearable pressure, particularly if agent, reader or publisher do net get the story or characters. That can be a game-changer – and lead to a downward spiral of epic proportions.
So that is my take on the art/sickie two-step which I believe has a simple remedy. Don’t listen to POP or the high-wire act you’ve been pulling recently won’t have an audience ever again.