Occupational Hazards Or, You Might As Well Live

by J.D. Rhoades

The recent suicide of writer David Foster Wallace sent shock waves through the literary world. In the aftermath, magazines and blogs rushed to do appreciations and retrospectives of his work. (I confess, I’ve never read the book that most considered to be his masterpiece, INFINITE JEST, but his collection of essays, A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I’LL NEVER DO AGAIN, is one of my favorites).

What we don’t see in all of the discussion is any clue as to why such a talented writer as David Foster Wallace chose to take himself and that talent out of the world. But perhaps this quote,from a speech Wallace gave in 2005, gives some insight into what was going on in his head:

“Think of the old cliché about the mind being an excellent
servant but a terrible master. This, like many clichés, so lame and
unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible
truth,” he said.

“It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide
with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot
the terrible master.

(Actually, I think most shoot themselves in the head because shooting yourself in the leg doesn’t do the job nearly as efficiently. And, ironically enough, Wallace didn’t shoot himself, he hanged himself. So much for consistency).

When asked "why do you write?" I’ve often been known to answer "mental illness." Mostly, it’s a joke. Mostly. I’ve written here before about the links between depression and creativity (and for those of you who are familiar with my personal take on that, don’t worry. I’m fine.)

As writers, we have to go through life with our walls down, so we can see the world around us as it is. We have to be able to see life clearly, the good, the bad, and the ugly,  in order to write truthfully about it.

But when you live your life like that, without the shielding  people depend on to get through the day,  sometimes the bad stuff comes creeping in. Sometimes it comes to stay. Add to that the loneliness and isolation of the creative process, the financial uncertainties, the seemingly random reversals of fortune, and sometimes, despair seems like an  occupational hazard. Look at the long list of writers who gave in to it: 

Thomas Disch. Sylvia Plath. Yukio Mishima. Virginia Woolf. Ernest Hemingway. Robert E. Howard. Anne Sexton. Iris Chang. Hunter S. Thompson. Even J.K. Rowling, one of the most successful authors on the planet, says she considered taking her own life at one of the low points in her life.  And that’s not even counting the ones that tried to commit  slow motion suicide with drink and drugs.

And yet….

Some of us seem to weather the madness and keep our  heads on straight. Some manage to stay…well,not sane, but at least high-functioning crazy.  And while I’ll admit that it’s not a scientific sample, some of the sanest–or, highest functioning crazy– people I know in this business are mystery and thriller writers. Maybe it’s because we don’t take ourselves quite as seriously as the literary types (I recall one multi-genre book festival where a nice literary novelist asked timidly if she could come sit at our table, because the mystery writers seemed to be having the most fun). Maybe the old cliche, like so many cliches, contains the truth: writing is our therapy; we leave the really dark stuff on the page. Or maybe our familiarity with the implements of death makes us realize, as Dorothy Parker did, that

Razors pain you; Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you; And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful; Nooses give;
Gas smells awful; You might as well live.

So, ‘Rati…what makes the difference for you? What  do you do to stay sane?

Assuming for the sake of argument that you do.


15 thoughts on “Occupational Hazards Or, You Might As Well Live

  1. MJ

    There has been a bit about what happened and details about DFW’s clinical depression. Here are the relevant bits to your question:

    “His father said Sunday that Mr. Wallace had been taking medication for depression for 20 years and that it had allowed his son to be productive.”

    “James Wallace said that last year his son had begun suffering side effects from the drugs and, at a doctor’s suggestion, had gone off the medication in June 2007. The depression returned, however, and no other treatment was successful. The elder Wallaces had seen their son in August, he said.

    “He was being very heavily medicated,” he said. “He’d been in the hospital a couple of times over the summer and had undergone electro-convulsive therapy. Everything had been tried, and he just couldn’t stand it anymore.”

  2. Karen Olson

    I think it’s just the way we’re wired. Some people have a stronger survival sense, so to speak. Some people can handle stress and low points better than others, or at least just work through them. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of artists are suicidal or drug abusers or alcoholics, since they live their angst through their art as well as in their lives, making it doubly difficult.

    I’ve never read Infinite Jest. A 1000 page book just doesn’t make it into my TBR list. I don’t have time for that. But I have heard there’s a dwarf in it.

  3. Tammy Cravit

    I read a quotation once to the effect that the most crazy-making thing about being a writer is that we live in two different worlds, only one of which other people can see. And certainly, I’ve known my share of depressed writers who sought salvation at the bottom of a fifth of whiskey or a bottle of pills. So, what keeps us sane?

    For me, it’s two things. One, oddly, is writing. Even though I’ve yet to have a novel published, I keep writing the stuff I think and see and feel, I keep telling those stories, and so the darkness doesn’t bottle up inside of me for too long. I suspect that if I stopped writing, the darkness would do its level best to swallow me alive.

    The other thing that helps is staying anchored in and a part of the world. It’s easy, perhaps, for writers to retreat from the darkness of the world into the confines of our own minds, but that internal landscape is usually a better vacation home than full-time residence. When I need to recharge and re-connect with the good in the world, I do something totally frivolous and worldly. Take my daughter out for ice cream, for example. Or go sit on a beach and meditate.

    Writers, especially those of us who write about the world’s dark underbelly, can’t afford to neglect self-care. The darkness is a voracious hunter, and it’ll swallow us whole if we let it.

  4. Allison Brennan

    Anytime someone takes their life is a tragedy. As MJ pointed out, Wallace was severely depressed for years. It saddens me that after 20 years on medication that something else couldn’t have been tried, perhaps sooner than before the meds gave him other problems.

    As for writers and other artists, we do tend to be more emotional. I compartmentalize very well, but sometimes my research affects my dreams and I tend to be more security conscious than most, especially regarding my kids. It drives my daughters crazy that I won’t let them have a MySpace page.

  5. Kathleen

    For me it’s the normal day to day life that drags me down into the abyss. I don’t like either of my 2 paying jobs. It’s the writing that keeps me sane–the thing I do purely for me, not because I’m supposed to or someone expects it, but because I love it.

  6. Lee

    Writing is fantasy…It takes you away from real life, unless you are writing about your real life.Anti-depressions can have terrible side affects, which can worsen the depression. Our neighbor committed suicide a couple years ago, to stop the voices he heard in his head. He too, had stopped his medication because of the side affects.Wallace may have picked hanging because once the process was in motion it can’t be stopped. Also it is one of the most selfish things a individual could do to their family. He obviously wasn’t thinking past his own pain, to his wife, and parents.

  7. pari

    This is such an important and thought-provoking post, JD. Thank you.

    I can’t judge people who commit suicide because some of those closest to me have chosen to end their life. I felt tremendous anger, sorrow then. Still feel it today.

    Mental illness is real and can be horrid.

    For me? I feel pretty balanced most of the time exactly because my life is far more frantic than I’d like. Frankly, I’d probably be a much more “famous” and/or “successful” writer if I didn’t have my children, if I weren’t married. But every single day, I’m forced to live quite a bit outside of my head and in the real world of making dinner, cleaning house (yeah, right), shopping etc etc etc. I also make exercise a priority because I think it does far more for me than control weight; it’s got a spiritual/mental health aspect that is undeniable in my life.

    So o o o, even though I wish with all my heart I had more time to devote to my writing, on a very real level I guess I’m glad I don’t.

  8. Jake Nantz

    Good thought-provoking post, Mr. Rhoades. I can’t really say what keeps me sane, because I’m honestly still not convinced of my sanity in the first place. I was diagnosed in H.S. as having dystopic manic-depression. Pretty much what has been re-termed “bipolar”, only with the dystopia I go from angry and irritable to depressed and back. I used to joke that, between the two, I never got to be happy or upbeat (even in an unhealthy manic way).

    I took medication for it that never really helped (but did trigger my psoriasis…bonus!), and I finally just decided that I was going to be a productive member of society without medicine, or therapy, or any other crutch. Since college it’s been better, and it helps that I’m fulfilled by my wonderful wife and my day job teaching. Writing helps too, but I still get ideas that I sometimes wonder if they are too violent even for my fiction, and I worry about what part of me they’re coming from.

    That said, I can at least comprehend if not TRULY understand what might push Mr. Wallace to that breaking point, because it’s different for all of us. All I can do now is pray that his family’s pain is manageable and hope his soul winds up where he wanted. It’s always sad when someone takes their own life, and I wish he’d been able to fight it better, but I certainly don’t feel I can judge him. I just wish he could have managed it better.

  9. Dana King

    I’m in th same boat as Louise; a lot of frustrations can be worked out while writing.

    I think there’s a built-in component to mysteries/crime fiction that may help. “Literary” writers can allow their, and thus their imaginations, to wallow in the despair of their characters. A plot point doesn’t have to make much sense if it is allegorical, or a metaphor for John’s suffering.

    Crime writers don’t get that much leeway. The story has to make sense, which means we have to maintain a certain detachment to ensure the reader can follow the thread. Also, most crime fiction has some sort of resolution, so we’re looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. It may be dim, and it may not illuminate everyone, but we’re going to get there somehow.

    This means crime writers may think more than others, and are less likely for their work to be driven solely by emotion. As someone a lot smarter than I once said, life is a tragedy to those who feel, and a comedy to those who think. That may be why the crime writers were having enough fun for the literary woman to want to sit with them.

    Excellent and thought-provoking post, JD. Thanks.

  10. J.D. Rhoades

    MJ: thanks for the information. That’s just so sad.

    Karen: I’m with you on 1000 page books. But a dwarf now…that’s something to think about.

    Kathleen: may the thing you love end up being the thing that pays your bills.

    Louise: it ain’t the demons “out there” I’m worried about. It’s the ones that have taken up residence.

    “The darkness is a voracious hunter, and it’ll swallow us whole if we let it.” Tammy, consider that stolen.

    pari: sorry to hear about your own experience with people close to you. Lee has a point…it’s often hard not to be angry at the apparent selfishness of the act. But how are we to know just how deep the despair went?

    Allison: LOL! My daughter has a MySpace page, but it does make me feel a little better that I’m on her “Top Friends list.”

    Jake: sorry to hear about your own battles, but it’s encouraging that you seem to be managing it without the use of medications. And those things that you think may be too violent…well, the fellow that wrote a Blood Eagle into his latest book isn’t going to judge you for that!

    Dana: excellent point about the plot you have to think about to write. Maybe that’s why I’ve always been more comforted by books that tell a good story rather than the beautifully written but meandering type so beloved of the literati.

  11. j.t. ellison

    Randy. Massage. Talking to friends. Leaving the house for a drive. Leaving the computer behind. Those things help me stay sane. I need more of them now than I did when I started, that’s for sure… thanks for the post Dusty. It’s a cruel reality.

  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again – exercise. Dance. I miss just one day and I can feel myself starting to unravel.

    I was so very sorry to hear about Wallace. Depression is a serial killer.


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