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.
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.