We work in the dark - we do what we can - we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art. – Henry James
Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation. – Graham Greene
Writers have a reputation for going off the deep end. Being crazy seems to be a requirement in the job description. The nature of writing tries your sanity anyway, with endless rejections and sometimes crippling self-doubt. Writing by nature is very isolating. Think of the stereotype of the starving poet writing his sonnets in his lonely garret. The emotional roller coaster of feeling your characters bare their souls as you type out your manuscript can easily wear down your own soul. After all, Ernest Hemingway said, "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."
Hemingway committed suicide with a bullet to the head. He's not the first writer to suffer from mental illness. Virginia Woolf drowned herself. Sylvia Plath stuck her head in her oven, but only after giving the kids milk and cookies as a snack. Her colleague and friend Anne Sexton also committed suicide. Zelda Fitzgerald was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and she spent the last years of her life in an asylum. F. Scott Fitzgerald suffered from depression and alcoholism. Hunter S. Thompson shot himself. Susanna Kaysen stayed in a mental hospital and later wrote "Girl, Interrupted". Hermanne Hesse, who may have been bi-polar, attempted suicide and spent time in several mental institutions. Another possible manic-depressive and definite violent alcoholic, Malcolm Lowry, spent time in a mental institution and died a "death of misadventure" combining booze and an overdose of sleeping pills. Whether his death was suicide, accident, or murder remains unanswered. Spalding Grey long suffered from depression and he committed suicide after leaping from the Staten Island ferry. Mental illness isn't confined to writers. Patty Duke, Vivien Leigh, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Jeremy Brett were diagnosed with bi-polar disorder.
What if you're lured to The Dark Side anyway, and you are already a creative type? Confession time – I have dealt with these issues since I was a child. In fact, the past few weeks have been sheer hell for me, but I'm improving. I know that many forms of depression, bi-polar disorder, and schizophrenia are biologically-based and not merely a problem of suffering from "the blues". The idea of "picking myself up by my bootstraps" would make me laugh out loud if I didn't feel so damned miserable when people who should know better say something asinine to me like that.
What did make me laugh was a post I saw at Boing-Boing about ads in a 1956 issue of Mental Hospitals magazine. Did you know that Pepsi was viewed at the time as the best drink to force on restrained mental patients? One ad described Pepsi in this manner: "Cheerful visitors are a great help during convalescence. So is Pepsi-Cola. A familiar old friend, Pepsi refreshes without filling." Another ad described Pepsi as "a ready, popular supply to a medical demand – Pepsi-Cola when forced fluids are indicated." Yippiee!! So if I'm trapped in a Snake Pit trussed up in a straitjacket and I need something to quench my parched mouth, Nurse Ratchet would force-feed me Pepsi. Even though I prefer Coca-Cola. Then pump me full of Thorazine. Sure brings new meaning to "Have a Coke and a smile!"
Are writing, acting, painting, and other creative pursuits a natural fit for people with these kinds of disorders? The ups and downs of writing, submitting, rejecting, and acceptance fit my normal pattern of ups and downs. I've always felt a great need to express myself, and I started out in acting and later crew work. I've written fiction since I was a child but I didn't take it seriously until a few years ago. I use my writing as a means of expressing not only my lusts and dreams but my frustrations and pain. Like Hemingway, I bleed all over my keyboard. It feels good – very freeing – and I leave no scars. Well, not physical ones at any rate.
So you noticed the presence of alcohol in the lives of many of those people I mentioned? Yup, what kind of writer doesn't have a glass of spirits of some sort by her side? I like my vermouth, champagne, and occasional glass of microbrew IPA or stout, but if I drink too much my writing is worth a barrel of spit. There are lots of alcoholic creative types out there, in particular Dylan Thomas, who once said "an alcoholic is someone you don't like who drinks as much as you do." Other famous alcoholic writers include William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, James Joyce, Edgar Allan Poe (although his alleged alcoholism has been debated), Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams.
I ask myself am I attracted to The Dark Side because I'm a writer, or am I a writer because I'm attracted to The Dark Side? Could go either way. I do know that writing is a great stress reliever and problem solver except when I'm feeling so poorly I can't even get out of bed. There is definitely a stigma in admitting you see The Dark Beyond The Veil, and sometimes that scares otherwise "normal" people. They see Joan Crawford shrieking "no wire coat hangers!", or Vivien Leigh writhing on a shock treatment table for real, or Olivia de Havilland doing the same but in a movie, or Frances Farmer with an ice pick in her eye socket, or a wild-eyed Norma Desmond slowly creeping down the staircase, waiting for her close up with Mr. DeMille. I don’t care. We're not all like that, including me. I am who I am, and I won't apologize for being me, erotic stories and horror fiction and all. Besides, I'd rather jump into the abyss and feel what goes on around me than shut myself down or be "normal". All my experiences improve my writing. And they improve me.