What do Ernest Hemingway, Jack London and Virginia Woolf have in common - besides being famous writers? They all committed suicide. This is just the short list, too. Even the "Top Ten" list of famous literary suicides barely scratches the surface. As a breed, creative writers seem to be particularly suicide prone. Why?
Readers, swept away by the beauty, intelligence and poignancy of a great novel or poem, wonder how anyone so creative would even contemplate suicide. Wouldn't someone with such penetrating insight into the human condition possess the detached brilliance of the Buddha? Wouldn't their fame and the accolades they receive from their admirers be enough to buoy their spirits? Is the solitary nature of the vocation responsible for all the tragic deaths?
Psychologists believe they may have the answer to the question: in a word, it's depression. A disproportionate number of creative writers have been diagnosed as manic depressive. In fact, the renowned poet, Anne Sexton, took up writing on the advice of her therapist, who felt it would be a good outlet for her. That was in 1956. She quickly began to receive accolades for her brilliant work, finally receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1967, only ten years after she began writing. Seven years later, still at the pinnacle of her career, she committed suicide.
Manic Depression, today more commonly referred to as Bipolar Disorder, is characterized by violent mood swings. In artists, a burst of creative energy is followed by a period of intense self-criticism. Some psychologists suggest that it is this very combination that makes creative writing the natural career choice for manic-depressives. They follow a feverish round of creative activity with an equally intense round of proof-reading, editing and perfecting their original work.
Fortunately for writers everywhere, depression is not a requirement for the job. While writing does attract more than its fair share of suicides, the majority of writers live until a ripe old age. Such was the case with the brilliant British novelist, Alan Sillitoe. Sillitoe was at the forefront of the "Angry Young Men" writing movement in the 1950s. Two of his early novels, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner were made into films. A true "working class hero," Sillitoe exposed the cruelty of a social system that relentlessly punishes the vast majority of its workers - the very people who are the backbone of industry. Alan Sillitoe died on the 25th of April, 2010 at the age of 82.
J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye, also died recently. Often called the most influential writer of the 20th century, Salinger was also one of the most enigmatic. At the height of his fame, he retreated into virtual seclusion and shunned the limelight for the rest of his life. He was neither depressed nor suicidal: he just liked his privacy, as do most writers. This tendency towards introversion characterizes the writer's life much better than the more newsworthy tendency towards depression or suicide.
Whether battling with their inner demons, like Sexton or Hemingway, communing with angels like William Blake or exploring the Human Comedy like Balzac, writers share a common need for solitude. This is sometimes hard for more extroverted types to understand and they often assume that all writers must spend their lives wallowing in loneliness and despair. This is a misconception. The list of writers, famous or otherwise, who live long and fulfilling lives is much longer than the list of those who have committed suicide. Most writers consider their profession to be a calling rather than a chosen career. The pay is lousy, the chances for success slim, but the rewards that come from answering the call are great.