I’d like to answer no, but there is some evidence to the contrary. I think to argue that all authors, or all good/great authors, have been crazy would be a huge misstatement. However, it does seem like a larger proportion of “the greats” have suffered from some form of mental illness.
Going to Smith College, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf come to mind. Their struggles with clinical depression are well documented by biographers and within their work, and their suicides are well known. This initially made me wonder if the craziness (for lack of a more sensitive term) stemmed from gender – perhaps from the lack of a room of one’s own. Then I remembered the similar ending of the hyper masculine Hemingway, and brushed that though aside.
Addiction, another form of mental illness in my mind, plagues man authors. Think of the Beats or the Romantic poets. Stephen King is a professed recovering coke addict – and even Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde while on cocaine. Hunter S. Thompson said, “I wouldn’t recommend sex, drugs, or insanity for everyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”
Many think Kafka had serious personality disorders, and others have diagnosed him with anorexia nervosa. Fitzgerald, Vonnegut, George Eliot, and Tennessee Williams are all thought to have suffered from clinical depression. Drinking out of an old scull was one of the sanest things English poet Byron ever did. Seriously read Young Romantics if you doubt me – he used to stage actual batters between his servants and when his boarding school instated a no dog rule, he brought a bear into the dormitories as a pet. And Edgar Allen Poe … enough said.
If you accept the hypotheses, the question becomes are crazies better writers or does writing drive people crazy? Or maybe both.
I think most of my writing teachers have supported both statements. Almost all repeat that writing is not a happy profession, that it will wreck you. And although there is lots of angst about recognition, and publishing, and money – I tended to think they meant the actual act of devoting the majority of your time to writing was the miserable part. To be fair they all wrote about pretty miserable topics, but they might have been caught up in the “write what you know” quandary.
A poetry professor told me I either needed to start using illegal drugs or have an affair with an older man before my poetry would get better. After a weekend trip to Amsterdam that semester, I quickly discounted his advice. I think I’ve done my best writing while feeling very mentally sound and comfortable, but I still obviously haven’t gotten rid of the connection between great writing and insanity.
To be fair, I kind of think everyone, or at least everyone I know well, is at least a little bit insane. Again, that might say more about me then them?
Also interesting, is judgments people make on each other, when it comes to their favorite authors. I was part amused part horrified by this Huffington Post Books slideshow on favorite books that make you undateable. Seriously, what is wrong with liking the Great Gatsby?
What do you think –
- Are crazy people better writers?
- Can you think of some authors to negate my gross simplification?
- And most importantly, are there books that would make someone undateable?