The Psychology of Writing
Take a look at this list of names:
Penelope Delta, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Andrews, Kurt Cobain, Eleanor Marx, Sylvia Plath, John O’Brien, Len Doherty, Charles Williams, Ernst Toller, and Myrtle Reed.
Some of the names may be at least a little familiar to you. A few should be well known to almost everyone. And a few others are pretty obscure.
These eleven people have two things in common. Did you catch it without looking them up?
All eleven are writers from the past.
And all eleven died by committing suicide.
This is, sadly, only a tiny subset of a rather long list of authors, poets, and other literary professionals who have died at their own hand. When you add in other people in the creative arts (musicians, painters, sculptors, performers, etc.), the list gets very long indeed.
But I’m mostly focused on the authors here.
Most studies of suicidal behavior among writers seem to settle on a figure around an author being about twice as likely to kill themselves than random people from the general, non-writing population. Very few studies give a smaller number, but a good number of researchers put the rate at four or more times more likely to commit suicide.
Then there is the idea of risk taking behavior. This can be things like hobbies others consider risky (I myself skydive and ride motorcycles, usually much faster than is prudent), drug and/or alcohol abuse (I have a long history of IV drug abuse), sexual promiscuity (no comment), and more. A large number of writers who don’t actually kill themselves tend to follow these kinds of habits, and when you get right down to the brass tacks, drinking, drugging, and the rest are really just slow ways to commit suicide.
Over the years, many psychologists, psychiatrists, clergy, and others have tried to explain why authors are so at risk, but the results are usually little more than speculation and anecdotal. You’ll frequently see attempts to link the creative thought process to depression. This is, at best, a poor correlation or, at worst, an effort to cook the data to make it fit the premise of the researcher. The simple fact is, no one really knows why writers are far more likely to take their own life.
I personally have attempted suicide twice in my life, once when I was 16 and had been a professionally published author for only two years, and again when I was 26 with more than a decade of writing under my belt. In both cases, I overdosed on heroin and I was lucky enough to be found by people who cared enough to save me.
I also, as mentioned above, indulge in risky hobbies. I never got into fast cars because I found out early that a $7,000 motorcycle can go faster than a $250,000 car. I gave up the motorcycles for my family after I got married. I still, however, skydive. All of my jumps today are routine, regular jumps at reasonable speeds and from aircraft designed for jumping. I have, in the past, jumped from less, shall we say, friendly aircraft…like a B-29 bomber, a 727 airliner, and a 12 passenger corporate jet. None of those are even close to a good idea.
As for the drugs, one never really ever quits…you just exist on a sliding continuum of recovery. I can say that I’ve been drug-free for just shy of 15 years now. Do I still get cravings? You bet I do. Fact is, I love my family more than I love the horse.
I have never considered myself to be depressed. Yes, like everyone else on the planet, I have had some episodes of situational depression during rough periods in my life, but nothing that fits the DSM criteria of major depression. And those two suicide attempts…all I can say is that I don’t think I was depressed then. Death simply seemed like the path of least resistance at the time.
So why do we authors do this sort of thing? Is it some new form of depression not yet well understood? Is it that the voices in our heads really will kill us if given the chance? Or maybe, just maybe, is there some odd virus that makes us write but will kill us in the end?
I don’t know the answer. Why should I? I have a BA in psychology, but much brighter people than I also don’t know the answer.
What I do know is that all writers need to look at themselves closely.
Are you depressed? If so, seek help. I want to warn you about something here…many colleagues of mine have been depressed and sought help. That help today is in the form of one (or more) antidepressant medications and very little or even no counseling. The problem is that for many writers, the drugs will take the edge off their writing. Most will stop the medications on their own. In other words, they will choose writing while depressed over not writing while happy and accept the idea that they may very well die. What you need is counseling to help you change your thought patterns. You need the medication to get through the crisis, but then psychotherapy to deal with the underlying cause. If you are not willing to give up writing, make sure the mental health professionals know this so they can do what’s needed.
Are you drinking and/or drugging too much? See above. Sometimes, a group like AA or NA can be of more benefit than an MD or PhD.
Do you engage in risky behaviors? If so, really look at things. Are you doing so because you really enjoy it or is it just a complicated suicide attempt? Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
My goal here is to educate you to the simple fact that, as an author, you are at a significantly higher risk for suicide. The reasons why that is, while essentially unknown, are really not important. What is important is that you know.
Knowledge is, after all, power.
And you have the power to avoid becoming another statistic by being aware of your actions and taking steps to mitigate the risks.
Please…I don’t want to see your name on that list above.