Peruvian novelist and essayist Mario Vargas Llosa said, “Writing a book is a very lonely business. You are totally cut off from the rest of the world, submerged in your obsessions and memories.” Now imagine if these “obsessions” and “memories” are horrific stories about acts of violence.
2012 and 2013 were dark years for me. I worked extensively on social issues affecting women—including, but not limited to, violence against women. Researching, writing, and editing articles, poems, and essays meant interviewing female survivors of violence; family members of victims; and, in general traversing through and unraveling a lot of inhumane situations. Being exposed to such unimaginable hopelessness and pessimism and reliving them via my writing, there were days when I saw nothing encouraging about humanity.
The deeper I got involved with my work, the lonelier I felt. Why I chose to write what I did or my life choices as a writer. Or why standing on the sidewalk and staring at the moon inspired me. Or why watching a homeless man eat out of the trash make my eyes moist. I loathed the idea of explaining myself to the world. It was so easy to feel like an outsider so often. When in company, some people filled the gaps; others emphasized the loneliness.
Our art consumes us. I believe, the better we get at it, the more it becomes a reflection in the mirror of our conscience. The more we evolve as an artist, the less evolved the world around us feels.
Slowly, I became a part of my poems from my Pushcart Prize nominated book No Ocean Here. The pain that I wrote about seeped under my skin and tormented me. Throiugh this period, over-analysis and introspection became my mantra. Like so many other writers and artists, I shut down. It wasn’t because I had become protective of my time; I felt un-relatable and vulnerable.
Anaïs Nin said, “People living deeply have no fear of death.” Is this really true and applicable to writers and artists as well, I wonder? Aren’t “we” as a profession labeled Bohemian and fearlessly pleasure-seeking? Looking for the moment, experiencing the moment, sharing the experiences of those moments through the form of art we choose to pursue.
In my case, sure, the thought of hurting others or myself never once occurred to me. But I felt a pang of heavy sadness and loneliness at every conjuncture while working on certain projects. And I felt this way despite having the most incredibly supportive husband and close friends—people who are there for me regardless. Whether or not they understand my artistic mentality, it’s immaterial; they let me be without any judgment and never ask me to change. Aside from a good support structure in place, I am a strong, happy, and an optimistic person by nature. You’d think writing wouldn’t impact me negatively. Or if it did, there would be enough incentive for me to not remain low. But that wasn’t the case. I figured that a healthy personal life might ground a writer and stop them from jumping into the well. But nobody can stop a real artist from approaching the well itself.
Truth is that the fear and fascination of death tease us every day.
Truth is that the fear and fascination of death tease us every day. Truth is that death isn’t a light subject for anyone; especially not for writers and artists who, when they explore the dark sides end up re-living death in a myriad of ways as they bring forth their creations into the world.
My quest to understand poets and writers and the impact of darkness and mortality on their work and lives started to gnaw at me ever since I experienced the “dark side” myself. I started to realize that so many talented artists and writers have died so young. Many took their own lives. Their life, death, writing, legacy—often remain shrouded in controversy. And so many of them became famous because of their posthumous work.
Mortality, specifically the finality of death, is an esoteric subject. In a paper dealing with effects of mortality salience, MS, (Mortality salience is a term which describes awareness of one’s eventual death) on the creative expression, Clay Routledge et.al. stated that amplified concerns for mortality decreased creativity when the act was self-directed but not when it was community directed. Research indicates that the awareness of death can be a barrier to creative expression. Specifically, when mortality is rendered salient, creativity is inhibited. Individualistic people are more creative under MS when they can leave a legacy than when they cannot, and high originality predicts subsequent accessibility of death thoughts.
Take the example of acclaimed American poet and writer, Sylvia Plath. She committed suicide when she was thirty. Plath was found dead on February 11, 1963 at her home in north London after thrusting her head as far as she could into the oven and turning the gas on. She had sealed the kitchen with wet towels, tape, and cloths to stop carbon monoxide from leaking out to the next room where her children lay sleeping. She left food and drinks for her kids in their room and opened a window. On a baby carriage in the hallway, she attached a note with her doctor’s name and number. It would seem that Sylvia Plath had prepared to die.
Many people had blamed Plath’s suicide on her husband and fellow poet Ted Hughes. But Plath is rumored to have been prolific in the period before her death. Her poems were palpably autobiographical. According to an article in the Boston Globe, “Sylvia’s last two poems, completed on February 5, a Tuesday, perfectly express the plight of someone who seemed poised between life and death.” Finally, Plath was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, the first poet to win the prize posthumously.
Which of them—Plath or Hughes—was more responsible for the tragic disasters they suffered? I don’t know if catastrophic coupling, like in the case of Plath and Hughes, can be the only reason writers and artists decide to take their lives. I feel it has more to do with their creations. Being married to a non-artist and left-brain using person works best for me. While my work is tumultuous, my marriage is what stabilizes the artist in me. But I have friends who date only artists and create best when in dramatic relationships, with long periods of high followed by depressing intervals of low. End of the day, our methods or inspiration for creation might be different but we all deal with the same loneliness and anxieties as a writer.
Is it that these artists, who died prematurely, simply could not face the reality, which their creations exposed them to? Or could it be a vicious cycle where artists who are forced to peel back and critically examine the layers of melancholy, misery, pain, and sorrow find themselves pushed into abject loneliness because of the gloomy vision they see the world in; and in turn find their creativity stifled to the point where their very existence becomes a downward spiral into depression and eventually death.