Categorized | Books

Why Authors Kill Themselves

Before we go any further, look at this list. Look at this motherfucking list. It is not usually within O2LSports’ policy to be vulgar without merit, but are you fucking kidding me with that shit? This list doesn’t even include painters, rock stars, actors, or even attempted writer suicides. 291 entries for ‘famous writer suicides’.

When the tally reached four in the span of a few months for professional football players, the siren sounded for brain research. The rock stars dead-before-their-time can, but shouldn’t, be reduced down to the fact that 30 percent of their life is ultra-manic awesome, 20 percent is the sheer monotony of travel, and the other 50 percent is spent searching for that pre-encore adrenaline.  Actors? Maybe they’ve spent their lives being someone else for so long that they forgot how to be themselves, if you’ll excuse the morose Hallmarkology.

Authors, man, they’re a different breed, or so they’ve strained to convince themselves. You don’t even know where to begin for a case study. After Junior Seau and the most recent tragedy in Kansas City, we can wonder about concussions. We can dissect whether Heath Ledger killed himself or whether the demands of the trade, on- and off-screen, deprived us of a Joker-centric Dark Knight Rises, as well as, by all accounts, a fantastic human being. But writers will always be the ghosts in the corner of the room, only heard from through their own lore.

We love not knowing about writers almost as much as we love knowing about movie stars. The Kubricks, the Salingers, the Dickensons… their reclusive natures stand out as necessary parallels to their works. It could very well be that these writers were allowed to observe for too long, that Pynchon (famously withdrawn) and Vonnegut (attempted overdose) didn’t want to tell the world what was wrong and right with it anymore, that they wanted to be sewn into its fabric like everyone else.

We could deduce that writers cannot live in a world they don’t control, those little Captain Ahabs in the flesh. The sources of inspiration for their landmark novels were not to be understood fully even by they themselves,  but in the end, they were still the vessels and they finalized the thing. Take Hemingway for example: not a word out of place, flowery prose forbidden, and God help him if he were ever forced to use a comma. His style was clean, concise, and marginally obsessive. Dead via shotgun blast.

The opposite could also be true.  Hunter S. Thompson drowned himself in drugs to get to the edge of the world, to see when it all would collapse on itself. It never did. He lived into his sixties, retired comfortably, and carved out an entire genre for himself. All of this is why he tells us he lived longer than he meant to in his suicide note, “Football Is Over”.  Everyone from the Lost Generation to the Beat Generation and beyond saw humanity tear itself to pieces, so it only made sense the writers would stay true to the source material and destroy themselves.  But then they are microcosms; those lend themselves to correlation, but rarely to causation.

What I have come to call the problem is the Limits of the Editing Spectrum (LES) – that is, until a cleverer person inevitably renames it. I have no background in psychology besides two B’s in college, and I definitely haven’t had access to a lab to study brainwaves. But what the suicidal writers seem to be searching for, as a constant in their daily lives, is the same element of construction – note: not control — that they have with their characters. There’s the almost-irrefutable idea in writing that, no matter how terrible you are, if you write a second draft, it will be better than the first; and the third will be better than the second; and the fourth over the third, until you have reached the absolute limits of your creative writing abilities. At that point, you publish the thing or you throw it in the garbage bin.

LES is not an inability to separate one’s personal reality from fiction; rather it is precisely the recognition that the two cannot co-exist and a willful attempt at it anyway. For instance, I listen intently to almost everyone around me. They are not, by any stretch of the imagination, all scintillating and witty individuals. But I will hear a funny intonation, a good quip, or a flash of genius and project what else they could have said after that – something more interesting or more scandalous, perhaps. (And I am not whip-clever myself. These projections happen hours and days afterward.) Moreover, I will project what else they could have been as a human being, sparing no immunity for myself. Thus, LES keeps me in this state of continual agitation, excitement, and disappointment: agitation that I can’t turn off LES to live in either fantasy land or real life exclusively, excitement when a conversation might become as memorable as a Tolstoy roundtable discussion, and disappointment because yeah, no. Again, none of the writers have to be insane to battle the Limits of the Editing Spectrum on a daily basis. They know the score. Enjoyment and fulfillment to a small degree is within reach, for as long as they can stop imagining “Highlight+BkSpc+…” after someone speaks.

Suicide is a decision that requires nearly the entire brain to be in favor of it. The suicidal writers must have been re-wired, trained and conditioned to see only one natural exit. I believe, to get to that point, the writers must find unhappiness in everything; and depression is a given when a good thing happens, only to launch a thousand brilliant outcomes that don’t.  Real-life editing is thus not a means of perfection, but a means of making a motif, for better or worse.

But, assuming the writers are aware that the earthly realm was not written by Robert A. Heinlein, why would they pursue a sci-fi reality such as infinite outcomes, life-editing, and blended existences? Because it is possible on some level. The drinking, the drugs, and the depression that afflict writers are living fiction. Friends and loved ones apologize for ‘not being themselves’, when in fact, that’s exactly what the writer is searching for. Put it this way: no plot ever got going by everyone acting rationally. If loneliness is symptomatic of writing, it’s because the preferred self is the unexpected self; you may recognize ‘unexpected’ as not being the bedrock of most people’s lives.

Why edit? Because life, for some writers, has to build toward something grand and life ain’t always grand. They have different aspirations than riches and fame – notably because being an author to become rich and famous is like making three left turns to go right: there are far better and more proven ways to go about doing that. The thousands of posthumous, nearly penniless cases of so many Poes and Melvilles are well-known and they aren’t much of a deterrence.  The suicidal author perhaps feels the need to live out his or her impossible novels and poems to be truly happy, with the expected results.  The limits are designed to be pushed. How much the author can change, sculpt, and possess in a lifetime before finding the requisite dissatisfaction is circumstantial.

Suicidal Sylvia Plath said she was a ‘riddle in nine syllables’… those may have been “Limits of the Editing Spectrum”.


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About the Author

Chris O'Toole (Colorado State '12, Chapman '15) recently finished a Screenwriting MFA. He has written for Livestrong, CBS, and other publications. Love, hate, and job offers can be sent to: