The Writer Isn't Well


Is there any truth to the stereotype of the mad writer?

In an episode of the BBC sci-fi series Doctor Who called Vincent and the Doctor, the titular Doctor takes Vincent van Gogh forward in time to see how his paintings are still resonating in the modern day. While there, an art curator tells the Doctor and a crying Vincent that through art van Gogh ‘transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty.’ In real life, this ‘pain’ came in the form of mental illness, which Van Gogh suffered from throughout his life, and which would ultimately be responsible for his suicide at the age of 37.

Mental ill health can manifest in writing, from Sylvia Plath openly writing about suicide to J. K. Rowling creating Dementors as a metaphor for her depression.

This idea of the ‘tortured artist’ is one that is fixed in our culture. Pain, both emotional and physical, is often linked in with great art. Artist Frida Kahlo, who suffered from chronic pain after a traffic accident, imbued her paintings with bloody and medical imagery, while musician Kurt Cobain wrote lyrics to do with his struggles with addiction and depression. This public perception of emotional pain being linked to creativity is especially prominent among writers, who often pour much of themselves into their work, or at least are perceived to.

While there is no scientifically-proven link between creativity and mental health issues, artistic pursuits such as writing are often used as an outlet or a form of escapism from said issues. Often this can manifest in their writing, in ways as prominent as Sylvia Plath openly writing about suicide, to J. K. Rowling creating Dementors as a metaphor for her depression.

Some have argued that these illnesses have been used as springboards for the creation of great art. This can be seen most literally with the Beat generation writer William S. Burroughs. Burroughs was a well-known and prolific substance abuser, and wrote many of his novels while under the influence of drugs such as heroin. His drug addiction directly influenced his writing, much of which is critically acclaimed and influential to this day. Problematically, Burroughs's drug use is often romanticised in pop culture, treated as a creative tool or artistic idiosyncrasy rather than a life-altering (and occasionally life-ruining) addiction.

Often female writers’ known struggles with mental health have eclipsed their bodies of work in the public eye, as with Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath.

Although issues such as substance abuse could be seen by some as valuable to a writer’s writing process, they can also be detrimental and dangerous. While Burroughs’ lived to see old age despite his drug abuse problems, the flipside of this can be seen in author F. Scott Fitzgerald. One of the most famous writers of the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald wrote during the time of prohibition when decadence and alcoholic excess were common and featured as major themes in his writing. Fitzgerald was also a well-known alcoholic, something that helped to cause the breakdown of his marriage to the equally-unstable Zelda Fitzgerald, and arguably contributed to his early death aged 44.   

The idea that a writer’s mental health is inextricably linked to their writing is an especially prominent issue among female writers. Women have often been either dismissed or demonised for their mental health issues, with most mentally instability in women previously being attributed to ‘hysteria.’ Often female writers' known struggles with mental health have eclipsed their bodies of work in the public eye, as with Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath.

Sylvia Plath is an especially poignant example of this. During her lifetime Plath’s work went largely under-the-radar, but since her suicide in 1963 her work has seen significantly increased exposure. It can be debated whether her work would have achieved the levels of fame that it did if she hadn’t committed suicide.

What cannot be argued is that her struggles with mental health have become as elevated as her actual writing. This is likely because mental health played such a large role in her writing; her only novel, The Bell Jar, was semi-autobiographical and based on her previous suicide attempt and institutionalisation. It could be disputed that because it has been written about by Plath, that her mental health struggles can and should be talked about in discussions on her writing because it played such a significant role.

Ultimately, the pop culture cliche that links mental illness with a particular idea of artistic genius is misleading, and dangerous.

On the other hand, there have been arguments that this focus on the mental health aspects of writing’s such as Plath’s have been taken to the extreme, and to a certain extent almost been romanticised. Frieda Hughes, Plath’s daughter, has over the years voiced objections to the cult of personality that has been built around her mother following her suicide. In a foreword to Plath’s poetry collection Ariel, Hughes wrote that ‘the point of anguish at which my mother killed herself was taken over by strangers, possessed and reshaped by them.’ The idea of Sylvia Plath, and the image of her as a suffering poet, has almost taken over the reality. The tragedy of her death is viewed in relation to her art, rather than as her as a person who sadly suffered from a mental illness which resulted in her death.

Ultimately, the pop culture cliche that links mental illness with a particular idea of artistic genius is misleading, and dangerous. While the prevalence of mental illness in our society, and the poor effort that has gone into its treatment, means that many great writers have suffered from mental illness, being mentally ill is not a prerequisite to great writing. Who is to say what other great works these writers might have produced had they not suffered with an illness that at times debilitated them and, in some cases, cut their lives short. People can produce amazing art in the face of mental illness, but that doesn’t mean that is the only way it can be produced. In the end, while it may serve as inspiration, mental illness doesn’t create great art, people do.

by Seren Livie