It seemed like every writer I read and admired had a problem with alcohol and went a bit crazy. A few drank themselves to death or ended up fully crazy and suicidal. It seemed like these were things you had to do to be a writer. You had to suffer. It was Romantic with the capital R fully in place.
Thankfully, I got past all that, but I still find articles all the time like “Nine Famous Authors Who Did Stints in Mental Institutions” and 5 Writers Who Suffered from Mental Illnesses & the Impact It Had on Their Art and Great American Writers and Their Cocktails.
What a club – Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, Richard Brautigan.
Some early research in 1987 connected creativity with mental illness when researchers noticed a higher occurrence of bipolar disorder in study participants from the Iowa Writers Workshop than in a control group. Did they get crazy by trying to be writers, or did they become writers because they were crazy?
In the mid-1990s, Dr. Arnold Ludwig found that those is the arts are more likely to have mental illnesses than those in non-creative professions.
I read the book A Confederacy of Dunces and loved it before I ever knew anything about the author John Kennedy Toole. He couldn’t get the novel published. He got depressed. He drank more and more. He acted crazy. He killed himself. The novel was published posthumously. I had never read a novel like Dunces but I had read that bio plenty of times.
Ernest Hemingway is my favorite of all these writers and he is a classic example – depression, alcoholism, narcissistic personality, bipolar disorder and finally psychosis and suicide. Before the doctors and clinics, he “self-medicated” with booze. He liked risk-taking activities. He wrote as therapy, and when he couldn’t write anymore (largely because of the alcohol), he got electroshock treatments. For someone whose life was writing, not being able to write meant he had no reason to live.
Plus, for Hemingway, it was in his genes. There is some science to it. In 2009, an article published by the Association for Psychological Science showed a definitive link between creativity and the neuregulin 1 gene, a gene that is also associated with psychosis.
Some writers even have drinks that we associate with them. Hemingway is associated with lots of booze, including the Mojito, a drink invented at La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, Cuba, where Papa drank them. When I was in Key West, Florida last summer, the bartenders at Sloppy Joe’s and Captain Tony’s said that he didn’t drink Mojitos in Key West.
From Hemingway’s “The Three-Day Blow”:
“I’m a little drunk now,” Nick said.
“You aren’t drunk,” Bill said… Bill poured the glass half full of whiskey.
“Put in your own water,” he said. “There’s just one more shot.”
“Got any more?” Nick asked.
“There’s plenty more, but Dad only likes me to drink what’s open.”
“Sure,” said Nick.
“He says opening bottles is what makes drunkards,” Bill explained.
“That’s right,” said Nick. He was impressed. He had never thought of that before. He always thought it was solitary drinking that made drunkards.
Hemingway said “Write drunk. Edit sober” but also claimed he didn’t drink until after his morning writing sessions.
William Faulkner drank while he wrote. He claimed, “I usually write at night. I always keep my whiskey within reach.”
Another Southerner, Carson McCullers liked to write and drink and her drink of choice was a mixture of hot tea and sherry that she kept in a thermos. She called it “sonnie boy.” It is said that while at the writer’s colony, Yaddo, she started the day with a beer after breakfast, wrote, moved on to “sonnie boy” and finished the day with cocktails.
In those sometimes Roaring Twenties, F.Scott Fitzgerald was almost as famous for his drinking as his writing. “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you,” wrote this gin drinker. He didn’t hold his liquor very well, something his sometimes friend, Hemingway mocked him for. A “cheap drunk” he got very drunk very fast. He liked a Gin Rickey: 2 oz. gin, 3/4 oz. lime juice, topped with club soda and a lime wheel.
Detective-fiction master Raymond Chandler liked a Gimlet – basically a Rickey minus the soda. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe character introduced the Gimlet in The Long Goodbye and popularized the cocktail.
Chandler wrote, “A real Gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow.” The modern version is 2:1 gin and Rose’s Lime Juice with a lime wedge.
Keep in mind that alcohol is a depressant.
A number of recent studies have looked at the neurological similarities of mental illness and the creative mind. Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia appear to be focused within the frontal lobe of the brain and they typically manifest with rather peculiar connections that are similar to some types of connections that would be admired in poetry and other creative writing.
Is there a relationship between poetry and psychosis?
A 2002 study of 1,629 writers found that poets – and specifically female poets – were more likely than even non-fiction writers, playwrights and fiction writers to have some type of mental illness. This became known as “The Sylvia Plath Effect.”
Poet Sylvia Plath’s mental illness has been written about quite a bit. She wrote about it herself in her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. She was clinically depressed for much of her life. She had electroshock therapy, attempted suicide, was admitted to a mental institution for six months, got more electric and insulin shock treatments and still the depression ended her life in suicide.
In the film Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character, Alvy, warns Annie that Sylvia Plath was an “interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality.”
Another tragic female poet, Anne Sexton was in and out of mental institutions for much of her life. Bipolar and suicidal. She started with poetry as therapy at the suggestion of her therapist. Her poetry is full of madness and pain and, like Plath, Sexton took her own life.
It seems like researchers have gotten caught up in those same stories that intrigued me in college and they are looking to connect genius and madness.
Since I spend a lot of time with poets and poetry these days, I was attracted to a new British study that included 294 poets (almost all “published” poets) in an anonymous online survey. The poets scored above average on the “Unusual Experiences”, “Cognitive Disorganization” and “Impulsive Nonconformity” traits. If the poets self-identified their work as “avant-garde,” they scored even higher on “Unusual Experiences.” 2 poets reported schizophrenia, 15 reported bipolar disorder, 152 reported depression and 80 reported anxiety disorder.
Does that sounds about right for poets? Well, actually those percentages are not much higher than the general population.
Since these poets were all self-reporting, it’s possible that they had bought into the madness and writers archetype. Or did their “abnormal” psychology lead them to be writers?