Writers Lead Stable Lives

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She is cute and smart and she’s been to the States; and – rarity among rarities - she loves to read! The kind of Thai woman I could really go for.

“I like writers,” she says. The pub is noisy but I can hear her without difficulty.

I finish my drink and order another round of drinks for us and ask, “Why?”

She smoothes down her fine black hair and smiles. “Well, they lead stable lives.”

“Really?”

“Yes. They sit down and think about life and write about life and are, well, better educated and better adjusted than non-writers.”

I nodded. “Stable; better adjusted, yes. So it would seem.” I did not want to disillusion this young lovely, but I thought:

In 1593, the great English playwright Christopher Marlowe was murdered in Eleanor Bull's tavern in Deptford, southeast London. A report said sometime during the evening Marlowe was killed by stab wounds to the head. Actually it was a knife blade through an eye. He died in an argument over an unpaid bill, or because he was somebody’s spy, or because he was a homosexual involved in a “lewd” love affair, or simply in a drunken brawl. Don’t ask me. Some say he might have become greater than Shakespeare. Some say he wrote some of Shakespeare’s plays. Some say he was Shakespeare. Don’t ask me. He died at the age of 29.

The precocious and talented English poet, Thomas Chatterton, wrote satires, a history of painting, and a burlesque opera. Depressed by poverty and despairing of hope for his future career, he took arsenic and died in 1770 at the age of 17.

In 1849, dressed in someone’s else’s rags, Edgar Allen Poe, father of the modern mystery novel, died in a Baltimore gutter. Possibly drunk, possibly of rabies, possibly mugged. Don’t ask me.

The Russian poet, Sergei Esenin, like so many writers, suffered from depression and alcoholism. He attempted suicide on numerous occasions in various ways. He was only 30 years old when he entered a hotel room in Leningrad, slashed his wrists, wrote his final poem in his own blood and hanged himself. The year was 1925.

In 1927, Ryunasuke Akutagawa, author of Rashomon and over one hundred short stories, overdosed on tranquilizers at the age of 35.

In 1931, at the age of 52, the American poet, Vachel Lindsay ended his life by drinking Lysol.

Poet Hart Crane had a drinking problem. Some say he had a sexual identity problem too, whatever that might mean. In 1932, while still in his early 30’s, on an April morning, he was returning home on a steamship from a holiday in Mexico. Dressed only in pajamas, he walked to the ship’s stern, and leapt into the water. Biographers like to mention that Hart’s father was the confectioner who invented Life Savers. Too bad for Hart they were only the candy kind for the throat; not the handy kind you can float.

The following year, Sara Teasdale, another American poet, a woman Vachel Lindsay had once (unsuccessfully) courted, also committed suicide. She was 48 when she took an overdose of barbiturates.

In 1936, Federico Garcia Lorca, Spain's greatest modern poet and playwright, was captured by fascists during the Spanish Civil War. He was driven to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and at dawn executed by a firing squad. He was shot, they say, along with “a white-haired schoolmaster” and “two anarchist bullfighters.” He was 38 years old.

In 1941, Virginia Wolfe, prone to depression and breakdowns, filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in a stream of the River Ouse in Sussex. She was 59.

In 1959, the French writer, Boris Vian, at the age of 39, sat down to watch the screening of his novel adapted for film, I Spit On Your Graves. The adaptation was so horrible, and Boris was so incensed by what they had done to his work, he died of a heart attack during the screening. The famous film director Louis Malle later commented on the event: “Like anything else, the cinema can kill.”

In 1961, Ernest Hemingway solved his depression problem with a 12-gauge. He died surrounded by the foothills of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. I wonder if the sound of the shotgun echoed throughout his mountain retreat like a solemn 21-gun salute.

In 1963, The brilliant poet, Sylvia Plath, at the age of 30, during the coldest winter in 20th century England, took sleeping pills and employed cooking gas to end her short life.

John Kennedy Toole wrote what is now considered a classic, A Confederacy of Dunces. Deeply depressed by his failure to interest publishers in his work, he committed suicide in 1969 at the age of 32. He fixed a garden hose to his car’s exhaust pipe and ran the pipe into his car window, sat back and waited for it to take effect, leaving it to his determined mom to make the sale, which, with the help of the writer Walker Percy, she eventually did. He won the Pulitzer prize posthumously.

Yasunari Kawabata, Nobel prize winner and the author of such acclaimed novels as A Thousand Cranes, gassed himself in 1972 at the age of 73.

The talented playwright William Inge wrote Come Back, Little Sheba, Picnic, Bus Stop, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and other plays. In 1973, at the age of 60, he went into his garage and asphyxiated himself by carbon monoxide.

Nineteen-seventy-three would also prove to be the last year in the life of the highly praised but controversial British experimental novelist B.S. Johnson. Samuel Beckett considered Johnson to be “a most gifted writer,” and Anthony Burgess felt that “the future of the novel depends on people like B. S. Johnson.” Nevertheless, Johnson stepped into a hot bath and slit his wrists. He was 40 years old.

Donald Goines is still one of the best selling black authors in America. In 1974, at his home in Michigan, he was sitting at his typewriter finishing the novel, Kenyatta’s Last Hit, when murderer or murderers unknown blew him and his common-law wife away.

Also in that year, Anne Sexton, another brilliant poet, depressed and alone in Boston, entered her garage, left her car running, and asphyxiated herself with carbon monoxide.

Major American playwright Tennessee Williams fought battles with depression, alcohol, amphetamines and barbiturates. The night he died in 1983 at the age of 72 he had been drinking heavily. While using a nasal-spray container cap to take barbiturates, he accidentally swallowed it and choked to death.

In 1984, Richard Brautigan, the hippy writer (“court jester of the counter-culture”) whose novel Trout Fishing in America sold millions of copies, was (eventually) found dead of a gunshot wound in Bolinas, California. Next to his body was a .44 caliber weapon and a bottle of alcohol.
In 1991, Jerzy Kosinski, bestselling author of The Painted Bird and other novels, left notes for his wife and friends, then entered the bathroom of his New York apartment and secured a plastic bag over his head. He then lay down in his bathtub and suffocated to death.

The popular and talented Spaulding Gray wrote Swimming to Cambodia and various performance pieces. In 2003 he jumped off the Staten Island ferry in New York City. Perhaps Cambodia was his destination when he leapt from the ferry but he only made it to the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn where they pulled his body from the East River.

As for unfortunate accidents, Olivia Goldsmith, 54, the author of The First Wives Club and other novels, entered the famous Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Clinic in January of 2004 for minor cosmetic surgery known as a chin tuck. She never awoke from the anesthesia, entered a coma and died. Would she have gone for that chin tuck without the fame and money the movie brought her? Don’t ask me.

And those are just a few of a very long list. And it doesn’t even include writers who simply disappeared such as Ambrose Bierce in Mexico (1913), or those whose excessive drinking killed them such as Patrick Hamilton (1962), or those who went mad and died of syphilis such as Guy de Maupassant (1893), or those who died in car accidents such as Nathanael West (1940) and Albert Camus (1960), or those who died in motorcycle accidents such as Richard Farina (1966) and Seth Morgan (1990), or those who died by spectacular ritual suicide such as Yukio Mishima (1970), or those who died in asylums such as Antonin Artaud (1948) and the Marquis de Sade (1814). It also doesn’t include those who threw themselves off bridges such as the Pulitzer prize-winning poet John Berryman in 1972 (who, according to some, waved to bystanders on the way down) or the English poet Lionel Johnson who in 1902 fell off a bar stool and died. (Whether Johnson also waved to bystanders on the way down is not recorded.)

So truth-to-tell I’m not so sure that the superior stability of writers has been proven. In fact, I completely understand why writers live dangerously or foolishly or become alcoholics or drug addicts and take their own lives. But I can’t help wonder why two “anarchist bullfighters” had to die.

Perhaps the “white-haired schoolmaster” taught what fascists didn’t like. I can almost see him standing before the firing squad straight and tall and proud and unflinching, his white hair tousled by the wind as a pink dawn streaked across the Spanish sky.

But anarchist bullfighters? Where’s the logic? Are bulls killed by fascist bullfighters any happier?

Someone once said that arguments out of a beautiful mouth are unanswerable, and so, despite my reservations, I nod to the lovely, bright-eyed Thai lady before me. “Yes, writers are definitely more stable,” I say. And I gulp down my drink and hurriedly order another. A double.

Copyright Dean Barrett 2005-2010

From: The Go Go Dancer who Stole My Viagra & other Poetic Tragedies of Thailand

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