It would be folly to suggest that all fiction writers are mentally unstable, but the preponderance of authors with ‘problems’ does appear to be endless. Sylvia Plath: bipolar. Jonathan Swift, Emily Bronte, and John Milton: all thought to suffer from Asperger’s. Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf: chronic depressives. Ezra Pound: formally diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder. Ernest Hemingway: depression, bipolar disorder and, later, psychosis. Scratch the psyche of most fiction authors and you’ll reveal emotional flaws and mood disorders, often diagnosable mental illness.
You will also most likely find childhoods rife with loss and loneliness. Many writers lost one and sometimes two parents early in childhood — Swift, Defoe, Byron, Keats, Coleridge, Hawthorne, Melville, Thackeray, the Brontës, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Poe, Tolstoy, and Conrad. ‘Wolf Hall’ writer, Hilary Mantel, had a father who left the family home when she was a young girl, never to be seen again. Other authors experience childhood loss of a different kind. Byron, Melville, Dickens, Joyce, Yeats, and Shakespeare were all thrust into crushing poverty at an early age through the misfortunes of their fathers. Shelley and Orwell were both banished to bleak and brutal boarding schools for most of their childhoods.
The point of all this being that literary genius is much more likely to spring from unhappiness and hardship than from joy and comfort. Stress and unhappiness in youth seem to help in development of the fantasy and imagination necessary for effective fiction. Ian Mcewan is quoted as having said about the ‘edgy’ short stories that propelled him to fame, “A lot of my terror of things was in those stories—my terror of not making full or rich emotional relationships.”
I’ve always considered myself to be a fairly happy, well-adjusted person, but, knowing what I know now about the mental health of successful authors, I almost wish I were less sunny, darker. I troll my memory to come up with some skeleton in the cupboard that might make me an effective author. I did grow up with a quite severely depressive mother, who was often extremely distant. My father, a pharmacist, worked twelve hours a day, six days a week in a chemist shop and was rarely at home. My only brother, who I now believe to have suffered from depression from an early age, went through long periods of being ‘difficult’ when we were growing up. My fondest childhood memories are of escapes from the family home. I often took long bicycle rides on my own. Solitude was something I treasured.
I think I’ll stop now. That might be enough unhappy memories. And I try telling myself there must be loads of well-adjusted, perfectly ‘normal’ writers who are highly accomplished. But despite the inconclusiveness of the theory, it is undeniable that many prominent writers and poets have suffered from mental instability. In the words of Lord Byron, “We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.”
Comments, and personal accounts of writers’ ‘touched’ personalities, are welcome.
Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough
The medical lives of famous writers.