On Radio 4 recently I happened to catch an episode of the Book of the Week, Deaths of the Poets in which the authors, poets Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley, were trekking round the UK and USA for their book about why so many poets commit suicide. It brought up that well-worn conundrum about writing and traumatic experience: are those prone to madness/depression drawn to be artists, or does making art itself make you mad/suicidal? Or both?
After meeting with the widow of US poet John Berryman (Berryman killed himself in 1972 by jumping off a Minneapolis bridge although his wife said he was happy), Symmons Roberts and Farley revealed that Berryman had from a young age wanted, needed, to become a great poet. To the extent he thought he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he turned out to be mediocre. “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business,” Berryman once wrote.
It’s dangerous play. Berryman’s quote about writing and traumatic experience reminded me of a literary event I went to in my early twenties about writing and addiction. Will Self said (and I paraphrase): “If you want an extraordinary rush of creativity, get an opiate addiction and then kick it,” as he himself had extraordinarily done.
Hmm, I thought. Although I was still a reasonably impressionable age, I wasn’t about to go and get a heroin or opium addiction in order to then quit it. Besides, given that I was big into Malcolm Lowry and other literary alcoholics at the time, I was miffed that there was no mention of the demon drink, only drugs.
My own experience
Some years later, by accident and not by design, I happened to go through and come out the other side of the sort of trauma that Berryman might have been talking about: a protracted event or series of events that very nearly tipped me off the edge of the known world. This unnameable thing took out the best part of a decade.
I’m so far the other side of it now that I could write the beginning, middle and end of it on a postage stamp. Which is not to belittle the longer story, or anyone else’s whole story. And yet – yes – its legacy goes deep. As Berryman knew, the memories, the shifts, the survival are all there in the subconscious waiting to be picked up. Traumatic experience leaves a deep well of material to draw on, that perhaps an artist can’t help but draw on to expunge the pain. (When he was a child, Berryman’s father shot himself outside the boy’s window.)
If you hint to others that circumstances pushed you to the edge, right to the edge so that you were clinging on by a fingernail, it sounds risible, exaggerated, melodramatic in the cold light of day. I use the cliché avisedly. In the cold light of day, it’s easy to ridicule those extremes. Daylight makes us feel safe. Safe from poetry. Safe from suicidal ideation. Safe from those (if other than ourselves) who may seek to push us to the brink.
Advice to younger writers
So I say to adventurous younger writers: don’t seek the worst possible experience. Don’t go and get a drug or alcohol addiction. Instead, accept that artists can be happy. Learn how to be a happy artist. It may take time. You may have to bust through a lot of personal stuff but it isn’t a myth. I’m all for happy artists, which is why my mascot is a frisky red squirrel jumping on an orange typewriter.
But if you do happen to have experienced something traumatic and survived it; or if you should suffer from devastating circumstances in the future and you just so happen to be a writer/painter/other artist, then that knowledge and pain could find its way into your work.
Writing and traumatic experience can go hand in hand. Whenever I’m feeling particularly angry about what happened to me, a poet friend urges me to say out loud, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” for all that material.