Writers are prone to suicidal tendencies. In fact, more than other creatives, the man and woman of letters is ’10 to 20 times more likely than his contemporaries to suffer manic depression.’

thelma and louise illustrate suicidal tendencies

Thelma and Louise

If you want to cheer yourself up, you can read all about it in Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, by Kay Jamison, a psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins University. 

It may be a coincidence, but psychiatrists and psychologists always seem to carry suicidal tendencies and dream of being writers.

A friend of mine – let’s call him Nick – recently quit the banality of copywriting to enter the murky labyrinth of the screenplay. Within days he was phoning to chat about migraine and insomnia; his attraction to cliff tops and razor blades. Suddenly he’s fighting with his girlfriend – her fault – drinks too much or, alternatively, claims he no longer drinks at all (first sign of the alcoholic).

Finally, he turns up at the Italian Bar in Frith Street wearing odd shoes. He talks about Pink Floyd, a book he’s reading about suicidal tendencies and hands me a Post-it with this on it:

“The true way leads along a tight-rope, which is not stretched aloft but just above the ground. It seems designed more to trip than to be walked along.”

Kafka’s found him.

Paranoia is the writer’s drug of choice. You don’t choose writing. It’s like having a child die in a car wreck. Or getting cancer. Suffering is the main condition of the artistic experience. That’s was Samuel Beckett said, even with the Nobel Prize on the bookshelf. Hemingway, another Laureate, blew his head off with a shot gun. 

The pencil lead, marker pen and keyboard are a three-tongued whip we use for self-flagellation, peeling off layers of flesh in search of the story buried among the scars. Then, when it comes out on the page, dripping blood and perspiration, it’s never quite as good as what you thought it was going to be. A photograph of the landscape is not the landscape.

Who’s Callie Khouri

The writer expects to be kicked when he’s down, and kicked harder if he appears to be defying the Gods and getting up. When Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came out, New York’s three leading papers wiped out an entire forest in Finland for their reviews. Two of the critics wrote like besotted lovers over the chemistry sparked by Robert Redford/Paul Newman and forgot to mention the writer. The third hated the picture and blamed the script William Goldman had spent five years writing. Hardly surprising that he warns us: Nobody knows anything!

Here’s a test: list your five favourite films in the last twelve months. Now name the writers. 

And another test: who penned Thelma and Louise?

They teach the script in film schools. Remember Susan Sarandon (neat hair); Geena Davis (neat Levi’s); Ridley Scott with his hand firmly on the gear change. It was Callie Khouri who wrote the screenplay and I still don’t know if Callie is a man, woman or a pseudonym. I don’t think Thelma and Louise had suicidal tendencies, but their flight into the Grand Canyon was only going to end one way.

The Ghost of Suicidal Tendencies 

Writing is like taking poison and even those who can’t write but imagine they can can’t wait to swallow it. The well paid are the tip of an iceberg with the layers below crammed with brow-lined hacks struggling with the gas bill, struggling with the corkscrew, struggling to put black on white. 

No one knows why we do it and, when we’ve done it, nobody wants it. And if they do want it, they don’t want to pay for it. Writing is not a competitive sport, although I couldn’t help feeling that frisson of loser syndrome when Nick called the other day. He’d met a producer at a rebirthing weekend in Hackney and sold an option on his screenplay. It’s about an alcoholic with suicidal tendencies trying to turn his life around at a rebirthing weekend in Hackney. 

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  1. I was struck by A. Alvarez’ book “The Savage God: A Study of Suicide” when it came out in 1990, because it gave me helpful insight into something I’d been trying to deal with as a classroom teacher of literature for some time—the inevitable student questions asking, in effect: “Why do we have to read all these books written by alcoholics and suicides?”
    This was long before the current frenzy about Critical Race Theory and “gender-grooming” in public schools and universities, but I think the issue has always lurked in the margins of public education, since its earliest days. I fully expect to start hearing outraged politically-encouraged criticism, very soon, about how teachers in America are trying to instill our youth with “Critical Thinking Skills.” That’s long been a term of art in Education Theory in reference to precisely what must be the basis of education. I’m not joking about this. I suspect the key word here is going to be “critical.”
    So this is my paranoid prediction: “Critical Thinking” will be a buzz-term for very evil peoples’ insistence that our children and youth should be critical of the status-quo, of their God-given rights, and of their somnambulant exceptionality.

  2. Your comment makes me aware that the role of teachers becomes ever harder as they are no longer required simply to teach but to be fully cognisant of the political winds, whichever way they might be blowing at any given time.

  3. I think good teachers have always been cognizant of the political winds, at any given time, without need for a weatherman. But it used to be a lot easier to navigate those winds through a sea of essentially uneducated humanity before awareness of consent manufacturing spilled over from the political class into the general population. If we look at it from Plato’s POV, that awareness has managed to pass over the heads of the educational class in silence as well as being proffered (like the head of a dead man on a plate) directly to the masses—especially those longing for something to hate out of pure emptiness of self—by a subspecies of politician that no longer cares, or even knows, about whether or not lies are, or at least might be, noble.

    And, as far as that goes, the percentage of really “good” teachers has never been high, anyway. At least not in America. What teachers have been required to do for about the last three decades, in fact, is not even “simply to teach”—let alone be aware of political exigencies. Teachers have been tasked with reinventing the airships of public education in America, even as they also are expected—for hardly professional remuneration—to fly a ship that’s already crashed. It’s a fairly tired metaphor, but it’s the right one.

  4. “The true way leads along a tight-rope, which is not stretched aloft but just above the ground. It seems designed more to trip than to be walked along.”

    This comment compels me to share experience of an active imagination image from days past when I was trying to synthesize the thought of Carl Jung and that of Jiddu Krishnamurti—along with my sense of the actual import of the Christian New Testament.

    Without going into much detail—the actively imagined imagery involved walking a tightrope stretched maybe five, six feet above the surface of the ground with a given understanding that successful passage of this tightrope walk was the only way to psychic wholeness. The upshot of the this imaging experience was a conscious realization [of the possibility that it might be so] that only one has ever made that transit—Christ, Buddha, or any other successfully whole personality of one’s choice [though the singularity of the experience was important to the spirit of my active imagination reverie] .

    The point I came away with is that we all—the rest of us, I mean—tripped over the rope [or at least fell from it] rather than walking along it successfully. The good news in other words is that we’re all sharing the same trip; but maybe the even better news that might have meaning for some of us is that at least once one whom we are successfully walked along it clear to the end.

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