Writers. Who’d be one? For the writer, life is hard. Life is much harder for the writer than life is for the non-writer. Writers have a monopoly on the hard life. Their esprit de corps is founded on finding life hard. Because life is so hard for the writer, a writer will sometimes end their life before their life has hardly got going. Here are five writers who ended their lives because they found life hard.
Sylvia Plath was not the first writer to find life unbearably hard, but her disequilibria is so well-documented that her name is used to describe the phenomenon that creative writers are more susceptible to mental hardship. The Sylvia Plath effect is a term coined by psychologist James C. Kaufman who demonstrated that female poets are more likely to suffer with their mental health than any other kind of scribe. Plath, female poet who suffered with her mental health, ended her life by putting her head in a gas oven. She was 31 years old. Readers of her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, and her book of collected poems, Ariel, will find many references to her desire to lie with her ‘hands turned up and be utterly empty’ (Tulips) and to previous brushes with death. In Lady Lazarus, dying, she says, ‘is an art like everything else. I do it exceptionally well’.
A character in Richard Brautigan’s 1976 novel, Sombrero Fallout, resolves never to go out with a writer: ‘They were emotionally too expensive and the upkeep was too complicated. They were like having a vacuum cleaner around that broke all the time and only Einstein could fix it.’ Brautigan, writer, alcoholic and interminably broken vacuum cleaner, found it so hard living with himself that at age 49 he shot himself in the head with a 44 Magnum shotgun. Whether his vacuum was an existential one is unclear, but his friend, Thomas McGuane, described him as ‘a gentle, troubled, deeply odd guy’. Brautigan’s daughter claimed he talked of suicide for over a decade before his death. His body was found October 25, 1984, though it is thought he may have inflicted the fatal wound over a month earlier.
Ernest Hemingway is a larger than life literary figure known for robust, athletic, economical prose. As well as writing, he is associated with bullfighting, big-game hunting and deep-sea fishing. His writing style, called the Iceberg Theory or theory of omission, and fondness for masculine pursuits, means that while he is regarded as a great writer, he has escaped a reputation for being writerly: that is, hypersensitive, flaky, someone who finds life hard. In the panoply of literary greats, he is as far removed from the female poet as you can get. Yet in common with Plath and that other ill-fated, suicide-seduced poet, Anne Sexton, Hemingway ended his own life. Just as with Brautigan, a shotgun was his aid: an oven, surely, too totemic of feminine angst.
Virginia Woolf’s capacity for suffering will come as no surprise to her readers. Her moods were as varied as her writing; as elemental as the sea in her books. As well as her most famous works – among them, The Waves, To The Lighthouse, and Orlando – she wrote the essay, On Being Ill. In this she remarks how strange it is ‘that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature’. She knew mental illness well, suffering several nervous breakdowns during her lifetime. Some biographers suggest the sexual molestation she was subjected to by her half-brothers contributed greatly to her unrest. She committed suicide March 28, 1941. Her method? Filling the pockets of her overcoat with stones and drowning herself in the River Ouse.
Yukio Mishima, Japanese author, poet and playwright, held in life a fascination with death. His childhood was difficult, dominated, as it was, by his grandmother, Natsu, who snatched him from his mother shortly after his birth. Natsu was a violent, petulant woman who forbade the young Mishima to associate with other boys. At 12, Natsu returned her grandson to his parents – an experience that must have brought little relief to the boy, since his father was not against holding him up to the side of a speeding train. At 45 Mishima ended a successful writing career – which had begun with the publication of his first novel, Tozoku (Thieves), about two young members of the aristocracy drawn towards suicide – by committing a ritual suicide known as seppuku. The procedure involves plunging a knife into the abdomen and moving it from side to side. This he did immediately after attempting a coup d’etat. His coup attempt was unsuccessful, and his suicide protracted: it is customary to behead the person who has performed seppuku at the point of agony – in Mishima’s case, this took several attempts.