Saturday, February 26, 2011

Writers, Virginia Woolf, and Suicide

We can't talk about Woolf without talking about her final act in the world: leaving it.

Here's what happened:

In March 1941, with WWII having gone on for two years for England, she went to a river about three or four miles from her home, filled her pockets with stones, went in, and never came out again. It took ten days to find her.

During a class where we discussed Mrs. Dalloway and Michael Cunningham's The Hours (he describes the suicide at the opening) our professor told us about the time when she'd visited Woolf's house. Apparently, you can walk the same route that Woolf used to get to the river. One comment that my prof made has always stuck with me. "That's a long walk. Three miles and there's nothing to do but think about what she was going to do. Woolf had to mean it."

(Prof also said that the river was less than impressive nowadays. Apparently you'd have to bury yourself in the river bank in order to drown today. But for Woolf there was a lot of rain fall that year and the river was more than full.)

When the prof said that Woolf had to mean it -- well, yeah. That's the awful part of suicidal thought. When your brain is tuning into the wrong thing (like killing yourself) it will hone in on it. You will mean it. That's what makes it so dangerous.

Recently, went to a reading. The author read beautiful poems and a great essay on his experience in the Middle East. During the Q&A session he talked about his writing sessions. He mentioned one thing that makes the little hairs on the back of my head stand up: the word catharsis. He laughingly apologized for the depressing bits in his work...saying that he wrote as a kind of catharsis.

In and of itself, that is no big deal. But I'm afraid that so many writers use the writing as a kind of therapy. And again, that's not a huge deal. However, there is also a thought-process in some writers that the writing will fix things. No. Writing doesn't fix. It helps. It sometimes helps a lot.

But, if there is thinking that involves walking three miles, filling pockets with stones, and letting the river take it all away (meaning it)--no amount of writing will take that away. No amount of people telling you to SNAP OUT OF IT! will work--that kind of attitude will make it worse. It's time to call for help.

Woolf didn't have the opportunities available that we do today. Psychology and psychiatry have come light years. There are lots of avenues for help. If you're thinking of doing anything harmful to yourself, it's not okay. Please call your family doctor, your therapist if you already have one, or your local mental health services line (it should be in the government section of the phone book--or you can google it). There is no shame in asking for help.

And if writing is your biggest goal...well, you'll do a lot more of it if you're in the right frame of mind and alive.

There's a lot of talk in creative circles pointing to the high incidents of suicide among writers and creative people in general. I think these rumors are greatly exaggerated. Sure, we can all name them: Plath, Hemingway, Woolf, and on. But there are many, many more that we can name who did not:

Wodehouse, Christie, Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontes, Austen, Dante, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Orwell, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, Keats, Byron, James, Hardy, Joyce, Conrad, Chopin, Cather, Wharton, Kafka, Vonnegut, Crane, Madox Ford, Trollope, DeFoe, Milton, Johnson, Chaucer, George Eliot, T.S. Eliot, Poe, Melville, Hawthorne....

and on....

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