There’s a man in Decatur County Georgia who makes his living as a roofer. Day in and day out you can see this guy climbing up the ladder, pounding in the nails in the shingles, carrying the shingles up the ladder, and more or less going about the business of being a roofer. It’s hard work, hellish in the Summer in South Georgia, but the man is good at what he does. I met him very briefly one day and even though I really wanted to know, I didn’t have any way of just coming out and asking him how he had lost both legs, and when.
Not all of us are built to be roofers. This guy had arms as big around as a tree trunks, but you can bet he was born with an even bigger heart. Not all of us could be a legless roofer, but all of us in some way can learn a few lessons from a man who has the drive to do one of the hardest jobs on earth and at the same time be missing two limbs.
I remember where I was when Hunter S. Thompson shot himself. He was my first living writing hero. Thompson was a man who lived on the edge and wrote about it, and he went after Richard Nixon with a passion. He also took a shot at John Denver for trespassing on his property in Aspen, but that was another argument. Thompson bit the gun at age sixty-seven.
I’m only half kidding when I say there are no truly sane writers. We Disciples of Text carry the burden of creativity not lightly at all. History is littered with our best and brightest, our beasts and blighted, who have taken their own lives. We will not run out of dead writers who took the easy way out, not this generation and not the next.
Suicide is not always a conscious decision. Those with chemical imbalances in their brains are as responsible for what they do as someone who has accidently ingested LSD. It is not a sign of cowardliness, or despair, or some other active emotion but rather sometimes the same madness which spawns genius in literature is also a close cousin to the darkest depression. Those who are bipolar are saddled with both ends of the spectrum, good and bad, and as much good can come with that bad, but sometimes it simply is too much.
I will not attempt some sort of pop psychology analysis of why this person or that person killed themselves, nor will I republish the opinions of doctors who can explain why some have opted out. Honestly, I am not qualified to give you a medical opinion on this subject. The preceding paragraph is the extent of my scientific knowledge. Objectively, I do realize those four sentences may very well be fraught with error. Most of human opinion is.
My mission here, if I am able to claim such is to connect those who write, not to or with those in our past who have killed themselves, but to connect the living with life. For every Hemmingway, there was a Shakespeare. For every Sylvia Plath there is a Harper Lee. For every Virginia Woolf there was a Flannery O’Conner. For every one of us who have taken the dark road out there has been many more of us who struggled on, accepted the burden of our craft, lived and lived to write about it.
There is a movie titled “The Hours” I want you to follow the link I’ve given you, and watch the scene between Virginia Woolf and her husband. In this scene, she correctly claims the right to her life, against anyone else’s interference, and her husband accedes to her wishes.
Virginia Woolf Train station Scene from "The Hours"
To a degree, to a very large degree, I think this is the way things have to be. You, and only you, can know. You, and only you, can feel what you feel. I’ve tried many times to explain to “normal” people what it is like to be a writer, and I always fail. Try explaining to a man what it’s like to be a woman, or explain to a woman what it’s like to be a man. There are differences that cannot be conciliated. The gulf is too wide. I would submit to you the difference between those Creative, and those not, well, is a leap wider than gender, or race, or culture, or age.
I can explain to you what it is like to be human. I can explain fear, and despair, and loneliness and some alien feeling of isolation whenever am around a crowd of people. I can explain rage, and hatred and that whirlwind feeling of freefall that strikes at odd times and how it feels to be among those who have never felt any of this, and to them, to those people, those people who make up the vast majority of those I love, and those who love me, I cannot explain any of this to them.
If you are a writer I can explain this to you, because it is the world some of us inhabit. It is our burden, and it is our gift, and it is ours, and ours alone, Leonard.
If you wish, honor the fallen, honor their decision if you understand it, truly understand it, and honor them for what they have done not at the point of some gun, but at the point of a pen. Honor not the way they died and not the way they lived, but the way they took the burden, and created what they could. You think yourself more crippled than the man with no legs who is a roofer? What burden do you carry inside you more heavy than his? Do not, ever, be what has happened to you, but rather be what is inside of you. Honor not the way out, but the way up.
I’ve considered it. I’ve given it true and honest thought. I’ve looked at a life and wondered if it was worth it, truly worth it, to live this way.
The truth is as simple as it is obvious; as long as I can write, I can live with it.