Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Catchin' my soul


At about three in the morning last Thursday, I finished a complete draft of the fourth book in my Miniature Mystery series. Whew.

I thought I'd treat myself to some light reading, so I picked up a copy of a rare book catalog from Lakin & Marley Rare Books. The title: Frost and Fire—50 Depressive and Manic-Depressive Writers of Genius . . . a celebration.

Lakin celebrates writers with two things in common: they created some of the most moving and powerful literature in history, and they shared an illness that brought them pain, desperation, and anguish.

Not that all great writers were or are mentally ill, but the phenomenon occurs in disproportionate numbers.

Even if you're not ready to pay thousands of dollars for an unpublished letter of Henry James, Lakin's catalog itself is fascinating reading. Besides reflecting on the well-known cases of disturbed writers like Lord Byron, Sylvia Plath, and Eugene O'Neill, I learned about how Graham Greene liked to play Russian Roulette and how Ralph Waldo Emerson longed for a Farmer's Almanac that would help him chart the moodswings that took him from genius to imbecility and back.

Lakin's descriptions of the temperaments and episodes in the lives of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ezra Pound, Noel Coward, T. S. Eliot—and more—are brief, but captivating.

The catalog I have is from 1995, but I'm wondering if they still have the Vachel Lindsay letter, "seemingly written during a fully manic episode." It's listed as only $1250.

Lakin's thought-provoking introduction to the catalog ends with a question: (I'm paraphrasing) With today's resources in psychopharmacology and psychotherapy, are we in danger of curtailing literary genius?

(How would I know?)

17 comments:

Sheila Connolly said...

Very interesting post. I think there's a thin line between imagination and reality, and maybe writers slip back and forth between the two more easily than most.

On a similar note, I am looking forward to reading Stalking Irish Madness: Searching for the Roots of My Family's Schizophrenia, by Patrick Tracey, which may cast light on the physical/psychological basis of creativity.

Anonymous said...

I'm mildly manic-depressive and once, while going through a deep trough, turned to Prozac. It killed my muse dead. I felt ever so much better, actually began to enjoy life, but couldn't even write a decent letter. When I realized what was happening, I took myself off the stuff, but it was still a year before I got a new muse. And, of course, the old trouble is back.

Terri Thayer said...

I think the danger comes from losing our best people to these illnesses.

Congrats on finishing the draft. You may be the only person who defines light reading in quite this way by the way. People magazine, ever heard of it?

Terri Thayer said...

FYI, Katharine Ramsland is blogging about a woman who made miniature crime scenes at Lee Lofland's blog, The Graveyard Shift. This is a great blog, by the way, for anyone writing or interested in police procedure.

http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/

Camille Minichino said...

Frances Lee is my hero. I blogged about her here as one of my first killerhobbies blogs, but not as thoroughly as Ramsland did. The book "Nutshell Studies," is fascinating and I browse through it often.

We have the same taste, Terri -- I have Lofland's blog bookmarked -- It's always useful.

Camille Minichino said...

I'd love to see a blog, or longer comment on Prozac and the muse, anonymous.

Betty Hechtman said...

Congrats on finishing your manuscript. I'm with Terri on your "ligh reading" choice. I wonder if the connection with mental illness and writing is similar to what I've heard said of the connection with alcohol and writing. That people are able to write in spite of their excessive drinking, rather than because of it.

Kathryn Lilley said...

Extremely timely topic, Camille! I was writing about a related topic, about whether our characters ever "bleed through" into our real lives. I was once told by a well-known psychiatrist that many of today's major writers are on medication. He says medication doesn't interfere with writing, any more than alcohol fuels it. Writers used to use that as an excuse to drink, but that's all it was. And medication does not interfere in most cases with the ability to write. Not to worry, in other words.

Anonymous said...

Taking into account that alcohol and antidepressant medications influence the brain by essentially freeing up inhibitions and adding a dose of good feelings, is it really a valid excuse to say the muse is dead when they are treated? Why, then, could not the person write differently, instead of not writing at all? The even tempered personality to which these medications aspire, should provide a logical and clear environment. Surely creativity need not be the spawn of anger and deperession alone. Rather a new muse is found..one not dependent on mood swings and wild imaginings.
I propose we all find our muse according to our measure as persons coupled with experiences in life and a dash of spice for flavor. I am by no means a brain surgeon, but I have worked with them.

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