Saturday, July 15, 2017

When Writers Can’t Write Anymore

Hemmingway in Idaho

            Every writer lives with a great fear: the loss of ability to continue writing. Often, it is writer’s block, mostly caused by poor plotting or structural problems in a manuscript, but sometimes, it may have a more serious origin.

            On July 2, 1961, fifty-seven years ago, in Ketchum, Idaho, Ernest Hemmingway killed himself with a shotgun blast. In the spring of the same year, he had been requested to contribute a single sentence for a presentation volume marking President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. He told his lifelong friend and biographer, A.E. Hotchner: “It just won’t come anymore,” and wept.

            It was a year earlier, in 1960, that Hemmingway discovered that he could no longer write. It turned out to be a devastating blow to a prolific author who deeply connected his self-worth with his creativity. That discovery triggered a deep depression from which he could not escape.

            In some ways, Hemmingway was uniquely vulnerable to depression. Part of it was hereditary: his father had committed suicide in 1928, ironically enough, in the manner. His grandfather, brother, sister and granddaughter all did the same. Hemmingway also suffered from an enormous list of medical conditions: bi-polar mood disorder, chronic alcoholism, brain injuries and hemochromatosis, a disease that results in damage to the internal organs and is linked with depression. He also had a morbid fascination with guns and death; as a child hunting in the Michigan wilderness; as a correspondent covering the Spanish Civil war and in the uncounted hundreds of big game he killed in Africa. Indeed the pages of his works are filled with violent death, whether human or animal.

            Yet, writers as a group are particularly vulnerable to depression. In an article titled “The Neurological Similarities between Successful Writers and the Mentally Ill,” Cody Delistraty[1] lists several reasons for this. Writers think a lot, and people entangled in their thoughts tend to be withdrawn. He says, “add long periods of isolation and high levels of narcissism that draws someone to a career like writing, and it seems obvious why they may not be the happiest bunch.” Other findings suggest an unusually high percentage of alcoholics in the writing community.

            But brain science may give a clearer explanation. In the same article, a connection between creativity and the inability to suppress the precuneus portion of the brain is suggested. The precuneus part of the brain regulates self-consciousness, memory and creativity. For ordinary people, it is most active during rest, when the brain is allowed to “day-dream.” For creatives, however, it doesn’t turn off.  And this may explain why the best writers find unusual associations and unique, even bizarre, ways of looking at the world. They cannot stop thinking. Unfortunately, this condition is also tied in with depression.

            Hemmingway is a classic example of misdiagnosed, or even undiagnosed, mental illness. Today, our understanding of mental illness has significantly advanced and cures are more readily available. One can only wonder what further works of genius he might have produced had such treatments been available during his decline.


Mohan Ashtakala is the author of "The Yoga Zapper" ( published by Books We love (