Recent events have triggered an old line of enquiry in me; a search for an answer to something I’ve never fully understood. Robin Williams’ death was one trigger and something that happened at work another.
I was told by the IT team at MMU that I needed to clear some of my emails from my inbox. In the process of doing this I came across several from a former student. This student, a young man, died and I am not sure of the reason for his death because it was never fully explained to me. I suspected tragic circumstances. I looked at these emails but couldn’t bring myself to open them. I thought I would find it too painful to encounter again his customary jokey manner. Also when I first understood that his death might have been suicide, the thought came to me that I hoped I wasn’t to blame; that something I’d said about his work had not contributed to his depression.
I think this is unlikely: he was a good student. But the thought must come to anyone who assesses creative work that at some point they might say something insensitive, ill-advised, or just wrong, that might do actual harm.
At the same time Robin Williams’ death hit the news (and my Facebook news stream) and caused similar, though more surprising, pangs of shock and pain. Surprising because I do not know Robin Williams at all except in that imaginary ‘knowing’ fostered by the media. But perhaps because the two experiences occurred so closely together it set me off thinking along an old track, about the supposed link between creativity and depression.
In fact the links between creativity, mental illness, depression and suicide have never been proven. Are writers, for instance, really more likely to kill themselves than doctors or lawyers? I don’t think the statistics have ever been fully analysed or compared.
However my thoughts on this subject led inevitably to Virginia Woolf. Inevitably, because I'm a fan of her work and because I find her story fascinating.
I have three biographies of Woolf. They suggest that her depressions, which sometimes led to physical incapacity, often coincided with the publishing of her novels.
This always troubled me. Why then?
Surely the worst period of difficulty is before publication; when the writer is either grappling with the process of writing, or with the pain of rejections from the publishing world? Surely once the novel/ poetry collection etc. is published the writer might be allowed a moment of relief, gratification, even joy.
Obviously there is the problem of reception. The work might be received negatively, or completely ignored. The latter is the more likely scenario today; there are so many books on the market, people lead busy lives, reading is no longer the dominant cultural pastime. Some writers are not reviewed at all; sales can be pitifully low.
It could be argued that this is worse than being vilified. Because unless a book, or any work of art has an effect; unless it moves, surprises, delights or provokes some viewer/reader, in a sense it might as well not exist.
But surely the writer should just be happy that the book is out there in the first place? It might be having effects that the author will never hear about. It is a mistake to attach too much to what happens afterwards. All religious or philosophical traditions teach us not to attach ourselves to results. Work should be undertaken for its own sake.
This is one of the precepts underlying the moral philosophy of the I Ching, for instance: to do without expectation. It is found also in Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity. It is probably somewhere in Islam, but I don’t know enough about that religion to comment. It is a simple but profound doctrine about letting go that has far-reaching consequences.
But in my view, it does not necessarily apply to the writer.
Recently I wrote to a writer on Facebook that I write in order to forget myself and everything else; which is the same reason that I read as a child. This is substantially true.
If it was wholly true, for me or any other writer, there would be no problem, ever, with the publishing world. No difficulty with the silence that too often surrounds publication, or the various humiliations attached to marketing or publicity (the readings where no one turns up etc. etc.) It would be enough to have finished the work.
The writer would be free.
Why is s/he not free? Why does s/he hand over power at this point, to be uplifted or cast down by the publishing world or the reading public?
The most simplistic answer to this is that it is because of his/her ego. The writer is fundamentally a narcissist who needs his/her ego to be boosted at all times in order to continue.
I have always been suspicious of this answer.
It seems to me that writers are more likely to do without validation than people in almost any other career. I am infinitely more likely to get positive feedback on a regular basis from teaching, for instance. Some of my writing projects have taken years to complete, and even longer to sell. And, as I have said, when and if it is sold, there may be very little response.
Was it Virginia Woolf’s ego that made her so ill whenever a book came out?
I don’t fully understand the mysteries of the ego. But I have thought about this a lot over the years, and more frequently in recent weeks since my own novel has come out. And this is my conclusion:
It is no use advising the writer (or any other artist) not to be attached to results. The artist has to be attached to results because of his/her peculiar relationship to form.
By form I mean the ultimate form that the work will take, sculpture, book, symphony, painting. The process of nurturing the seed, that has apparently arrived from nowhere, gives the artist’s life meaning, but the final form is its raison d’être. For a long time, possibly years, it will take shape in the artist’s mind and be perfect there. But his/her life’s work will be to capture that perfection on the page/stage/canvas.
The problem is that no writer can see their own product clearly enough to know whether or not they have succeeded. Writers need the eyes and ears and judgement of others to tell us that they have. Or even that they have not.
When we watch the X factor and listen to those hopefuls who can't sing even one note in tune, we can assume that in their own ears they are hearing something different; the kind of music they aspire to in their dreams. This applies to all artists. They cannot see their own work clearly, because it is too much a part of them. I cannot see my physical self clearly, as others see me, even through mirrors or photographs or film. I can't have that 360 degree perspective, or know what impact, if any, I’m having on anyone else.
It is possible, therefore, that a different morality has to apply to the writer/artist; one that takes into account his/her relationship to form.
Once I was asked to attend a conference of librarians. I was asked to send a list of my favourite books. At the end of the letter it said ‘do not choose Lolita’.
I was outraged, of course. Lolita was not, until that moment, my favourite book, but it got promoted. How dare they apply such narrow parameters of meaning to such a great work? I think it is a great work and I believe that Nabokov pursued his vision of it with absolute integrity. That was his morality, - the act of producing the form that most perfectly corresponded to his vision.
Virginia Woolf’s pursuit of the perfect form led her to create her own publishing house, in order to escape the conventional restrictions, pressures and corruption of commercial publishing. This was a woman who pursued autonomy and integrity to an extraordinary degree. I think it unlikely that her depression was caused by the response to her work not being positive enough. I think it was the knowledge that ultimately she would have to surrender this autonomy that drove her to despair. She would, in the end, have to hand over power to the world, because no work of art is fully autonomous.
She could not, as all those metaphysical disciplines instruct, simply do the work for its own sake, without attachment to results. Not because she was immoral or an egotist, but because she was an artist.
I don't know if this was any part of the suffering of Robin Williams, or of my former student. But I do know that it is a part of the creative process; one that takes all power away from the artist and leaves them absolutely vulnerable and exposed. It seems to me that we owe all artists a debt of gratitude, because most of the time they pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again.
And to those who don’t manage to do this we owe a particular kind of acknowledgement, for illuminating to us the most vulnerable aspects of ourselves.