Colm Herron on troubled writers

2 December 2015 / Leave a Comment

Colm Herron is the author of four novels and numerous essays and articles. He hails from Derry, Northern Ireland, and his newest novel The Wake was released in November this year. In this guest post, Colm reflects on writers such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Plath and Lawrence and asks the question does a troubled mind make better writing?

Imagine this advertisement in the window of Random House, publisher: WANTED: DEDICATED AUTHOR. MUST BE IN GOOD PHYSICAL, MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL CONDITION.

Looks straightforward, right? Maybe I’ll apply. After all, I’m busy writing my fifth novel now and it’s going well. Four hours every morning I’m at it, with blinding flashes of inspiration once every two or three days (OK, make that weeks) and feeling sheer delight sometimes when the thing seems to be writing itself. Trouble is, I have a bad back, kidney problems, arthritis in my typing finger and eyesight only marginally better than Mister Magoo’s. Oh, and sometimes I’m a bit paranoid regarding certain book reviewers. (But, as every writer knows, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you).

What is writing anyway? The process I mean. William Wordsworth called it “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Great. But how long do I have to wait before I get nice and tranquil? Or do I really have to be? I remember reading one time that Ernest Hemingway wrote a letter to Scott Fitzgerald that went something like this: “The whole lot of us are bitched from the start and you have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. When you get damned hurt use it. Don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist.”

Fitzgerald took him at his word and wrote Tender is the Night. It was basically his view of his tempestuous marriage to Zelda. He had already told her that their life together was his material and on top of that he pilfered from her diaries and letters in his writing of the novel. Zelda, in spite of her schizophrenia, or more likely bipolar disorder, had already published her own version of their relationship in her novel Save Me the Waltz. Scott was furious that she had used material from their life together in her book (the irony escaped him) and pushed successfully for Zelda’s publisher to give him editorial control over what was in her novel. So what actually appeared was a bastardized version. Two years later Scott’s Tender is the Night came out. It is now widely regarded as possibly even better than The Great Gatsby. As Kurt Vonnegut might have said: So it goes.

The list of troubled writers is a long one and I have merely touched on it. The great and prolific short story writer Katherine Mansfield died from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-four, still writing furiously till the end. Sylvia Plath, weighed down with extreme  bipolar depression, achieved a lasting literary breakthrough in the final tormented months of her life, producing more than forty remarkable poems in a sustained burst of creative energy.

And then of course there was D H Lawrence. Lawrence, slowly dying of tuberculosis and unable to have sex, began writing Lady Chatterley’s Lover after his wife Frieda had taken Angelo Ravagli, an officer in the flamboyant Italian Bersaglieri brigade, as a lover. Now that’s dedication.

Right. We know it’s highly desirable for a writer to be in good all-round shape but we also know that it’s not essential. Indeed, in a strange kind of way, a feeling of general wellbeing may even at times be a drawback. I’d say Plato was going a bit far when he wrote: “Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings … Madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.” Yes, a tad over the top I think. But nobody can deny that the same man knew a thing or two about writing.

The Wake
Check out Colm Herron's novel The Wake on Amazon:



Top image via Favim.

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