All the Years Ahead: On Committing Literary Suicide

May 8, 2015 | 5 7 min read

When Evelyn Waugh was in his early 20s, he was plagued by writerly despair. After sending a few chapters of his first novel to the writer Harold Acton and receiving a less-than-praising response, Waugh burned up the entire draft. He’d just quit a miserable job only to have a more promising one fall through. His friends all seemed to be launching into successful lives, while he was not. Recalling a line from Euripides’s Iphigenia in Tauris, “The sea washes away all human ills,” he copied out the quotation in Greek, carefully checking to ensure every accent was correct, and left it on the beach one moonlit night, beside all his clothes, while he swam out to sea to end it all.

But in a perfectly Waughian moment, as he swam he felt a sting in his shoulder. Then another. And another. The water was full of jellyfish. Their attack was so painful, he turned and swam to shore, donned his clothes, tore up the note, and went back to being alive. It’s a wry story as Waugh recounts it in A Little Learning, the autobiography of his early life, but also a surprisingly poignant one, underscoring how easy it could have been for a temporary despondence to result in something as permanent as death.

Perhaps Waugh told the story of his thwarted suicide so wittily to distance himself from the awful feelings he’d experienced those decades earlier. We who work with words know facetiousness can mask a host of harder emotions. When I began my first novel in my mid-30s, I tried to make light of the feelings I found myself struggling with by flippantly asking my then-colleague, the novelist Pete Rock, whether writing fiction caused manic-depression or merely mimicked the symptoms of manic-depression. He answered, “Yes,” a cleverly enigmatic but also oddly confirming response. What I was feeling, he seemed to say, was common among writers.

But that commonness isn’t always comforting. The association between writers and despair looms so large that the artist Aaron Krach once spent a week checking books out of the New York Public Library, stamping the title page of each with the phrase “The author of this book committed suicide,” then displaying the results at an art gallery before returning the items to the library, where they presumably continue to circulate. Looking over the names of the 50 or so authors he included, my first response was to wonder how many others he’d missed.

Killing one’s self is a hell of an occupational hazard. But I’ve come to believe that writing can also be a way to resist suicide. I discovered this strategy through a sort of terrible, wonderful accident (much like swimming into a sea of jellyfish), while working on a novel about a woman whose newborn daughter dies, and who is then given another infant to nurture in the most physically and emotionally intimate way possible: by breastfeeding her. What, I wondered, would her relationship with this child be like? That was the story I meant to explore.

coverBut this character wasn’t entirely my invention. I found her in Romeo and Juliet: early in the first act, William Shakespeare has Juliet’s nurse briefly relate the backstory of her own child’s death, a seeming digression that serves as a subtle augury of Juliet’s fatal romance with Romeo. Rereading the play decades after initially encountering it in high school, I was surprised and fascinated by the nurse’s emotional depth, and by the glimpse Shakespeare gives us into her personal history. In this scene and throughout the play, Shakespeare makes the nurse comic and tragic, bawdy and big-mouthed (she has more speeches than any of the other characters except the eponymous young lovers). I wanted to think and write about the world from her perspective. So I set out to imagine the 14 years that came before the five days in the play, as she might have told them.

coverI began writing fiction as a means to address social issues. My first novel is based on the life of an inspirational but mostly forgotten historical figure, a former slave who became a spy during the Civil War. I wanted to make her heroism better known, and to help readers understand how blacks and whites worked together in the anti-slavery moment. When I started drafting Juliet’s Nurse, I wondered whether it would do something as meaningful as that first book. I worried that this compelling character, and the initial pleasure of riffing on Shakespeare, might be keeping me from telling a more important story. But as I immersed myself in the project, I confronted the fact that Romeo and Juliet, the most famous play in the English language, is also our most famous literary work about suicide. Whatever I wrote would inevitably draw me there.

Euphoria is probably the best word to describe how an author feels when the writing goes well. Most of the time, however, the writing is hard, sometimes impossible. The terrifying sense that the creative process is always out of your control — or perhaps that it actually isn’t, in which case the hard-to-impossible stretches are a reflection of your immense shortcomings as a writer — takes a psychological toll. But I think there’s another reason authors suffer so much emotional turmoil. To make what we write any good at all, we must put ourselves fully into our characters. We have to feel what they would feel, so we can distill those imagined emotions into words on the page, words we hone over and over to evoke an empathic echo in our readers. For Juliet’s Nurse, I needed to delve into dark terrain.

Authors call up inspiration from incredibly varied sources, including ones we don’t know we’ve been keeping in reserve. Years ago, I spoke on the phone with a relative with whom I hadn’t had any contact in over a decade; during the call, she told me that her partner had recently committed suicide. She described the strange wave of emotions common to survivors of suicide. I might have expected grief, even guilt, but she talked also about anger and resentment — feelings she’d been told about in support groups yet still felt surprised to find herself experiencing, given how much she loved and missed the person she’d lost. There is a long passage at the end of Juliet’s Nurse, after (spoiler alert!) Juliet has killed herself, that transposes those emotions to 14th-century Verona, where my novel and Shakespeare’s play are set. Looking back at that passage now, I realize it’s structured like a play’s soliloquy, a speech that allows the audience to discover a character’s emotions, at the very moment the character is discovering them. It was the moment I discovered them, too. The novel I find I’ve written is a sort of anti-suicide note, because my protagonist has her own relationship to suicide. As this passionate woman recounts “bit by terrible bit, every awful thing that ever happened” to her, her life is revealed to be a choice, or a series of choices, not to kill herself.

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare kills every character the nurse loves. In a single speech, she refers first to her own daughter, then to her husband, who are both dead. During the course of the play, Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, whom the nurse describes as “the best friend I had,” is slain. And in the final scene Shakespeare gives us, Juliet commits suicide. Imagining what it would be like to experience those losses, I couldn’t help but wonder why the nurse didn’t just give up. Why not succumb to grief and despondence, and end her own life?

coverOn a practical level, the answer is that my novel is first-person narration. She can’t die because she’s telling the story. But to make that story emotionally true, I needed to make living despite all that loss her decision. Perhaps it’s because my own foulest moods have taught me how quickly a wave of despondence can come, how easily it overwhelms all other emotions, that I needed the nurse’s story to posit survival as less a matter of dumb luck than it is in Waugh’s memoir. His jellyfish serve as a deus ex machina, an exterior force randomly averting his death. This connotation is writ large in the recent appropriation of Waugh’s story in the film Birdman, in which Riggan Thomson, the main character, tells his ex-wife he tried — and failed — to kill himself in precisely this way decades earlier, at the height of his Hollywood career. Suicide in Waugh is literary — laced with irony, framed by dramatic and poetic allusions (to Euripides and to A.E. Housman), and told by a retrospective narrator whose anecdote self-consciously turns on the literal merging with the metaphorical as he departs the beach and “climbed the sharp hill that led to all the years ahead,” the words that end his autobiography. Birdman makes suicide into what a film does best: something visually spectacular, from the images of jellyfish that appear in the opening titles and in a later dream-like sequence to the multiple times during the film when (spoiler alert), Riggan appears to commit suicide, only to be saved. These are the most stunning and heart-stopping sequences in Birdman, yet they imply that when we are most at risk, special effects are what will somehow save us.

That is both an alluring and a dangerous message. Each year, 40,000 Americans die through suicide — but 25 times as many attempt to kill themselves. Among teens and young adults, the rate of suicide attempts is even more staggering, 100 attempts to every death. Significantly, nearly all of those who try but fail to kill themselves do not end up dying later of suicide. These data points indicate that the moment of despondence doesn’t last, that many who survive the attempt also survive the impulse that led to the attempt, discovering that they very much want to live. In the face of such statistics, it might seem like we should all hope for jellyfish — some external force to avert death and restore the desire for life. But I think we need to work, and write, ourselves to something less contrived than a deus ex machina.

On the most basic level, we tell stories to construct meaning. Even in genres like historical fiction or science fiction, we are articulating a way to understand the world and our experiences in it. So what happens when the stories surrounding us conflict with our deepest emotions? In our pleasure-driven culture, we are bombarded by promises that happiness is always attainable, that painful feelings are avoidable — through drugs or therapy or rampant consumerism (I used to pass a billboard every day on which a famous actress was shown driving a luxury convertible under the tagline “Fire your therapist!”). Yet the rate of deaths from suicide is rising. Perhaps these constant suggestions that we can and should always be happy make any episode of unhappiness feel all the more overwhelming. But those feelings don’t have to be so devastating, if we can find stories that help us understand them differently.

As I imagined myself in the nurse’s place, I concluded the novel by having her ponder why she never made the devastating, deadly choice that Juliet did. Or rather, by having her consider why Juliet’s actions seem so alien to her. Telling this story as though I were a woman living in 14th-century Italy, I confronted the fact that, for most of human history, life has been difficult and loss has been prevalent, yet people survived. I don’t mean to suggest we should idealize that past, or shun those tools and treatments to cope emotionally that we now have that they didn’t. Nor can I say that with this literary act I shielded myself from any further bouts of my own despondence. It still comes, swift and terrible, but I feel less helpless in it. By writing this character’s story, I discovered that when suffering is an expected experience, it can be less devastating, because suffering and survival don’t have to be thought of as things that are in opposition. Rather than relying on jellyfish, I found in the novel a means to remind myself, and I hope my readers, that suffering and loss are always inevitable parts of life. We can endure the stings, and make it back to shore.

Image Credit: Flickr/Sam Howzit.

is the author of the novels Juliet's Nurse (Simon & Schuster/Atria 2014) and The Secrets of Mary Bowser (HarperCollins/William Morrow 2012). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the Daily Beast, the LA Review of Books, the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and on NPR, as well as in literary and scholarly journals and in film and performing arts festivals. A former faculty member at UCLA and Reed College, Leveen lives in a bright green house in Portland, Ore., with one Canadian, two cats, and 60,000 honeybees.