Watch Out! Literary Perfection Can Be Deadly, Man!

ErnestHemingway-HunterS.Thompson-TrumanCapote 1 
Lately I’ve had certain writers on my mind.

Dead writers, actually.

(Yes, if you know me at all, “dead” comes into play more often than not!)

Literary giants of our time, their lives and their writing cut short because of fame.

Every writer, whether celebrated or not, crawls and claws his way up the notoriety ladder. You know the one. The one where he begs to be read and adored for his work, fame and adulation the rewards for a lifetime full of hardship, loneliness, moodiness and angst.

In his quest for the “Top”, he doesn’t weigh the cost that he might have to pay for that one brief, shining moment, when the literary Gods were shining down on him as he created the book of the century, the epitome of prosaic perfection, the smooth-as-silk literary equivalent to Heaven on Earth.

He never sees beyond the limelight that a perfect work will attract. He sees only the big moneyed book deal, the public readings, the signing tour, the endless talk show circuit and yes, that movie-version New York premiere.

After that, well, there is no “after that” because the white light of perfection is always utterly blinding. How can you top, the Top?

Maybe the Pulitzer is next, heck, maybe even a Nobel Peace Prize. The sky’s the limit, he thinks, and when he gets to Cloud Nine, he never considers how far the fall might be, if he ever falls from grace.

ErnestHemingway-HunterS.Thompson-TrumanCapote 2 Ernest Hemingway (July 21, 1899 – July 2, 1961).

ErnestHemingway-HunterS.Thompson-TrumanCapote 3

Truman Capote (September 30, 1924 – August 25, 1984).

ErnestHemingway-HunterS.Thompson-TrumanCapote 4 Hunter S. Thompson (July 18, 1937 – February 20, 2005).

These three men never did, I can honestly tell you that.

All three were vastly different men, came from vastly different backgrounds and were world’s apart in terms of lives lived and experiences endured.

Yet, each one, one by one, committed slow suicide, each having touched literary perfection only to have that white light burn their very souls.

Truman said it best.

“Writing stopped being fun when I discovered the difference between good writing and bad and, even more terrifying, the difference between it and true art. And after that, the whip came down.”

I imagine it’s akin to meeting God. Whoever you meet next can never be as wonderful.

Whatever you attempt to write after perfection was attained has to be less than, for all time.

Yet each and every one of these men loved life, lived it to the fullest, and it was this thirst for the human experience which made them hold on, day after day, hoping to view again that white light but knowing damn well that it would have been more judicious to have shot themselves in the head immediately after that New York premiere.

Each returned to the typewriter disheartened.

Each turned to the bottle and shied away from the typewriter in the end.

Each having been fatally wounded by his own success.

Sure, not all writers commit slow suicide…but not all writers are as perfect as Hemingway, Truman and Thompson.

So when next you sit at your computer keyboard, your IBM golf-ball or your Underwood manual, take a second to assess the damage you may cause yourself, in just the very next word that you type.

Perfection has a price…and it’s usually paid posthumously.


Leah said…
Hey, very interesting post.

Kinda the same thing in life right? Is it better to touch the heavens and know that nothing will ever be as good and live with the crushing dissapointment or never know it at all. Really cant decide which :-)

Anyhoo thanks for giving me something to mull over during the day.

Bruce Coltin said…
Beautifully put. There's another I would add to the list. In fact, I'm going to.
Lucy's Clone said…
You sure know how to put words together end to end and turn them into a compelling commentary. Good! Very enjoyable! I hope to find time to drop in more often! Lucy's Clone
Ally said…
I'd be happy with a handful of readers who thought I was kinda cool.
Just sayin...

Tales Of A Fourth Grade Nothing
B.J. Thompson said…
To LEAH - That's such a good question...but a scary one.

I remembered watching Truman Capote self-destruct on the Hollywood & New York talk show circuit and believe me when I say it was damn painful to watch.

My own Father did the exact same slow suicide after he was forced into retirement from the RCMP.

Some people, usually genius level types, perfectionists, etc. find it damn hard to live with themselves when they know they can no longer achieve what they see as a stellar performance level.

This is NEVER the angst of the easy-go-lucky types, Leah. Some people are just programmed to accept nothing less than perfection and when they see the definition of said in their own lives, yet can no longer achieve those same results, they slowly die inside.

It's a tough question to answer, especially for me.

Thank-you oh, so much for your comments!
B.J. Thompson said…
To BRUCE - Have atter, Big Boy! I can't WAIT to read your post response!!!

xoxo Ava
B.J. Thompson said…
To LUCY - Wow! Thank-you Lucy for such generous words!

I try to offer not candy floss but a full course meal of thought to my readers, so their efforts to sign into my blog will not have been in vain...

Drop by anytime you can and I promise I'll have your virtual cocktail ready for ya!!!
B.J. Thompson said…
To ALLY - you see, that was just what these three authors didn't have that you already do...the ability to be happy as you are, as God intended for you to be!

These men were basically very arrogant toward themselves. They felt that there could only be ONE image, total perfection expected of themselves each time they typed a word. That is a damn hard measuring stick by which to live!

I don't think any human is hard-wired for whatever we as a society deem perfection, or at least, even if we achieve it once will we ever be so lucky to achieve it again.

That's where public adoration is such a harsh, two-sided coin. they will adore your once in a lifetime perfection but then judge you against it thereafter OR you will to yourself thereafter.

I guess all I'm saying here is that the easy part of fame is actually the clawing to the top, NOT actually reaching it, because when you do, your measuring stick you hold against yourself just might be too huge to surmount.

For me personally, I think, or hope I just continue to claw...

Thank-you Ally for your comment and I have no doubt that your loyal readers will think that you are cool...I already do!!!
Dennis Hodgson said…
Extremely thought-provoking MsBurb. Have you read George Gissing's New Grub Street, written in 1891? Your post reminded me of it.

I note that you used as examples relatively modern authors. I'm not sure your critique would apply to the likes of Dickens and Jane Austen. And Shakespeare wrote a few pot-poilers, but he also wrote four masterpieces: Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear.

And what about artists and composers? Beethoven started by writing wonderful music, but he continued to develop throughout his life. Ditto Turner, or Picasso.

In the end, perhaps your cautionary tale applies only to the milieu in which modern authors find themselves.
TWolf said…
Brava! Moral of the story: Be careful what you ask for... you just might get it.
TS Hendrik said…
Excellent article. While you applied it to the literary genius, I think it would also apply to others in different artistic fields as well. Heck maybe not even just art. Maybe the business man in pursuit of the perfect deal, drinking himself to death is after the same thing?

Anyways, it leaves a lot to think about.
B.J. Thompson said…
To DENNIS HODGSON - Maybe I wasn't extremely clear with my choices in this post because it was the cautionary tale I was interested in telling over the specifics.

The reason I chose these three are for their commonalities:

- alcoholism
- suicide, either self inflicted (Ernest & Hunter) or slow (Truman)
- basically broke down after their one great work - Hemingway - For Whom the Bell Tolls/Old Man in the Sea, Capote - In Cold Blood, Thompson - Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas
- counter-culture lifestyles

All of you are right of course, that I could have chosen any craft where there is a genius/ perfectionist in it, having reached his zenith. But I chose the literary genre because this is a blog and blog readers are often writers, having this topic "hit home" harder than any other.

I respectfully diagree that this is a modern-only affectation. I believe this kind of "Fall From Grace" experience is quite universal, through time and task.

And, of course, I didn't so much as discuss which came first, the egg or the chicken, in terms of the affect alcohol had on their creative spirit.

With these three, alcohol had been a lifelong habit well before they reached their zenith. Many "artists" will excuse their vices by saying that it was the chemical which enabled their creative juices to flow. I basically think that that is a load of bunk, but then again, I have written some great stuff while being "buzzed" so who knows?!

Consider this: If YOU continue my topic on YOUR blog, add a link to this post from B3 and tell me of your story, I'll send you "An Official Burbie" badge to place on your blog!

My goal, among others, is to create a blogging community dialogue, to either alter thoughts or heighten awareness, one blog post at a time, so let me know if you're interested!

Thank-you, Dennis for your well-informed comments. You're always welcome here at B3!!!
B.J. Thompson said…
To TWolf - Yeppers, Man!

I guess, in my Life, I have bumped into so many would-be pro writers that are dead focused on success but have nooooo idea what they'll do with it, if/when they receive it!

I've seen the other side of success with my own Father and like these three authors, it ain't pretty.

As well, if you examine the lifetime success of an artist vs. an overnight success, slow and steady seems to win the psychological race as well, that in their lengthy and steady climb to the top, when they reach it, they are more prepared to handle the down slope.

I believe that in success, the turtle yet again wins over the hare!

Thank-you for dropping by, TWolf, and kudos for cutting to the chase. I like a straight-shooter!!!
B.J. Thompson said…
To TS Hendrik - Yes, most definitely!

I would be lying to you if my attraction to these three men wasn't because of my own personal experience with my alcoholic Father, his craft being instead in law enforcement, R.C.M.P.

Once he was forced into retirement, his life after being a cop was always measured by that yard stick - his zenith - and for him and his perspective, nothing thereafter was ever good enough.

I believe that is why I have been so cautious about seeking out success for success' sake. The road is wayyyy too bumpy if you're not psychologically prepared for it!

TS, thank-you for your kind words and yes, if you don't come away from my posts feeling as if you've had a full-course blogging meal instead of blogging candy floss, then I've not done my job!

I hope to continue to properly feed my readers, at least until I'm too old to type!!! (wink, wink)
Sarah said…
very interesting msburb. well written and teased one's thoughts. is there really a possibility of drying up the creative well? or some are easier to give in than others?
B.J. Thompson said…
Hi Sarah, and Thank-you for your comment!

But no, I think you missed the point of the post.

It's not an issue of who "gives up"; it's more an issue of WHY they CHOOSE to fail after they've hit the zenith.

It has more to do with their OWN perception of themselves, how much they buy into the "Image", forgetting that the "Image" was never really an accurate picture of themselves in the first place.

If any lesson can be learned from these men, it would be that in their attempts to achieve what they perceived society judged them as, in would be in that very attempt which lies the essence of their imperfection, their humanity.

And once you realize that their mere attempt to attain that which never existed in the first place - this ultimate error - was the ultimate error in itself, then you free yourself from their bonds and insure that you will never fall prey to their ends.

Creativity is not an act; it is a way of life. It is not an execution of a task but akin to breathing in and breathing out.

IF you stop breathing you die.

IF you stop churning out your works, for whatever reason, you have lost your creativity OR you never really had it, you just got lucky, once.

It is in the "churning", the practise, the volume and the time-frame that begets REAL talent, not the one hit wonder.

These men made great works but it was their quitting which ultimately demonstrated their lack of talent for their craft.

I'll put it to you this way:

Who is a better lover, do you think? The person who made love, perfectly but only once or the person who practised the art of love-making for a lifetime?

I'll let you decide.
Lesley said…
Wow. Your post was interesting and the comments are getting more and more fascinating. Here's my 2 cents:

I'm not sure these men chose to fail.

I think creative geniuses have brains that are wired differently from the rest of us. They balance precariously on the edge, and often they tip over the side and can't find their way back. I know that was true for my own parents.

Still, as you said, creativity is a way of life. I'm sure none of these men would have chosen a humdrum life in the suburbs.
Pat Tillett said…
I think I'll avoid the angst and go directly to the bottle.
B.J. Thompson said…
Hi Leslie! And thank-you for your "two cents"!!! (wink, wink)

All three CHOSE to stop writing, ALL three.

And for them, in their world, genius or not, that was a choice to fail.

I smudge the truth a wee bit vis-a-vis Capote, as he just plain out died from alcoholism before his last work "Answered Prayers" was finished...

BUT it was his choice to drink himself to death and as such, he indirectly chose for that work not to be "Answered" but unanswered.

I DEFINITELY agree with you that genius-level people live in a different world. They cannot live "normal" lives, well, society-deemed normal lives, no matter how much they try.

That in itself could be impetus for chemical escape, much less the inability to perform their craft. It's really, as i said, the old chicken vs. egg issue - which came first the chemical or the inability?

Maybe Lesley, it can be more of a stress associated with not fitting in than anything else, and while in the limelight, that issue, for a time, in in remission, but comes back with a vengeance when the limelight dims...?

Creativity CAN be exorcised anywhere but living on the edge cannot. I once wrote an awesome piece while being on the toilet, man!But of course, that damn toilet WAS in the Burbs! (wink, wink)

Thank-you Lesley for making me look at the other side of this Kafkaesque issue!
B.J. Thompson said…
Ahhhh Pat, shit, Man, that's NOT fair for us, now is it, your loyal 'Nam readers?!!!(wink, wink)