Around the same time I first hear Nirvana, I discovered another bastion of teen angst: Sylvia Plath. Her poetry spoke to me even more directly than their music, because she wasn’t just a tormented artist, she was also a woman, and her writing seemed to capture with intimate precision the rage and sorrow I was battling. The first thing you learn when you start reading about Sylvia Plath is that she killed herself when she was 30 years old. I remember hearing this fact in English class, and I had mixed feelings about it. I empathized with her depression and heartache, but I wondered what more there was to her life, and to her art. If she had lived longer, would she have written something completely different from The Bell Jar—something more optimistic? Or did being a creative woman mean you had to be tortured until it killed you? I noticed that people talked about Janis and Mia differently from Jimi, Kurt, and Jim. The men were revered as gods, practically, while the women were more often seen as tragic figures who just couldn’t handle life.
I went back and forth a lot about whether it was good or bad to die for your art. On one hand it seemed noble somehow, and more important, it looked like a nice escape plan from pain. On the other, it seemed unnecessary—Courtney Love was a hero of mine, too, and she was a survivor, which I thought was even more powerful. Part of me wanted to be a survivor, too, but sometimes it felt like I would never escape the tumult of emotion inside of me, so I might as well embrace it and use it to make stuff, and then when I didn’t feel like I could cope with it anymore I could just let my illness consume me.
I had a lot of friends who lived by the maxim (from the 1949 movie Knock on Any Door and not, as it’s often misattributed, uttered by James Dean) “Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse.” In practice this meant they engaged in a lot of wild and crazy behavior. I didn’t necessarily care about the dying young part, but I naïvely believed that living fast was a necessity for making art. People like Courtney, Kurt, the Beats, Hunter S. Thompson, and everyone else I was reading and listening to at the time seemed to bear this out. I needed experiences to write about, and they had to be outrageous to be interesting. While I didn’t necessarily take risks just to gather material, I gravitated toward and tolerated risky situations throughout my teenage years because I felt they fueled my work. I stayed in bad relationships with addicts and abusive guys, I pushed my friends away so I could wallow in my anger and my sadness, I drank too much, I did drugs. I did these things because I was depressed, but I had also decided that being a writer justified my self-destructive behavior, and that if I got treatment for my depression I would lose my ability to write. Being healthy meant being “normal,” and I’d bought into the myth that “normal” people couldn’t be creative.
But drugs didn’t work for me the way they did for Hunter S. Thompson. When I look back at the stuff I wrote in high school, it makes me cringe. The characters and stories, which at the time I thought were really promising, are flat and empty, because I was. I’d get high or drunk and the words would just flow out of me, but when I looked at them later they were gibberish.
After a few years of this my writing slowed down. I ran out of ideas. It became clear to me then that self-destruction was not actually a magical fountain of talent or inspiration. So I finally started going to therapy, stopped using drugs, moderated my drinking, and focused on my writing. And instead of dying at 27, I sold my first book that year. And a year later I sold another one.
My college’s alumni publication ran an interview with me when the second book, Ballads of Suburbia, came out. That novel was informed by my struggles with depression, addiction, and self-injury, and the interview was accompanied by a photo of me looking haunted in the park where I did drugs as a teen and a splashy pull quote: “I had to go to dark places.” Staring at it, I felt like I’d arrived. All that pain had been worth it.
I always tell people that it’s better to pour your dark feelings into creating something rather than into destroying yourself, and that is how I handle those emotions now. But after Ballads came out, I spent years worrying that I had used all my darkness up, and without that, what was there to write about? Well, a lot of things. First of all, you don’t have to live something in order to be able to imagine it. And second (and more important for my own mental health), I had to remind myself that one of the most incredible things that art can do is to bring beauty to the world. I had been obsessed with darkness because it seemed “honest” and “real,” but I was ignoring other honest, real feelings—like love, happiness, and excitement. I still write about sad stuff, because I think it’s important to acknowledge it, but I have a lot of fun writing about lighter things too these days. That’s the part of life that’s important for me to acknowledge. That’s the part that made me live past 27. I wish it could have done the same for all of those artists whose work has meant so much to the world. I wish they’d never gone and joined that stupid club. ♦