Genre: Creative Non-Fiction
Word Count: 1,161
Notes: I'm now thinking that my designated notation for this piece was excessively glib. At the root of it is a question about what honesty actually is. A lot of it substance is dark in its study of that.
I don't like my thoughts when I'm near a ledge. I have tattoos on my wrists and arms to make me think twice about ruining them. I've lied to medical professionals about not being in pain so that they wouldn't give me painkillers.
I "attempted suicide" when I was 13; objectively it wasn't much of an attempt. I was totally unclear of the actual mechanics of slitting one's wrist. A half an hour after drawing blood, then sitting at a desk chair in my dark dorm room, waiting to die, I noted that I was distinctly not dead, and that the bleeding had largely staunched. I was confused. What step had I missed?
I am very glad for the absence of Google at that point in history.
Luckily or unluckily, I was at boarding school at the time, where the culture of silence is strong. If anyone noticed the scabby mess that was my left wrist, no one said a thing. A bungled suicide attempt does not spurn further attempts. I'd even managed to get suicide wrong. Suicide is supposed to be that last, desperate act, the bottom of everything, the point of no return. Get that wrong? Hoo-boy. I didn't discover what I had done wrong until I met a girl with a real, let's-all-go-to-the-hospital suicide attempt. She had impressive scars: across the road and down the street, both arms.
Writing and suicide fit together. It's altogether too easy to start up in frightful litany:
Disch, Woolf, Plath
David Foster Wallace
Hunter S. Thompson killed himself. Hunter S. Thompson! The man who invented life! And this is only counting those who were "successful," ignoring people like Kayden, Greene, and Parker. It also skips over the legions more who were suicidal, or otherwise chronically depressed. The only other specter who looms as much over writers is alcohol, which may seal Hemingway's role as our Capo di tutti capi, the indisputable master of both demons.
Or are they the same demon? Alcoholism is suicide in slow motion. Not for all writers, but for those who drinking truly destroyed: O'Neil, Kerouac, Capote – these are people who stared into the abyss only to have it shirk back in fear. Rather than mere dependency, the alcoholism was a means of perpetuating that state. The darkness the suicidal man relents to, the alcoholic incorporates into himself.
Nowadays, when I can readily dispense of a liter of whiskey by my efforts alone in an evening, the alcoholism is much more my mode and form. Hearing the sound of the ocean at night , in its tremulous cadence slow, I opt not to turn the sound into a thought, but to see the wave of oblivion, and get my surfboard.
When I think of authorial suicide, I think of Spalding Gray. Plenty of other writers produce work that's not obviously the product of a dysfunctional mind. DFW never seemed suicidal, (but I've been told that I just haven't read the right works). Meanwhile, Sexton poetic form was the suicide note. Gray was more the latter, but uniquely the latter. Watching Gray was watching a car wreck; not the aftermath but the actual thing occurring. We watched him like the plebs watched gladiators. We wanted blood.
I'm not claiming that the only reason to watch Gray was an appeal to the lurid interests. He was a master at what he did, and what he did was recount stories constructed out of the events of his life. I am claiming that not all of Gray's incredible talents translated well over media other than in-person storytelling. In the absence of his captivating presence, we may have turned excessive attention to the attraction of how he was broken, and waiting to see just how far and just how long he would go before a total collapse. No one was surprised upon hearing that Spalding Gray is dead.
There have been two other times – once at 24, the other at 31 – that, while not actually suicide attempts, were points where my reckless disregard for self-preservation could have done me in. The first was after a breakup and I became a little too sloppy with Ambien and cheap white Shiraz. That I discovered I hallucinate readily after taking Ambien made it just that much more interesting. I ended up in the hospital thinking I was about to die. After an oxygen mask and fluids I walked out of my own accord. I think that they would have kept me for observation, but the hospital was not a world class facility and on the edge of one of the greater concentrations of gang violence in the city. They were not interested in dallying over a kid who was able to take out his tubes and walk out into the cold morning blackness.
The other time involved a bad furnace and Carbon Monoxide poisoning. I knew there was a problem. I'd even had prior incidents. I didn't think myself invulnerable; I just didn't care. Carbon Monoxide poisoning, as a way to die, mixes all the joys of drowning with all the pleasures of having a heart attack. The special bonus for Carbon Monoxide is a poisoned brain, left trying to find the energy to function from blood that carries only a traitorous molecule. It robs all sensation, then robs the capacity to think about sensation. It was a description of death taking straight out of Everyman. At the end, one by one, everything else goes, leaving you only with a sense of you. That is a dark place. It is darker still, for the most awesomely terrible moment of acceptance. I realized I was not going to fight to the end. I was not going to keep clawing for a way to get help. I was going to stop moving, lie on the ground, and expire.
It's a cheap answer to say that Gray's career was based on his neuroses, or on our schadenfreude. Gray's career was based on his mother's suicide and his own thoughts of suicide. What kept him producing as an artist was the bitter, dark mystery of self-destruction. He engaged it. Engaging that topic, even fearfully, gave him the strength to face any other uncomfortable topic about himself. What's talking about masturbating with a vacuum cleaner after talking candidly about suicidal thoughts? It's a punchline.
There is a singular and obvious difference between mediocre writing and great writing, which is that great writing takes risks. (Coincidentally, this rule applies for all art.) Gray points the way. Good writing takes otherwise depressing or uncomfortable topics – not abstractly uncomfortable ones, but those in ourselves – and dragging them to the light of day. This act alone is what makes something worthwhile to read. Standing aloof from it is not acceptable.
Spalding Gray is dead. Are you ready to take his place?
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.