Tag Archives: William Gosline

What is the relationship between artists and depression?

The skilled and thoughtful William Gosline returns for a second guest post. The news of Robin Williams’ suicide has sparked an ongoing conversation about depression and mental ill-health among artists and other creatives. In a nuanced post Gosline reaches beyond the simple correlation between creativity and depression, to reflect on the real and complex relationship between the two.

Read William Gosline’s serial fiction Jury Selection at the author’s blog.

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A week has passed since the world lost one of its best and brightest. Robin Williams took his own life. The Internet has writhed conjecture, as is its nature, but perhaps as a sign of its maturation, the overarching tone is one of loss and sadness. Eulogies as memes abound. Because who amongst us hasn’t felt the heavy hand of depression, either within a loved one or ourselves? Robin Williams’ passing epitomizes one of humanity’s great contradictions: that the most gifted and giving of us are often the most tortured.

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Ernest Hemingway

Artists are especially susceptible. Depression, madness and suicide recur elliptically in the lives of our great creators. Spalding Gray, after watching Tim Burton’s Big Fish of all movies, drowned himself in the river. Sylvia Plath put her head in an oven. Ernest Hemingway, stripped in his dotage of his trademark virility, took matters into his own hands.

But what is the connection between vision and psychosis, between depression and creativity? By rights, Picasso should have been mad: he worked in four dimensions. Dali, with his wild eyes and curled mustache, only pretended to be mad and when asked to play a truly mad man, the Emperor in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s never realized Dune epic, sanely declared he would–for the sum of $100,000 an hour. A cynical nod to the shrewd megalomania of Hollywood and a point in fact: his madness was self-promotion.

“alienation, while important to the formation of the writer, is not necessarily a prerequisite to insanity or depression.”

Van Gogh, on the other hand, painted the commonplace, pastoral world in which he lived. Dali and Picasso consciously manipulated reality, its tropes and dimensions. Van Gogh, for all the effulgence of his art, the broad strokes and bold colors, painted what he saw. Yet, it was he who lost the battle. Perhaps then in contemplation of his craft, we can get a bit closer to the crux of the question: what is the relationship between the artist and depression or madness.

In the course of doing research for a character based off of Jack Kerouac, I pieced together an extremely rough sketch of the famous Beat writer. I read some of his work but also found the ancillary scholarship on him just as illuminating. Of French Canadian extract, he was a quasi second-language speaker whose first language, Quebec French, was dismissed as nothing more than a backwoods colloquial dialect. Like many writers, he was astride two worlds, at home in neither. But such alienation, while important to the formation of the writer, is not necessarily a prerequisite to insanity or depression.

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Salavdor Dali was mad but mad north-north-west. When the wind was Southerly, he knew to ask Hollywood for a big pay cheque.

Of more value is a consideration of the method by which he worked. The manuscript of On the Road is almost as famous as the book itself: one long scroll that he pounded away at over the course of a few weeks, literally churning it out of the typewriter. It is here that we might begin to discern a connection, in the spontaneous, feverish “channeling” of Kerouac’s recollections. In fact, in the preface to his collected letters, the editor mentions the perils of spontaneous writing. Kerouac, like Gene Wolfe’s famous character Severian the Torturer, was doomed to forget nothing. The avalanche of memory crushed him and towards the end, even the solitary heights of Big Sur, an aerie to which he had oft retreated for silence and solace, couldn’t save him.

But if Kerouac was powerless before memory, exhuming it in frenzied streams, others are powerless before sensation. Van Gogh was evidently that and in the world of literature, his match might be the forgotten Swiss writer, Robert Walser. Robert Walser, like Van Gogh and Kerouac, was the passive observer. In an essay by William Gass, his anonymous narrators are described as “will-less wanderers, impotent observers of life, passive perceivers of action and passion.” As Walser drew nearer to the asylum where he would live out the rest of his life, his writing became increasingly disjointed and impressionistic, the nebbish narrator flitting from field to café, from cobbled street to farm, like a drift of cloud.

I believe that Robin Williams held something in common with these artists. His improvisation was explosive: machine-gun one-liners uttered at the speed of thought; impersonations rattled off in a bricolage of association. His performances were gut busting, hilarious, his ability to transition from idea to idea, mind-boggling. But in light of recent events, there is also something troubling in the frenzy of his delivery. As though, through frantic incantation like a Catholic priest or a mystic, he could stay just one step ahead of his ghosts.

I have ventured too far down the path of conjecture. The truth is I was as shocked and dismayed by his death as everyone else. My rambling is just an effort to make some sense of it, to furrow some parameters around depression and its relationship to the artist as a means of self-preservation. Because Robin Williams had fooled us all, with his broad smile and kind eyes. Here is a man, we thought, who has attained peace despite his tribulations. But his suicide is an object lesson for us of how easy it is to mistake someone who has come to terms with their demons with someone who has succumbed to them.

Can excellence survive in the era of digital publishing?

Excellence isn’t a word often heard in the world of digital self-publishing, where Good Enough has more force when backed up with six-figure sales. In a smart essay William Gosline asks and answers the question; can excellence survive in the digital era? Gosline is a talented writer of speculative fiction, currently writing a fascinating serial fiction Jury Selection. I get the feeling you’ll be hearing more of him.

Answer The Question is my regular slot for guest posts, you can get details on how to contribute here.

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What do Charles Bukowski and William Gass not have in common?

Charles Bukowski and William Gass are not usually mentioned in the same breath. They do share some similarities, however. Both were raised in abusive households – not the same one, of course; their generation was one rife with domestic abuse. Both turned to writing to make sense their father’s rage, their mother’s disaffection. Finally, most who know their work would agree that they are serious writers, if not literary figures. Bukowski had become a legend before his death, loved by celebrities and the workingman alike. Gass, on the other hand, is still trucking along at the age of ninety, happily peripheral but well regarded in certain circles.

“No aspect of writing can inspire as much ire as Form.”

But there is also a fault line between the two that, like most fault lines, is at once minute and significant: the question of Form.

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Hero of the working man – Charles Bukowski

No aspect of writing can inspire as much ire as Form. For some, like Gass, it’s the pinnacle of craft. For others, it’s a dirty word: form is what “educated” writers rant about, what college courses study, what critics praise. In short, Form is for the elite. For the pulp novelist, the digital self-publisher, the everyman who hit it big with a thriller written at midnight, the proof is in the pudding—and the checks they brag about: Readers want story.

In William Gass’ titular essay from the collection Finding a Form, he lists the problems of popular fiction: subject matter that quickly becomes irrelevant; twist-endings that forestall revisiting; posturing from a belief system that will someday become obsolete.

“The problem [of fiction] was how to achieve a lasting excellence — that is, it was a problem of form.”
 And it is the quest for lasting that leads writers like Gass to think first and foremost of Form.

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Man in the ivory tower – William H. Gass

For the Methodologist — as he calls his caste of writer — every word enlists the ghosts beneath and behind it. Strung together and multiplied, they, like the tip of the iceberg, evoke metaphor and meaning within the subconscious of the “free reader”. Form, then, is what lasts when all else has been swept away.

Bukowski was famously mean in words — in both senses. Here, on the other hand, is what he had to say about Form:

“As the spirit wanes the form appears.”

Let’s agree to disagree.

In the 21st century, literature—like the publishing industry that represents it—is in a state of disruption. Words no longer carry weight nor have the depth of meaning they once did. The novel, that giant wounded whale, is being pecked at by smaller, swifter predators. In the digital universe, entire idioms are created and rendered to dust over night, misspellings and grammatical errors replicated.

Writing that both Gass and Bukowski would consider mediocre at best is out there, proliferating with the speed of a million typing fingers. With social media, writers are no longer at the mercy of their critics. The doors have been flung open. The barbarians have arrived at the gate. Those in the Ivory Tower shake with fear, along with their shuddering edifice.

The question becomes, can the goal of William Gass “to achieve a lasting excellence” survive the digital publishing revolution, or will his efforts be run over, like a desert tortoise in an Arizona suburb — places also hastily erected in a bubble of confidence?

In short: can the lasting excellence that Form strives for survive in the Digital Era?