Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Jennifer Michael Hecht

Jennifer Michael Hecht is the author of four history books, including the best-selling Doubt: A History, and three volumes of poetry. Her work has won major awards in intellectual history and in poetry. Hecht teaches in the Creative Writing Program at New York University and The Graduate Writing Program of The New School University.

Hecht's new book is Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It. From her Q & A at Former People:

C. Derick Varn: Stay was prompted by the lost of two friends, both poets. Why do you think poets are so given to take particular social contagion?

Jennifer Michael Hecht: I don’t think they are, exactly. Most of all I think pain comes first and draws people into writing (which actually helps them live longer and happier than they would have). People who experienced trauma or childhood abuse or neglect come to literature to think about pain and meaning. Life is painful for most everyone, but to dedicate your life to writing into the problem requires an unusually deep need.

The first question is do author’s kill themselves more than the rest of the population? We don’t know. A study discussed in a Forbes article suggests we don’t; a study examined in The Atlantic, says authors do it twice as often as the general public. There are a lot of variables to testing this, so it’s hard to get consensus without a lot of different studies.

As for poets in particular, on the website TopTens, Shell Harris picks “Top 10 Authors Who Have Killed Themselves,” which I have annotated with their principle genre: Ernest Hemingway (novels), Virginia Woolf (novels), Anne Sexton (poetry), Ryunosuke Akutagawa (short stories), Karin Boyle (poetry), John Berryman (poetry); Richard Brautigan (novels), Hunter S. Thompson (journalism), Jerzy Kosinski (novels), Yukio Mishima (novels and plays).

That’s three poets to seven other kinds of writers, which doesn’t seem extreme. (Check out Harris’s short bios and you’ll see some bizarre and awful childhoods.)

Since none of these studies or estimates are sufficient to an answer, I’ll give you my impression. Personally, in the last twenty years I think I have heard of more poet suicides than other writers, but that that memory might be skewed because I knew quite a few of them personally (poets teach together, have festivals and conferences and joint readings, so we know each other – we’re completely mobbed up on facebook too). Someone who is part of the fiction world might remember it differently. I’ve asked poet and novelist Juliana Baggot and she said it seemed to her, too, that poets do it more and suggested it might be because of the low pay and solitary nature of writing poetry.

As I see it we are weird, pained, and want to be solitary before we get into poetry and that’s why we get into poetry. Yet the more I think about it, the more I have to admit that...[read on]
Learn more about the book and author at Jennifer Michael Hecht's website.

The Page 99 Test: Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It.

Writers Read: Jennifer Michael Hecht.

--Marshal Zeringue