Yesterday I finished reading my first story by Robert E. Howard. He’s the guy who created Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane, among many other memorable characters. The story I read was called People of the Black Circle, a pulpy action yarn wherein much blood is spilled.
I was surprised by the (unfortunate) era-appropriate sexism on rampant display, the descriptions of bloodshed toward the end (the book was written in the early 1930s), and by the author’s vivid imagery. As to the imagery, it turns out Howard spent a good deal of time yearning to be a poet, but gave it up when he realized the slim odds of turning a profit. So he went off and invented the genre known today as Sword and Sorcery. He was a huge devotee of H.P. Lovecraft and I’m sure after I have exhausted my repertoire of Conan stories, I’ll move right along to the father of Cthulhu. There’s something weird in their books that I’ve been unconsciously toying with in mine and I’m digging the similarities.
Anyway, Howard was doing all right with writing by his early twenties. His stories frequently appeared in multiple publications. He had a long career ahead of him where he could write whatever he pleased whenever he pleased. He had already achieved what most writers would give an arm to attain. He could create vast new worlds for generations of readers to explore and enjoy.
Instead, he killed himself.
Robert E. Howard walked out to his car when he was thirty years old and shot himself in the head. Hemingway, Plath, Woolf—the list of authors who have committed suicide goes on. There have been correlations drawn between creative people and mental illness, bipolar disorder, and depression. As many as 30,000 people commit suicide every year, and creative types are supposedly twice as likely to go through with it. What makes artists more susceptible to such an act of vulgar and abhorrent finality?
People who create need to be able to see deeper into the world than others out of necessity. The clockworks of society are more visible to writers because small versions of the machine plucked from reality need to fit inside their characters, to drive them forward and compel them to action. Some people are born with this transparent vision, and others catch an unintended glance through a rip in the veil.
Perhaps, after a long enough time on the other side, artists tire of seeing beyond this veil that so thinly masks the truth about humanity. They realize a world without love—without family and friends and purpose—is no world at all. Take a step back and look at your life. Look at it like a timeline, where A is your start and B is your end. Does it climax like a book or a movie? Is all of the action packed in near your death? I think a creative person who looks at this timeline looks too often and from too far away, and they see a flat, unchanging line. In short, they see no meaning to their own existence. “I could write a book, sure, but what’s the point? It will or won’t get published, and then someday I’ll die.”
You can’t say they lack imagination for the future because their imagination is what makes them an artist to begin with. You can say, though, that they lack hope for the future. If the point of life is to make money so you can eat so you can get a house so you can make money to pay the mortgage so you can sleep so you can be alert for work so you can make money so you can—you get the idea. If that’s the point of life, then there is of course no point at all. Instead you must find a purpose beyond the mask of stagnant automation to which so many people resign themselves. You must find someone to love and by whom to be loved. If you cannot find this, then you must devote yourself to an ideal for the betterment of yourself and those around you. THAT is true purpose—and true bravery—because if you step back and look at your life as so many people do and are beaten down by the futility of existence, then you must realize that life will not reach some apex of excitement that justifies your existence. It is instead a constant ebb and flow of activity, with times of dormant silence, times of great triumph, and times of deep emotional pain.
You must create for yourself a world in which it matters to be alive. Purpose will not find you. The world will not give you a reason to go on. The world has too many problems of its own. It’s not easy and anyone who says otherwise is lying or selling something.
If you’re a writer, write. If you’re a painter, paint. Realize that your creations can shape the way a person sees the world around them. Realize that you might put a smile on the face of a child dying of cancer, and the world you created is the one they choose to visit to escape their situation.
Devote yourself to an ideal and strive to create with a unique clarity of vision for your world. Love the same way—completely and without selfishness. The sun will be brighter each morning and old coffee will taste a little less bitter. And most importantly, you will have your Purpose.