The perils of successful writers
a tragic SUIT column by Chris Jungle
During every semester of college from my sophomore year on, I took a creative writing class. Poetry in the fall, and prose in the spring. Like all classes, you moved up through the numbers. 200 level, 300 level, 400 level. None of that seemed to matter in creative writing classes. You either liked the teacher or you didn't. Not to knock the staff of the UNM English Department, but there was only one creative writing teacher who had a lasting effect on me: Louis Owens.
He taught me during my last semester of college, and when I ever look back to any advice or lessons of creative writing, he is the man I think of first and last. Always considered an Indian writer (Choctaw, Cherokee & Irish actually), Owens had a soft sincere way of speaking. He wrote several novels with titles like The Bone Game, Dark River, and Wolfgang. He had a never-ending appreciation for John Steinbeck. While teaching my class, he won an award in France where they were going to present him with a gun. We all chuckled at what kind of message that sends to a writer. Six years after that class, Louis Owens was found dead in a parking garage at the Albuquerque International Sunport--the result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
I do not know if he used the gun he won or any of the particulars to his tragic end. What it does hit home is how dangerous and maddening the profession of writing can be. Hemingway knew when he peaked and chose the way of the gun. Melville died a pauper not ever knowing how phenomenal Moby Dick would become. John Kennedy Toole committed suicide due--in part--to his inability to get A Confederacy of Dunces published. After his mother harassed Walker Percy into reading the work--and its subsequent publication--he and the book won the Pulitzer Prize posthumously.
Thousands of people, including yours truly, fancy themselves as creative writers. We like to turn phrases, dance within metaphors, and delve into the haunting world of the human psyche (as much our own as anyone else's). I have always maintained that the best art comes out of a sense of desperation. I graduated college and pounded out my first novel during one of the most trying times of my life. I drove myself to create a second novel while I worked at an institution for dysfunctional children. Not exactly a happy time in itself. I will not even go into the bottomless feeling I had when people were ambivalent to the writing or did not put in the effort to read the words at all. Neither book is published to this day.
There's an old Woody Allen joke where he is talking to the beautiful, buxom blonde and she asks "What do you do?" and he replies "I'm a writer." The blonde makes a bline to the next available guy. To be honest, I have fascinated a few girls with my writer ways, but then I would have to explain how strange those girls were themselves.
As far as writers go, Louis Owens would be considered as successful as one could ever hope to be. He lived in the mountains of New Mexico and California, had steady income with university teaching positions (most recently at UCDavis) and speaking engagements, wrote a slew of novels and literary essays, and had a wife and two daughters. Many considered him the leading voice in promoting and writing Native American literature. Most writers strive all their lives in vain for such prominence and importance.
I could not begin to speculate why he turned a gun to his chest and opened fire, except to say he was writer. There are dark places in all of our heads, and writers know how to tap into them more than most. I am not trying to glorify the tragedy or build up the act as some sort of martyrdom, but I've been down the same dead-end road. I just happened to stop before I hit the wall. Who is to say I won't find myself down that same road again someday?
I liked Louis Owens, and he liked the writing of a far-from-polished 21-year-old kid. More than any other teacher, he made me want to write. I remember him saying that writing is a very masochistic endeavor. The struggles continue to the end of your days. For whatever reason, he chose exactly what day his struggles ended.