What would you do if a writer emailed you saying they were going to commit suicide?
It happened to Cynthia McCabe, a journalist at the Washington Post.
She was in bed one night, checking her email, and read an email from a complete stranger named Dennis Williams who said that he’d published one novel that no one had read, written 8 other unpublished books, and that he was committing suicide that very night.
Why? Because Williams had said all that he had to say. Because he considered his life work to be bound up in those 8 unpublished books and one published novel, and if no one was going to listen, he would commit suicide.
In fact, the only reason he was emailing Cynthia McCabe was in the hopes that she might draw attention to his work after his death. In essence, his life wasn’t important, only his work.
Does any of this idealistic thought sound familiar to you writers? Because I recognize it. I’ve valued the importance of my work that highly at certain times in my life, certainly when I was younger. You think that this one book is it, that it contains everything you’ve been working for throughout your life, and if you could just communicate it to others it would change the world … and, you know, earn you millions of dollars, which would be nice, too, I guess.
Well, Cynthia McCabe didn’t know what to do. Williams was in Japan, and she couldn’t get there. But she did some sleuthing and found his niece on Facebook, and sent her a message asking her to reach out to her suicidal uncle.
Cynthia didn’t hear back for a few days, until the niece sent her a message thanking her for her concern, and saying that her Uncle had committed suicide.
Apparently, Williams had sent that email, then climbed to the top of his building and jumped off.
In a note to his niece and to his ex-wife, Williams said that he’d said all that he wanted to say. Through his books. And since his books were finished, he was finished, too.
What a strange conflation of his self with his work.
If there’s one thing we have to remember as writers, it’s that our work and our selves are not the same thing.
- When you get a rejection note from an agent or magazine, they are not rejecting you.
- When your book fails to sell, it’s not because people dislike you.
- Even if you’re a terrible writer and no one ever reads you, you are probably still a decent, lovable human being who can make great changes in the world.
Why do we forget that so often?
Well, Williams, it turned out, had a daughter. He didn’t raise her and they were estranged from each other. One of those things when they communicated every five years, or so, and it was awkward. You probably know some relationships in your family like that, too.
I find it infinitely sad that he didn’t have a relationship with his daughter, and yet craved a relationship with thousands of readers who he could never know. Now I don’t know the specifics of that relationship, and maybe there was good reason why she didn’t want to have a relationship with her father, but from his point of view I find it reveals some inverted values.
I mean, what has more chance of mattering? Your books or your relationships?
Don’t buy into the myth of genius. Don’t sell your family out for the longshot hope of fame. By choosing his books over his daughter, Williams was choosing his ego over selflessness.
Because let’s be honest:
Everything you write will disappear. Pretty quickly, actually. Almost certainly within your lifetime. If you are extremely, extremely lucky, someone might read you after your dead. But let’s be honest — a hundred years from now, I can wager with absolute certainty that no one reading this blog post will still be read.
Depressing? I hope not! I am nothing if not a cheerful soul brimming with optimism!
Because I’m telling you that not to depress you but to free you. If you don’t have the pressure of writing to posterity, you can actually write for the now. Write for those who will read you now. Communicate with people around you, engage the topics of the day. And screw posterity! What has she ever done for you?
Celebrate your writing whether it reaches 10 or 10 million.
But at the same time you celebrate it, realize that the actual relationships you have with others — your family, your friends — are infinitely more important than your writing. This is harder to do than it looks. For instance, I’m staying up late at night to write this, even though my twins are turning 4 tomorrow. Which means I’m choosing this post over being well-rested for their birthday.
So Dennis Williams is still, even after his suicide, unknown. His single book on amazon is figuratively collecting dust. There is, however, a single five-star-review.
You know who wrote that review? His daughter.
That just hurts.
Can you feel how much she craved a connection with her father?
Don’t let your friends and family read your books as a substitute for yourself. It’s not worth it.
Read and listen to the original story, as told on NPR’s Snap Judgment