We tend to imagine writers falling into two camps: hard-drinking misfits who somehow translate their personal misery into beautiful works, and buttoned-up academics with glasses perched soberly on the ends of their noses. While normally stereotypes should be deprecated, in this case there’s some truth to them: there certainly have been authors in the Tolkien mold, puffing on pipes in their natty sweaters, desks piled with books. And there have definitely been writers who tried their best to turn up dead long before they could manage to write their classic books. In fact, these five writers should have died long before they then—making their books even more incredible by dint of their mere existence.
To say that Charles Bukowski should not have made it to age 73 is an understatement. At age 13 he had his first drink, and promptly announced, “This is going to help me for a very long time.” What’s even more remarkable, aside from his writing talent, is that it wasn’t even his lifelong alcoholism that killed him—cancer got him first. In the words of the Waco Kid from Blazing Saddles, “A man drink like that and he don’t eat, he is going to die.” And yet Bukowski barreled through a boozy life with gusto, and left us with one of the greatest grave markers in history—his final resting place is emblazoned with his famous advice to young writers: “Don’t try.” Far from a nihilistic admonishment to give up, the phrase is actually the most pithy writing advice ever conceived.
William S. Burroughs
Burroughs became a heroin addict in his early 30s, and switched to abusing Benzedrine when he had to flee to Mexico to escape a drug arrest. He then promptly killed his common-law wife Joan Vollmer in an inebriated attempt to recreate William Tell’s famous stunt of shooting an apple off his son’s head. Considering that Vollmer and Burroughs were estranged and constantly at each other’s throats, it’s easy to see why he was convicted of homicide, although he endured no jail time for the crime. Oddly enough, this turn of events didn’t clean Burroughs up; he continued to use heroin for most of his life. It did, however, inspire his writing, and he embarked on his greatest literary achievements after Vollmer’s death. The fact that Burroughs survived Mexico free and alive is almost unbelievable.
Not only was Kerouac a formidable alcoholic who died at age 47 as a direct result of his drinking, he also spent much of his early adulthood literally on the road with Neal Cassady and others. Life on the road isn’t the healthiest, and when you combine it with dangerous substance abuse, well, it’s absolutely amazing the man lived long enough to write his one true classic, On the Road, and even lesser works like The Dharma Bums.
Sylvia Plath attempted suicide twice before she graduated college—the first time swallowing a bottle of pills and lying in the crawlspace under her house for three days. Most people die much more easily than that, so it’s kind of amazing Plath managed to cling to life for another decade, long enough to produce The Bell Jar, alongside a wealth of poems and other writings. Considering how many people die completely by accident on a daily basis, the fact that Plath was determined to do so and yet lived long enough to produce her iconic work is in itself proof that the world is a crazy random place.
Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson’s entire existence be implausible if he hadn’t lived in an age when technology allowed it to be definitively proven. From a rough and tumble childhood that saw him doing jail time for robbery, to a year spent hanging out with noted gentlemen and scholars the Hell’s Angels, the fact that Thompson lived as long as he did (67 amazing years) is remarkable. When you throw in his drug and alcohol abuse (and the way his real and fictional personas merged over the course of decades), you’ve got the kind of legend upon which cargo cults are based.