Published by
Stanford Medicine

Medicine and Literature

When death comes rapping at the chamber door: Writers inspired by crises and medical emergencies

looking to heavenHave you ever had a near-death experience? I haven’t, so I can only imagine how much more creative I could be right now. At least that’s the leap I chose to make after reading a blog post on The Airship that featured eight famous writers who experienced medical emergencies or sidestepped an untimely death and went on to produce now-canonical works of literature. These are suffering artists not in the heartbroken sense, but on a physiological level.

Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the piece notes, endured seizures all his life. When he was arrested at age 28 and sentenced to death, and then unexpectedly freed by order of the Tsar and sentenced to hard labor in Siberia instead, things started looking up. From the piece:

This incident is said to have increased the frequency and severity of Dostoevsky’s epileptic fits, but the young writer also channeled the experience into his work, evident from this passage in The Idiot:

He said that those five minutes seemed to him to be a most interminable period, an enormous wealth of time; he seemed to be living, in these minutes, so many lives that there was no need as yet to think of that last moment, so that he made several arrangements, dividing up the time into portions — one for saying farewell to his companions, two minutes for that; then a couple more for thinking over his own life and career and all about himself; and another minute for a last look around…

Then there’s Stephen King, who, during an uncharacteristic bout of writer’s block, took a walk to clear his head when working on “On Writing”:

A passing driver, distracted by his dog moving around, plowed into the unsuspecting writer. King flew into a ditch, where he suffered a collapsed lung, severe fractures to his leg that nearly required amputation and a broken hip.

Despite undergoing several subsequent surgeries, King kept working on the book, for which this new experience formed an integral part. In addition, upon his return home from the hospital, King was able to see his studio as it would have been had he died in the accident. That image provided the inspiration for his subsequent novel, Lisey’s Story.

The other authors’ stories include similar cliffhangers and injury recoveries.

Via @randomhouse
Photo by kevin dooley

Comment


Please read our comments policy before posting

Stanford Medicine Resources: