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How to "Live with Wonder": Authors Who Created Great Works During Challenging Times

By now, the meme about how Shakespeare managed to make metaphorical lemonade out of his situational lemons has already made its many rounds online. You know the line: "Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine." You also know the message: "You, too, could create genius works of art in times of peril!"

For most of us, a night of Netflix or rearranging the spice rack is lot more likely than an evening of writing masterpieces by candlelight, but for many of history’s greatest novelists and playwrights, dire circumstances actually helped them to produce some of today’s most beloved classics. For instance, did you know that in addition to King Lear, Shakespeare also wrote Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra while forced indoors by the bubonic plague in 1606?

And while it may seem like The Bard was just an all-around overachiever, there are plenty of examples of other wordsmiths who cranked out some of their most celebrated works under unlikely (and often unideal) circumstances. But don't think of this as shaming for your less-than-productive days at home; instead, consider it inspiration for whenever creativity strikes: you, too, may have worlds inside you just waiting to be written.

Writers who were quarantined

Shakespeare is perhaps the best-known playwright to produce a renowned work during the bubonic plague, but other prolific writers sprang forth from disease-induced quarantines, too. Elizabethan playwright Thomas Nashe, for instance, wrote Summer's Last Will and Testament during his own self-quarantine from the plague in the 1590s, a comedy that actually captures his experiences living through the uncertain times. Centuries earlier, Florentine writer and poet Giovanni Boccaccio did something similar, penning The Decameron, a collection of novellas chronicling a wide spectrum of reactions to the bubonic plague in 1348: characters in his works did everything from engage in heavy drinking to turning toward religion.

Mary Shelley, known for her gothic masterpiece "Frankenstein," was in slightly less dire straits when she literally dreamt up the premise for the novel in 1816 — less dire only because she was quarantined with a few friends on vacation: the poet Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley (whom she would later marry), and the physician John Polidori. The year before, Indonesia’s Mount Tambora had erupted, killing 100,000 people immediately and leaving behind clouds of ash and dust that made it horrible for people to go outside. So, while on a holiday in Lake Geneva, Switzerland, the four friends ended up staying indoors and telling ghost stories. Thus, Frankenstein was born.

Stack of old books with different colored spines on a wooden table
Credit: Billion Photos/ Shutterstock 

Writers who were imprisoned

Some of the greatest thinkers of our times also happened to be, well, ahead of their times. As a result of their radical ideas or rebellious ways of thinking, esteemed writers like Miguel de Cervantes and Ezra Pound produced works that, today, are considered modern classics. Cervantes was a Spanish military leader when he was captured by the Turks in 1575 and thrown in jail. It was there that he conceived of his satire, Don Quixote, which is now considered the first modern novel. It was later published in 1605. And polarizing figure Pound, both a poet and a critic, wrote part of the "Pisan Cantos," a long, incomplete poem in 117 sections, while he was jailed in the Italian city of Pisa during World War II. Years later, he won an award for "Pisan Cantos" from the Library of Congress while still imprisoned.

In a non-war-related jailing, French novelist, poet, and playwright Jean Genet wrote his (largely autobiographical) novel Our Lady of Flowers in 1943 while he was imprisoned for theft. The story, which is often cited as a source of inspiration by later Beat writers, follows a deceased drag queen in Paris’s homosexual underworld, something that would definitely not have been considered mainstream at the time. And of course, across an ocean, South African president Nelson Mandela spent his 27 years in prison penning the letters, diary entries, and notes that would eventually be compiled into 2010’s Conversations With Myself.

Writers who were exiled

There must be something about living in a place not one’s own home country that helps free up creative brain space, because a good number of works from the classical literary canon were penned by writers in exile. Famously eccentric American journalist Ernest Hemingway was living in Paris when he wrote his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, about American and British expatriates who travel from Paris to Pamplona, Spain, to witness the running of the bulls. A few decades earlier, Irish playwright Oscar Wilde also found himself in Paris after being exiled from Britain in 1897. It was there, in the City of Light, that he wrote The Importance of Being Earnest, which is today taught in classrooms around the globe.

Speaking of classroom staples, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables was also written while the author was living in exile back in the mid-1800s. He was living in Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, after being banished from his native France for being an outspoken opponent of the Second Empire of Napoleon III. It was arguably because he was in exile that he was able to produce the masterpiece that is Les Mis. "Exile has not only detached me from France, it has almost detached me from the Earth," he once wrote in a letter. In this century, Iranian writer Azar Nafisi was living in the United States in exile from Iran when she wrote her 2003 bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran. Turns out, exile can be conducive to creativity.

Writers who wrote on their deathbeds

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the looming threat of death often inspires writers to put pen to paper, oftentimes with incredibly poignant results. British poet John Donne was an early example of a creative whose last will and testament took the form of a poem, “Hymn to God, My God, In My Sickness,” which he likely wrote on his literal deathbed in 1630. Henry James, who is probably best known for his novel The Portrait of a Lady, reportedly dictated some unpublished, stream-of-consciousness thoughts to his secretary while he lay in bed in a delirium toward the end of his life in 1916.

Ulysses S. Grant, the Union general who effectively won the Civil War for the north and was later elected the 18th President of the United States, died of esophageal cancer in 1885; in the years leading up to his death, he penned a two-volume memoir (at the insistence of Mark Twain and several others) that he ultimately completed just weeks before he died.

More recently, Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch knew he had terminal pancreatic cancer, but he continued to work and lecture. In 2007, he delivered an upbeat and inspiring lecture called "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams." That message was soon turned into a book, aptly titled The Last Lecture, that was published the following year, just three months before Pausch's death. In his obituary, The New York Times wrote that Pausch's "'last lecture' made him a Lou-Gehrig-like symbol of the beauty and briefness of life," and that he had "inspired many to live with wonder."

Featured image credit: ultramarinfoto/ iStock

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