Caution Writing Poetry May Be Hazardous to Your Health

Most people don't take life expectancy into consideration when thinking about a career. Rare is the high school student who sits down with a guidance counselor and discusses the job availability, pay scale, potential for advancement, and average lifespan of investment brokers, doctors, and cowboys. After all, you know that if you choose to become a police officer, Navy SEAL, or elementary school teacher you're taking your life in your hands, but who would think that if you become a writer, what you write can have an effect on how long you'll be doing it?

Well, it does. At least according to an article in the Journal of Death Studies (motto: "People are dying to get published in our magazine"). James Kaufman, a researcher from California State University who wrote the article, studied nearly 2,000 dead writers from the United States, China, Turkey and Eastern Europe and found that poets die younger than novelists, playwrights, and nonfiction writers. They're also poorer, get beat up more often, and are really tired of seeing people roll their eyes when told how they earn their meager living. And you wonder why they write such depressing stuff.

Kaufman's not sure exactly why it is that poets die younger, but he has two theories. The first is that since they have a higher rate of mental illness, alcoholism, and drug addiction there are more suicides. I know, I was shocked too. The second is that poets start writing young, churning out twice as much of their lifetime output in their twenties as do novelists, so if they die at an early age they may already be known as a poet, while if a novelist dies young he or she may not have written anything of note yet. Is it any wonder Zen priests have adopted the new koan "If a great novelist dies before writing his masterpiece, will he make a sound?"

In spite of their propensity to die at a younger age, poets aren't anywhere to be found on the Bureau of Labor Statistics list of the 10 Most Dangerous Jobs. Lumberjacks are at the top, followed by fishermen, pilots, and structural metal workers. Keep this in mind the next time you think about grabbing your rod and reel and hitting the Bassmasters circuit. Neither is poet on the list of the most stressful jobs, though prison guard, police officer, social worker, and teacher are. Hell, even dentists made that list and what do they have to be stressed about other than being careful not to let the occasional "Whoops!" slip out while they have a drill in your mouth?

As writing goes, there are definitely more dangerous jobs than being a poet. Being a foreign journalist in Iraq immediately comes to mind, as does being an Academy Award-winning screenwriter. It's true. According to a study a few years ago by some Canadian researchers who had more time on their hands than government oversight, screenwriters who win an Oscar live an average of 3.6 years less than those who are merely nominated. Winning additional awards cuts their life expectancy by another 22 percent. Go home with four statuettes and chances are you'll die while being handed your next one. Talk about too much of a good thing.

This is one of those instances when winning makes you a loser, much like taking first place in the International Mime Competition. The interesting thing is that it's just the opposite with actors. In a previous study, the same researchers found that when an actor wins an Academy Award he or she tends to live 3.9 years longer than those who were merely nominated and had to smile when their name wasn't announced, trying desperately to imitate someone who actually believes that being nominated is the honor. Now that's good acting, especially since inside they're crying because the jerk who won will not only get paid more for their next film, but will outlive them. Of course they shouldn't be upset. After all, it's not as if having stalkers, not being able to have a quiet dinner out without being hounded for autographs, and seeing photographs of yourself at your sloppy early morning worst in People week after week isn't enough of a reward.

If you're looking for a job that's easier on you than lumberjack, fisherman, poet, or Academy Award-winning screenwriter, you might consider the list of the least stressful jobs as ranked by the Jobs Rated Almanac. At the top of the list are medical records technician, janitor, forklift operator, musical instrument repairer, and florist. You'll notice writing jobs are nowhere in sight. I can only hope my insurance company's actuary doesn't notice this.

Keep all this in mind the next time you get discouraged with work and romanticize about dropping out and becoming a poet. Consider a career as a novelist or playwright or nonfiction writer. Anything but a poet. And whatever you do, don't aspire to be a poet who wins an Academy Award. Life is too short. Or it would be anyway.

More Mad Dog can be found online at: His compilation of humorous travel columns, "If It's Such a Small World Then Why Have I Been Sitting on This Airplane For Twelve Hours?" is available from Xlibris Corporation. Email:


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