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Writing is both mask and unveiling. 
- E.B. White

Any editor will tell you – writers can be a notoriously difficult group. Prone to perfectionism, deep melancholy, and the sense that – given a little extra time – literary genius would be available for the taking. This is, of course, only slightly in jest. However, it is interesting to note that much like the composers featured in a previous post, some of our written tradition’s finest authors have displayed traits not uncommon to people living with ADHD today. For those so diagnosed, it can be both comfort and inspiration – and in some cases, a cautionary tale. It can be proof that it is not the challenges that one faces, but the way in which one overcomes those challenges that tells the true story.

Learning Difficulties Awareness

Note: This selection features two writers who have frequently appeared on lists making the case for historical diagnoses.

Ernest Hemingway

As a celebrated writer and journalist, Ernest Hemingway remains on of the most respected literary icons in the American canon. His crisp, elegant prose has influenced several generations of modern writers, from contemporary F. Scott Fitzgerald to J.D. Salinger. Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for his novella, The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway was the focus of much public adoration during his life. Much of his fictional work was based on his personal experiences – as an ambulance driver during World War I, his impassioned interest in the outdoors, and his career as a war correspondent during two major wars – the Spanish Civil War and World War II.

Despite his professional achievements, his numerous emotional struggles paint a portrait of a man at odds with his genius. Hemingway had a succession of marriages and divorces, and his career often required continuous upheaval. These struggles, in addition to debilitating depression, mirror symptoms associated with ADHD – specifically an inability to maintain focus and a seemingly chaotic lifestyle. Although he would lose his battle with depression, dying by his own hand in 1961, his exalted place in literary history is certain.

Emily Dickinson

American poet Emily Dickinson never achieved the public celebrity and praise extended to Hemingway – fewer than a dozen of her poems were published during her lifetime. Shying away from the respected forms and styles of the day, her work has been lauded for its unconventional approach to voice and imagery, and for her choice of subject matter. Her preternatural occupation with death and immortality is evident in the majority of her works, and is likely a response to her own struggles with depression – causing her to completely withdraw from social life in the years prior to her death.

Much of the speculation regarding a possible ADHD diagnosis likely stems from this illness (often seen in tandem with today’s ADHD cases), as well as her educational difficulties. Though an enthusiastic reader, Dickinson struggled with scholastic demands, transferring between several schools before abandoning her formal education altogether. However, despite her interrupted studies, Dickinson’s literary output is extraordinary – over 1800 poems reveal the complex, unconventional talent of this pre-modernist poet.

From certain angles, these life stories may seem disheartening – but it is important to note that both of these subjects lived in a time with absolutely no medical knowledge or understanding of ADHD, or associated mental illnesses. In that light, the remaining published works are a testament to their will and talent – a triumph that only those with ADHD can truly grasp.