Feb 28, 2008

On Intoxicants, Writing, and the Destructive Myth of Chemical Creativity

It is not my intention in this post to condemn those who responsibly imbibe using their favorite intoxicants, as I know that a high-stress environment can make attractive the relaxing powers of, say, a tall glass of Johnnie Walker Red on the rocks. I am rather interested in dissecting the persistent fiction that talented artists - especially writers - can somehow tap into creative realms that would otherwise be locked away, all by finding the right chemical assistance.

Hunter S. Thompson. Truman Capote. Dorothy Parker. Arthur Rimbaud. Ernest Hemmingway. Jean Stafford. The history of literature contains countless examples of brilliant writers whose dependency on intoxicants is intertwined with a romantic air of degeneracy, and a twisted mythology exists that links creativity and the consumption of drugs and alcohol.

As I write these lines, I have not tasted an alcoholic beverage in nearly six years. I say this not as a moment of pious boasting, but as an acknowledgement that my own drinking career started to become one of addiction. I am blessed that I am married to a woman who has extensive experience with addicted family members, and who early on saw that my love of liquid relaxation was both excessive and unhealthy. She insisted that I get honest about my behavior, and I consider myself fortunate that my period of self-abuse was relatively short in both duration and physical damage.

Yet a part of me also recognizes that I wholeheartedly bought into the writer-as-conflicted-drunk mythology, not only justifying my own regular inebriation, but also as a rite of passage, or a badge of honor in the mythical fraternity of chemically-fueled writers. We writers drink, I told myself, because we need a vehicle to transport us to that creative realm that is otherwise difficult to reach while sober.

Of course, the fact that I was unpublished, and that my literary production consisted of dozens of unfinished pieces of ho-hum material did not stop me from perpetuating the myth each night. I liked to pour a tall tumbler of vodka to help me unwind after work, a glass that reached ever-higher levels as my body - as though it were equipped with the liquid equivalent of air cleaners - developed increased tolerance.

Since embarking on a healthier lifestyle, eschewing intoxicants (save caffeine) in favor of deep breathing, long walks, and meditation, I have achieved a modest level of success as a writer and academic. More importantly: I realize that alcohol and chemicals at best offer only a temporary route to the relaxed state of mind conducive to creative thought, and that intoxicants act as a duplicitous chimera, luring a person into a downward spiral of self-destruction that has delivered many folks to loathsome consequences.

I cringe when I see continued efforts to keep alive the destructive fantasy of the tortured alcoholic writer, like the Johnny Depp portrayal of Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. An entire new generation of budding writers gets to worship the bottle, the needle, and the coke spoon as holy relics in the quest for inspiration. Moreover, the talented-but-debauched Thompson can inspire a fresh cadre of imitators to view him as an literature icon, as opposed to an unstable and chemically-dependent recluse whose obsession with altered states meant that many of his writing projects remained unfinished at the time of his 2005 death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

So enjoy your favorite intoxicating pastimes, dear readers, and imbibe responsibly. Just avoid the deceptive song of the Sirens that is the myth of chemical creativity, a seductive serenade that has lured many writers to rocky shores.


notgoingpublic said...

Well said, Mike. I admire your courage to speak about this.

historymike said...

I'm not sure that it takes much courage to take on a topic like this, NotGoingPublic, unless you are referring to my admission that I once drank to excess.

I recognized that alcohol for me was a way to self-medicate, to achieve temporary relaxation and to induce sleep. Yet my own decision to toss the bottle was far less dramatic than the stuff of Hollywood celebrities: no DUIs, no wrecked cars, no howling-at-the-moon insanity. Pretty lame stuff, with the exception of my wife telling me in no uncertain terms to knock of my stupidity and be the man she married.

Instead, I was just someone who grew dependent upon a nightly blast of vodka that kept getting larger. I compartmentalized my boozing - no daytime drinking, little carousing around bars, just fast-and-quick gulping an hour or two before bed. I told myself it was not a problem since I could control the time and quantity - I was a regular scientist when it came to my drinking.

I was a person paranoid of getting a DUI, so I used to try to time my drinking to occur after any driving was done. And if a late-night errand needed to be completed when my "start" time drew near, I was one cranky individual.

But I am more concerned in this post with exposing the unhealthy mythology surrounding booze, drugs, and creativity. In my mind, I am a hell of a lot more creative and productive without the vodka, irrespective of whether or not I was falling into a state of alcoholism.

And what could the likes of Hunter S. Thompson have accomplished had he ever managed to stay clean for a period of time?

When the buzz arrived for me, it was more interesting to munch potato chips, watch TV, or sleep than to do the work of writing. And if you look at the output of hardcore drinkers, they tend to go many years between books, and have a littered trail of paper after they die of story ideas that never quite got finished because of the booze and drugs.

Anonymous said...

HST was a gifted talent, something the average person with a bottle and pills cannot duplicate.

Anyone can learn to be a good writer, that just takes knowing how to dot I's and cross T's.

HST was able to express himself in gonzo with a brilliance that isn't learned, it's born.

It takes a special kind of soul, one thay isn't caged and overly self conscience

Barb said...

Good post.

microdot said...

I agree with anonymous, Hunter S. Thompson was a unique writer. Many have tried to emulate him perhaps and his excesses, but when he was on, he was on!
I remember the first piece I read by him in the 60's in Scanlans Magazine with the artist Ralph Steadman in tow...
Mr. Steadman was one of my biggest influences as an illustrator and he lived in panicked fear of his association with Thompson and his excesses.
My wife actually sublet her apartment to Mr. Thompson in the 60's in New York after being told that a nice young writer was looking for a place to stay for a few months.
She went to Europe. One day a friend was walking by and found all of her possessions on the street! In pieces! He saved what he could.
When she returned, she found her apartment with the plaster gouged off the walls and what looked like the residue of a batch of bath tub beer making festering in the bathroom.
She hated the man, but she still thought he was a genius!

Brian Schwartz said...

Maybe I'm kidding myself, but, for me, writing is EASIER when I've had one or two Crown Royals. It's not any better, but certainly not any worse.

Once I get past two Crown Royals -- which I do on occasion -- I get sloppy on my mechanics. What should be three paragraphs is one, long run-on block of text. I'll use "are" instead of "our" and stupid stuff like that that I have to go back and clean up later.

I don't find any creative inspiration in alcohol. I just find the writing process to flow easier.

Brian Schwartz

Mad Jack said...

Let us not forget Stephen King, who by his own admission abused liquor and pills while writing best sellers.

Dan said...

Hmm...interesting, the bottle as muse (or needle, nasal passage etc). A good post and you have done some great thinking on this.
I pity the poor editors that had to tighten up the prosaic musings of Thompson, Bukowski, Burroughs et al who saw intoxicants as a guide to enlightenment. But I applaud them for delivering some of the most important writing (mostly) the world has seen.
Whether their boozing or carousing was a fictional creation or creative form of fiction we will never know, but we were, and am sure, we will still be attracted to the tortured artist.Some of it is good stuff and the pages reek of it and some of it is just plain dull (take a look at Huxley's 'Doors of Perception' or Coleridge's 'Xanadu').