Enjoying a bit of pipe tonight
A friend of mine posted a great bit on the (as he calls it) Shining Standard of Hemingway and his alcoholism, or the idea that good writers and artists in general tend to, and indeed *should* suffer from some crippling mental disfunction or addiction, and it got me thinking; so I am going to write about it.
This might get pretty long. I’ll try to sum it up at the end if you want to nod solemnly and go read the last paragraph.
I should preface this as saying I consider myself a writer because, as William Williams said, “all writing is a disease.” I discovered this disease in 2010 with short stories and found that, like a burst dam or a hemorrhaging wound, it was difficult and painful to stop the flow of words.
I should also say that I suffer from depression, and I foster alcoholism and a generally fatalistic point of view. I find interpersonal relationships difficult and most of the joy I leech from love comes from tricking the other person into thinking i’m something that I am not, a practice that has left me pitifully single for nearly a decade.
So. How can I know all of this about myself? That, is the strangeness of the writers melancholy I believe, or rather I should say that is the strangeness about the personality type that tends to become a writer; we have an extremely meticulous nature that breeds a brand of self examination that is not seen in most people. Now, I wont dwell on this much but I don’t say this with any kind of hubris. There are always going to be trends in any group of people; weak people don’t tend to become boxers. Lazy people don’t tend to become doctors. Alcoholics tend to make poor fathers, etc. What I think is fascinating about the writer is that he (lets not get sexist; I am using ‘he’ because I am referring mainly to myself here) tends to have an awareness of other worlds. Writing is often an examination of what alternate choice, conflicting patterns, different paths would have yielded.
I started writing (without knowing it) when I was 10. My friends and I got into role playing games and I liked to game master, so I would have to come up with different stories for my players to enjoy. As we got older, we found different games to play, and again subconsciously, I found out that all these ‘new’ stories I created were really all the same. I had no idea at the time I was picking at the bones of fiction; coming to the slow realization that it was these small little elements that made books and movies so different from one another when in fact the heart of their tale has been told a hundred, a thousand times over.
As I grew up, my friends and I clung to roleplaying. We did it so often, if it were any other practice it would have been called a destructive addiction. And maybe it was. If it were drink, we would now be dead. Same with drugs. If it were sex, we would have been riddled with disease and utterly devoid of feeling. It was an excessive thing; taking on these roles, telling these stories and above all, creative characters in living worlds. I would build people with the same questions I had, only exaggerated because I was playing it all out in the safety oft he mind. Is there a moral ambiguity of murder? What role does greed play in our lives? Is there something after heartache? These were like petri dishes of the human condition; scientific analysis of who we were as people; an understanding of the things inside us that made us love and hate and begged answers to why we do the things we do.
Okay. I’ll grant that this might be an exaggeration. I mean, after all it is *just* a game. I admit that my feelings on the matter are very much polluted with nostalgia and sentiment. After all, we did spend more hours learning rules while we neglected our math homework. Still, to me the core of why I chose roleplaying as my youthful vice rests on these questions; who am I, and what does my life mean? I neglected parties for it. We as a group were popular in our little liberal arts high school and we never socialized outside ourselves (for the most part) because of the games. Drinking was fun, and I did it occasionally, but it didn’t compare to fiction.
And so it went. It was not until the middle of our college experience that gaming started to die off. We each became bitter towards one another for the things we did outside of the game. I blamed others for carrying on relationships instead of hanging out with the group. They blamed me for the social scene I was increasingly involved in. Some of us found drugs, others bright futures and faraway places. I embraced what gaming had taught me, some of my friends despised it, and blamed their time with the group as a leeching of their potential. And slowly, we stopped. It would take us months of playing half at hearted attempts to realize the thing was already dead.
And for the first time in my life I had no outlet. I was older now, 23, and I didn’t have something to channel what I didn’t realize was my own neuroses into. The creation of stories and characters weren’t just fun or experiments to me, they were *bandages.* It would take me years to realize this but I had been bleeding since before I could remember and this creative outlet was saving me; it was stemming the loss of life I was experiencing, and draining the infected insanity that I gathered. I thought it was just a hobby.
So I drank. I started to hate the world and all the people in it, because I had been to other worlds where there were better things, worse things, wonderfully kind things and horrifically dark things. There were places in the mind that I could differentiate between reality and fiction, but that I could not value less. In the depths of memory, a character I played or a story I had written became the same as the cafe I went to last week; just images flickering like a candle in the dark.
And so I drank. I did it socially at first, because that was okay. Then it was because I was in college, which made it okay. Then it was because my business was soaking in it. Again, fine. But I was drowning demons, like so many before me. I was over hating just the world and I started to see the problems with it, chiefly that I was the wrong character. I felt and needed things that were highly contradictive. I blamed people for their mistakes and I despised them for their triumphs. I needed help but I slapped away hands that offered comfort and resented those who ignored me. I felt like I was drowning in life and in myself all at once and I couldn’t see a way out of it.
And so I drank. I would lay awake for days when sober and listen to my doubts and my fears and my theories and my little paranoias. I would busy myself with other people lives and then mock them for their choices. I would look inside me and find nothing worth liking, and ultimately that brought me to the depths of my sadness; I started to resent my friends. The people who loved me I hated because loving someone like me must mean *they* had something wrong with themselves. I lashed out at them and I cut deep. My life philosophy of big picture understanding and my own genetically given ability to read people, tied to my understanding of human nature caused me to *murder* happiness. I didn’t just insult people, I went for the throat. I was thirsty for blood and from the jugular. The world hadn’t done me any favors, life hadn’t been up to my impossible standards, and love had left me shattered twice before I was 19. If a sunny day was happiness then I would drag it from the sky. If love was shelter then I would burn it down. I would sabotage anything good before it could be taken away, and I hated myself for it. I wanted everyone to live in the ashes I felt I was living in because when I looked at happiness I saw shadows and lies and the drunken mob that drank from its cup were *beneath* me.
And so I drank.
But time moved on by me with its little regard. As a grew older and more bitter, I also found my appetites growing. I wanted more out of life but the damage I had done to myself was so complete that I filled this longing with more alcohol, more loneliness, more depression. I would stay in bed for days, I would fiddle with little ideas and not leave my house. So I dragged on, existing and not living, until I thought I was done for, and for the first time in a long time suicide found me again. Alone, unaware, like a slap in the face. Kill yourself, it’s easy; and I wanted to.
Fortunately, my analytical nature spoke up in that small voice of reason. This is loneliness talking, this is you at your worst. And so, when I hit that bottom for the hundredth time, I went out of my room and I started to work on a roleplaying character for a new game we were starting; and I wrote his story.
That is how I found writing. No formal education, just plans beyond a two or three paragraph biography that spiraled into a twenty page thread. It was the first time I felt like the stress and the discomfort with who I was was dripping out of me.
Now. There is a lot to be said for the whole “if you don’t like who you are, change it” mentality that we like to put on our tumblr pages and bumper stickers. I wont get too far off topic here but the fact is this; I am not that guy. I had concrete observations that I couldn’t ignore, that I *wanted* to ignore but that my mind refused to give me solace from. People laughed when they said “sure the cynic is usually right, but he’s not happy,” and I agreed. I wanted to be happy, to hell with right, but I wasn’t. All I had was what I could see; what I could use to get ahead of people, and usually in subjects that didn’t matter. That was me, and conscious effort had failed to change it. Whatever can be said of counseling and therapy, I had done both and I have done the anti depressants and each time the therapy made me roll my eyes and the anti depressants made me numb to everything and devoid of creative thought. At least alcohol took numbness and balanced it out with the frayed nerves of raw emotion.
In writing, I found the answer to that. Here I was looking a cure, temporary or not, in the face. When I wrote, it emptied me. And when I drank, that filled me back up, and I regurgitated it back into my writing. Fictitious short stories, personal journals, screenplays and just bullshit observation. While I did this, I still drank, and not as a result of wanting to be a better writer. That idea is insane; when you can’t keep your eyes open or your thoughts threaded together, you cannot write worth a damn. But I woke up with ideas I had never known I had. I woke up with experience and with stories. I passed through that fog of drunkenness and it taught me things.
Lets be clear; dark, horrible, rough things. I am not saying drinking helped my writing, but I think that I, as with many others, found myself devoid of an outlet and drinking filled that. When I discovered writing, that was an attempt to swim. I drank less because I wanted to be clear headed enough to finish a story. Sure, I didn’t always do that, but I subscribed to the school of experience when it comes to learning. The mistakes I made drunk and the people I met there brought me a black well of human feeling that I then had to purge from my system, but for the first time it wasn’t with more alcohol; it was with the pen (keyboard.) I was no longer losing myself in a bottle, but in a page.
Writing was my attempt to climb out of the pit.
To finish this messy pile of thought. A lot is said about not listening to others and being who you are, or not heeding popular culture; and this is all a very correct and also a very romantic way of viewing the world. But the fact is, the kind of things people like to read about are duality; we want knights and roses and we want violence and death. We want the princess to be saved and we want dreams broken on a blood smeared floor. Books and stories are a way for us to experience both feelings and rights of passage we know all too well, and those that we have never imagined. And the people that bring us these things have to, by nature, be those people. Hemingway couldn’t write about his experiences with love and women without knowing the darkness in him. Plath could not pen sadness without being filled with it. Bukowski was miserable, Thomas was a drunk. Poe was suspicious, Doyle was intelligent, and Fitzgerald was heartbroken. Chandler was in love and Wilde smirked rather than smiled. These were damaged and burdened people who used writing to get out of their damaged and burdened minds. They did not love their faults, even if they did embrace them, and they would (when sober) likely find the idea that people *do* just that either appalling or hilariously misguided. But then, don’t let the world tell you who to be. If you think drinking too much makes you a better writer, you’re probably wrong; but do it anyway and find out. If you think joy is what all writers can write from, you’re probably wrong, but preach it anyway. If you want to be skinny, go be skinny, you don’t have to embrace weight to be considered enlightened; stop listening to others about how you should live your life and listen to me; you are all you have got in this life though you should seek another, and that is a beautiful and miserable agony that will show you the best and worst living has to offer and you are, in the end, blessed for this.
But don’t listen to me.
What you have to do is accept all these things; and paradoxically I believe this is just a fact. There will always be painters who use drugs to further their art. Many will get nowhere, some will die and a very few will change the world. Same with writers and sculptors and anyone who makes their living in opinion; because there is no answer to these questions. Could Faulkner have become the writer he was without his wandering heartache? He famously rarely drank when writing, but would binge excessively when a project was complete; we can look at this as an example of how alcohol inhibits writing, or how it nourishes it. I think the most important thing to realize is that our own methods are just that, and that we cannot often ascribe them to others.
If you write, and that leads you to drink, I tend to think you’re doing it wrong. If its the other way around, then my friend you have an empty place in you and I hope something better than both writing and drink can fill it. All alcoholics are not writers, not all writers are alcoholics. We romanticize the times that came before us and the men who shaped the world as well as their vices. Whisky certainly didn’t inhibit Sherman’s ability to strategize, neither did substance abuse hinder Kerouac’s ability to pen. The man died of hemorrhaging related to his alcoholism; if there is one thing a writer should know all suffering is made beautiful by words while it is unbearable in reality. Don’t throw yourself on addiction and mania for art; use art to cope with your addictions and mania. Of all the misguided people who look to Hemingway and the rest saying “alcoholism can’t be a bad thing,” I would posit that all of those who took their lives, with brutal suicide or of slow drowning in drink, each of them would choose a life where they did not have to wreck their own melancholy on the shores of self destruction, and would call the hole inside themselves that they used whisky and insanity to try to fill, a human shaped darkness of someone they never found, or were incapable of holding on to.
When was super depressed, I wasn’t working—I was always too depressed. Hemingway did his best work when he didn’t drink, then he drank himself to death and blew his head off with a shotgun. Someone asked John Cheever, “What’d you learn from Hemingway?” and he said “I learned not to blow my head off with a shotgun.” I remember going to the Michigan poetry festival, meeting Etheridge Knight there and Robert Creeley. Creeley was so drunk—he was reading and he only had one eye, of course, and had to hold his book like two inches from his face using his one good eye. But you look at somebody like George Saunders—I think he’s the best short story writer in English alive—that’s somebody who tries very hard to live a sane, alert life.
You’re present when you’re not drinking a fifth of Jack Daniel’s every day. It’s probably better for your writing career, you know? I think being tortured as a virtue is a kind of antiquated sense of what it is to be an artist.
In an interview with The Fix, Mary Karr debunks the toxic mythology that it is necessary to be damaged in order to be creative. My own vehement defiance to that mythology is what led me to choose Ray Bradbury – the ultimate epitome of creating from joy rather than suffering – as the subject of my contribution to The New York Times’ The Lives They Lived.
Pair with Karr on why writers write.
Exactly right, and why I never understood the shining example of Hemingway’s alcoholism.(via whatigrok)
I fully agree; the whole “I’m damaged so I must be a good writer/artist” and vice versa is so tired. But. There have been correlations between depression and creativity; the called pre frontal stimulation that Phillipe Rushton found with his correlation between intelligence and what he calls psycotocism. What’s sad about the theory is that people who have serious mental issues tend to justify their substance abuse. “Well Hemingway killed himself with sadness and alcoholism I’m just like him.” Alcoholism, substance addiction, mania, depression, bi polar disorder, psychosis, antisocial personality disorder; these things don’t make you a good artist. There may be a link between them, and so many studies have been done, and the history of most artists cannot be ignored, but what made Hemingway great is that Hemingway WROTE. Yeah he was a drunk but he pushed past a lot of that and tried to fix himself in writing. Intimately, he failed but not because he was this amazing, lost writer; but because he was a lonely alcoholic who treated women badly. No one who has an interest in the arts should go into substance abuse and mania by choice thinking it will somehow help you. If Hemingway drank as much as Hemingway wanted we wouldn’t have seen book one. The fact is, many times lost, desperate people turn to alcoholism and other abuses, and then use art to try and climb out of that. In this respect, I think the shining example of Hemingway’s substance and emotional problems is viewed completely backwards. He was broken and he tried to make himself better with writing. Not the other way around.
(Source: , via whatigrok)