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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

From the archives: "Writing under the influence"

Rerunning a few old favorites while I'm roaming in Sicily. This one's definitely apropos.

Tis the season for colds and flu, and I've fallen prey to the upper respiratory yark-lung that mowed down my daughter last month, my husband ten days later, and me ten days after that. They both went immediately for the antibiotics. Like sane people. I, however, have this -- well, it's not a phobia, it's more like a white hot hatred of the doctor's office and any other clinical setting. I have to be well over the threshold of misery before I'll go. So I've been dosing myself with Thera-flu and various OTC cough remedies. Last night, I invented a little homeopathic kicker-upper I called "Thera-wine", and when I removed the anvil from my head and sat down to work this morning, I had to laugh out loud at the effects on my typing skills, not to mention my concentration level and ability to stay awake at the keyboard. I felt so betrayed. Aren't alcohol, drugs, and writing supposed to be the creative menage a trois?

Truman Capote attempted "the cure" several times during his career, but while he was writing In Cold Blood, he was chugging a double martini before lunch, another with lunch and a stinger afterward. "I drink because it's the only time I can stand it," he said. And he was apparently in good company. Jack London's wife suggested that his book John Barleycorn be titled Alcoholic Memoirs. London was five years old the first time he got drunk, and forty when he killed himself. Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen Crane, Theodore Roethke, Herman Melville, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner -- all alcoholics. And let's not even get started on Hemingway or Hunter S. Thompson.

While there are no reliable statistics tracking writers afflicted with alcoholism, statistics do show that writers die of cirrhosis of the liver at a higher rate than any other profession except one: bartending. (Note to daughter: do NOT date aspiring writer who tends bar!) Ann Waldron wrote in her Washington Post article "Writers and Alcohol" (courtesy of Unhooked Science Readings):
Nancy J. Andreasen, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa with a PhD in English, did a 15-year study of 30 creative writers on the faculty of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where students and faculty have included well-known writers Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, John Cheever, Robert Lowell and Flannery O'Connor. She found that 30 percent of the writers were alcoholics, compared with 7 percent in the comparison group of nonwriters, she wrote in the October 1987 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Andreasen had begun her investigation to study the correlation between schizophrenia and creativity. She found none. But she did find that 80 percent of the writers had had an episode of affective disorders, i.e. a major bout of depression including manic-depressive illness, compared with 30 percent in the control group. Two thirds of the ill writers had received psychiatric treatment for their disorders. Two of the 30 committed suicide during the 15 years of the study.

The study is small but the relatively high rates of alcoholism and depression buttress the folk wisdom that creative artists are mad, with alcoholism an inevitable part of that insanity.

I'm left wondering, though, is it writers -- as if there is a single personality type that is "writer" -- or is it the business of writing that drives so many to seek shelter or numbness or loss of inhibition or perhaps the solitude that will inevitably come to a drunk? Or is it that a person who's given their life so completely to the mind has no fear of where the mind might go, with or without chemical enhancement? Bottom line being, of course, that as the artist circles the drain, the art is the first thing to go.

In The Cup of Fury, Upton Sinclair said this about Sinclair Lewis: "More tragic than any shortage of years was the loss of productivity, the absence of joy."

What a sad and poignant summation of a great artist's life.

I don't know about you, but I need a drink.

1 comment:

Kathryn said...

How weird that you would post this now, as I'm contemplating writing about my crazy last week on narcotics for pain. Will post soon and comment to this.