I have a terrible habit of checking my social media pages before I even get out of bed. It’s become part of the ritual, the “easing back into consciousness” as I like to call it. Every so often, this pays off. I find some article or statistic that gets my mind going for the day, churning on something I’ve deemed “important”. Today, it was a New Yorker article on the romance between writers and alcohol. The full piece can be read right here: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/01/writers-and-rum.html?utm_source=tny&utm_campaign=generalsocial&utm_medium=facebook&mobify=0
It’s an offshoot of the broad genre, Tortured Artist, a specific brand, the grim author with his ever-full rocks glass. Clink clink. He, this writer, does serious work. He publishes. His social skills are likely awful (a boon of legitimacy in writing circles), so he drinks to compensate, to get through all those smarmy post-reading receptions and networking events disguised as New York soirees. Oh, to be him!
You see, it’s really hard for some of us to resist the romantic lure of this lie. To be clear, the lie is not in the existence of these writers. The lie is in their necessity, the booze’s necessity. The author of the NY piece says he is “just old enough” to have seen a bit of that generation of writers; I too have been afforded a glimpse of that set: insanely talented writers who are/were killing themselves with alcohol.
My first semester with __________ happened accidentally. I’d dropped an Intro to Life Drawing course on account of my lack of ability to understand the Chinese instructor, and the only interesting class open in that time slot was a section of Intro. to Creative Writing. The first half of the semester was spent on poetry with a talented and palatable professor whose criticism was as gentle as it was real. At midterm, we switched. On the first day, our fiction instructor seemed so off the rails that everyone was afraid to speak. He asked questions, and only after an unbearable and aching silence would I raise my hand. The class became a conversation between the two of us. I can’t say that I instantly liked him, and I’m certain he’d never say it of me. The truth is, he acted so erratically that I was petrified of the man. He had passion, though. The way that he picked apart a story, a white space, a sentence—it drew me in.
I didn’t know he was a drunk until the semester had ended. I ran into him at a campus bar. I was there with friends; he was standing alone at a table. Drunk out of his mind. Profane. Belligerent. I said hello and asked if he’d like to come sit with my friends and me.
“No, I want to stand right the fuck here and have a goddamn drink with you!” He slammed his hand on the unsteady, round table.
On many occasions I have regretted my next move: I left him there. I wandered off, uncomfortable, and skipped out on my one opportunity to get shit-faced liquored up with a Pulitzer nominee. By the time I knew him again, he was off the sauce.
I’ve never asked him why he quit drinking. I don’t know if there was a university-led intervention or a personal epiphany. I only know that I first met him at the tail end of a long career in drinking, and everything that followed was infinitely better, most pointedly his teaching.
Through the fortune of scheduling, I rode out the rest of my undergrad studies under his wing (that introductory course rekindled my love of writing, and that gentle poetry professor guided me in the direction of dropping my philosophy major down to a minor and focusing on creative writing). Semester after semester, workshop upon workshop, he mentored me in writing and living. He saw me through some ugly times. Because of where he’d been, he knew the best things he could do while I slid off into severe addictions of my own were to provide me with a pack of cigarettes, food when I was willing to eat it, and a place of refuge when I was too far gone to know where else to go. The only advice he ever gave was, “Writers write. Take care of the sentence and the sentence will take care of you.” And I wrote. I wrote like mad. I locked myself away for days at a time. I lived in my head, a place so cloudy then and strange that I hardly remember most of what went on inside there.
Writing is different now. It comes more slowly. I don’t go off into fugues and emerge with new stories. I also don’t swallow any pill you put in front of me, drop acid, or snort mystery powders.
There is a sad connection between addiction and creativity, but I don’t believe the former births the latter—and that is the myth we need to destroy. Unfortunately, the creative mind—no matter what the medium—seems to be one prone to vices, but if the raw talent isn’t there, no amount of whiskey, heroin or weed will summon it into being.
The New Yorker author ends on a note of praising sobriety, but throughout there’s a mournful tone, as if we’ve lost something in fighting against this tide. Less community, he says, less personal knowledge of each other. That’s okay. I’d rather a world where all the wordsmiths meet in a church basement for a literary AA meeting than the bleak escapist landscapes of Hemingway and Carver.
Now, I call __________ on the phone every few months and we talk stories. I ask him how fishing has been. He asks about my kids. We don’t talk drugs, we don’t talk alcohol. We know where we’ve been, and we know we got out. Writers write. That’s all.