1.18.2018

Altered States

The lure of ingested substances is a powerful one for an author. The act of writing calls for a foray into the unknown recesses of the mind, and drinking or drug taking alters your mental state. In other words, the one can pave a path to the other. The goal is to reach beyond what is ordinary in our lives and become Nietzsche's Superman. Another major reason to partake is to hype yourself up to get in the mood for writing. That route has been traveled by dozens of famous authors. William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway are legendary for their drinking, as is Jack Kerouac or William Burroughs for drugs. These illustrious forebears have created a mythic culture of license that a young writer in particular can find seductive.

As a young man I was not immune to these charms. When I first started writing, I got high just so I could still myself enough to write. And there is no denying that stray bolts of lightning do occur, moments of vivid clarity akin to the spiritual states sought at a Native American ceremony. When I was still learning to write, I could point to these occasional brilliant nuggets as proof that I actually had some talent.

Over the long run, though, I believe such practices are self-defeating. I am hardly a moralist. I am thinking more in terms of practicality and longevity. After a while I found that artificial inducements were splintering my ability to concentrate over the longer terms that I was now sitting in my chair. That problem was accentuated by the lack of continuity from one day to the next, chopping up that vital overview stream about how my whorl of thoughts were condensing on the page. I was, in other words, hamstrung by the same bottle or pipe that freed me.

Over the long run, alcohol or drugs take away more than they give. A very harmful effect it has is on your confidence in what you’ve written. If you’re not in the right head for writing, a few drinks can put you in a nasty frame of mind toward what you’re reviewing. You get to thinking that most of the previous day’s work is pure crap and start editing like a madman. Yet the end result? Nine times out of ten, when you look at the edited version the next morning, you’ll find that you want to restore almost all of the original draft. Stillness, the necessary precondition for concentration, requires an act of faith in yourself. If you’re sliding down an oiled chute in order to reach that state, how do you know you’ve actually arrived? 

Exercise: Let’s say you’re in the habit of writing after dinner. You sit down with a glass of wine, take a few sips, and immerse yourself in the text. Soon you have another sip, and another—but not too much because you need to maintain the right level of control. Do you see what’s happening? You’re focusing on chemical intake, not plunging deeper into the mine of your thoughts. 

“First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.” 
—F. Scott Fitzgerald

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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