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4 The Creative Process – Performance enhancement for writers

In the previous article, I discussed the link between psychopathology and creativity. So here is a shortlist of authors whose body of work mirrors the addictions – or mental problems, or behavioural problems – they still have or have had. Note that most of them are dead, that I have read most of their books, and that, if they are still alive, they are not currently in rehab, to the best of my knowledge. Authors of memoirs and autobiographies are excluded.

What be your poison?

There are many different types of drugs, from alcohol, to marijuana, to tea and coffee (yes, really!), that writers have used to help them write. But, as author Peter Hoffmeister concluded after having considered many different drugs;

“So perhaps the best performance-enhancing drugs [for writers] are not drugs at all, but intellectual stimulants. Creativity catalysts. Poems by Anne Sexton. Toni Morisson novels. Short stories by Augusto Monterroso. Sleep. Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Rereading “Jesus’ Son.” Art exhibits. Listening to Bob Dylan. Or maybe the best performance enhancer is work. Repetition. Discipline. An unaesthetic sweat.”

(Peter Brown Hoffmeister, Performance-Enhancing Drugs for Writers, in Huffington Post, Oct. 11, 2011. Rtrvd. 2018-01-26)

In addition to the authors already mentioned in parts 1 to 3 of this long read, here are some more interesting cases:


Hunter S. Thompson – He took lots of hits and so did his characters

Lifelong user of alcohol and illegal drugs. He said:

“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”

Ha! From the horse’s mouth, there you have it. He created “Gonzo Journalism” – a style of journalism that is without claims of objectivity, often including the reporter as part of the story as a first-person narrator. Yes, just like some “alternative facts” reporting today. Most noted work: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1971) in which the protagonist, “Raoul Duke”, and his sidekick, “Dr. Gonzo”, basically escape from society by cooking their brains with drugs – i.e. “solace in excess”. Readers have been equally put off and fascinated by the highly detailed and oddly lucid descriptions of the drug use and hazes in the book.

Enjoyed it? No. They do so go on…and on…and on.


William S. Burroughs – He was a junkie and so were his characters

Was a drug addict – and as they say, once an addict, always an addict. Burroughs wrote that he kicked heroin around 1957  – but he was on heroin for much of his adult life and was, in fact, on methadone until the day he died. He says here, in a 1977 interview, that it didn’t cause any real damage to his health nor to his soul. He sounds a bit drawly, but otherwise OK. He says junkies are like cats, they can’t stand water on the skin, and therefore they don’t bathe. (!) Most famous book, The Naked Lunch (1959), about the ramblings and wanderings of junkie “William Lee”, mostly written while Burroughs was living in Tangier and used a lot of Moroccan drugs.

My take on it: poetical and lyrical in parts, but NASTY!


Paul Bowles – Drugs helped to describe nihilism

Also an expat living in Morocco. He didn’t drink, like his wife, Jane, who was an alcoholic, but constantly smoked kif (hashish) and considered using narcotics a vital part of his creative process. His marriage and life in Morocco (one of many places that they lived) was sexually permissive and he was fascinated by the magic, violence, disease, and savagery of that society.

“The nature of corruption, heightened senses of awareness, the effects of hallucinogenic and psychedelic drugs are all part of Bowles’s world. He had used them himself in moderation, as a young man sniffing ether in New York, while in Morocco he regularly used kif and other non-addictive drugs.” (Source: Paul Bowles: Obituary, The Independent, Nov. 9, 1999)

Best-known work: The Sheltering Sky (1949), in which Bowles and his wife are represented as “spiritually dried-up” “Port and Kit Moresby”, who indulge their addictions, and in doing so get themselves into no end of trouble in the Algerian desert.

Opinion: So depressing it’s enough to make you ill. And you’re only READING it. Imagine WRITING it!


Bruce Chatwin – Outsider and drifter

 

Lived fast, died young (age 49). Distinguished and talented writer. Basically rootless and wandering all his life, though apparently disarmingly handsome and charming, he was nomadic by profession. As much of an outsider artist as you can get. Chatwin considered the question of human restlessness to be the focus of his writing. If he had one addiction, it was to keep moving. He thought humans were meant to be a migratory species but once they settled in one place, their natural urges “…found outlets in violence, greed, status-seeking or a mania for the new.” Definitive works: The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980) and The Songlines (1987).

What I think of his work: Stunningly visual, but compact, like a painting of a grand subject squeezed onto a tiny canvas. Strong stuff.


Charles Bukowski – Said drinking is better than drugs for writing

Called the Poet Laureate of Skid Row/American Lowlife. Was often broke and “of no fixed address”, drank a lot, married people who drank a lot, drank his entire life. Each time he took a swallow of alcohol he called it “taking a hit”. He took hits all the time. Technically one could say he was a heavy drinker, not an alcoholic. He said: “Alcohol gives you the release of the dream without the deadness of the drugs. You know, you can come back down. You have your hangover to face, that’s the tough part. You get over it, you do your job, you come back, you drink again. I’m all for alcohol, I’ll tell ya. It’s the thing.” (From Barbet Schroeder’s The Charles Bukowski Tapes ) 

Bukowski was, I think, like poet Arthur Rimbaud, a dropout who practised “systematic derangement of the senses”.

“Before the story [Hollywood] gets underway we read a prominent disclaimer: ‘This is a work of fiction and any resemblance between the characters and persons living or dead is purely coincidental, etc.’ While it is usually a mistake to assume that people in novels are facsimiles of people in life, this disclaimer is disingenuous, as the sarcastic ‘etc.’ indicates. Bukowski’s working method had always been to create characters based closely on himself and those around him, and seldom was this more true than with Hollywood, which is best described, perhaps, as a fictionalized journal.” (Introduction by Howard Sounes in Hollywood, 2007 ed.)

Opinion: Everything of his is brilliant including his poetry, but I like Post Office (1971) and Hollywood (1981) best. Acutely observant, honest and very funny in a O.M.G. way.


Carson McCullers – Depressed, alcoholic and self-destructive

McCullers wrote the ever-famous The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (which was even prescribed reading in high schools in South Africa!) McCullers suffered throughout her life from several illnesses and from alcoholism. In 1945, Carson McCullers and her former husband Reeves McCullers remarried. Three years later, while severely depressed, she attempted suicide. In 1953 Reeves McCullers tried to convince her to commit suicide with him, but she fled and Reeves killed himself in their Paris hotel with an overdose of sleeping pills. Yikes!

McCullers’s novels are noteworthy for their themes of loneliness, isolation, eccentricity and unrequited love – as she was also in life. In The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) the main characters are deaf-mute outsiders “John Singer” and “Spiros Antonapoulous”. Antonapoulous becomes mentally ill, goes off the rails, and is eventually put into an insane asylum. Other major success was The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951) – about loneliness, attention-seeking, revenge and retribution.

“In an essay on Isak Dinesen, McCullers wrote, ‘In the true tale the characters are bound in the end to get what is coming to them. . . The tale-teller assumes the responsibility of God, and grants to his characters a moral freedom accountable only to the author himself.’ Accountable only to McCullers, Miss Amelia, Cousin Lymon, and Marvin Macy [her characters] were aspects of herself: a suite of voices examining McCullers’s determination both to know and not to know, to cling to her romanticism while exploring its cruelty, to hurt others while taking a long and public time to destroy herself.”  (Source: Hilton Als, Unhappy Endings, The collected Carson McCullers, in the New Yorker, Dec. 3, 2001)

What did I think of any of her books? A real downer to read – poor people, sad people – unloved people. God-forsaken little towns. Mass violence always on the verge of breaking out. I used to like that it made me cry. Not any more.


Phillip K. Dick – Not joking about aliens

Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, or simply Electric Dreams, has been made into a series of ten standalone films by British Channel 4. The series premiered in Sept. 2017 and though the premises in the Science Fiction stories are a bit dated, the adaptations are very glitzy and high-end productions. The original stories are the creations of Dick’s fevered and drug-addled brain. Dick was born 1928 and died in 1982, aged merely 53 – but he was a prolific writer. He was on and off a variety of drugs most of life, including amphetamine and sodium pentothal, and he tried suicide in 1972 by taking an overdose of the sedative potassium bromide.

As a result of the drug abuse, he said he had paranormal experiences and hallucinations, but he also had periods of mental illness, which influenced his writing. Dick’s stories typically focus on the fragile nature of what is real and the construction of personal identity. This is not surprising, considering his paranormal experiences. Would he have been able to make the futuristic mental leaps in his novels had he been sane and stone cold sober? Probably not. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), one of his better known works, was made into the film Bladerunner. Others works by Dick were made into the films Total Recall, Minority Report and Terminator – to name a few.

My take – clever, entertaining, but a bit repetitive. Not my favourite SF writer.


Actors who write

This list takes us back to actors who make a living pretending to be someone else, in the unreal world of Hollywood. The talented and interesting actor and writer Wallace Shawn has explained this very well:

“Contrary to the popular misconception, the actor is not necessarily a specialist in imitating or portraying what he knows about other people. On the contrary, the actor may simply be a person who’s more willing than others to reveal some truths about himself.”

(Source: Wallace Shawn personal quotes on IMDB, rtrvd. 2018-02-03)

“Interestingly, the actress who, in her own persona, may be gentle, shy and socially awkward, someone whose hand trembles when pouring a cup of tea for a visiting friend, can convincingly portray an elegant, cruel aristocrat tossing off malicious epigrams in an 18th-century chocolate house.”

(Source: Wallace Shawn personal quotes on IMDB, rtrvd. 2018-02-03)

If I understand Shawn correctly, actors are able to take on other personalities but also expose their own deepest personal traits while doing so. Mmmm. I can only assume that would be difficult to get through. When an actor writes about this process, as well as their own problems, the results can be unnerving.


Carrie Fisher – A lifelong struggle

Fisher, who famously played “Princess Leia” in the Star Wars films, died in Dec. 2016 from a heart attack. She was well-known for struggling with drug addiction and alcoholism. In 2008 she published a book about this, called Wishful Drinking. In it, she writes:

“’Happy is one of the many things I’m likely to be over the course of a day and certainly over the course of a lifetime. But I think if you have the expectation that you’re going to be happy throughout your life — more to the point, if you have a need to be comfortable all the time — well, among other things, you have the makings of a classic drug addict or alcoholic.’” (Extract from Goodreads review)

Her most entertaining novel is probably Postcards from the Edge (1987) about a drug- and-drink-addled, has-been actress. It’s very close to being autobiographical.

How I rate her writing: At times it’s funny, at times very discomforting for the reader – The character that is “her” constantly falling off the wagon, sliding towards failure, then trying to get back to normalcy, failing, and sliding again. I only reread it when I’m in a particularly cheerful mood.

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Next week in this Long Read about the difficulties of the creative process: My conclusions.
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