Addiction

It’s almost a cliché to suggest that writers and artists tend to be drunks or drug addicts.

We know the stories about Hemingway, Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Algren, James Jones, Dylan Thomas, Kingsley Amis, William Burroughs, Capote, Cheever…the list goes on and on. Artists too—Pollock, DeKooning, Warhol, and Basquiat come to mind. In film examples, the movie Leaving Las Vegas describes the sordid dissolution of a Hollywood scriptwriter. There have been many theories about why the weakness exists. Some have suggested, with some medical evidence in support of the idea, that writers disproportionately suffer from depression or bipolar disorder. Others point to unhealthy lives of poverty, poor nutrition, and little exercise. Still other theories suggest attraction to the temptations of sudden fame as an element in the recipe. Or performance anxiety. Having been successful once or twice doesn’t guarantee continual success, but publishers, agents and fans may demand such excellence.

Here are a couple more. Hours spent in service to the imagination means hours spent not in this world. No matter how realistic the work, not quite in this world. After all, you get to change lives and alter fate, develop a story to fever pitch excitement or slow it down to the hallucinatory effects of a dream. Then you step away from the computer and suddenly have to take out the garbage or pay the bills. Some begin to drink or take drugs to ease re-entry. You don’t want to get the “bends” if you snap in or out too quickly. You might even feel disoriented or be unable to talk chitchat.

Then, the other way. After hours in the “ordinary world,” how do you get back into this imaginative realm? And it better be back to the same place. And your descriptive powers better be tuned to their most exact. So some take a little something to get there quickly. You don’t have the time—particularly with deadlines and conflicting schedules—to ease into it. Actors and musicians often suffer from those problems. Not just be on, but get into that exact groove—every day.

The second new theory is close to the first. An addiction to unusual states of mind and intense pleasure. Such an addiction can even include a continual desire for discovery and insight. Rimbaud, one of the greatest French poets, wrote all his published poetry before the age of 20. His life suggests that only dedication to destroying all the conventions and restrictions with which he had been raised, to the point of endangering his own health, helped him to write his poetry. So drugs, fasting, drunkenness, sleeplessness, sexual extravagance—all were pursued for their sensations and for the windows they opened to consciousness. In the twentieth century, the extraordinary travel writer and novelist Bruce Chatwin was apparently addicted to new experiences, to travel, to the aesthetic over the mundane. He died at age 48 of a.i.d.s., leaving behind a wife and a few extraordinary books.

Something about writing and art lend themselves to obsession. The long hours trying to get every detail right, the absorption in the world of imagination, the dedication to beauty and to performance.

One more note to this discussion. A parallel to the stories of certain spiritual masters, such as Chogyam Trungpa, may also fit. The parallel—my own interpretation here—suggests that the master spends some time in paradise and then is evicted. The Eden story. The sense of loss after such beauty is so great that the master turns to drink.

I don’t mean to suggest that writers have anything in common with spiritual masters other than this state of loss.

What do you think?

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