Writing when Unwell or Under the Influence
What does that have to do with anything? Well, I try to get at least one article a month up on this blog. I’d been working on a piece based on the Digital Film Making course I’ve been studying, and I thought it was in good shape in spite of all the drugs I’ve been taking. This morning, realising I was running out of time, I read it over with a view to publishing.
It was not in good shape.
It made no sense. It was full of errors. It was, basically, bad. And this got me thinking.
Many great writers struggled with illness and substance abuse. There is an idea that their creative genius is fueled by the whatever on their shoulders. Where would Hemmingway be without alcohol? Freud without his Cocaine? Kahlo without her injuries?
Looking at my writing whilst under the influence of painkillers, I draw the conclusion that this is utter nonsense.
To be sure, suffering can inspire us. But it also makes stuff, just ordinary living and breathing and working day stuff, a damned sight harder. When you are in pain you make mistakes that you don’t make when you are well. You can’t work as long and you can’t focus as well. Things are, just, generally, difficult. And if that counts for getting out of bed or getting on with your life, it counts doubly so for something as difficult as writing.
Now, I’m familiar with how hard it is to start, and how much easier it can seem to get words on the page once you’ve had a drink. And I know there are other writers out there who have similar crutches. Stephen King writes rather brilliantly about how his struggles with drugs impacted his writing, and if you’re interested and somehow haven’t checked out his book On Writing, go do that now.
And I’m also familiar with the argument that it can be essential to loosen up, to free yourself from your critical inner voice, and that things that take you out of yourself can be helpful. I did spend a year at art school, after all.
But I think it is a false friend. I think it gives the impression of helping whilst undermining all those critical abilities that you actually need to produce non-shit work. I think, if they could have found their way to work without them, then Hemmingway would have been better without alcohol and Freud would have been better without Cocaine.
That brings me back round to Kahlo and injury. Obviously, she didn’t choose that. I was disabled in an accident in the Navy. I sympathise. Am I a better writer for my accident? It would be a comforting conceit, but I sincerely doubt it. A better human being? Possibly. But if I do write something good between here and eternity, it will not be because of my injury – it will be in spite of it, just as Hemmingway and Freud achieved in spite of substance abuse.
I’m not saying don’t write if you’re injured or taking drugs or drinking alcohol. I’m not saying you can’t write great stuff under the influence. That would be a daft thing to say. But don’t kid yourself that they’re making you better. Just believe in yourself that you can write in spite of these things.
If you can, live as clean as you can without, you know, getting completely bored. Take care of yourselves. You’ll write better for it.
If you can’t, don’t give up. Keep writing. It will help you with all the other stuff.