Back when I wrote a weekly column for my home town’s newspaper, I took it upon myself to occasionally add a hefty dose of weird to my readers’ lives. Many times, this was accomplished simply by my being … me. I could take a while to list all the ways I never quite fit the male ideal for small town Southern life, but that would bore you. Suffice it to say that it seemed like many folks had never read anything quite like the things I wrote, and had a tough time placing me into a box that would make them more comfortable.
After a particularly freaky column – in which I remember invoking the power of George Clinton‘s Parliament-Funkadelic and its funk/sci-fi hybrid Mothership Connection to bring about world peace through a global funk invasion (really, it was magnificent, and for the life of me I can’t lay my hands on it) – one reader pulled me aside that day and said, “Whatever drugs you were on when you wrote this, I want some!”
There weren’t any drugs. Just my brain operating at a particularly high level of odd that day, and perhaps channeling my lingering concern over the pockets of widespread violence and hatred bubbling up in the early ’90s and trying – however vainly – to put a positive spin on widespread tragedy by envisioning a visit by an extraterrestrial civilization somehow bringing us together to stop that kind of silliness.
The stories of hard-partying authors are easy to come by. William S. Burroughs and a number of his contemporaries are famous for shooting, smoking and ingesting pretty much anything you handed them. Philip K. Dick (who wrote some of the trippiest sci-fi you can find) was well-known as a drug user (mostly, it would seem, to self-medicate for the neurological tics that made his work so weird in the first place), and you can hardly spin a bottle of bourbon without hitting a famous, highly regarded and widely read alcoholic at varying levels of day-to-day functionality.
I, however, have never been among them. Despite a long history of thinking some pretty messed up stuff (at least in the eyes of the “straight” world), I’ve indulged in things stronger than high-proof spirits just a few times, and all the hard core narcotics that have gone into my body have been put there under a doctor’s care. While I achieved the desired results, it was never with enough satisfaction to result in repeat samplings or – god help me – addictions. I enjoy beer, wine, and good whiskey with my dad. As far as illegal substances go, there’s just enough indulgence in my history to account for the consumption of a few bags of Frito-Lay products and some late-night Waffle House breakfasts.
Hallucinogens never appealed to me because I couldn’t imagine inducing realities any stranger than those kicking around in my head already – probably a lot like Señor Dali, up there.
But that isn’t to say that there aren’t behaviors that help me get in my “writer space.” If I had to provide a List of Ingredients to any of my fiction work, I’d be obligated to include among them sarcasm, sick humor, angst, love (fulfilled, rejected and unrequited), hope, despair, an equal dose of pessimism and optimism, and perhaps a nice craft brewed IPA.
In college, I took a fiction writing class from author William Price Fox, who was writer in residence at the University of South Carolina at the time, and one of the best pieces of writing advice I remember him giving us was, “Relax! Sit down, have a glass of wine or a beer. Writing’s not something you should do when you’re all bound up.”
Ernest Hemingway is credited with saying, “Write drunk, edit sober,” which suggests that you should be in an altered state when you’re writing. But the urge to become a writer is, in itself, an altered state. Sitting alone and making stuff up is something that normal people just don’t do. Were you to sit the majority of writers down in psychologists offices, I’d suspect that most of us would walk out with a variety of DSM-5 diagnoses including – but not limited to – multiple personality disorder, bipolar disorder, OCD and clinical depression. We’re driven to create by lingering feelings we can’t let go of, the clear and distinct voices of imaginary people, and our own unusual desires and fantasies that can’t help but bubble up onto the page. That’s just not normal.
I could argue that as a parent, my entire life is an altered state thanks to the fact that I share my home with individuals who exhibit many of the same symptoms as the disorders above just as a part of growing up. Who needs scotch or LSD to knock your mind a couple of notches to the left when it’s 10:30 p.m. on a school night and you’ve got a tiny human screaming in your face that she still can’t get to sleep, there are five stink bugs in her room and by the way her Cinderella CD is skipping?
And in truth, anything that gets your mind out of a rut or puts your body in a different state can indeed work to your benefit as a writer. Healthier alternatives to drugs and drink – exercise, yoga, meditation, sex – are all readily available to just about anyone, can be far less expensive and aren’t as likely to get you thrown in the pokey.
Also, don’t discount the value of short-distance travel and change of venue. Author Maya Angelou used to tell of checking herself into hotels – which provided different surroundings and few interruptions – during the day to get her writing done. It’s part of the reason coffee shops and cafes are so popular as writing spots. It’s also why I’ve gotten so much work done on the train commute between my home and Philadelphia.
Hell, just being vigilant about following the stretching/deep breathing protocols suggested to me by my chiropractor, I’ve felt like things in my body are just working better, which for many living with the pains and creaks of growing older is in itself another alternate state of being.
The trick is finding out what works for you or what your circumstances permit, then using it to fuel the imaginative engine that’s already idling in your mind.