Friday, June 25, 2010

The Writing Habit

I've been mulling this all week, which is why I haven't been blogging about it.  I want to do it right, and I needed to be sure that what I say is what I mean.

The other day, I wrote on Twitter "Make writing your habit, not part of your habit" in response to several friends I'd heard complain that they simply cannot write until they have smoked a cigarette, drank a martini, found their favorite fountain pen, sat at a specific table, used a particular computer program... etcetera, ad nauseum.

This bothers me for many reasons.

Every writing advice book and website talks about creating a writing habit.  Habituate the act of sitting down to write and you will avoid a host of issues that lead to writer's block.  Most of us seem to go a step farther and ritualize our writing, finding a place, creating a writing nest, choosing a perfect tool and attached a host of other activities to what should essentially be putting our butts in a chair and our words on a page.

I have a writing ritual too.  We all do, I suspect.  If you're a frequent reader you've heard it before: Make coffee, read newspaper, pivot to putting words on pages.  Of the whole ritual (even the coffee) only the putting words on a page is actually important.

I will go out on a limb and tell you that most of these rituals may seem harmless, but if you let them get too ingrained in your writing, they will quickly become as hurtful as they are helpful.  And I will go a step farther and tell you that tying your writing to alcohol or any other mind-altering substance (including coffee, incidentally) is a terrible idea.

"Habits in writing as in life are only useful if they are broken as soon as they cease to be advantageous."
-W. Somerset Maugham
Of course, some habits are worse than others and it's the good citizens who feel they need a little something to 'loosen up'.  Or as one old friend of mine used to put it "Slipping the muse a mickey".

Last month, not long after I wrapped up my review of Stephen King's writing memoir, a friend of mine sent me a link to a column in the NY Daily News about writers and addiction that discusses the links between creativity and addiction.  As the article rightly points out: "Steinbeck, Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Faulkner - Nobel Prize winners all - died drunk at the peak of their fame."  To which alcoholic roundtable I would add - in no particular order - the likes of Raymond Carver, Jack London, Edgar Allen Poe, James Joyce, Truman Capote, Herman Melville, Raymond Chandler, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, John Cheever... the list goes on and on, hitting many if not most of the brightest lights and biggest names of the twentieth century. 

I just named almost every modern fiction author on the bookshelf behind me. From that alone, one might almost be forgiven for thinking that literary greatness lay in the bottom of a bottle of rye and you wouldn't be the first to say so.
"Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism."
-Carl Jung

A lot has been written about this subject and much of it of more academic import than the NY Daily News.  And the links between what we call genius and what we call mental illness has been studied inside and out and most of the reports I read concur that it's bunk.  Perception makes it seem likely, but if I were to move my chair one shelf to the left, I would be in front of a passel of writers who are not on that list.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that no matter what they actually did, there isn't a single genuinely great artist from the Beatles to John Belushi to Basquiat that would not have been a genius regardless of what came back from the lab if we'd made them pee in a cup.  Their work would have been different but genius is genius or it isn't... if you catch my drift.  I'll go even further out on the limb and tell you I firmly believe that every one of them would have been more sustainably talented if they had avoided tying their talent to an altered chemical state.

I'm not going to tell you I don't drink or that you shouldn't.  I do and if you want to, that's your lookout.  I'm not arguing for teetotalling or anything of the sort.  But I find that people are less interesting the farther they walk down the path that leads to "In order to write/have a good time I must drink" (or smoke pot or whathaveyou). 

Most of us write to - as Ray Bradbury said - stay drunk of writing so that the world does not destroy us, to dispel the poisonous vapors that build from everyday life.  I write here and elsewhere because it is the way that I cope with the world around me.  I understand things by writing about them.  I express my loves and hates, fears and joys and depressions via the words I put on a page or pound into a keyboard.  If anything were to get between me and that keyboard I think I would break and I cannot fathom inviting anything to do so.

Think carefully before you put a veil between yourself and the world.  Blur your vision with a drug or make totemic a particular tool that you cannot work without and you might as well slip your muse a mickey because soon she will no longer come to you willingly.  That's intentionally brutal imagery I just conjured, but nothing is worse to see on a page than a talent squandered, a muse ravaged and thrown in a ditch.

There is a fine line between creating consistency in your writing time and place; mentally habituating an activity as precursor to the act. Write even if you can't get your smokes or coffee. Divorce your writing from ancillary activities or face blockage when you can't get them.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).