This is a follow-up to a previous post.
I’ve been reading a fascinating/depressing/gripping/heart-rending book called The Trip to Echo Springs by Olivia Laing. Because I’m too lazy to put it in my own words, here’s the blurb from B&N:
“Why is it that some of the greatest works of literature have been produced by writers in the grip of alcoholism, an addiction that cost them personal happiness and caused harm to those who loved them? In The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing examines the link between creativity and alcohol through the work and lives of six extraordinary men: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver.”
As a lover of literature and English major, I’m at least passingly familiar with these writers. Of course, some are more dear to me than others. I fell in love with Raymond Carver’s short fiction while in college, and I discovered John Berryman around the same time (along with Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Sharol Olds, Allen Tate, and a handful of other poems whose work impacted me profoundly). I’ve always liked the idea of Hemingway and Fitzgerald more than their actual work, though I suspect reading The Sun Also Rises and Tender is the Night (or even Gatsby) as an adult would be a more satisfying experience, to say nothing of the commonality of alcoholism we share. I’m certainly going to re-read some Tennessee Williams’ plays and give John Cheever’s stories a look…I can’t recall if I’ve read anything by him before.
Laing–a remarkable writer herself whose turns of phrase strike me as mini-poems within prose–embarks on trains, planes, and automobiles in order to trace the geographic life of these writers. She spends time in Key West, FL, the home and haunt of both Williams and Hemingway; she stops in Minneapolis, MN, where a deranged John Berryman cast himself from Washington Avenue Bridge and died on the west bank of the Mississippi River. He was identified by a blank check in his pocket and his name on his broken glasses, Laing tell us. She lingers in the dizzy heat of New Orleans where Williams drank and played and set perhaps his most famous play, A Streetcar named Desire.
Through it all, we get to know these larger-than-life literary figures through the blurry lens of alcohol, which both exaggerates and diminishes the self. As an alcoholic in recovery, I see the doom and disaster looming before them, but I also understand that for these men (with the exception of Raymond Carver and John Cheever, both of whom got sober) the switches in their minds that regulated their drinking was permanently broken; they couldn’t stop. Laing brings out issues in the writers’ pasts which may have predisposed them to alcoholism (John Berryman’s father committed suicide, as did Hemingway’s, Williams came from an incredibly toxic home environment), but there’s no one thing that tipped the scale or sealed their fate. It just happened, and it happens every day, and I could have easily happened to me.
As I’ve mentioned before, my temptation–even with all the knowledge I have, some sober time under my belt, and solid people encouraging me–is to romanticize these writers and their afflictions. Am I better today than I was six months ago? Assuredly. Am I writing more, and is my writing more insightful, clearer, and meaningful to me and to potential audiences? Yes. I’m speaking of creative writing, of course, but I daresay that I’m doing better at these nonfiction entries than I would have a year ago. But do I look at a picture of Fitzgerald at the height of the Jazz Age, along with with his equally-if-not-more-troubled wife Zelda, and say to myself, Now there was a man who lived? Also yes.
On a semi-related note, my brain’s still undergoing Post-Acute Withdrawal. At least, I believe that’s the case because it seemed yesterday that my mind was stuck in a quagmire most of the time, especially when I had to communicate verbally. I’ve always been better with the written word, but I like to think of myself as a fairly well-spoken person to, but often there’s a persistent barrier between my thoughts and speech. I stumble over words or stutter, something which has never been a problem before (well, not a problem while sober). I’m sure it’s more noticeable to me than others, but I can’t help but feel defeated when I turned to my wife and have thoughts brewing and no acceptable way to express them.
I suppose that’s the key; I’m defining the level of acceptance. I stubbornly maintain the image of Robert the Writer because I spent so many years building it up and maintaining it, and drinking helped me do that. Robert the Writer has a massive ego and often thinks that which flows from his fingers is spun of pure gold, inspired by the angels themselves and even shaming the Creator rather than making the Creator proud, running the risk of becoming another Lucifer but this time more fearsome, more powerful, and infinitely sexier. Robert the Writer speaks in supple tones meant to woo you into a trance or else he inveighs against the injustices of the world with thunderous, strident vigor, causing men to quake.
See what I mean? That’s also what’s rolling around in my head. It’s helpful at times, to be sure, but mix alcohol with Robert the Writer and I’ll end up like John Berryman (though not nearly as talented or prolific).
I did it again! I can’t even look at that picture without romanticizing it, and the man ended up throwing himself off a fucking bridge! That isn’t the life I want for myself, no matter how great my poems and stories are!
I feel like I shouldn’t have to work so hard at convincing myself of that fact, but I do so daily. Every time I pick up a pen or open a new document on Word, I remind myself that the output or quality of my writing is not in direct relation to my well-being or contentment as a person. I say it over and over sometimes until the message hits home.
And I’ll keep doing that because I’ll be damned if alcohol will be my undoing.