Yesterday, a reader here, in his comment about the need to write hot and not revise the life out of a piece, gave a sidelong approval to using alcohol and drugs to write more freely. He also suggested that perhaps there was good in so many writers battling mental illness.
I cannot disagree more.
I have watched a person I love destroy his life and everything in it with alcohol. I have watched someone very dear to me battle severe and sometimes suicidal depression for my entire adult life. I have seen students spiral out of health into days of dark desperation because of heroin. I would not wish those days on anyone. Not for anything.
When we say that people need alcohol, drugs, or mental illness to produce great art, we are saying that the art is more important than the person. I find that abominable.
Let me be clear. I don’t really have any issue with people drinking or even smoking up. I know most of us (maybe all of us) have hard days where our angst pushes us to words. I’m not advocating teetotaling or overmedication of gloom.
But when a substance or a mental illness makes it impossible for a person to function, when they are overwhelmed by shame or pain, when what they want most in the world is to die, their lives have moved into a darkness that is, truly, something I cannot fathom but that I would NEVER advocate simply because it might – before it kills them – produce a good story or essay.
It’s a common argument – that artists need substances or mental imbalance to produce good art. We glorify Hunter S. Thompson’s books or point to Hemingway’s genius. We celebrate Sylvia Plath’s words not because of their beauty but because she put her head in an oven. We are wrong.
Imagine what Plath might have written if she had been able to tap her creativity and also manage to find strength for her life. What might Hemingway have written if he hadn’t put a shot gun in his house or produced his great works while absolutely knackered? When we act as if the substances made these works, we not only devalue the people, we act as if it’s the substance that did the writing. Bullshit. Talented, committed people did the work. And we lost their lives and their talent too soon.
I have good, dear friends who write and battle bipolar disorder and depression. I cannot even imagine what it might be like to live in their perceptions every day, and while I would miss their words if they medicated and found their creativity harder to access, I would miss them – my friends – more.
I wish we would teach people to tap their fire without having to shut down their minds. I wish we would stop teaching children to tamp down their creativity. I wish we would not eschew difference and instead embrace uniqueness more in our society. These are the ways to help people reach into their firey, beautiful wells of idea and emotion, not substances or advocating that they stay suicidal or imbalanced. Shame on us for taking the easy way and giving anyone who struggles the impression that their illness or addiction is more important than their personhood.
When my students tell me they need to drink or get high to write, I challenge them. “Today, I want you to sit down with your pen, open your notebook, and go deep. Go into that part of yourself that you hide away unless you are drunk. Travel down behind your ribs and into that tiny pocket between your liver and your diaphragm. Write from there. Tomorrow, tell me if what comes from there isn’t more amazing than anything you can write drunk.” When they try, they never fail to take my breath and leave themselves speechless because it’s not the substance or the illness that makes a person a great artist — it’s the person.
What do you think of this argument that substances or mental illness make people better artists?
*Note – I do not mention substance use/abuse and mental illness here because I think they are the same struggle or are even linked necessarily. I simply address them both because my reader did and because often both struggles come up in conversation at the same time. Also, please know that I have great sympathy, respect, and compassion for people who battle addiction and who struggle with mental health. These individuals have nothing but love from me. In fact, some of the people I love most dearly have these struggles.