Alcoholism, The New Fitness, and Writers

At some point, he [Tobias Wolff] says, he would like to tackle another memoir. He recently read a book about literary life in 1940s Dublin and fancies writing something in a similar vein, about the writer’s place in 21st-century America. Are there any obvious comparisons? Wolff laughs. ‘Well, there’s less alcohol than there was in Dublin, that’s for sure. In fact, that’s been one of the big changes during my time as a writer. We all grew up inspired by men like Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Robert Lowell – all of these great authors who drank too much and led these troubled lives. But then, over a period of about four or five years, the whole culture shifted and the drinking just stopped. So writers in America today are very different. They live on the campus, they’re supported by the universities. It’s all extreme health with them. It’s about energy drinks and running programmes.'” ~ from “Tobias Wolff: ‘I still feel as though I’m faking it'” by Xan Brooks, from The Guardian, Thursday 25 August 2011

(Special thanks and shout out to Ajay, who pointed the article out to me!)

Jack Kerouac lived life hard, and his writing reflects this. There are a lot of drugs mentioned in his novels. The number one: alcohol.

There have been enough hard-drinking, alcoholic writers through the centuries to make the hard-drinking, alcoholic writer a cliche. Substance abuse has traditionally been part of the package, right along with depression, manic-depression (bipolar), and suicide.

Kerouac was a poster boy for alcoholic writers everywhere. He died from it. A liver hemmorage, caused by cirrhosis, killed him at the age of 47.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty damn young. And it seems like a real waste of talent.

I’ve heard the arguments/reasonings for alcohol and/or drug induced writing. Stuff like: drinking can relax a writer. Drugs can stimulate a writer. Alcohol and other substances help enter that dream-state where creativity waits, just out of reach.

In my opinion, it all boils down to the idea that a writer has to get out of his own way in order to write.

Do I agree with Wolff’s assessment of how writers have changed? That, instead of margaritas, they hit Jamba Juice and ask for an extra shot…of wheat germ?

In my experience, that’s exactly what’s happened. The Pulitzer prize winners are teaching at universities. A ton of writers of my acquaintance are vegetarians. (I’m also from Colorado, where we have the highest percentage of fitness junkies around…so my impression could be skewed.)

So, why would writers today be more likely to die from a sports related injury than cirhossis of the liver? There are millions of reasons outside of the writing sphere -D.A.R.E. programs, Got Milk?, and anti-meth billboards abound, for example.

But I think there are some changes within the writing world itself that have created these changes.

Here are my completely unresearched, unscientific, unverified theories regarding the shift from Alcoholic-Inspired Writers to Aerobic-Inspired Writers:

1. The alcoholics blew it for the rest of us. After Kerouac and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, do you think publishers want to work with that today?

2. Publishers are big-business. This ties to #1. Here’s a truth about big-business: you can’t keep up if your eyes aren’t focused. These editors are not going to risk their careers on a production company (that’s you, writerly brethren) that can’t deliver on time. They can’t be bothered to track your butt down at the local bar and hope that you have a manuscript tucked in the bottom of your glass. Your head has to be in the game. (Perhaps this self-publishing trend will bring back the glory days of alchies…but I doubt it…readers can see a jack-off as fast – if not faster – than professional editors)

3. Those troubled writers of yesteryear, when faced with today’s world, would be slapped on Dr. Phil faster than you can say “Twelve Step Meeting.” Society just doesn’t put up with that kind of shit anymore. Reading Kerouac is actually irritating because you can see the psychology behind what’s going on…and, even as a reader, you know that this kind of behavior can be moderated. There’s no need to die for it.

4. Try figuring out “Track Changes” on Word when your drunk.

5. There isn’t a whole ton of money in writing now (or then) but today’s writers get a lot of funding (as the Wolff article states) through Universities. The competition for those jobs is fierce – maybe fiercer and bloodier and more personal than getting a publishing contract. You think you’re gonna beat anyone if you’re drunk? Nope. It won’t happen. Sure, there are some remnants of the old school, but the liberal arts students-turned-profs are more likely to be doing those shots of wheat-germ than shots of whiskey.

6. Author photos. You cannot be ugly nowadays and be an author. We don’t have to be super-model attractive yet, but hot authors on the back of the cover do sell more books than ugly authors. (Like I said, this is a completely unscientific opinion….) We’ve all seen those anti-meth billboards and, even if you’re not all that pretty, you will not sell books looking like those teenagers.

alcohol drugs fitness Jack Kerouac Tobias Wolff

jenny maloney View All →

Jenny writes dark fiction that her mother hates. Her stories and essays have appeared in Across the Margin, Pantheon, Shimmer, Black Denim Lit, Skive, and others. When she’s not writing her own stuff, she’s reading mysteries for Criminal Element. When she’s not writing fiction or reviews, she’s writing/directing/performing/designing plays at Springs Ensemble Theatre.

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