Why are people so interested in drunk writers?
Recently I was sent a very interesting nonfiction book, The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, by Olivia Laing, for a review. I couldn't review it. It's an anecdotal study of several American writers, including John Berryman, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver (all men — why? What happened to the alcoholic women? I know they're out there), and I can recommend it, even though I'm no expert on alcoholism, which is why I couldn't review it. What Laing's book did was to provoke three memories in me, along with a train of speculation about everybody's fascination with alcoholic scribblers.
My one sighting of Tennessee Williams occurred in the mid-1970s in New York City. I was browsing in the Strand Book Store midday, and in he came, a dapper little man smiling at everybody, on his way to signing some books — probably his unreliable memoir, recently published. I had the feeling that he enjoyed being recognized, but he reminded me of a famous poet I knew, who was always trying to get people to do things for him (this poet was also a disruptive alcoholic). I remember the playwright's cackling laughter. He seemed — I can't say why — like an unhappy man who was pretending to be happy that particular day.
Ten years prior to my sighting of Tennessee Williams, I was working at Abbott Hospital in Minneapolis on weekends, wheeling patients down to the physical therapy unit, where we often lowered those in need of it into hydrotherapy tubs. It was only the second job I'd ever had in my life. One Saturday morning I collected John Berryman, whom I had never heard of, from his hospital room, helped to lower him into hydrotherapy, and then took him back when it was over. He struck me, a high school student, as the unhappiest man I'd ever encountered in my life. He didn't say a word, or, if he did, time has erased it all. I only realized who he was much later.
Time passes. The calendar pages fall from the wall. It is now the 1980s, and I am living in Michigan, and Raymond Carver has come to give a reading at the University of Michigan, along with his wife, Tess Gallagher. After the reading, I approach him. I am a bit starstruck and tongue-tied. "Oh, Mr. Carver," I say. "Your work has... I'm very grateful for... I don't know how to say..." It all comes out as a stammer.
He interrupts me. "Aw," he says. "Let's hug." So we do. His large arms surround me and I am suddenly enveloped in Raymond Carver. We don't say anything else. And that was the last I ever saw of him.
What do these stories have in common? Impulse and desolation.
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My new book, There's Something I Want You to Do, which will be out in February, has a request moment in each story, when a character asks another character to do something for him or her. Request moments always set up some electrical dramatic tension. Something has to be done (or not done), or else. I was inspired by Hamlet, by the ghost of Hamlet's father asking Hamlet, in Act One, to avenge his death and to honor his mother. Shakespeare loved request moments.
One of my family members, a strong and intelligent woman, had troubles with the bottle, to use a local idiom. When she was in her cups, she would say to me, "There's something I want you to do." She couldn't always think of what that "something" was. I would wait. She would wait. Sometimes she could think of a command, and sometimes she couldn't. It was all about control.
Why do we find ourselves thinking of alcoholic male writers and not alcoholic composers or alcoholic dentists or alcoholic women? What makes drunk writers more newsworthy or significant than these other people? I'm not sure that they are more significant, but something in the popular imagination demands that they should be. Beethoven, Mussorgsky, Sibelius, Glazunov, Shostakovich all had trouble with drinking, but you usually don't hear about their drinking. Almost all the painters after WWII used drugs or drank heavily. Ditto the jazz musicians. In our own time, the only rivals in the popular imagination for drunk writers are drug-addled rock musicians, who are glamorous for both their music and for their drug use. But somehow a junkie musician's drug habit lacks cultural significance, Kurt Cobain being the great exception.
What's going on? Saul Bellow in Humboldt's Gift has his narrator argue that our envy of artists fills us with a wish to see them destroyed. But I think our fascination comes from somewhere else. We want artists to pay a price for their visions. And the price is the highest for writers, for novelists and poets, because they're closest to us. Most people couldn't be composers no matter how hard they try. Most of us can't draw, either, or paint adequately. Can you sculpt? I didn't think so. But almost anyone can write or at least tell a decent story. The writers are therefore your closest cousins in the arts. There but for the grace of God go you.
In my generation of writers, you are more likely to find the poet at the gym than at the bar. But healthy habits have no significance for artists. Only destructiveness does; it's the crazy, maddened, slurring, enraged poet or novelist at the podium whom you want to tell stories about later.
But here's what counts. James Wright, the poet, at one time in his life had had difficulties with alcoholism. In the 1970s, I went to a reading he gave in upstate New York. At one point he read a translation he had made of Apollinaire's "The Pretty Redhead," ("La jolie rousse") and he came to a line in that poem that he had translated as, "All we want is to explore kindness the enormous country where everything is silent." After he read that line, he stopped and looked up at the audience. He said, "I would sell my soul to have written that line." Nobody laughed. We all knew that he meant it. And he looked at us as if he meant it. I hadn't known many writers who were willing to throw every single poker chip on the table for the sake of a poem or a story or a novel. But Wright was like that. He wasn't kidding around. These were life and death matters for him.
After moments like that, anyone can imagine a trip to echo spring, for the relief. But James Wright had sobered up by that time. He wrote that translation while sober. In my stories, the boat the characters are riding in may be on a drunken plunge down a river, but the pilot is as lucid as he can be.