Substance Use

Last week, in part one of Beatdom’s literary discussion series, we debated the impact of the Beats (and other writers) on “crap writing”. This week we’re looking at a more controversial topic – that of substance use and abuse, and its impact upon the world of literature.

There’s a lot known and a lot assumed about the use of substances – illegal and otherwise – by writers and artists. From Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Hunter S. Thompson, drink and drugs are often seen as a prerequisite for artistic enlightenment. Both as subject and fuel, they are frequently associated with great works of art and literature.

The writers of the Beat Generation were hardly strangers to intoxication. William S. Burroughs was a notorious heroin addicted, whose books – including Junky – were filled with references to illegal drugs of all sorts. He famously travelled to South America in search of the mysterious drug, yage. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road shocked readers with its depiction of bohemian life – replete with marijuana smoking – and was famously written with the aid of Benzedrine (or bennies, as they were then called). Allen Ginsberg was no stranger to drugs, either. He used marijuana and LSD to expand his mind.[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4eyiOGUMut4&fs=1&hl=en_US]

Drugs very definitely take on a hip appearance in the context of the Beat Generation. They fueled the stories and sometimes helped shape the writing. As the Beat Generation morphed into the counter-culture of the sixties, drugs continued to play a tremendous role in the creation of art, music and literature.

However, one must question what role exactly substances take in the creation of art. Kerouac wrote about smoking pot, and did so with the aid of the Benzedrine that allowed him to embark on epic writing sessions. But to what extent did they hinder him? Booze became a tremendous issue in his later years. Did it dampen his style or hinder his creativity?

Hunter S. Thompson wrote about drugs, and it is a subject of debate whether or not he wrote on drugs. Drugs became a part of his personality and it is very possible he exaggerated his drug use for artistic and promotional effect. In the end, though, did years of substance abuse tear away at his mind and body?

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I’m not trying to argue either way. Honestly, I believe drugs can open the doors of perception for some, and close them to inspiration for others. Drink can help some writers sit down and type, and blur others’ minds into a cloud of useless gibberish.

But if we are to take the approach that says drink and drugs can be of use to writers and artists as both subject and fuel, then what substances are most useful?

Benzedrine famously helped Kerouac. LSD helped numerous artists explore their minds. Alcohol is near inseparable from the works of Charles Bukowski. These days K-2 is the hip new drug.

What, dear reader, is your opinion?

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Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom magazine and the author of The Dog Farm. He travels a lot, and is currently working as a professor in China. His latest book is called Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. You can read more about and by David at his blog, www.davidswills.com or on Tumblr.

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16 Comments

  1. I like to think of the unknown ‘droogies’ in the world of literature, like Ann Rand who was on dexedrine for forty years…no wonder those books are so thick!
    or steinbeck, before gaining great celebrity and publishing books like ‘the grapes of wrath” (a pulitzer winner, no?), ‘east of eden’ and so many other truly great books – how did he enjoy himself? holed up in a shack for days, drinking alcohol and absinthe and smoking marijuana until one day he got some bad absinthe and could not move and it scared the hell out of him. he was trying to follow along the path of poet Arthur Rimbaud, who used drugs to affect the ‘rational disorganization of the senses’ which all must achieve in order to see truth and beauty, he espoused.
    or how about our buddy, antonin artaud? now let’s see somebody try to copy his genre. madhouse scribblings from ‘the man suicided by society’….
    there are so many and so little time!

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    • Yeah, it seems to be a running theme through the history of writing and art. Even those you least suspect are fueled by some substance.

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  2. “what substances are most useful”: All of them, but you don’t know which ones until you find one that fits. I believe you can match a personality with a drug of choice (or combination of them) that will cause a person to want to generate content and be “creative” at the same time.

    However, I will argue that there needs to be some innate ability to start with in order to make the most of the experience count towards something “artistically worthwhile” (i.e. if you don’t already have ability/practice/training you’re not going to gain ability from drug use/visions, only new perspectives). All of the experiences can, if nothing else, teach the individual more about the boundaries and possibilities of art.

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    • Agreed. Too many people -and this applies to last week’s debate – seem to think that dropping acid and getting fucked up equals art. It does not. However, drugs mixed with talent is a different story.

      You make an interesting point about different substances working for different people. Or, as you say, a combination. I think I agree with that as well, although I can’t really speak for everyone. It just strikes me as true.

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  3. Nice post. Here’s a little cutting from Bukowski’s first ever published interview, given to the Chicago Literary Times in 1964.

    Kaye: What influence has alcohol had on your work?

    Bukowski: Hmm, I don’t think I have written a poem when I was completely sober. But I have written a few good ones or a few bad ones under the hammer of a black hangover when I didn’t know whether another drink or a blade would be the best thing.

    Kaye: You look a bit under the weather today.

    There is a really funny poem he wrote later on while sober. I’ll try to find it.

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    • Thanks for that. Booze was his muse, I suppose you could say. Personally I find it difficult to write whilst drunk. I hit the wrong keys and get shitty ideas. But sometimes – after a few beers – it helps. Loosens up the brain, I guess.

      Thanks for the poem, too. Very amusing.

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  4. who needs it, by Charles Bukowski

    see this poem?
    it was
    written without drinking.
    I don’t need to drink
    to write.
    I can write without
    drinking.
    my wife says i can.
    I say that maybe i can.
    I’m not drinking
    and I’m writing.
    see this poem?
    it was
    written without drinking.
    who needs a drink now?

    probably the reader.

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  5. ha. good poem.
    i realize i typoed on the ayn rand but i suppose the ‘y’ was being used for the ‘y did she like dexedrine so much’ question.

    speaking of bukowski, i see that paul schrader, who worked with him on ‘barfly’, is doing a movie starring christian bale about the life of hank williams, another celebrated abuser to whom the booze was the muse. hank died on new years day in the back of a car on the way to a gig. also dying on new years day, many years later was the very talented townes van sandt, who wrote songs recorded by dylan, willie nelson, waylon jennings, steve earle, johnny cash and others.
    townes like sniffing glue so much that one day he had the ends of a bunch of tubes of glue…the stuff that was left over…in a paper bag and was huffing the glue until he passed out. during questioning by police, townes was asked if he ‘was hooked’ and he wonderfully replied, no. i’m just stuck!’ haha

    don’t forget kesey, bless his soul if we have one!

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    • I didn’t know about that Hank Williams movie. Very cool. I like Christian Bale – he can be a decent actor from time to time.

      Haha, “stuck.” That’s a good one.

      Yes, Kesey was another user.

      One of my favourite modern poets is Pete Doherty. The poor bastard has been hooked on heroin for years and every month people just expect him to keel over and die.

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  6. For me personally, I’ve found that it’s related to my age.

    When I was younger, immersing myself in Kerouac, the music of The Doors & the poetry of Byron & Rimbaud, I truly believed that – as David said – dropping acid & getting fucked up was art. The result was a lot of horrible, angsty, adolescent poetry & rambling. I salute anyone who can get that wasted & produce anything of quality. I find it baffling, but I’ll salute, just the same.

    Now that I’m older, I have a hard time writing anything at all under the influence. However… a drink or two to loosen up can be helpful in some cases.

    Good discussion topic. ;)

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    • Thanks for sharing.

      Your experiences as a youth sound pretty familiar. I guess it’s a part of growing up. We all copy our heroes, and when we’re young enough we don’t really think about what we’re doing. We assume that if they did it, we can do it. Without getting into my own life history, I’ll say that I think we share a lot of common experiences.

      I find that sometimes routine can help people. Like if you only write when drunk, it would be hard to write sober – not because of the alcohol, but because your mind and body are saying, “Where’s the booze?” Same with a calming joint, or a cup of coffee. Sometimes, I feel, we almost need to trick our minds and bodies with these things, just so we can get started.

      Last night I tried again to add to a book I’ve been working on. This book has been going for more than a year, and for the past six months I’ve really, really struggled. Last night, however, I had a few beers and sat down with it. I managed to write/edit 10,000 words… Definitely the most I’ve ever done in one shot. I can’t say it was necessarily all down to the booze, but I think the booze helped get me focused to some extent.

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  7. yes, trick yourself into.
    that’s what i have been doing. ever since i saw the quote about dylan sitting down at the typewriter everyday like a nine to five job, i found that inspiring. getting up with the purpose to get at least one full page a day seems to end up with more pages than expected and a feeling of true happiness just looking at the results spread out on paper.
    i agree about reading the stuff when you are young and getting into it without really understanding it but i noticed that it is good to go back to rimbaud, for instance, and read it again and remember what you liked about it and see it all in the whole new light of experience. i have picked him up now and then over the years but mostly read him and the other influential types more than 30 years ago.
    i also find i have unfinished work or work that was started in an induced state long ago which can be gutted of everything except for, say, the unusual meter that defines it. then i can replace most words with what i feel now. it is a way to save a poem gone bad, maybe. i also wrote some absolute shit that i tore out of books and burned but i guess we have to feel our way.

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  8. It’s a great motto, but personally I’m too easily distracted. Sometimes I need to trick my brain into focusing. If I treat writing like work sometimes I don’t get much accomplished.

    You make an interesting point about coming back to writing that was written in an altered state. I found that a book I wrote became impossible even to edit because I changed so much from when I wrote it. It was hard to make even a small alteration in the text because I was so removed from the author.

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  9. Just found this blog while searching for a Bukowski poem. Must say I like it! I started writing at a young age and have been kind of uninspired for while. I think alcohol or other substances play a factor in writing basically because our minds get turned off a bit and things come out more fluidly. At least for me. Anyway I will definitely browse around and keep checking back. Nice job.

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    • Thanks for writing, Jonathon. I’m glad you’ve found something here to like and I hope you stick around. I’m trying to get as much debate going on the blog as possible.

      I think I agree with you. Drugs aren’t a magical gateway to inspiration, but they do help us to loosen up.

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  10. This is a little late – but I saw these comments and I have to say I agreed with all of them. I thought I should mention that as an adolescent I was very influenced by the beats and often under the influence of the beats, so to speak. Someone mentioned before about drugs introducing the perception, but not honing the skills, and that the skills should be built before experimenting with different “perceptions,” which I totally agree with. I do, however, think that one can take drugs and gain these perceptions, and then build the skills with the basis of these new perceptions as a guide or ideology to work with.

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