Words by Michael Hendrick; Illustration by Waylon Bacon
When considering the implications of the affects of drug use on the writing process, it is important to bear in mind that both William S. Burroughs and Timothy Leary opined that there is no affect achieved by the use of drugs which cannot also be altered without the use of drugs, by the mind itself.
When considering the affect on the artistic and creative processes, we should examine the process without or before the introduction of mind-altering substances. The intent is not to be tricky or clever, rather to evoke specific feelings. Words describing color, texture, scent, mood and motion pinpoint emotional ‘cues’ in the reader. Linguistic genomes, these cues exist in a code which is ingrained onto vocabulary by history of usage. A writer reads this genome in much the same way a chemist looks at the Periodic Table.
Here we touch on the philosophy of Alchemy. The medieval belief and meaning of the word had to do with the transformation of base metals into gold. Carl Jung took this as a simile referring to human psychology and the transformation of self into a being of awareness, the transmogrified persona being the gold in the equation. The Philosopher’s Stone became the symbol for this power to transform. It is a Holy Grail of sorts. (Bob Dylan took on the role of Alchemist in the unreleased 1978 film Renaldo and Clara. The inherent alchemy in the music of Dylan led to a number of generational changes, some obviously, others with much more subtlety.) To possess the Philosopher’s Stone is to possess the power of Art and a portal into the Universal Mind. This is where the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, as achived by Rimbaud and his ‘rational disordering of the senses’ through intoxicants.
If you buy the concept of writer/artist as alchemist, you can see that, in some cases, transferring emotions through images from one brain to another is the stuff of Art. It is also the manipulation of the hypothalamus, the brain center through which words create an altered state, a personal and shared dimension.
This type of work divines the writer from the Poet, the scribbler from the Artist. Some writers produce reams of words without a hint of emotional evocation. Recounting events is an important function but is not a job which aims to touch the spirit. They convey images but attempt no emotional connection. There is always a place for good non-fiction.
With the organic capacity to create an altered state in place, the introduction of drugs to the process could be boon or bane depending on the drug. Lenny Bruce famously shunned marijuana but used amphetamines extensively. “The reason I don’t smoke pot is because it facilitates ideas and heightens sensations and I got enough shit flying through my head without smoking pot,” he once said.
We find it interesting to note that Ayn Rand shared Bruce’s proclivity for Dexedrine, which obviously helped her pump out such doorstopper-sized volumes as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. As diverse as they were, the ideas and feeling of both Bruce and Rand still serve as touchstones in today’s world of politics and entertainment media.
Often, scribbled hallucinatory revelations turn out to be more hallucination than revelation and cryptic notes found the day after become nothing more than humorous puzzles for the writer to try to unscramble. There is no doubt that different drugs achieve various results on creative output. Then there is the distinction between work which results as a byproduct of a euphoric experience and the way it is interpreted by one who is not familiar with altered states. If the result of the creative work cannot be appreciated to the same extent by all savvy readers, it is useless puffery.
From personal experience, we relate the following and leave any judgement of merit with the reader…
In the Winter of 1980-81, a particular variation of LSD, called Vitamin Ohm, made the rounds in the Northeast United States. It was potent and cheap. At the time, I found myself employed by Holiday Inn. It doesn’t matter where the hotel existed, since they are all generic – or were at the time. As groundskeeper, my job only became busy after storms so I often helped the ‘convention set up crew’ move tables and chairs around in meeting rooms. The knowledge required for the task was simple.
There were three types of tables; the round tables came in one size, the long tables were either six or eight feet in length. We would receive a plan showing how many of each size table was needed, how many folding chairs went to each table and how they should be placed. The plans were given to us by a short, balding Italian man, obviously of retirement age, named ‘Ned’. Ned had a quirk. He started all conversations the same way. “Hey,” he would say, unerringly, “How you doing? I want to tell you something. Now listen to me…” This preface was never skipped.
Fetching tables and chairs, a mindless task, allowed a lot of space for the mind to roam. Most frequently the mind roamed to how much longer until it was until I could go home. The work was easy but the days were long. Nobody ever asked me any questions or gave me orders, except old Ned. Long before the Holiday Inn, the benefits of using LSD to make workdays pass more quickly were not unknown to me. Small doses, not enough to cause hilarity or deep intoxication, could make a day fly by. It usually only took a quarter of a dose to make this happen.
One late morning in January, facing an extra-long day, I took a bit more than my usual workaday dosage. About 45 minutes after ingestion, the acid hit my stomach, sending me to the men’s room to evacuate my bowels. Forcing out a stool while peaking on a hallucinogen is one of the purest ways to know the quality of a substance. Staring at the closed door of the toilet, little specks of color burst like a carnival of flashbulbs while the dead sound of the tiled walls led to the awareness that my breathing became the only noise heard…until the distinct sound of the door opening forced me to attention.
From the toilet, the stall door still did it’s rainbow tricks. Sitting with a wad of tissue in my hand, the solitude of my humming brain suddenly was encroached upon by the appearance of a bald, head with grey hair and male pattern baldness as it oddly poked through the eighteen-inch space between the privy floor and the door to my stall.
“Hey! How you doing? I want to tell you something. Now listen to me,” he said. This had never occurred in my life before. No person had ever visited me while on the public toilet, although a few perverts had tried in other public pissoirs. “I want you to go to Room 205 and help Larry set up. Stay with him today. Do you hear me?” How could I ignore him? Of course I heard him. It was just another of his rhetorical questions. “Sure, Ned,” I managed, “You bet!”
And like that he was gone to the sound of the door opening and closing. ‘Christ,” I said to myself, “was that a trip in itself or what?”
Larry, a meth-head who worked there for a long time before I did, also liked Vitamin Ohm and we would often trade meth for acid. He watched my back and, as the new guy, I appreciated it.
Finding him chatting up a waitress near the kitchen entrance, I told him Ned had sent me. “Okay,” Larry told me, “We have an easy day. Take a break and wait for me in 306. I’ll be there in a while.” The good thing about hotel jobs is that there are always some empty rooms to hide in and you are given a pass key to all rooms, as an employee. We could disappear for hours and not even go anywhere, so I went to 306, which was a small room, used only for meetings of twenty people or less. It was empty, with the exception of a long leather sofa, a round table and two chairs. On the table were some complimentary pens and sheets of Holiday Inn stationary.
Glad to have a break, I sat on the sofa while the walls undulated around me.
Suddenly words started forcing themselves into my head. They were coming from within…a poem! Looking around, the paper and pens presented themselves on the table so, taking a folding chair, I grabbed a pen and wrote this, in its entirety:
What is true as a razor?
Taut as a wire?
What born in the embers, endures in the fire?
What is painful as lightning?
Or the thunder that drums?
What is soft as a lullabye, barely hummed?
What beating, what driving, what pounding, what pushing?
What sleeping, what dying, what whispering, purring?
What trembles with fissures and threatens to quake?
What slips with the fog on the cool of the lake?
What is it the baby finds in its lungs?
What leaps in the heart of a deer as it runs?
What do I crave in the red of the night?
What burst from within at the moment I write?
Somewhat astounded that the words on the hotel letterhead were there, I reread them and smiled. Larry knocked twice (our signal) and opened the door. “I’ll be back down in a few minutes, just take a longer break, “he said. That was fine with me. Once he left, though, the feeling of the LSD still coursed through me, making my fingers tremble. My body felt strange. I could feel my pores. Most of all, I felt the drug in my stomach. A cigarette smoker at the time, I coughed to clear some phlegm from my throat. It was not a healthy feeling. It felt like there was a lunger, or a tumor on my lung. It gave me the creeps. Along with the creeps, more words came to me. I grabbed another piece of paper and sat down at the table and the words spilled out again, just like before, with no thought involved. I wrote…
It’s a very subtle sickness
That comes tugging at my sleeve.
It’s a whistle and a dry cough
In the wind.
It’s a cold chill with a twictch
It’s a gnawing from within.
It’s an echo in the evening
Which resounds from under eaves.
It’s a cool and frosty taste,
A lifetime born to waste.
It’s a nervous kind of feeling
And a sinking sort of grief.
It’s a red dog on my heels.
That’s exactly how it feels.
It’s a ghostly cloud of quiet and it offers me no peace.
This had never happened to me…not like this. I had written poems and songs that came to me all in one shot, the songs with melody intact, as I rode the bus or did some other activity which left my mind open to outside images. I had no explanation for it but this was the first time it had resulted in two distinctly different poems. One next to the other on the top of the table, I stared at them and wondered if they were any good or not.
Again, the door opened – this time without a knock. It took me by surprise but it was only Kenny, one of the Holiday Inn maintenance crew. “Hey, Larry said to tell you to wait here. He is on the way,” he said. Kenny was alright but he was a loser. He was saddled with a bunch of kids and a half-toothless wife but he still managed to have an attitude which annoyed me. He always wore clothes which carried the Harley Davidson emblem, even though he did not own a motorcycle. He had a wallet which attached to a chain that hung from his belt, like real bikers wore. I knew real bikers and they didn’t even wear as much Harley gear as Kenny did.
“Okay, Kenny,” I offered as he was pulling the door closed, “Thanks.”
Then, it rushed over me again. The motorcycle gear had sort of pissed me off.
Another sheet of paper, and the Muse slapped me again…
I wish I could say something
For your leather jacket clique
For the vomit in your greasy hair
And dangling chains that ‘clink’.
For the precious blood you love to see and your children born to hate
For the ignorance you brandish and your lusts which cannot wait.
Were yours upon a pole,
You’d pluck it down and smash it in
Your sweating, grinning hole!
This made me laugh. Just the last lines about ‘individuality’ made me laugh out loud. Good or bad, that line had to be a good one…or was it? Personally, I still kind of like it, upon last reading it. Larry appeared at the door and looked sheepish. I think he was fooling around with a waitress in a vacant room. It was time to set up the conference room, he told me.
I took my three sheets of stationary, put them one on top of the other, folded them and stuck them in the buttoned pocket of my brown Dickeys uniform shirt. Larry watched me but did not ask about the papers. He could tell my condition by the size of my pupils and had seen the writing on the three sheets. I had the impression he was surprised that I was able to spell my own name with such wide pupils. We stepped into the hallway and the door to Room 306 closed behind us. The next thing I remember was hearing, ‘Hey! Larry! How you doing? Come here. I want to tell you something. Now listen to me.”