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Scott Lax Blog

How Effective is Writing Under the Influence?

John Irving, interviewed in The Paris Review, once talked about how he thought of excessive drinking in regard to writing. "They [Hemingway and Faulkner] should have gotten better as they got older; I've gotten better." He then said, "You know what [D.H.] Lawrence said: 'the novel is the highest example of subtle interrelatedness that man has discovered. I agree! And just consider for one second what drinking does to subtle interrelatedness.' Forget the 'subtle'; 'interrelatedness' is what makes novels works - without it, you have no narrative momentum; you have incoherent rambling. Drunks ramble; so do books by drunks."

Okay, look: No one is saying that if you can handle alcohol on something resembling a moderate basis (what moderation is up to you), you shouldn't write novels. But I am saying this: the 20th Century romantic image of the whisky soaked drunk writing brilliantly mid-day is a myth, and a dangerous one at that.

Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas, and on and on -- were taken down early by drink. Imagine what Fitzgerald could have written. Imagine what Hemingway could have written, had they stayed sober, if not moderate in their tastes.

How many artists do we have to see ruined by excess before writers -- of all thoughtful people -- realize that booze and drugs and cigarettes and the rest can eventually do you in long before your creative time is up?

I'm writing this primarily for you younger writers. If you think those double-visioned (or triple if you've broken out the tequila) words are brilliant beyond belief, just wait until you read them in the light of day. They're likely drivel.

Writing is a craft, not just an art -- it requires, as Irving said, a vigorous, invented memory. That's hard to come by on any serious level while hammered or stoned.

Some can drink more than others. Some can drink some wine or beer or whatever and write well. Some can do the same with other substances. But as a rule, don't romanticize it. John Irving said of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, "[They] really lived to write; their bodies and their brains betrayed them."

It's not much different with the brilliant young actors that seem to die too often and always too soon. So for you young writers: get a grip. If you want to write, learn to do it sober. If you imbibe, save it for your musings that no one need see, or for your book party. (And not for Facebook or Twitter, where millions can read your woozy musings.) And even then, watch what you say.

If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, take your writing seriously first. If you're young, forget about writing high - and I don't suggest using at all while your synapsis are forming. Don't fry your brain before you even have a chance to develop it. You want to get inspiration for a poem or short story? Take a walk. Feel the wind and watch the sky. Tap into honest emotions. Then go home and write. Read More 

Larry Brown: A Truly Original Voice

Having finished and submitted the second draft of my novel last week, I again understand Hemingways' quote: "They can't yank a novelist like they can a pitcher. A novelist has to go the full nine, even if it kills him."

Speaking of fiction, and of how hard it is to finish a novel, I'm reading BIG BAD LOVE (re-reading, mostly, as it's a book of short stories) by my late and lamented friend, Larry Brown. Larry was one of the great fiction writers of our time, I think - and a guy who worked very hard to be a writer, and to finish his novels, after being in the marines, then a fireman. His voice was so pure and honest -- not to mention gnarly and shocking, coarse and tender -- that we'll never see or read his like again. There will be other honest voices, of course, but Larry's was something special.

Sometimes I think I learned more from Larry sitting in rocking chairs up at Bread Loaf, sipping Larry's whisky and listening to Johnny Cash, and Larry's hard-won writing wisdom, than I did in any classroom. If you have a chance, pick up some of Larry's work. He was a master, and a real person.

I do have one chapter in my novel, THE YEAR THAT TREMBLED, that's a sort of tribute to Larry and his characters. It's in the voice of a Vietnam veteran who is wheelchair-bound. I thought of Larry when I wrote it. I'm not sure why. He just kind of had that effect on you.  Read More 

Moving Between Fiction and Nonfiction

It's common for me to move between writing nonfiction and fiction during the day (or night). What the two forms have in common is that I try to craft sentences lyrically, to make them sound pleasing to the ear, or mind. What's different is that with nonfiction, I make every effort to write the truth to the best of my knowledge.
This necessarily limits nonfiction, because if the author speculates, he or she must make clear that it is opinion, not fact.

With fiction, I believe in what Ernest Hemingway wrote: "All good books have one thing in common - they are truer than if they had really happened."

What that means for me is that in my fiction I try to write not just about human beings, but about human nature. While I may not tell the reader why a character says something, I know why he or she says it. I know the character's history, her background, and her mood when she utters the dialogue.

When Hemingway says, "[novels are] truer than if they had really happened," I think he means that the action of a novel speaks to a deeper truth about life - it's truer because it isn't random, but illuminating. Who turns on the light to illuminate the page? We do - the writers. That's what we strive to do; that’s what we live for. We can’t be afraid to shine a light, even into dark corners. Read More