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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 

John Irving on Being Serious

I recently read a short interview with the great novelist John Irving, author of such books as "The World According to Garp," "Cider House Rules," and "A Prayer for Owen Meany." I admire Irving for many reasons. One is that he successfully writes literary fiction and it sells. That's no small accomplishment, and no accident. Irving believes in story telling; he has as his influences Dickens, Hawthorne and Melville. Like them, Irving manages to combine wonderful language with intricately plotted stories.

Too often today, fiction may be considered literary when its language is lovely or creative, but its plot almost non-existent, muted, or small. Plot-driven fiction, of the type by masters of that craft such as James Patterson, is filled with clunky, clichéd, sometimes awful writing, though the plots may be interesting and fun for readers. I can't handle them -- the writing is just too lazy. Still, I give that kind of book (and author, or teams of writers in some cases) credit for their plots. But that's about it.

There has to be a middle ground: one that contains the flowers of literary writing and the food of plot. John Irving inhabits that middle ground, that place, that island, and I'm glad of it. He writes beautifully and weaves intricate plots; he shows there is still a market for that kind of writing.

Daniel Stashower asked Irving, in AARP magazine, "What does 'Woe to him that seeks to please rather than to appal!' -- a quote from "Moby Dick" -- mean in your own work?"

"Be serious," Irving replied. "Life hurts. Reflect what hurts. I don't mean that you can't also be funny, or have fun, but at the end of the day, stories are about what you lose."

I agree with Irving. You can be funny, but life is serious business. If you want to be a serious writer -- and this is what I tell my students -- you need to shine a light into dark corners. That means you may find some gnarly things there, things that are hard to look at, much less write about. One corner may be clean and bright, but another may be filled with loss, grief, and hurt. That's where serious writing comes in. You have to be willing to go there, to show those corners, to write from deep in your soul, and do so in a way that brings the comfort and joy of expert story telling to your readers.

Irving does that. If you read his novels, you may laugh until you cry. And then you may cry. Yet you'll come out of his novels knowing more about the human condition. I think that's the finest thing an author can do for his or her fellow human beings.  Read More