I was reading The Oxford Book of American Literary Anecdotes when it occurred to me that if you want to be a great writer, you’ve got to be screwed up.
From this amusing collection I learned that Edgar Allan Poe’s antics included marrying his 13-year-old cousin. Eugene O’Neill once married a decidedly better catch. She was unrelated and old enough to vote, but he had no recollection of the wedding when he woke up beside her in a flophouse the next morning. One of my favorite anecdotes told of a Hollywood party where Scott and Zelda gathered and boiled all the women’s purses.
The most creative thing I’ve ever done with a purse was to attach one of those little Poppy Day flowers. That could explain why I’m writing about the effects of nitromusks on California mussels for a magazine with a readership of five, and not writing the great American novel.
As if stories of incest and purse-boiling weren’t enough to convince us all that lunacy and creativity go together like pen and ink, psychiatry professor Arnold Ludwig spent 10 years studying great dead writers’ states of mind just to prove it.
Ludwig found that 32 percent of businessmen and other noncreative types had some type of mental disturbance during their lives. The rate among writers, musicians and artists was a whopping 72 percent. Looking back on the life I’ve led, it’s a wonder I can write an intelligible sentence.
My parents were the first to ruin my chance of achieving literary greatness. When they could have been fostering my career with abuse and neglect, they were raising me in the kind of nurturing, middle-class home that inspires children to become accountants.
Imagine the brilliant prose I could have written had I been born into a wretched life of poverty in New York, only to be taken to a more wretched life of poverty in Limerick, like Frank McCourt. Think of the bestsellers I could have penned if, like J T LeRoy, I’d spent my teen years as a cross-dressing hooker. By the way, I’ve never read anything LeRoy’s written, but judging by his choice of dress, I’m sure his work is sublime.
I suppose I could have overcome my nurturing childhood if I’d tried harder. After all, many writers achieved greatness in spite of happy, healthy childhoods. They just became miserable, sick adults. Depression seemed to work wonders for the prose of Virginia Wolfe. Unfortunately, it would never work for me. My bouts of depression last about as long as it takes to write a paragraph. I might have found inspiration in illicit drugs -– Hunter Thompson certainly did -– but I’m such a chemophobe I don’t even take aspirin unless I’m on my deathbed.
The best shot I had at escaping the bounds of uninspired normalcy was becoming a drunk. And for a few years in my 20s, I was headed that way. I didn’t know back then that drunkenness inspired great writing. I drank because my friends drank. We were all single reporters with time to spare and no idea what else to do with it. If alcohol did anything to improve my prose, though, it wasn’t enough to catch the notice of the Pulitzer Prize judges.
Like most people who survive their 20s, I lost interest in getting drunk every night around the time I hit 30. I started cutting down when I took up running, which is painful enough without the burden of a hangover. Marriage put a bigger crimp in my habit. Suddenly I had to worry about more than just the cat noticing I’d spent the night sleeping on the bathroom floor. When I got pregnant 12 years ago, I quit drinking altogether, then stayed on the wagon through a couple years of breastfeeding. By the time I could have a drink without worrying about blowing my son’s chances of getting into Harvard, I’d lost all interest.
I know I can become a great writer without booze or drugs. Heck, almost a third of the writers Ludwig studied were as straight and sane as me. Most of the drunks, junkies and lunatics of the world, on the other hand, don’t turn out brilliant prose; they spend their days talking to molecules.
All I really need to reach a readership of more than five is to find subjects with broader appeal than California mussels. And I will. But just to play it safe, I’m grabbing a couple old purses to boil.