As a reader, the effects can be varied. While the freeing up of inhibition that drugs and alcohol offer can have a positive effect on the writer, the outcome is not always that which is desired. (imagine that sentence written after consumption of a large volume of alcohol. I certainly couldn’t read it, never mind write it!)
‘Booze frees me to write’ is probably the best version I could come up with. And if you read the original sentence carefully, you’ll see it’s not saying quite the same thing. ‘Booze frees me to write and I don’t care about the rest of it,’ is probably closer.
I personally have some issues with writing conducted ‘under the influence.’ I should say, if this is the result the author is aiming for, I have no issues. Like us all, if I don’t like the style I have a really easy choice – stop reading. I have become increasingly convinced that there are readers out there for every kind of writer and as long as we can match writer to reader effectively we don’t need to worry much more about whether something is ‘good’ or ‘great’ or whether it is ‘literature’ or ‘fiction.’ Plenty of people don’t even read at all these days; reading is becoming quite a minority entertainment, that’s for sure. But for those of us who do like to read, we don’t like to waste our time or money, do we? We have infinite choice but it's still hard to find a close fit.
So what are my ‘issues’?’ Well, style is often pretty random. Structure goes by the by. That can be all well and good,#As a fully paid up McRenegade, I’m all for anarchism on the page – but what can happen is that the reader genuinely loses the plot or the thread, or the meaning underneath the flow of words. It can become like being dyslexic, or fighting through some cryptic crossword – and that, for me, is not a pleasant experience.
Personally, I like to be able to think while I read. For me there’s more to the written word than simply following the bouncing ball, however bright and shiny and exciting it is. What I like is to engage in some sort of intellectual communication with the author – share an intellectual and emotional space with them if you will – and with the characters and world they create. All too often ‘under the influence’ writing is like amateur acting – more enjoyable for the creator than the recipient. And that’s fine if the author is writing for therapeutic, or personal entertainment purposes. But when you’re publishing ‘under the influence’ work, I think you need to be sure that you are delivering what you intend. Because often such work just comes across as in need of a jolly good edit to bring the reader into the same space as the author.
And there’s nothing that annoys me worse in a book than the feeling that the author is so damned superior or self-obsessed that they don’t give a damn if they communicate with the reader or not.
Someone should do an academic study on ‘under the influence’ works and see whether the drug used gives a consistency to the ‘style’. For example, I’d imagine that something written under the influence of drink may be slightly different to something written under the influence of hash. I suspect these are the most likely drugs to be used as muse. I know that the Romantic poets and others wrote under the influence of laudanum, and that’s an opiate. I find it hard to believe that even Trainspotting was written under the influence of heroin though. I think if you read it carefully you’ll see it ‘evokes’ rather than ‘displays’ heroin chic… similarly I kind of think that writing under the influence of cocaine or amphetamines would be ‘interesting.
And this goes for the drink/hash ‘muse.’ The loss of inhibitions can be entertaining, even enlightening - but writers with inhibitions can find other ways of releasing them (in their life and their art). We all know people who are pretty dull in ‘normal’ life but who ‘change’ or ‘come alive’ under the influence of drugs/alcohol. And not always in a good way. It’s the same with writers. I’ve read far too many books which are the written equivalent of ‘the munchies.’ Like I said, if that’s what the writer is aiming for that’s fine – I just stop reading – but I worry that there are authors out there who, too inhibited to write what they really feel without the aid of ‘the muse’ would, if they looked back at their writing carefully, be as embarrassed of themselves as they might be if someone put their drunken/stoned antics up on YouTube for the world to see. Some may not of course. Some people find such antics entertaining in any format. I’m not one of them.
The ‘looking back’ at the writing is the key. Because that is what editing really is. Editing is where you shift (if you do it yourself) from being the writer to the reader. Like I said they are different roles. And that’s why an intermediary is often employed. And useful, if they’re a good editor. But every writer should learn how to be something of a self-editor. It requires a distance, a reflective capacity; and if not an objectivity then a different subjective viewpoint.
No one in the world, apart from the writer (not even an editor) will experience their writing in the same way. As a writer when you read your own work in primacy you will be reconfirming your writing. When you read anyone else’s work you stand in a different relationship to it. And, I’m sure we’ll all hold our hands up and say we are much more (able to be) critical of other people’s work. Even if you believe you are ‘critical’ of your own work it’s in a different way. It’s rarely about the work, its usually about the self!
But you have to learn to read your own work as ‘the’ reader – a person who is not yourself, who does not have insider knowledge about what is going on. And that’s where much ‘muse’ writing falls flat. Because the uninhibited world of the ‘muse’ writer makes little sense to anyone but themselves, the reader can have a really hard time finding a way to connect.
Believe me, I know of ‘muse’ work which has then been edited, (by writer or outside editor) and has lost nothing (to the reader) of its depth and strength. Writers shouldn’t be afraid that they will ‘lose’ something of what they think is so great if they edit their work. Remember that as author your relationship with your writing will always be individual and unique. And if you can’t bear to share it, you shouldn’t publish it. The act of publishing requires that you appreciate that you are setting up your inner thoughts, your very being (as well as your skill and craft at writing) for peer assessment, (if not judgement!)
Like it or not, readers (and you yourself as a reader of other people’s work) have a common language. The conventions of punctuation, grammar, syntax are the most obvious – but we’re not being draconian here – readers can and will adapt to stream of consciousness, to bizarre punctuation etc – but what it’s hard for readers to get to grips with is incoherence. And I’m sorry to say that often ‘muse’ writing becomes random to the point of incoherence.
I disagree with Donne – I believe that every man(and woman) is an island first and foremost. We choose to come from that island when (and if) we share with other people. But we can never know that we see the same ‘green’ or mean the same by ‘happy’ and so we have to work pretty hard (in life and in writing) to find common ground. And readers are looking for common ground when they read.
What a ‘muse’ writer may find inspiring or enlightening may look like babble to the reader. Just think of a person under the influence looking through a kaleidoscope and how differently they see it to someone not under the influence. And imagine the conversation! I steer away from psychedelic, instrumental jams aka The Grateful Dead because once I was in a room with stoned folk, all of them trying to explain to me that the cacophony I was listening to was really only understandable if I was stoned. They didn’t appreciate the Catch 22 nature of their argument.
Do we ever read ‘under the influence’? I’ll come out clean here and say reading is my drug of choice. It’s one of my greatest pleasures in life. But I don’t think I’ve ever read under the influence. I can’t imagine why I would. I can’t imagine why anyone would. I find it a very interesting point though.
If we don’t read under the influence – because we need a clear mind to properly engage with the full emotional and intellectual content of what we read – and I’m not being posey here, even reading genre fiction requires quite a feat of complex cognitive functions – the act of changing symbols into meanings in the mind is an incredible one when you stop to think about it - then why do we think that writing under the influence is going to be something that any reader will be able to stomach undiluted?
I’m all for letting writers express themselves as openly and freely as they like and as they can. I just don’t find that ‘muse’ writing often achieves this. And I can’t think of an instance where it does, without the work of a good editor going over the original ‘work of genius’ and nurturing it into something palatable for ‘the’ reader.
Editing is not just about correcting punctuation. Too many writers think that. It’s about the alchemy that occurs on the transition from one state of mind – writer – to another state of mind – reader. For me, too many ‘muse’ writers are only interested in their own minds. If so, they shouldn’t publish. They should write, of course they should. But I have no more interest in their writing than I do in seeing a video of them bladdered or stoned on a night out on You Tube. If, as a writer, you don’t see that part of the creative process is reflection and reaching out (aka editing) to make sure that you do the best you can to communicate with other ‘island’ out there, then you are not only selling yourself short, but you are actually missing out on one of the most interesting (and enlightening) parts of that creative process.
(I’d like to point out that I spent just under an hour writing this, and just around the same time editing it. And I enjoyed both parts of the process equally. I also, like every good chef, tasted it from time to time by reading. Now it’s your turn. I’d be happy to read your comments!)