Art, addiction, and Remembering to Write

Written by Katelyn Connolly

In her Twitter bio, Hope Ewing describes herself as a “drink pusher, writer. Not necessarily in that order.” Fittingly, in a recent article written for Literary Hub, she explores the relationship between art and alcohol abuse, an issue that hits close to home for many artists and members of creative communities. In Ewing’s case, the problem of alcoholism exists generally in her family. Yet her admission that “stories of epic blacked-out shenanigans…were so normalized in my childhood that they seemed like common rites of passage,” rings eerily true for social scenes crafted by artists, as well. Writers, painters, musicians and film-makers have historically existed in worlds where drinking and drug use are regarded as more acceptable than they might be in other circles. Artists often seek to be deviants, and deviant behaviors become par for the course. Addiction is normalized under the banner of Art.

The goal of Ewing’s piece is not to condemn the simple act of imbibing. She describes her years bartending while pursuing an MFA, how she “always loved bars—not just drinking, but having a place to go,” and a place where she could feel included, relaxed. Drinking certainly relaxes your brain and body—that’s science—but the need to center the bulk of one’s socialization around alcohol often stems from something deeper.

That something deeper, for Ewing, changed as her life did. At first, she was simply bored with the jobs she held before starting graduate school, and wrestling with a hangover every morning “provided the challenge and sense of accomplishment in daily life that [her] jobs did not. Life isn’t pleasant when getting out of bed feels like summiting K2, but it isn’t boring.” Such an aversion to the mundane evokes the biographies of quite a few great authors. People like Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg are about as famously remembered for their use of amphetamines, opioids and psychedelics, as for their acclaimed literary output, which was frequently saturated with effects and descriptions of the same. Both Aldous Huxley and Ken Kesey became life-long supporters of drug use—for spiritual and artistic purposes—after formative personal experiences with psychedelic drugs. A pattern emerges in which alcohol and drug use become synonymous with breaking down the barriers of the everyday, offering a doorway to valuable artistic revelation. The problem arises when use becomes abuse, and production ceases to be the end goal.

While Ewing was bartending, she “still drank too much, but so did everyone around [her], and it felt like much less of a problem. While anxiety and impostor syndrome stalked [her] at school, [she] found relief among the bar crowd.” Even after graduating with a master’s degree and beginning a career as a writer, her second life in the bars still allowed her to put off thinking about the short story collection she hadn’t finished, and the pressures of student loan debt.

Writing is a profession of heightened vulnerability, and it can be easy to feel that you aren’t good enough. Mental illnesses like depression and anxiety can compound this issue for many writers, providing additional impetus for escapism through alcohol abuse. In The Trip to Echo Spring, published in 2013, Olivia Laing chronicles the battles with alcoholism of American writers Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, John Berryman and Raymond Carver. To quote her simply, “All were tormented by self-hatred and a sense of inadequacy.” These six men were praised in their lifetimes and continue to be canonized after death, but still the curious motif arises: the turn to alcohol. Perhaps the excuse is given by Williams, who said late in life, while his plays were consistently failing and his drug habit (barbiturates and speed) was raging, that “American writers nearly all have problems with alcohol because there’s a great deal of tension involved in writing, you know that. And it’s all right up to a certain age, and then you begin to need a little nervous support that you get from drinking.” The need for that “nervous support” kicked in quite early for the men Laing studies, and for many of them it proved deadly.

Ewing now has her drinking problem under control, and she managed this by turning to writing about alcohol, not just consuming it. When she decided to begin penning wine and beer reviews she realized that “in order to write, you have to observe,” and that includes preserving her vision by only tasting as much of a substance as is necessary to know it. There is a harmonious balance in enjoying the pleasures and inspirations of alcohol, and even drugs in some cases, without allowing it to get in the way of health and life. Ultimately, both drugs and writing allow you to escape reality. It’s no wonder they often appeal to the same sort of person, and unfortunate when, sometimes, addiction outmaneuvers creation.

 

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